Paul and Sheila Wellstone Bios
Paul David Wellstone was the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia, born in 1944 and raised in Arlington, Virginia. His mother was a cafeteria worker and his father was a writer and federal employee. His father left Russia shortly before the Bolshevik Revolution took the lives of Paul's grandparents. Leon and Minnie instilled in their son a commitment to justice and civic activism.
At an early age, Wellstone displayed the intensity and passion that would come to define his career. A head shorter than most of the other kids, he channeled his energies into the sport of wrestling and into his studies. By the end of high school, he had become a star wrestler, accomplished cross-country runner, and top student.
He had also fallen in love. At sixteen, Paul met Sheila Ison at a beach on the Maryland shore. They dated during their final year of high school and went on to attend different colleges. He was accepted to the University of North Carolina, where he joined the wrestling team, and she enrolled at the University of Kentucky. But by the end of their first year of college, they no longer wanted to live apart. They were married in summer of 1963, and Sheila moved to North Carolina.
That fall, Paul and Sheila Wellstone settled into a 39-year marriage. Paul took on a rigorous schedule of academics and athletics. In his second and final wrestling season, he went undefeated for the second year in a row, and won the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) championship. The following year, he graduated from North Carolina (after only three years), and Sheila gave birth to the first of their three children. Paul had become a champion wrestler, husband, father, and college graduate. He was twenty years old.
Wellstone went on to complete his PhD in political science from North Carolina and, at age 24, accepted a teaching position at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. As a professor, Wellstone focused on questions of economic justice and poverty, and began engaging in local community organizing projects in rural areas. "It was clear," wrote one of his friends and former colleagues, "that he was less concerned about academic political science than about political science directly serving people's needs."
At Carleton, Wellstone immersed himself in campus activism by organizing protests, criticizing the school's administration for its ties to corporate interests, and speaking out on issues affecting the community. He created controversy within the faculty and administration for his unorthodox style, but is remembered as a passionate professor with an uncommon ability to relate to students. His students became deeply involved in his organizing efforts, and many went on to careers in political and organizing work, including several who served as his top campaign and Senate aides.
Throughout his career, Wellstone led various campaigns for causes he supported - on behalf of farmers, laborers, the rural poor, and the environment. In the process, he gained a reputation as a persuasive and powerful speaker who was not afraid to stand up for his beliefs. In time, he began to consider ways to contest for power by running for office.
In 1982, Wellstone ran for state auditor, an office for which he was admittedly ill-suited, since he had little interest in state budgetary matters. Despite attracting media attention for his charisma and powerful speaking ability, he lost the race to his incumbent opponent by nine percentage points.
Despite the setback, Wellstone would have another opportunity to run for statewide office seven years later, when he announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate. Virtually unknown to Minnesota voters, but with a loyal following built up during his years as an organizer, he knew that the only way he could win was to apply his organizing skills to the campaign. That meant going directly to voters, by door knocking, making phone calls, traveling across the state and meeting with people. Although he had virtually no money, a mostly volunteer staff, and little name recognition, his well-organized campaign captured the Democratic Party nomination.
Wellstone then went on to face a popular incumbent, Rudy Boschwitz, in the general election. He ran on a bold agenda - universal health care, economic security, environmental protection, and campaign finance reform - and was unafraid to stand up for his beliefs. Written off by political pundits and even members of his own party, he was given virtually no chance to win.
But Wellstone was undaunted. Campaigning across Minnesota on the rickety green bus that became the symbol of his low-budget, grassroots campaign, he took his message directly to voters. He caught people's attention with a series of humorous, low-budget television advertisements and a campaign message focused on kitchen table economic issues. The strategy worked. Outspent seven to one, Wellstone stunned political observers by defeating Boschwitz in the fall election, becoming the only challenger to defeat an incumbent in 1990. He went on to soundly defeat Boschwitz again in a rematch in 1996.
As senator, Wellstone was an outspoken advocate for his priorities. He was a constant presence on the floor of the Senate, engaging in debate, pushing for or blocking legislation, and forging alliances with senators of both parties. During his first term, he wrote and passed sweeping reform legislation to ban gifts from lobbyists to senators and limit the influence of special interests. In his second term, he won important victories in the areas of health care reform, economic security, environmental protection, and children's issues. He developed a national reputation for his work with veterans and mental health advocates, and was recognized as one of the most effective members of Congress.
