Minnesota has long been home to colorful politicians--from Harold Stassen to Hubert Humphrey and, more recently, Gov. Jesse Ventura. Minnesota and the United States lost one of that rare breed Friday--a pioneer of political originality[--when an airplane carrying Sen. Paul Wellstone, along with his wife, daughter and some of his top aides, crashed amid a storm.
Wellstone, who was running for his third term in the U.S. Senate in one of the closest midterm races, may well have been the most liberal Senator. A former associate professor of political science, Wellstone came to the Senate in 1990 in a grassroots campaign that brought back some of the 1960s, radical-leftist spirit that the Reagan revolution, fiscal responsibility and the end of the Cold War had left behind.
Whether or not you agree with Wellstone--a man whom both Democratic and Republican colleagues said was of the utmost passion and dignity--he was a refreshing public servant not afraid to step outside of the muddled middle ground to stand for issues he believed were important. A liberal to the end, he was the only Democratic senator running in a close race this year to vote against President George W. Bush's resolution against Iraq. After aborting his own presidential exploratory committee in 2000 because of a bad back, Wellstone enthusiastically endorsed former senator Bill Bradley for president over establishment candidate Al Gore. Wellstone did not fall in line.
Furthermore, Wellstone's academic background gave the Senate depth and thoughtfulness in an age when the Senate has become a stepping-stone for ambitious U.S. representatives. Harkening back to an era when the Senate was a thoughtful chamber more insulated from day-to-day partisan squabbles, Wellstone provided the Senate a passionate, thoughtful voice, much as Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York did in the 1980s and 1990s.
It now appears likely that former vice president Walter Mondale will step into Wellstone's tragically vacant spot on the ballot, per state law. Much like in 2000, when Gov. Mel Carnahan's plane crashed just days before the Missouri Senate election, Mondale may ride a crest of sympathy over Republican Norm Coleman in what remains of the Minnesota Senate race. The Minnesota race, crucial to both parties in their quest to take control of the Senate, has now further muddied an election night that may go well into the morning before America knows which party will lead the Senate.
The campaign, predictably, will remain subdued in respect to Wellstone. His untimely death is a loss to not just the liberal cause in America, but a loss from the ranks of honest public servants. His legacy, in the quirky, colorful Minnesota tradition, will live as an example of a passionate, thoughtful senator.