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Paul Wellstone: democracy's mentor.

When I think of my friend Paul Wellstone, two things stand out. First was his ability to see and inspire the best in young people. Second was his constant passion for full, participatory democracy--the right of each person to have a say in who leads us and on the issues affecting us. He exemplified steadfastness and stood by his principles, across party lines when necessary. In 1986, I was a young lobbyist for a student organization, MPIRG (The Minnesota Public Interest Research Group), and Minnesota faced a severe budget deficit. One seriously considered solution was to gut funding for low-income women and children. Enter Paul Wellstone. I remember him bounding into meetings, clad in flannel shirts and jeans--a virtual spring of a man with energy and passion. He had a mission and another mentoring opportunity before him! Paul, working with a rag-tag coalition of students, low-income women and others, organized a rally that deluged the Capitol in St. Paul. I recall sitting inside the House chambers watching a small group of compassionate representatives plead their case while hundreds of women, carrying children, amassed at the doors and chanted with him "In November we'll remember!" The funding was preserved.

Those of us who were young and green heaved a sigh of relief, ready to move on to other issues. Paul gave us another lesson in democracy--this victory was a fragile win.

Always looking ahead and combining teacher and organizer--he reminded us that many of these women were not registered to vote. Could they really have a voice in November? We needed to ensure these women could participate in the system. They didn't have the power of money, but they could have the power of voting!

Thus, the Minnesota 33 Percent Campaign (to register that percentage of Minnesotans--predominately low income people--who were not registered) was born. Paul, the flannel-shirted professor with no classes to teach that summer, and I, a student organizer, unemployed for three months, set out to build this campaign.

Paul gathered a "kitchen cabinet" to create voter registration drives around the state. We set about building small community coalitions for door-to-door voter registration in poor neighborhoods, at welfare check cashing places and in government surplus commodity food lines.

Fall approached and we were organizing for one big date in October--the final registration push. Twenty-three days out, another lesson was learned when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued an order banning us from registering people at their sites. With help from Paul and the lawyers he knew, we filed a petition for a temporary injunction against the USDA and our case came before the U.S. District Court.

As one of the primary organizers, I held my breath for two days. The call we'd been waiting for finally came--the judge had ruled in our favor. Our volunteers, armed with clipboards, pens and voter registration cards, went forward in a final, massive effort.

That day we registered approximately, 20,000 people.

Again, Paul taught us that democracy and grassroots organizing work. In two of three districts, legislators who had led the fight to cut funding for low-income people lost their jobs. The women, their children and their communities had made their voices heard.

Paul also taught us that democracy needs constant and consistent attention to make sure that people can and will fully participate. He pushed us to see that we could do more! When the Legislature reconvened in January, our informal coalition successfully saw passage of statewide Motor Voter registration.

Several years later the League of Women Voters would help lead the nation in the passage of federal Motor Voter legislation modeled after the Minnesota Act--and the hand of Paul Wellstone, this time as a U.S. Senator, was right there helping it through the Congress!

Addressing the LWVUS Convention two years ago, Paul spoke to the League's passion to strengthen democracy. A fitting tribute to him would be to embrace his spirit of mentoring young people into active and engaged civic life.

Cheryl Graeve is LWVUS senior director of membership/field support.
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Author:Graeve, Cheryl
Publication:National Voter
Geographic Code:1U4MN
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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