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Wellstone, Paul (1944–2002)

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Paul Wellstone’s official U.S. Senate portrait, taken c.1996.

Paul Wellstone’s official U.S. Senate portrait, c.1996.

Paul Wellstone once described himself by saying, “I’m short, I’m Jewish, and I’m a liberal.” He was also a Southerner, a college professor, and a rural community organizer who became a two-term U.S. senator from Minnesota. He inspired a passionate following, in Minnesota and among liberals nationwide. Wellstone died in a plane crash while running for a third term.

Among successful Minnesota politicians there have been orators (Hubert Humphrey and Floyd Olson); Easterners (Norm Coleman, Rudy Boschwitz, and George Latimer); professorial types (Eugene McCarthy and Don Fraser); and Jews (Coleman and Boschwitz). Only Wellstone was all of these and one unique thing more; before coming to Minnesota he had always lived in the South.

Wellstone was born on July 21, 1944, in Washington, D.C. His Ukrainian immigrant father, Leo (original surname Wexelstein), worked as a writer for the government. His Ukrainian American mother, Minnie, was a school cafeteria worker. Young Wellstone’s family life was not easy—his father distant, his only brother schizophrenic. In high school in Virginia, he starred in wrestling and cross country.

At the University of North Carolina in the early 1960s, he wrestled, studied political science, practiced civil rights organizing, and married Sheila Ison of Kentucky. When UNC denied him admission to a Ph.D. program in political science, he protested and demanded reconsideration. The university gave in.

In 1969, Wellstone was hired to teach political science at Carleton College in Northfield. There, he dressed like a student, refused to publish in academic journals, and enlisted students in his avocation: organizing Rice County’s poor people to assert their rights and Southern Minnesota farmers to resist installation of power lines across their land.

After three years, Carleton’s political science department told Wellstone to look for work elsewhere. Wellstone protested again, and so did students. Instead of being fired, he was granted tenure a year early.

In 1982, Wellstone made a surprise, and successful, bid for the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) nomination for state auditor—a job for which he had few qualifications. He lost decisively to Republican Arne Carlson.

Eight years later he won the DFL nomination to challenge Republican U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz. Boschwitz had been elected to the Senate twice, both times crushing his DFL opponent. Wellstone started far behind in the polls and in money, but he ran a clever, underdog campaign featuring funny ads and a beat-up green bus. His win made national news.

In his career as a community organizer Wellstone had used Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, which advocated the tactical creation of conflict. This translated badly to the Senate, where in his first days he offended many by violating traditions and decorum. He quickly reformed and became well liked. Wellstone concentrated on constituent services and issues such as mental health and veterans’ needs. He voted against the use of force in Kuwait in 1991.

As his 1996 reelection campaign approached, Wellstone made two risky votes, one against President Clinton’s popular welfare reform plan and the other for the Defense of Marriage Act. The second upset his liberal supporters. Nevertheless, he easily defeated Rudy Boschwitz in a rematch.

In his second term Wellstone voted against the Iraq War resolution, made a well-publicized “poverty tour” of the country, and started a campaign for president in 2000. He withdrew for health reasons: chronic back pain and mild multiple sclerosis.

As a senator Wellstone was a reliable liberal voter. Both the Americans for Democratic Action and League of Conservation Voters gave him exemplary marks. In his twelve years in office he sponsored a modest total of 185 bills and resolutions, few of which passed. His successes lay in lobbying reforms: limitations on international sex trafficking (with Republican Sam Brownback); the Workforce Investment Act (with Republican Mike DeWine); and the Mental Health Parity Act (with Republican Pete Domenici).

Soon after his first election, Wellstone announced that he would serve only two terms. He changed his mind and ran for a third term in 2002 against former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman. He appeared to be trailing when he cast his controversial vote against the invasion of Iraq on October 11. The vote gave him a lift. Polls showed him ahead when Wellstone, his wife, Sheila, his daughter, Marcia, and four others were killed in a plane crash near Eveleth on October 25.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
  • Bibliography
  • Related Resources

Berke, Richard L. “The Education of Paul Wellstone.” New York Times Magazine, November 10, 1991.

Lofy, Bill. Paul Wellstone, the Life of a Passionate Progressive. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2005.

Wellstone, Paul. The Conscience of a Liberal: Reclaiming the Compassionate Agenda. New York: Random House, 2001.

——— . How the Rural Poor Got Power. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, 1978.

Related Audio

MN90: Remembering Paul Wellstone | Details

Related Images

Paul Wellstone’s official U.S. Senate portrait, taken c.1996.
Paul Wellstone’s official U.S. Senate portrait, taken c.1996.
Color image of a pin-back button created to memorialize Paul Wellstone’s death in 2002.
Color image of a pin-back button created to memorialize Paul Wellstone’s death in 2002.
Yard sign created to support Paul Wellstone’s U.S. Senate campaign in 2002.
Yard sign created to support Paul Wellstone’s U.S. Senate campaign in 2002.
Paul Wellstone campaign poster, c.1990.
Paul Wellstone campaign poster, c.1990.

Turning Point

In the summer of 1990, Wellstone wins the DFL’s nomination to the U.S. Senate seat held by Rudy Boschwitz.



Paul Wellstone is born on July 21 in Washington, D.C.


Wellstone marries Sheila Ison, a Southern Baptist from Kentucky. Both are nineteen years old.


Wellstone stages a sit-in at the University of North Carolina to protest the rejection of his graduate school application. He wins and is admitted.


Carleton College hires Wellstone to teach political science.


After appealing Carlton’s decision not to retain him, Wellstone is granted tenure a year early.


Wellstone wins the DFL nomination for state auditor but loses the general election by a large margin to incumbent auditor and future governor Arne Carlson.


Wellstone leads the Jesse Jackson for President campaign in Minnesota. After his defeat, he co-chairs the Minnesota Dukakis for President campaign.


Wellstone wins a narrow victory in the U.S. Senate race against incumbent Rudy Boschwitz.


Wellstone defeats Boschwitz again in a rematch of their 1990 Senate race.


While addressing a sheet metal workers’ union in September, Wellstone asks, “Whatever happened to the idea…that we all do better when we all do better?” He returns to the question in subsequent speeches and at public appearances.

Spring 2002

Wellstone decides to run for a third Senate term despite his promise, twelve years earlier, not to do so.

October 25, 2002

Twelve days before Election Day, Paul, Sheila, and Marcia Wellstone, three campaign workers, and two pilots are killed in a plane crash near Eveleth.

October 29, 2002

Over twenty thousand people attend the Wellstones’ memorial service at the University of Minnesota.