Washington, DC—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made the following statement today on the floor of the U.S. Senate:
“Five years ago today, the Senate family lost one of its hardest working and most respected members – Senator Paul David Wellstone, as well as his wonderful wife, Sheila, one of his three children, Marcia, and three of his campaign aides.
“In his life, Paul Wellstone earned the titles of Doctor, Professor and Senator. But he wanted to be known only as Paul. That is how we knew him, and that is what I will call him now.
“A colleague of mine since he joined the Senate in 1991, Paul was a tireless crusader for all Americans. But, particularly for those who needed help the most. The poor and left behind, veterans, the environment and those with mental illness were his special concern. He took pride in championing the fight for people needing a helping hand.
“He, himself, knew a lot about growing up with adversity. His brother suffered from mental illness, and his parents worked hard but didn’t have much. But this remarkable man overcame those challenges – with sheer grit and determination – to make something of himself. And did he ever.
“He earned a wrestling scholarship to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where he married his high-school sweetheart, earned an Atlantic Coast Conference wrestling championship, and managed to graduate in just three years. After college, he earned a Ph.D. in political science and became a college professor at the tender age of 24.
“Even then, years before his service in the Senate, Paul was a true believer, an impassioned fighter for justice. While teaching at Carleton College, he led the charge to divest the university from Apartheid South Africa. He helped local farmers when banks came to foreclose their farms. And he fostered a new generation of active, civic-minded students by teaching specialized courses like ‘Social Movements’ and ‘Grassroots Organizing.’
“There were some who said that for an untenured professor, teaching activism and leading campus protests wasn’t the smartest career move. In fact, when Paul came up for tenure, he was initially denied. It took a groundswell of student support – thousands of students rallied on his behalf – to keep his job and secure his tenure. That made him, at 28, the youngest tenured professor in the history of Carleton College.
“So when he arrived in the Senate, it came as no surprise that he brought a fearless progressive spirit with him. I recall observers comparing him to Jimmy Stewart’s character in ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’ He was idealistic, determined, and most importantly, effective. He came here refusing to be fazed by the politics of division – refusing to be fazed by business as usual.
“I don’t think the phrase ‘status quo’ was in Paul’s vocabulary. Wherever he saw injustice, intolerance, or simply ineffectiveness, he stepped forward. When he found injustice in the treatment of the mentally ill, he stepped forward – to ensure parity for sufferers of what were known as ‘unspoken’ illnesses when it came to insurance caps. When he found injustice in the treatment of our veterans, he stepped forward to help them – especially those who were homeless. When he found injustice in the way our earth was treated, he stepped forward – to protect the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge from drilling.
“Paul never hesitated, paused or pondered. He stepped forward. He was a leader. Many wondered how this fire-breathing progressive was able to accomplish so much in his time here. The answer is that he believed in bipartisanship and actively embraced it. It was never a surprise to see Paul team up with one or more of the Senate’s most conservative members to get something done for the people of his beloved home state of Minnesota or throughout the country.
“During his time here, Washington never changed him, not one bit. He left this earth with the same idealism and passion he always had. Paul once said, ‘Never separate the life you live from the words you speak.’ He lived by that rule.
“I recall that when he first arrived in the Senate, he arrived one morning in his office to find that things had been cleaned and tidied over night. He asked a member of his staff how this had happened. The staffer explained that the Senate employs custodians who clean and maintain the offices late at night. True to form, that night Paul stayed very late – well into the night – long past the time his staff had left. He stayed so he could meet the people who cleaned his office – to introduce himself, shake their hands, and thank them for the work they did.
“In a nutshell, that was Paul. We often refer to our colleagues here in the Senate as ‘my friend,’ and it is true that many of us are friends. But no one had more friends among colleagues than Paul Wellstone. No one was more admired. The loss of his presence here has been felt and missed every single day. His sons, David and Mark, and the entire Wellstone family, are all in our hearts.”