Senate

Roger Wolfson worked for Paul Wellstone as his Chief Education Counsel for four years

Roger Wolfson first met Paul Wellstone in 1993 on a rainy Spring night in Washington, DC, at 10 PM.

The Capitol was built on land reclaimed from a swamp. When it rains in DC, it rains buckets. So it was that night. It was late. No one was around.

Roger stood in the “Hart Horseshoe,” the area outside the Hart Senate Office Building where cars pull in and out to let Senators stay dry. He had no umbrella and he had just given up all hope of dryness or dignity. He’d removed his new shoes, tucked them under his shirt, and rolled up his pant legs. He was about to venture into the deluge when he heard a voice behind him.

“How many blocks to your car?”

It was Senator Wellstone with an umbrella.

Roger Wolfson happened to know that Wellstone lived across the street from Hart. He’d seen him and his wife Sheila walking to and from the office many times. So Roger told him that he appreciated the kind implication that he might walk Roger to his car, but that Roger’s car was parked ten blocks away.

Senator Wellstone’s response was:  “We gonna talk or walk?”

With that, Wellstone raised his umbrella over Roger’s head, and they headed off into the rain. When they got to Roger’s car they were completely soaked. Then Roger ended up driving Senator Wellstone home.  Wellstone had no idea who Roger was; he didn’t know Roger worked for another Senator — Roger didn’t want him to know anything. He didn’t want to detract from his act of pure generosity by creating a feedback loop.

A month later, Roger Wolfson walked onto the Senate Floor for the first time. This was in 1993, the Dems were in the majority. Wellstone presided over the Senate. He saw Roger and he scratched his head, then mouthed the word “you?”  Roger nodded.  Wellstone smiled at Roger.  Later on, they talked in the hallway. Wolfson worked for Senator Lieberman at the time.

Three years later, Senator Wellstone called Roger from the Senate Floor. Roger was now working for Senator Kerry, but looking to get more involved in education policy, and Paul needed an education staffer. So Roger took the job eagerly, and worked for Wellstone as Legislative Assistant, and then as Chief Education Counsel. Roger ran phone banks for Wellstone during 1996 Campaign. He volunteered his time to Wellstone’s Presidential Exploratory Committee. Roger would have followed him to the ends of the earth.

…As would almost every person Roger met during his almost four years on Wellstone’s staff.  It’s common for Senate staff to hero-worship their bosses.  But one of Paul’s strengths was that he didn’t allow hero worship.  He demanded to be called “Paul.”  He gave his attention to everybody, religiously.  Typically, Chiefs of Staff and Press Secretaries fight with each other merely for the opportunity to drive Senators to the airport. Wellstone’s door was so profoundly open that he had a hard time even finding Interns to drive him.

But he could find Roger just fine. In memory of the night they met, Roger was always willing to drive Paul. For four years, Paul’s scheduler would send out a polite email that would solicit drivers for Paul before walking Paul’s official license plate over to Roger’s desk and telling him where to pick Paul up. And that’s how Roger got to know Paul best, over the course of a hundred comings and goings, wheels up, wheels down.

The rides also gave Roger Wolfson a great deal of time with Sheila, which he needed, because he was hired to be her advisor as well as Paul’s. Her issue was Domestic Violence, and she fought for the rights of abused women, children, and the elderly like no one in Washington had ever fought.

And the experience yielded Roger time with Paul’s daughter Marcia, which was good.  Because he had a crush on Marcia. Everyone had a crush on Marcia. It was effortless.  She was warm and smart and beautiful and down to earth.

The guy who drove Paul on the other end, in Minnesota, was Tom Lapic. Tom had been deputy press secretary to Paul in DC, until he married Trudy and moved to Minnesota.  Unless Roger was mistaken, Tom was offered the post of Secretary of Agriculture in the Ventura Administration.  As Roger recalls, he turned it down, saying “As long as Paul’s in office, I’ll be on his staff.”  His words ran true to the last second.

Also, on that plane was Mary McEvoy. She was the early childhood expert in Minnesota who Roger depended on most heavily when he handled Children’s issues for Paul.  Roger adored her. She was brilliant and funny and supportive and boundlessly enthusiastic about Paul.

Roger sought to involve her in everything and anything he could.  She ended up joining Paul’s campaign staff. Roger’s memory may be faulty; perhaps she was involved with Wellstone’s campaigns before he even knew her.  But Roger does know that she made him feel as though his encouragement led her to a deeper involvement with Paul. That’s the way she was.  Mary went down with Paul and Sheila and Tom, and she left behind three children of her own.

There’s no way to measure the loss of Paul Wellstone. But Roger doesn’t want to contribute to the diminishment of his character by referring to him, like most people are now, as “Liberal, scrappy, principled, and always standing up for what he believes in.”  Those words are accurate, but not in the least complete.

He was the leader of his wing of his party.  He was the direct political descendent from FDR, JFK, LBJ, and RFK.

And he got there by breaking all conventional rules. He wasn’t telegenic. He wasn’t good at raising money (until recently). He wasn’t tall, he wasn’t smooth, he wasn’t polished.  He took stances against popular opinion – often. And the people he fought to help had no money or political power to offer him in return. His supporters weren’t “likely voters.”

And yet he won and he won, and he was just pulling ahead and likely to win again. And yet he created reams of legislation for the underprivileged in this country. And yet he was taken seriously as a Presidential candidate, and yet he forged lasting and effective partnerships with Republican of stature such as John McCain, Pete Domenici, and even (then-Speaker) Hastert.

Yes, there was a reason that Wellstone was the number one target for the Republicans in each election. He was a player. He got things done. And he attracted people to the political process who would otherwise not have become involved.

Yet his model has perhaps only been followed once – by Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.  All the barriers Wellstone broke are well situated to fall back into place.

That is not what he would have wanted. He would have wanted everyone he inspired to follow his example. To throw conventional wisdom to the wind, and dig in, and fight to serve.

By all accounts, he was happy on the day he died. He was in a campaign. He was with his people. He was with his wife and daughter.  

And he always will be.

If he’s going to always be with us, though, we’re going to have to remember him, still be inspired by him, and seek to emulate him even more than ever before.