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I Cast My Vote Today For President: Paul Wellstone

Today, I cast my absentee ballot for president for Paul Wellstone. I waited to cast my ballot today for a reason. Ten years ago today, October 25th 2002, Paul died in a plane crash while he was campaigning for re-election. I remember him each year, and write something about him, to keep his memory alive because what he stood for was a sane, decent, inspiring world. My ballot, mailed today, is a personal gesture in honor of his life.

A few things need to be said before spending the rest of this space on Paul. First, I vote in a state that the president will win by 10-20 points. If I was in a contested state, I would vote for the president.

Second, if asked, I would tell anyone to make the same choice: vote for the president if your vote matters.

Third, while I have deep disagreements with the president (note: I do not use the word “disappointed” because he has been the president I expected), I respectfully disagree with people who say it makes no difference who wins the election. It does. It matters, just to pick one example, to a lot of workers who sits at the head of the National Labor Relations Board. If you don’t see that, well, that’s your right. I’m not going to debate that.

There was a brief time when Paul thought about running for president (though, he played down the idea in 1999, saying, “I’m short, I’m Jewish and I’m a liberal”). Here is what I am absolutely certain he would stand for if he had been president:

Paul would never have talked about “tweaking” Social Security.

He would be passionately — proudly — demanding more spending to create jobs because he would know that the biggest crisis we face is that people are out of work and, when, they do work, they can’t make ends meet.

He would never have created a “bi-partisan” Commission, run by two corporate hacks, to fan the flames of a phony debt and deficit crisis.

He would never embrace austerity on the backs of the working people he represented.

He would have demanded the heads of all the major financial institutions who stole the future from millions of people.

He would, if he had promised to, actually put on his walking shoes and walk picket lines as president, not use such a promise as a campaign stunt.

He was proud to be with unions. He talked about unions — not just when he needed a campaign contribution.

He would never have stood by while thousands died in immoral wars, while drones slaughtered innocent people. How do we know that? He was the only Democratic Senator running for re-election in 2002 who voted against going to war in Iraq.

He would never — never — condone or allow the torturing of human beings.

He often liked to say he was the peoples’ Senator, because the corporate lobbies — drug companies, defense contractors, big banks — already had plenty of people speaking for them.

He would not have had to evolve to support marriage equality. He would have been on the front-lines, working to bring the country to a better place.

And, the thing about it, I really believe, had he run for president, that he could have won people over to his agenda because, as he used to say:

“Politics is not just about power and money games, politics can be about the improvement of peoples lives, about lessening human suffering in our world and bringing about more peace and more justice.”

That is what people — from Occupy Wall Street all the way to, yes, to some elements of the Tea Party — want to hear. They think the system does not work for them. And they are right. And Wellstone would have been a standard-bearer for the yearning to get rid of a failed economic system and corrupt political game.

He felt it from the very first days of his run for office in 1990:

Check out his views on grassroots leadership. What jumps out, and its really a comment on the shallowness and phoniness of today, is that you really believe HE BELIEVES WHAT HE IS SAYING:

Here’s a favorite riff — from a speech he gave before my union, the United Auto Workers, in 1998 — he used which kind of says so much about his view of life, his sense of himself and his humor, his ability to connect with people of all walks of life:

I was organizing in the farm areas in the mid 1980s, I was teaching and organizing. Farmers were being dragged under, they were losing their farms, not only where they worked but where they lived. They had no empowering explanation as to why they were losing their farms or what they could do and that became fertile ground (no pun intended) for politics of hatred: Posse Comatatas and some of the precursors to the armed militia, anti-Semitics, racists and all the rest. So my friends took me aside, I’m the son of a Jewish immigrant who was born in the Ukraine, and they said maybe you should just stop speaking – and organizing because you know there’s a lot of anti-Semitism out there. But you know when you are 5 foot 5 you never listen to that advice (and some of you know what I mean). So I went out to the town of Alexandria, Minnesota and I spoke at a farm gathering and I finished up speaking and this big guy (lots of guys look big to me) came up and he said, “What nationality are you?”

And I said, “I’m American.”

He said, “Where were you born?”

I said, “Washington D.C.” “Where are your parents from?” I told him my dad was born in the Ukraine then his family moved to Russia and he fled persecution, came to our country and my mother’s family came from the Ukraine, she grew up on the lower east side of New York City.

He said, “Then you are a Jew?”

Now, I wrestled at the University of North Carolina and I want you all to know that I was ready to fight. So I tensed up and I said, “Yes I am.”

And he stuck out a big hand and said, “Well buddy, I am a Finn and us minorities have got to struggle together!”

