Paul Wellstone was a liberal in the tradition of 60s activism, a grass-roots organizer, and an authentic voice for the causes he believed in. By the time the Minnesota Democrat died last Friday in a plane crash, he was also very much a cherished member of the Senate family, as colleagues across the political spectrum made clear.
The question of who "replaces" Senator Wellstone has many layers. In the immediate sense, reports indicate that former Vice President Walter Mondale who represented Minnesota in the Senate from 1964 to 1976 has agreed to take Wellstone's spot in the tight race to keep his Senate seat in the Nov. 5 election.
Political handicappers predict Mr. Mondale, who is well-respected in Minnesota, has a shot at beating the Republican can- didate, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. With Democrats in control of the Senate by just one seat, the Minnesota race could tip the balance.
Mondale is "one of the few people who begins with such stature," says political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "I wouldn't expect him to really run a campaign. What he says is: 'Wellstone would have wanted it this way. You all know what a tragedy this was, you all know I can do the job.'"
Mondale and Coleman aren't likely to do much campaigning, if any, in the next week. Coleman largely ran a negative campaign against Wellstone, and with Wellstone off the ballot, the question is, does Mondale win over any Coleman voters? Will Mondale get any sympathy votes as happened in Missouri two years ago, when the late Gov. Mel Carnahan was elected to the Senate and his seat was filled by his wife? Do Minnesotans under the age of 35 even remember Mondale, who last ran for office in 1984?
In a larger sense, Wellstone is irreplaceable. In an era where politicians live by the polls and, especially among Democrats, try to crowd the safe center, Wellstone was one of the Senate's few unabashed liberals.
"The activist left that arose in the 1960s had its institutional culmination in his arrival in the Senate and his departure marks the end of an era," says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., who taught with Wellstone there before his election to the Senate in 1990.
In 1996, Wellstone was the only senator in a reelection race to vote against President Clinton's welfare reform plan; he believed it would hurt children. Just this month, Wellstone again was the only senator fighting for reelection to vote against the resolution that gives President Bush broad leeway to go to war with Iraq.
Wellstone had a running competition with Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold (D) to see who could cast the most lone votes in the Senate. But part of what earned Wellstone the respect of Republicans as well as Democrats was his willingness to work across the aisle on causes he held dear. Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, who spearheaded legislation with Wellstone to expand health coverage for the mentally ill, choked up and couldn't speak Friday in a television interview about Wellstone's passing.
Wellstone wasn't known as a legislative strategist but as a voice for the little guy. He and his wife, Sheila, who died, too, along with their daughter and five others in Friday's crash, fought hard to protect women against domestic violence, and to ptomote international human rights, universal healthcare, veterans' rights, and the environment.
Wellstone married his high-school sweetheart at age 19 and was married for 39 years. "One man, one wife, one calling, first teaching, then politics, then intermixed," says Jim Klobuchar, a former Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist. "In his commitment to his causes, he never struck me as putting on a heroic pose."
And certainly, he was no stuffed shirt. Mr. Klobuchar recalls the 5-foot-5-inch Wellstone showing up at an event with his necktie hanging down to his knees. When Wellstone first joined the Senate, Sen. Wendell Ford (D) of Kentucky bought him two suits. "This was a guy who never had his colors done, let's put it that way," says political scholar Paul Light.
Wellstone also didn't put on airs with his choice of vehicle. In his first improbable Senate race, he drove around the state in a beat-up green bus, and when he won he drove the bus to Washington.
Somehow, that's not Mondale's style. But in many ways, he is just as liberal as Wellstone, analysts say. In 1984, he was seen as out of step with the mainstream and trounced by President Reagan in the presidential race. Still, in many ways it's impossible to compare Mondale and Wellstone, two men from different eras.
What the Democrats have lost and what Mondale, who is in his 70s, probably can't replace is Wellstone's ability to hold progressives within the Democratic Party's tent and not lose them to independent movements like the Reform Party and the greens. When Wellstone explored running in the 2000 president election, he built up a national following. "He was probably the furthest left of all the regular politicians," says John Brandl, professor at the University of Minnesota. "But because he was still a part of the political mainstream, it meant that idealistic, eager young people could be liberal with him yet ... still be patriotic and loyal."
In the week that remains until the Nov. 5 vote, Mondale's challenge will be to become more than an icon of the old left. D.J. Leary, a former aide to another Minnesota icon, Hubert Humphrey, and editor of the Politics in Minnesota newsletter, says Mondale has remained active in public life since leaving the vice president's office and since returning as ambassador to Japan in 1996. He has "filled huge auditoriums" in Minnesota in a lecture series on the theme of 50 years of public service, says Mr. Leary.
Some legal complications might enter the race. Gov. Jesse Ventura has suggested that whoever he appoints to finish Wellstone's term should be allowed to serve until a special election is held in Nov. 2003. The Senate will hold a lame-duck session beginning Nov. 12, and Ventura wants Minnesota represented from the beginning of that session. Otherwise, whoever wins Tuesday's vote would be allowed to take the seat only after the election results are certified, on Nov. 19.
The Associated Press reported that Ventura said he would likely appoint a Democrat to finish Wellstone's term. But he stated he wanted to appoint someone who didn't plan to run for the office to avoid being "political."
In addition, on election night this year, it may not be known who has the most votes. Any absentee votes already cast for Wellstone will not count. Wellstone absentee voters can go to the polls on election day and recast their votes.