Campaign Speech: Money and Politics 1990

The following speech was delivered at various points in Paul Wellstone's upset victory over incumbent Rudy Boschwitz in 1990. It is taken from Wellstone's handwritten files and notes from the 1990 campaign.

I'm proud to be a politician because I believe strongly in democracy. My father, a Jewish immigrant from Russia whose family had to move from town to town, because of czarist persecution, taught me to cherish free elections and the idea of "government of, by and for the people."

But I am not proud of the current state of campaigns and politics in our country and I am determined to take my case to the people of Minnesota in my Senate campaign.

The ethical issue of our time is that money has come to dominate politics and the democracy my father so deeply believed in is severely compromised. Campaigns match image-makers against image-makers, pollsters against pollsters and millions of dollars against millions of dollars. It is a superficial, trivialized politics of attack ads, manipulated advertising, and nine-second sound bites. It is a politics that treats people as if they are political nerds who know or care nothing about the issues of our time.

And most importantly, money corrupts the process. This is a much more serious corruption than the wrong doing of a single individual. This is the kind of corruption which results in too few people having too much wealth, power and say and too many people being denied a voice. It is a politics of democracy for the few, not democracy for the many.

Money, all too often, determines who runs for office. Should a person have to be a millionaire to run for the U.S. Senate? Money, all too often, determines what both Democrats and Republicans have to say on the issues for fear of offending big contributors. Should a candidate mortgage his or her vision to the wealthy and powerful and privileged? Money, all too often, determines how our elected officials spend their time in Washington.

Politics becomes about amassing huge amounts of money. Issues and accountability do count when it comes to the cozy relationship between a Senator or Representative and the political action committees who contribute the big bucks. They give the money to influence legislation and expect results. But during campaigns and elections most of what the people get is images. Not issues, not accountability. As a result people view politics as phony, irrelevant to their lives, and a game where the rules are rigged for the well healed and powerful interest, not ordinary citizens.

That barely half the people voted in our last Presidential election is a real indictment of "the way we do politics" today. I will conduct my campaign differently. No PAC money from outside Minnesota. I will be accountable to the people, not the oil companies and other giant corporations from outside Minnesota.

I will not be a made-up media myth, conceived by clever ad men.

I will not be bought by big money special interests and their political action committees because I need their money to purchase television advertising time.

I will take this Senate race to the people of Minnesota with a grassroots campaign - that reaches to the cafes, schools, small businesses, union halls, farms, neighborhoods and main streets all across Minnesota.

This campaign will be rooted in the people of Minnesota. It will be a colorful, exciting, progressive, and populist campaign. The focus will be on where and how Rudy Boschwitz and Paul Wellstone raise money and the way sources of funding affect our positions on the issues.

The focus will be on Rudy Boschwitz's voting record on the issues (not just electioneering votes before election time) that crucially affect the quality of Minnesotans lives and the focus will be on what kind of Senator and leader Paul Wellstone would be, my position on the issues, my vision for the future.

Let the people decide - that is true democracy. But let’s make sure there is a true choice and that people have a clear understanding of where the candidates stand. Money need not dominate politics in Minnesota. And I aim to prove my point in November, 1990. Minnesotans are ready for an issue-oriented campaign.

Minnesotans are also ready for issue-oriented media. If politicians stage visual events and refuse to answer questions then we should not get away with it and there is no story. If TV ads are so central to campaigns and the visuals are not truthful - no relationship to voting record - then the media has a responsibility to report this to Minnesotans.

Most important, the Minnesota media can and should insist that candidates for the U.S. Senate debate the issues in a media sponsored give and take debate format. The First Amendment to our constitution guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of press, not freedom of press for attack ads and simple jingo slogans but freedom of the press to assume a well-informed citizenry essential to a real democracy.

July 31, 1989, the headline in the Star Tribune read, "It's Boschwitz's Millions, Wellstone's Thousands," and there was no subtitle but the article clearly suggested that millions of dollars would determine the outcome. I cannot blame a talented journalist for reporting on the conventional wisdom about politics in these times. But in November 1990, the blazing headline in the Star Tribune will read: "Wellstone Wins the U.S. Senate race: Money Didn't Vote, People Did."