Twenty years after his death, efforts to maintain Paul Wellstone's legacy continue

A person speaks during a press conference
David Wellstone (center), the son of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, speaks alongside Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar during a press conference Tuesday to announce an effort to rename the Federal Building in Minneapolis in honor of Paul Wellstone. Tuesday was the 20th anniversary of the plane crash that killed Wellstone, his wife and daughter, three campaign staffers and two pilots.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Twenty years after U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash on the Iron Range — along with his wife Sheila, daughter Marcia, three campaign staffers and the two pilots — there are new efforts to keep his name and legacy alive.

For years there has been a secluded memorial and historic site located outside Eveleth, Minn., near where the plane went down, that features a quiet path through the woods. The Wellstone family and the state DFL party recently replaced signs at the memorial and launched an online tour option.

And on Tuesday, current U.S. Sens. Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar — alongside Wellstone’s son Dave — announced an effort to rename a downtown Minneapolis federal office building after Paul Wellstone. The building includes offices for the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as the National Labor Relations Board and passport services.

A general view of the Federal building
A general view of the Federal Building in downtown Minneapolis on Tuesday.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

"People come here and gather for so many different reasons. They gather here because they need help with housing. They gather here on labor issues, which were so near and dear to Paul's heart. And they gather here when they are for some reason, embarking on an adventure, which was really the story of Paul's life as well," Klobuchar said. "This building, this gathering place, couldn't be a better place to be named after Paul Wellstone."

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The effort is sponsored by Democrats Klobuchar and Smith, as well as Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa. Dave Wellstone said renaming the building will help ensure his father’s legacy is remembered.

"A lot of people — I'm in a college town, Northfield, where I grew up — don't know Wellstone, right? They don't know. And so, for us, to have a building named, commemorating, is just the true honor,” he said. “People will come in, and if they don't know (his name), they'll maybe look it up, and they'll see."

Klobuchar said she hopes to get a naming bill passed through Congress yet this year.

A person speaks
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (center) speaks at a news conference Tuesday to announce legislation to rename the Federal Building in Minneapolis in honor of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. Joining Klobuchar was Wellstone's son Dave (left) and Sen. Tina Smith.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Memorial near Eveleth

In addition to new signage at the memorial near Eveleth, the Wellstone family and the DFL have also partnered on a 3D virtual tour of the site that’s now available at the memorial’s website, allowing visitors to “walk” the trail and learn more about Wellstone's legacy.

“His legacy is so strong among people,” Dave Wellstone said. “People come up to me on a regular basis, telling me where they were during the crash, how their lives were impacted by my folks.”

But not everyone can get up to the memorial site, “not everyone knows that it exists up there,” Wellstone said.

Sen. Tom Harkin
Then-U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, wipes water from a rock displaying the name of Sen. Paul Wellstone and his wife Sheila on Tuesday at the Paul Wellstone Memorial and Historic Site near Eveleth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News file

That legacy lives on today in many key Minnesota DFLers, including Gov. Tim Walz, who were inspired to run for office, in part, by the late senator.

Twenty years after his father’s death, Dave Wellstone said, it’s important to remind people about who his father was and who he fought for, especially now that many younger people might not know who he was.

Wellstone believes his dad’s legacy as a fighter — working on behalf of working people in cities and rural areas — is even more important today in an era of polarized and divisive politics.

“He had a very unique ability to touch people's lives, whether they considered themselves Democrats or Republicans. He was that real populist. I can't tell you how many people tell me you know, I'm a Republican … but I voted for your dad — or, I'm now more conservative, but I loved your dad,” he said.

"Paul loved Minnesota. And he believed that his purpose in the Senate was to stand up for people who did not have a voice in the halls of power. He was courageous and he was joyful and he was optimistic,” Smith said at Tuesday’s gathering in Minneapolis.

“And he showed all of us, as he said — politics is not about power. Politics is not about money. Politics is not about winning for the sake of winning. Politics is about improving people's lives. It is about advancing the cause of peace and justice in our country, and around the world. Politics is about doing well for people."