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Remembering Paul Wellstone

Remembering Paul Wellstone

My wife Judy and I met the Wellstones before Paul ran for Senate. At the time, he was teaching political science at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. He had been there for 20 years, and I was astonished to discover an exuberant radical professor who seemed like he had just stepped out of an organizing meeting or a union workshop.

Myles Horton introduced us to Paul and Sheila. Myles was the founder of the Highlander Folk Center, an education center in Tennessee that was deeply involved in the Civil Rights Movement and continues to be involved in social justice struggles.

Paul had been an organizer for SOCM (Save our Cumberland Mountains) and had visited Highlander many times during his organizing days and considered Myles one of his mentors. He met Sheila through his work at SOCM. They were a wonderful and unlikely couple - a radical Jew from Washington, D.C., and a radical Christian native of Appalachia. But the force of the two of them working together and their love for each other made them, in my opinion, the most effective progressive activists that I have encountered in 20 years.

Paul was, above all, an educator. I had the chance to watch him teach and to participate in one of his classes, the one that played a major role in his getting elected to the Senate. It was a class at Carleton College on community organizing. Every year for 20 years Paul taught 50 to 70 students the theory and practice of grassroots organizing. Then they went out into communities throughout the state of Minnesota to practice what they learned. Over the years, Paul's students became union organizers, teachers, activist lawyers, community development workers, elected public officials, public health doctors, etc. They were spread out over the state of Minnesota, and when Paul decided to run for the U.S. Senate, he had his campaign organization in place.

Paul was also an intellectual. I remember being asked to sketch out a program for school reform for him during his first campaign for Senate. I put together a working paper and a few speeches and gave them to him. He read and reread them, and then we had conversations about the ideas contained in them. I came away finding my own ideas clarified, challenged, and reshaped. I realized Paul was rethinking everything I said and struggling with where he stood.

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