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Former Wellstone staffers keep his memory alive in Washington

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Josh Syrjamaki
Josh Syrjamaki, who was a top in-state staffer for U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, is now the chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat who represents Minnesota's 1st District. Syrjamaki, who is based in Mankato, said of Wellstone: "He really invited me and inspired me to be involved in politics, much like a teacher would, like a football coach would."
MPR Photo/Brett Neely

WASHINGTON -- Step into the office of a former staffer to the late U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone and you're likely to notice a small shrine to the liberal icon.

In Marge Baker's office at People for the American Way, there's a framed green Wellstone campaign poster.

"I think somebody framed it for me as a present, and I take it everywhere I go," said Baker, the liberal group's executive vice president for policy. "I need Paul with me."

Ten years after the Oct. 25, 2002, plane crash that killed Wellstone, his wife, Sheila, daughter Marcia and five others, many of Wellstone's former staffers still work in and around Congress and say they try to live up to his ideals.

Baker, who worked for the Democratic senator for two years, had worked in other Senate offices before but said the atmosphere in Wellstone's was different.

"I had not up until then been in an office that felt as much like family," she said.

Indeed, several staff members met their future spouses in Wellstone's office, including Brian Ahlberg, Wellstone's former legislative director.

"He loved that kind of stuff," Ahlberg said of Wellstone. "Paul and Sheila both took an interest in people's personal lives. They liked it when people found love and happiness, and they kept track of it a little bit."

'A little Carleton mafia'

Before going to Washington in 1991, Wellstone had been a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. While passionate about politics, he had never served in elected office before.

Brian Ahlberg
Brian Ahlberg, a former legislative director for U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, is now the chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.
MPR Photo/Brett Neely

Many of the people Wellstone hired were likewise new to Washington and Congress, often with backgrounds as activists and organizers.

"He looked with some skepticism at people who had [Capitol] Hill experience," said Colin McGinnis, who went to work for the new senator soon after Wellstone's election and was his final chief of staff.

Like many on Wellstone's staff, McGinnis, who now works for the Senate Banking Committee, first met Wellstone while a student at Carleton.

"He had a little Carleton mafia, even on his staff," said McGinnis, who has a photo of Wellstone and one of Wellstone's old nameplates used in Senate committee hearings on display in his office.

Another member of that "mafia" is Kari Moe, now chief of staff for Democratic U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota's 5th District. She met Wellstone when she was a freshman at Carleton in 1970.

Moe helped organize protests at Carleton when Wellstone was initially denied tenure there. The college ultimately granted tenure to him.

After graduation, Moe moved to Chicago and wound up working for Mayor Harold Washington. But she stayed in touch with Wellstone and often gave him advice.

"On Veterans Day, after Paul won the Senate race, he called me and said, 'Kari, do you want to come to D.C. and help me set up my Senate office?'" Moe recalled.

Another former staffer who entered Wellstone's orbit young was Josh Syrjamaki. Shortly after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1991, Syrjamaki met Wellstone at the Minnesota State Fair.

Sen. Wellstone's nameplate
A nameplate for Sen. Paul Wellstone, along with a photo of him, sits in the Washington office of Collin McGinnis, who was Wellstone's chief of staff. McGinnis, who now works for the Senate Banking Committee, received the nameplate from Wellstone's family after his death.
MPR Photo/Brett Neely

"I saw him out of the corner of my eye, walked up to him, and he greeted me with a smile and a really firm handshake and I signed up for an internship right on the spot," said Syrjamaki, who spent the next 11 years working for Wellstone, rising to become one of his top staffers.

Today, Syrjamaki is still involved in congressional politics as the chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a Democrat who represents the 1st District. Syrjamaki said he wouldn't be where he is today without Wellstone.

"He really invited me and inspired me to be involved in politics, much like a teacher would, like a football coach would," Syrjamaki said.

'The Wellstone network'

Even after Wellstone's death, the bonds among his former staffers stayed tight.

Moe had left politics in 2001 to pursue a doctorate in public policy but returned to Capitol Hill after Ellison won election to the House in 2006 because of Wellstone connections.

"Several folks from the Wellstone network talked to Keith and said, 'We think you should talk to Kari,' and they called me and said, 'You should sit down and talk to Keith,'" Moe recalled.

She said working for Ellison, co-chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a group of the most liberal members of Congress, has been a natural step for her.

Many former Wellstone staffers point to the continuities between their time with Wellstone and their current jobs.

After Wellstone's death, Ahlberg was hired by the office of U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.

"They both shared a belief in change through a mix of organizing, policy and politics," Ahlberg said. "So for me to move from Paul Wellstone to Tom Harkin was not a dramatic change."

'Living your values'

While many former congressional staffers eventually make their way to more lucrative jobs as lobbyists, many of Wellstone's former staff remain committed to public service.

"Going to work for Paul was a way of living your values, and so many of us have continued to try and find ways to do that," Moe said.

Marge Baker, executive vice president for policy for People for the American Way, said: "In my case, for example, when Paul died, I actually consciously thought about how do I make my next step one that Paul would respect?" 

Kari Moe
Kari Moe, a former chief of staff for Sen. Paul Wellstone, is now chief of staff for Rep. Keith Ellison. She is pictured holding a photograph of her former and current bosses. Moe first met Wellstone in 1970 as a freshman at Carleton College, where he was a political science professor.
MPR Photo/Brett Neely

Baker works on issues such as legalizing same-sex marriage and pushing for more liberal federal judges and Supreme Court justices.

While Wellstone and many of his staffers arrived on Capitol Hill as outsiders, those who have stayed are now insiders who intimately know the ways of getting things done in Congress.

One lesson that McGinnis said he learned alongside Wellstone in the 1990s was that "people of good will fiercely disagree about what the right thing to do is on any given policy."

In the midst of another fiercely fought election, Moe said Wellstone would have welcomed the kind of debate under way between Republicans and Democrats about the size and scope of government. 

"If anything Paul might want Democrats to debate more effectively and argue more effectively for their point of view," Moe said.

The Wellstone family, friends and many former staffers will reunite for a memorial service on Wednesday in Eveleth, Minn., the site of the plane crash. A memorial event in Washington will be held in November.