No Ordinary Pol
Those terrible fears were realized on Oct. 25, when an eight-seat plane carrying the couple, both 58, to a funeral with daughter Marcia Markuson, 33, and three staffers went down near Eveleth, Minn., north of Minneapolis. All aboard were killed, including the two pilots. Amid the shock and grief that followed, Minnesota Democrats seemed likely to tap former Vice President Walter Mondale to face St. Paul ex-mayor Norm Coleman on Nov. 5. But they will be hard-pressed to truly replace Wellstone, an iconoclastic dynamo who defied political norms. "Of all the members of Congress, he was least like a politician," says National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy. "He was a real person."
A onetime college wrestler, Wellstone would often jump in the air—even after he was diagnosed in January with multiple sclerosis—during his fiery speeches. With the same energy, he pushed an agenda that placed him at the Senate's leftmost edge on everything from health care to foreign policy. Yet he won admirers of all stripes. Says Norm Ornstein of the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute: "He was the most effective, passionate, likable spokesman for the downtrodden."
Wellstone developed his convictions growing up in Arlington, Va., the second son of Leon, a Russian-born writer for the U.S. Information Agency, and Minnie, a school-cafeteria worker (both deceased). On a beach outing at 16, he met Sheila Ison, a lawyer's daughter from Kentucky. They wed three years later. She dropped out of college to join him at the University of North Carolina, where he studied political science.
Hired to teach at Minnesota's Carleton College in 1969, Wellstone led protests against the Vietnam War and became a community organizer, rallying beleaguered farmers and union workers. (Meanwhile, he and Sheila raised three children: Marcia, a high school Spanish teacher with a son and three stepchildren; David, 37, a businessman with two children; and Mark, 30, also a high school teacher.) After running Jesse Jackson's 1988 Minnesota presidential primary bid, he launched his own long-shot Senate campaign, ousting incumbent Rudy Boschwitz.
Moving into a small Washington, D.C., apartment, the Wellstones didn't let power change them. "They were such down-to-earth people," says Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). And they were inseparable, with Sheila ironing her husband's shirts and advising him on policy matters. Leahy says that after Wellstone's MS diagnosis, he saw Sheila come to the Capitol in the middle of the night to accompany her husband home; Leahy spotted them strolling hand-in-hand down a Senate corridor. "I yelled out, 'You teenagers can't do that around here,'" recalls Leahy. "They just laughed and hugged each other."
Wellstone grew close to colleagues in both parties, but he also reached out to Capitol Hill's elevator operators and janitors. "He knew them by name and what was going on in their families," says Rabbi David Saperstein, a longtime friend.
Yet Wellstone did not hesitate to make enemies among the powerful. A frequent critic of both Presidents Bush, his last major vote was against the resolution authorizing military action against Iraq—a risky move during a close race vital to Democrats' chances of keeping control of the Senate. To that end, Wellstone was busily stumping the state when he boarded the twin-engine Beechcraft. Flying through a snow shower, the plane went off course and slammed into a marshy wood.
It could take investigators months to determine the crash's cause. But its political repercussions were felt immediately—as was Wellstone's loss. In the days after his death Connie Lewis, who ran his Minnesota office, recalled his frequent visits to schools. "Before leaving, he'd always tell the kids, 'Don't be cynical,'" she says. "'If there are things you think should be changed, become part of making it happen.'"
Grant Pick and Barbara Sandler in Minneapolis and Joanna Blonska and J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C.