Investing in the Courageous
A small group sat around a dining room table, weeks after the 2002 election, just months after a plane crashed, killing Senator Paul Wellstone, his wife, Sheila, his daughter, Marcia, and three members of his campaign staff – Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy, and Will McLaughlin. They sat, ate dinner, shared stories, and talked about where to go from there, because one thing was clear: there was so much work left to do.
The group discussed an organization, to be called Wellstone Action, that would teach people to win their campaigns the Wellstone Way, that would honor Shelia’s work as an advocate against domestic violence, that would help ensure that mental health parity finally became a reality.
One of those people was Brigid McDonough, a Twin Cities attorney working in the area of affordable housing financing. “I knew Wellstone Action would have the right leadership, and the financial strength, to continue moving the Wellstones' legacy, their life’s work, forward.”
Brigid became one of our first donors, and today, she continues to support us. And it all started in 1995.
“Paul spoke to the things I felt in my heart,” she explains. “I got involved in 1995 as part of his finance committee leading up to his reelection. I wanted to get more involved, not just with raising money, but by supporting his grassroots campaigning.” Soon, Brigid was running for leadership positions with the local Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party.
By 2002, Brigid was playing a major role in DFL politics in St. Paul, her hometown, and across Minnesota. Soon, a man named Cy Thao asked her to help him run for state representative. In 1975, when Cy was three years old, his family fled Laos for a refugee camp in Thailand, and a few years later they moved to Minnesota. Cy was one of the first Hmong Americans to run for office. It was a campaign that Brigid was proud to volunteer for: “I was so excited that Hmong Americans were getting involved, and getting activated into the political process.”
She still remembers the night of Cy’s primary victory: “It was one of the happiest days of my life. I knew it was a busy night, but I called Sheila’s staff member, Mary McEvoy, to see if Sheila could stop by the party. As it got later and later, I assumed they couldn’t make it. When suddenly, in walks Sheila, Mary, and Paul. It was a great moment; the politician I most admired was celebrating a campaign that brought many new Americans into the process.”
That’s what Paul and Sheila were all about. They brought progressives together, to get involved, and to win. And that’s what Wellstone Action continues to do today.
“Wellstone Action will never replace Paul, no organization can. But Paul built coalitions, he gave people a sense of ownership in the political process, and that’s exactly what Wellstone Action does today.” Wellstone has grown a lot since the idea of Wellstone Action was shared at that dinner over 10 years ago, but our commitment to those core values hasn’t.
Brigid likes to joke that Paul’s 1996 campaign got her into the expensive habit of making campaign contributions. “I could have retired a lot earlier,” she says laughing, “but I give to Wellstone every year because you’re teaching progressive leaders about grassroots organizing and developing campaigns. None of this is intuitive, and it’s very necessary.”
Brigid started giving to Wellstone Action to help continue the legacy of Paul and Sheila Wellstone; she continues to support us because, “Wellstone teaches that it’s not just about the candidate, it’s about all the people involved with the campaign. That’s what Paul showed me, that we win when everyone is given a sense of leadership in the campaign.”
Paul led with his heart; so does Wellstone. “We need candidates with courage and bravery,” says Brigid. “I know a lot of those candidates, and their staff, will come up through Wellstone. That’s why I give to Wellstone Action every year, that’s why Wellstone Action is in my will – so that critical work continues for years to come.”
As Wellstone celebrated its 10th birthday, we know our strength rests in the people who stood with us from the very beginning. People like Brigid, who know that the work to build a progressive future for our country is far from over. So that’s what we wake up every day doing: igniting change and winning the world where we all do better when we all do better.