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Why Minnesotans still talk about Paul Wellstone 15 years after he died

Paul Wellstone's rise from an unknown to an inspiration lives on, 15 years after his death.

A lot of people who get elected fade from memory after they're out of office. 

But 15 years after Paul Wellstone's death in a plane crash on the Iron Range, Wednesday is Wellstone Remembrance Day in Minnesota. 

The proclamation from Gov. Mark Dayton, a fellow Democrat, was just one of many tributes to the former senator this week. 

Why does Wellstone still elicit such an outpouring instead of fading away?

For one thing, his sudden death at age 58 in a crash that also killed his wife, his daughter, and five other people made October 25, 2002, a tragic day for many Minnesotans.

But another explanation is that Wellstone grabbed ahold of his his supporters in a way that few politicians do. 

His populism

The dictionary says a populist is "a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people."

In more recent years the label has been applied to the successful campaigns of Gov. Jesse Ventura and President Donald Trump. 

Wellstone was called a populist when he seemingly came out of nowhere to get elected to the U.S. Senate in 1990. 

Like those others, he had little or no experience as an elected official and he used his status as an outsider to appeal to voters. 

But unlike those other guys, Wellstone had no name recognition and no money when he launched his campaign. 

His speeches on the campaign trail started to give him some traction and the Carleton College professor became known for speaking up for "the little guy" with passion. 

Incumbent Sen. Rudy Boschwitz raised $7 million for his re-election campaign, the New York Times reported, while Wellstone had $1 million to spend.

But Wellstone reveled in his underdog image – traveling the state in a repurposed school bus painted green and using his first TV ad – called "Fast Paced Paul" – to find humor in his funding shortage.

The challenger tried to give Wellstone vs. Boschwitz a David vs. Goliath feel and he became the only candidate in America to defeat an incumbent senator in 1990. 

"They just outhustled us," Boschwitz told the New York Times. 

His inspiration 

The passion Wellstone showed in his campaign (you can glimpse it in speeches preserved on YouTube here and here) spread to his supporters, some of whom were inspired to run for office themselves. 

Nevada Littlewolf, now 41, tells MPR News that when she met Wellstone on the Iron Range years ago he encouraged her to run for office. Littlewolf later became the first Native American to serve on the Virginia City Council. 

"Having a senator say to a young Native American girl that you should run for public office, that has an impact," she said.

His legacy

The group Wellstone Action tries to keep its namesake's populism alive in part by recruiting and training political candidates.

One of the things that's changed in 15 years, though, is that Democrats now have far fewer seats in Washington and in statehouses around the country. 

When members of the party met in the Twin Cities over the weekend to strategize about how to regain more relevance, it was Wellstone they hearkened back to by calling the event at the U of M "The Wellstone Way."

Sen. Al Fraken, who occupies the seat once held by Wellstone, paid tribute to him on the Senate floor Wednesday and said in a statement that Wellstone's legacy "lives on in the countless lives he touched, including my own. Franni and I miss Paul – he truly made us better – and Minnesota misses him too."

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