It was his humanity, above all, that was a guiding spirit for who he was, and it made it easy for him to connect with people who might actually disagree with him on a checklist of policies but would vote for him because, well, he was a mensch.

If you read this speech — a speech he gave before the Sheet Metal Workers in 1999– you will definitely cry. You will cry, as I do, because it’s moving and because it speaks to the hole in the politics we endure right now. And reading this doesn’t make me despair — it actually makes me want to keep fighting:

I am proud to speak to this gathering of sheet metal workers, to come over here from the Senate because you represent a mighty tradition. Many of you, or many of your parents, or many of your grandparents gave their sweat and tears and sometimes even their blood to make our country a better country.

Because of you, the right to join a union. Because of you, some protection against the terror of unemployment. Because of you, some protection against strike breaking. Because of you, minimum wage. Because of you, safer workplace. Because of you, more bread on the table. Because of you, civil rights movement. Because of you, more protection for people with disabilities. Because of you, ending of discrimination against people because of gender. This is a mighty and an important tradition and I’m very proud to speak here today with you because of that tradition.

But I also think we need to understand that much of what we worked for is at risk. And as I look at this gathering, let’s just sort of lay out what we’re dealing with. I see a majority party which, as a favor to bottom dwellers of commerce, doesn’t want to raise the minimum wage. Which, as a favor to insurance companies, don’t even want sensible protection for consumers. Which, as a favor to the hard driving tyrants of the production line, want to basically overturn the forty hour week. Which, as a favor to union busting conglomerates, wants to have a company run union. Which, as a favor to those companies that don’t care about safety for workers, wants to overturn OSHA.

And the titles they use for this legislation are quite unbelievable. Efforts to weaken OSHA is called the Safe Act. Efforts to overturn the forty hour week is called the Family Friendly Workplace Act. Efforts to go back to company unions is called the Team Act.

I’ll make a commitment to you. Last time, they came to the floor of the Senate to support slipshod contractors and move away from Davis Bacon and prevailing wage. I raced to the floor because I wanted to beat Ted Kennedy there. I started the filibuster and we stopped them and we won’t let them do it. And when Senator Ashcroft came to floor with his legislation, called the Family Friendly Workplace Act, which was to overturn the protections of the forty hour week, I came to the floor and led a filibuster. I didn’t even know it was gonna be a filibuster, but I was a teacher so I went on for about four hours, then I had to start talking about wrestling.

The point is, we stopped it cold and if he brings the legislation to the floor I’ll filibuster it again. And next week, we’ve had hearings on the “SAFE” legislation. Which is quite unbelievable, allowing companies to hire their own consultants and then exempt themselves from sanctions and penalties from the government. I just will make this commitment to you, every time we’ve had a hearing, and every time they’ve tried to bring that bill to the committee. I’m now ranking minority member on the committee that has jurisdiction over nation labor relations act, over mining safety, and over OSHA and I can assure you if they try and bring that piece of legislation to the floor of the United States Senate then most definitely I will lead the filibuster and we will stop them. That is my commitment here today.

But you know, it’s not just an attack on unions as unions. This is an attack on the idea of union and the idea of community, because as I think about, these folks represent a philosophy that I call new isolationism. Not as in foreign affairs but as in human affairs. It’s a “Buddy, you’re on your own” philosophy. By the way, if you own your own corporation and you’re rich it works. But it doesn’t work for most people. If you’re a Vietnam vet, and you’re homeless, and you’re struggling with post traumatic stress syndrome or substance abuse this philosophy says you’re on your own. If you’re a senior citizen in Minnesota, only 35 percent of senior citizens in Minnesota have any coverage for prescription drug costs, and you can’t afford prescription drugs, this philosophy says you’re on your own. If you’re one of the 44 million Americans with no health insurance coverage at all, you’re on your own. If you should have a mother or father that has Parkinson’s disease and their nightmare is they’ll lose everything they worked for cause that’s the only way they’ll qualify for any help when they’re in a nursing home, you’re on your own. If you’re daughter has diabetes and she’s now 24 and she’s off your plan. But the problem is it will cost her a $10,000 premium to get any coverage at all because she’s been struggling with diabetes, you’re on your own. If you can’t afford housing for you and your loved ones, you’re on your own. If you don’t have enough money to put food on the table, can you believe that close one out of four children under age three are going home poor today in America. This philosophy says you’re on your own.

But you know what? That’s not our country, that’s not community. Whatever happened to the idea – it’s a union idea – that we all do better when we all do better? When I travel the country, much less travel Minnesota, I’ll tell you this: I know what people are focused on. People are focused on: how can I get a decent living so that I can get my children the care that they need and deserve. People are focused on: how can I make sure my children get the best education. People are focused on: how can I make sure that we don’t fall between the cracks and get decent health insurance coverage.

