Wellstone Gives Own Slant To State's Populist Tradition


One-time United States Sen. Eugene McCarthy turns from the lectern to take his seat on the stage at an antiwar rally at the College of St. Catherine. The crowd of a few hundred applauds enthusiastically. Democratic-Farmer-Labor Sen.-elect Paul Wellstone passes Mr. McCarthy en route to the same lectern. There is thunderous applause.

Minnesota's populist baton has been passed.

As Mr. Wellstone addresses the crowd, the newest national populist preacher produced by Minnesota bobs and gestures with both hands. He punctuates syllables, pausing between phrases and even individual words.

The crowd seems pleased as he tears into the Bush administration's Persian Gulf policy.

But then, the 46-year-old former professor from Carleton College has pleased his supporters throughout the year - and especially the first two weeks of this month when he conducted eight ``town meetings'' throughout the state, attracting about 5,600 people by his own estimate.

The morning before the recent antiwar rally, Wellstone talked about these town meetings over a bowl of chicken soup at Keys Restaurant just around the corner from his headquarters here.

Wellstone, who unseated Independent-Republican US Sen. Rudy Boschwitz in last November's election, says he held these meetings because ``I really want to listen. I want my politics to be rooted in people. People feel like they are ripped off politically - they feel they are not represented.''

From these meetings, Wellstone says he learned of the anger of the Vietnam veterans who, he says, were mad that the US Congress might allow an ``undeclared'' war to be waged.

Wellstone, who claims to have a ``mandate'' from the voters in Minnesota, says these town meetings helped him solidify - not alter - the agenda he hopes to take with him to Washington.

The new titular head of the state's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) says his agenda includes:

A national health-care program.

A ``children's agenda'' that focuses on social and educational issues.

A ``credible'' national energy policy.

Campaign reform.

Wellstone says the best way for him to push through this agenda is for him to be a ``rock the boat'' senator - and to serve no more than two terms.

Wellstone is increasingly being compared to another ``rock the boat'' Minnesota senator, Hubert Humphrey. But as a recent Star Tribune newspaper article reminded readers, Humphrey was not able to get a single piece of legislation passed during his first term in the Senate.

Still, Wellstone says he is sticking to his two-term pledge.

``If I was going to try to serve an apprenticeship, go with the norms, build up the seniority, and be effective that way, then 12 years wouldn't be enough time,'' Wellstone says.

``But for what I want to do and the way in which I think I can make the biggest impact on public policy in moving the country in a direction I believe in, I think this will work out fine.''

He says some people are good at serving as insider politicians and therefore ``they should do it.'' Wellstone adds that this is ``not a self-righteous condemnation. I'm not good at being an insider. By the same token, I work well with people.''

As he talks, a couple in their 60s comes by his restaurant booth.

``Go get 'em. I know you're going to do something remarkable,'' the woman says to the senator-elect.

Before he can respond, her male companion adds, ``Don't make it too remarkable, though.''

These people are not along in their viewpoint, judging from local news stories and political analysts here.

There is concern that when he takes office Wellstone may be more interested in making noise than in making a difference.

Recently he made waves by attacking Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

``In an interview after the election somebody asked about Helms, and I said that I have always despised him and that his politics have divided people by race,'' Wellstone recounts. ``It's true. That's the end of it.''

A man in blue coveralls walks by Wellstone's booth as the politician has another spoonful of soup.

``I feel like we finally got someone in our corner,'' the passerby says to the senator-elect.

Wellstone rises, thanks the man, and shakes his hand.

``I like people - I like working with people,'' he says. In the next breath he adds, ``With Helms, it won't happen.''

Despite his plans to hit the ground running once he reaches Washington, Wellstone admits that this agenda could be upended should war break out in the Gulf.

``I could accept the loss of life of any one of our three children if it was to stop a Hitler - I'm a Jew - or if it was to defend our country.

``I would not want one of them to die there right now, which tells me I don't believe in this war,'' he says.

``What happens in the Persian Gulf could define the whole decade of the '90s. It's the defining question that has tremendous bearing on all these other issues,'' Wellstone adds.

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