Environmental Champion Wellstone Dies in Plane Crash

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, October 25, 2002 (ENS) - Senator Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat and an outspoken advocate for conservation and environmental protection, was killed in a plane crash this afternoon near Eveleth, Minnesota, about 175 miles north of Minneapolis. The crash also claimed the lives of Wellstone's wife Sheila, his daughter Marcia and five others.

Wellstone, 58, had long been considered a champion for environmental causes and was one of the few remaining unabashed liberals in the Senate. Advocacy groups today mourned the loss of one of their most outspoken supporters.

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Senator Paul Wellstone was considered one of the most stalwart environmental champions in Congress. (All photos courtesy Office of Senator Wellstone)
"We're devastated," said League of Conservation Voters Spokesman Scott Stoermer. "Senator Wellstone was simply put the strongest environmental leader in Congress and he was a sincere, principled voice for lots of people who didn't have anybody speaking for them. His kind of leadership is something that will not soon or easily be replaced."

The twin engine King Air plane went down in freezing rain and light snow near the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport. Authorities have yet to determine the cause of the crash.

Locked in a hotly contested campaign race for reelection, the two term senator was en route to a funeral for the father of a Minnesota legislator. He was scheduled to debate his opponent Norm Coleman, the former mayor of St. Paul, this evening.

Republicans had been optimistic about Coleman's chances and had targeted this race as one that could help them gain control of the Senate. Democrats currently cling to control of the Senate by only one seat. Many see Coleman as the handpicked choice of the GOP leadership, and the final vote was expected to be extremely close.

The Democratic Party will have the opportunity to replace Wellstone on the ballot, but there has been no indication of who might be chosen. Minnesota law specifies that a party must replace any candidate who dies if it happens more than four days prior to the general election.

The son of Russian immigrants, Wellstone grew up in the Washington, D.C. area before earning his Ph.D. in political science from the University of North Carolina. He taught politics for more than 20 years at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

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Wellstone at a rally protesting the Free Trade Summit in Quebec in April 2001. The senator supported efforts to include environmental and human rights protections in international trade agreements.
Prior to his surprise defeat of Minnesota's incumbent senator Rudy Boschwitz in 1990, Wellstone had never held elective office. He quickly emerged as a leading liberal voice within the Senate and easily defeated Boschwitz again in 1996.

His dedication to environmental issues earned him high praise from environmental and conservation groups, particularly for his work protecting public lands and on issues of clean air and clean water. Wellstone was also a strong opponent of plans to drill in the Arctic Wildlife National Refuge.

Wellstone helped win federal commitments to increase resources for renewable energy efforts such as biomass, ethanol and wind power. The League of Conservation Voters had given Wellstone perfect scores of 100 on its National Environmental Scorecard on seven of the last 11 years.

"Paul Wellstone was an environmental giant, fighting to protect families from toxic pollution, to keep the air we breathe safe, and to keep our lakes and rivers clean," Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said in a prepared statement. "But it wasn't his consistent environmental votes that made him my hero, it was the depth of his convictions, his passion and his courage."

In addition to his support for environmental causes, Wellstone was widely known as an advocate for the working poor.

"Senator Paul Wellstone stood up for the little guy, but he never had small thoughts. He was tireless and unapologetic for championing the rights of working men and women - even when he stood alone." said AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney in a released statement. "America's working men and women had no better friend."

The senator was also admired for his efforts to clean up elections, make government activities more transparent to the public, and hold corporations accountable for their actions.

"Senator Wellstone's death is a true loss to the country and for all who care about social justice," said Gene Karpinski, executive director of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "He was a passionate and effective champion for the public interest and an inspiration to young people."

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Senator Wellstone's wife, Sheila (pictured with the senator) and his daughter Marcia were also killed in today's crash.
Wellstone had initially pledged to only serve two terms in the Senate, but last year announced his desire for a third term. In February, he announced he'd been diagnosed with a mild form of multiple sclerosis, but insisted it would not stop his campaign.

This afternoon, President George W. Bush, whose policies Wellstone had frequently opposed, expressed sympathy for the senator's surviving children and the people of Minnesota.

"Paul Wellstone was a man of deep convictions," Bush said, "a plain spoken fellow who did his best for his state and for his country."

Wellstone and his wife, Sheila Ison Wellstone, had three children, including their daughter Marcia. They are survived by two sons, David and Mark and six grandchildren.