I met with a railroad worker and his wife two years ago. I want you to know that she’s a sheet metal worker. His wife came up to me and she said “Paul can you come say hello to Joe?” she said “he’s 42 and he has terminal cancer, and the doctors say he has 3 months to live.” And then I saw him a year later at a farm gathering and she said “I want you to come and see Joe. You know he’s a real fighter the doctors said he only had 3 months he’s my Joe, he’s a real fighter.” And then she took me aside where he couldn’t hear, and then she said “It’s a living nightmare, Every day I’m on the phone battling with the insurance companies, to see what they’ll cover and to fight for coverage.”

I want to say this today because of your tradition. No family in our country with a loved one struggling with an illness should go through this kind of hell. The insurance industry took universal coverage off the table. We ought to put it back on the table and talk about affordable, dignified, humane health care coverage for every man, woman and child in America and the democrats ought to stand for that, the democrats ought to fight for that.

Harry Truman said it best “You run two Republicans against one another and a Republican wins every time.” The Democratic Party’s got to be there on the bread and butter economic issues, am I right? Democratic party’s got to be strong on the work majority issues, am I right? They’ve got to focus on the kitchen table issues, am I right? They got to speak to the concerns and circumstances of people’s lives and make a difference and here’s what it’s all about. And it’s not just unions and it’s not just me as a strong labor senator. It’s a political majority.

If you want real welfare reform then you focus on a good education, good healthcare and a good job. If you want to reduce poverty in our country then you focus on a good education, good health care and a good job. If you want to have a stable middle class, you focus on a good education, good healthcare, and a good job. If you want our country to do well in an international economy do well in the next century you focus on a good education, good healthcare, and a good job. That is a political majority language.

And you know I want to say this today: if we want to have good education, good healthcare, and a good job, you know what the key is? The key is the right to organize and the best piece of legislation I have is the right to organize legislation that I just introduced last week, and I’ll tell you what it says. It says no longer will it just be the companies that have the opportunity to speak with employees. They get to hear both sides. It says no longer will it be profitable for companies to illegally fire workers who are doing nothing more than to try to form or join a union. They are going to be faced with some severe financial penalties. And it says no longer will a company be in a position that even when workers organize and join a union to not be willing to sign a contract without mediation and if necessary binding arbitration. And yes, in addition to that I’m going to keep saying that no longer should striking workers be replaced. We should prohibit permanent replacement of workers!

That ought to be a part of what the Democrats stand for. We’re going to have to light a fire under our party. We’re going to have to have a Democratic party with a strong agenda on the issues. Ordinary people have got to feel like the Democrats are on their side. That’s how we get control back in the house, that’s how we get control back in the Senate, that’s how we win the presidential race.

I want to end it this way. It’s my personal vision and I only say because I’m among friends, I want to tell you I would not be a United States senator without the support of labor, I say that everywhere, it’s true.

Can I conclude on this personal note? As I get older I learn more. When our first child was born, I was only twenty years old. Now we have three grandkids now and our oldest has just turned eight. When she was a baby, I held her in my hands and I thought to myself “I know what I believe in.” What I believe is that whatever infant I hold in my hands – it doesn’t matter the color of skin, doesn’t matter rich or poor, doesn’t matter religion, doesn’t matter boy or girl, doesn’t matter urban or rural – every child in our country, the greatest country in the world, should have the same opportunity to develop her full potential, and his full potential. That is the American dream, that is the goodness of our country, that is what unites and binds and ties all of us together as Americans, and that is the economic justice of unions, and that is why I come here as a United States Senator to honor the sheet metal workers and to tell you that we have our work cut out for us.

Reminds me of a great speech given by Wendell Phillips, an abolitionist in the 1840s. You might remember from your history that both political parties then were worried about taking on slavery, because it would create uncomfortable cleavages in each party. But not Wendell, he would not equivocate. He was speaking at this gathering and he said, “slavery is a moral outrage, it should be abolished.” That Wendell Phillips, he wouldn’t give an inch. And he finished speaking and a friend came up to him and said “Wendell, why are you so on fire?” My favorite quote. Wendell came up to his friend and said “Brother May, I’m on fire because I have mountains of ice before me to melt.” We have mountains of ice before us to melt and we will do it in the spirit of solidarity. Thank you brothers and sisters.

Casting a vote for president is a personal thing, as much as a political act. For a moment, I wanted to feel that excitement of writing down the name of someone who I know could, if he were alive today, with his honesty, spirit of good will and clear morality, be the leader we need.

So, in honor of this spirit, I proudly walked to a mailbox and cast my vote for Paul Wellstone for President. And it felt right.

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