Despite his unapologetic advocacy of a progressive agenda, Wellstone was popular with his colleagues. Engaging and funny, he was described by one journalist as "one of the capital's most beloved politicians." Recalling his disarming demeanor, one of his colleagues said, "It was impossible not to like Paul Wellstone," and even the Senate's most fervent conservatives, Senator Jesse Helms, called Wellstone a friend.
In 2002, Wellstone sought a third term to the Senate, and was singled out by the White House's political operation as a top target for defeat. Despite taking a politically unpopular vote against the impending war in Iraq, polls showed him with a solid lead going into the final two weeks of the campaign. Then, on October 25, 2002, Paul and Sheila, their daughter Marcia, and three campaign staffers - Tom Lapic, Will McLaughlin, and Mary McEvoy - were traveling to northern Minnesota when their plane crashed near the Eveleth airport. There were no survivors. Paul and Sheila Wellstone are survived by their two sons, David and Mark.
Sheila Ison Wellstone was born in 1944 in the coal-mining regions of Kentucky, the daughter of Southern Baptists. When she was in high school, her family relocated to Washington, D.C., where at age 16, Sheila met her future husband. Despite their different backgrounds - Paul was the Jewish son of Russian immigrants - they began dating during their final year of high school.
Paul and Sheila went on to attend different universities - Paul to the University of North Carolina and Sheila to the University of Kentucky. But by the middle of their first year of college, Sheila decided to move to North Carolina to be with Paul. In the summer of 1963, they were married. Both had just turned 19. The following year, the first of their three children was born.
After Paul completed his Ph.D., the Wellstones settled in Northfield, Minnesota when Paul accepted a teaching position at Carleton College. For 20 years, Sheila dedicated herself to raising their children and working as an aide in the Northfield High School library.
When Paul won election to the Senate in 1990, Sheila focused her attention on politics and public policy. At the beginning of Paul's first term, she took notice of an alarming state and national crisis. Each year, approximately 1.5 million women were victims of domestic violence. As someone who spent much of her life dedicated to providing a safe and loving home for her family, Sheila was outraged, and determined to educate herself on this issue.
For a year, she read and listened to people's stories. At shelters in Minnesota and in Washington, she listened to victims of domestic violence recount in horrifying detail the abuse they had suffered. Women sat in circles in shelter living rooms across the state and told her stories so private that they had sometimes never told them before. She listened and she learned.
And then this former librarian who never imagined herself a public person went to work. Over the course of ten years, Sheila Wellstone established herself as one of the nation's leading experts on the problem of domestic violence. Working with her husband, she played a key role in the drafting and passage of the Violence Against Women Act. She had an instrumental role in crafting and passing other pieces of legislation aimed at protecting women and children from the ravages of domestic violence. She was actively involved in raising awareness of international human rights abuses, including the issue of sex trafficking of young women and girls.
Wellstone's Senate colleagues praised Sheila for her unique and influential work in raising their awareness of domestic violence issues. In addition to serving on many national and Minnesota advisory committees in this issue area, Sheila was also appointed by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to the Violence Against Women Advisory Council in 1995. Sheila gained national renown and helped put domestic violence on the policy agenda of our country.
In addition to her domestic violence work, Sheila played a critical role in all of Paul's campaigns. She was a shrewd observer of politics who gave her husband honest and smart advice and strategic ideas. She was also an invaluable asset on the campaign trail. Despite her dislike of public speaking, she became a polished and persuasive public speaker who inspired audiences with her passion and understanding of the issues. By the end of Paul's second term, political observers in Minnesota began speculating that Sheila would be a formidable political candidate herself.
But as passionate as Sheila was for her work, her family always came first. She was a loving mother, and her 39-year marriage to Paul was uncommonly strong - they were known for holding hands on neighborhood walks and sitting next to each other when they dined alone. They relied on each other in times of stress, and she accompanied him to nearly all of his campaign stops. Sheila and their daughter Marcia were on board Paul's chartered plane when it crashed in northern Minnesota just twelve days before election day, 2002. There were no survivors. Paul and Sheila are survived by their sons, David and Mark.