Changes to the Wellstone Action Foundation: Paul Wellstone’s Legacy and the Minnesota DFL

What was, in February, an issue among Minnesota DFLers and progressives has suddenly become emblematic of the debate happening nationwide; this time, it centers on the legacy of Paul Wellstone and the Wellstone Action Foundation.

MinnPost, MPR, and national outlets made news in mid-February with reports that Wellstone’s two sons, Mark and David, had been voted off the governing board of the progressive action organization which, according to its past mission statements, worked at “advancing progressive social change and economic justice.” As a Politico report released yesterday reveals, though, then-WAF board member Rick Kahn had raised concerns when the tax filing for the WAF for 2017 showed that mission changed to “advancing progressive social change and economic, racial, and gender justice.”

The Wellstone brothers, according to that Politico report, are now calling for the Wellstone Action Foundation, which MPR estimates has trained over 90,000 candidates and campaign managers for everything from school board to Senate elections, to drop “Wellstone” from its name. Major donors, including the Soros Foundation, have also apparently expressed concerns about funding the organization moving forward.

My intent in commenting on this is not to wade into the waters of adding “racial and gender” to the kinds of justice the new, Wellstone-less board of the WAF wishes to pursue; rather, I’d like to explore (briefly, because I can’t give away the whole farm before I write my dissertation) the coalition Wellstone envisioned and built. That coalition embraced a “big-tent” approach to economic populism which embraced educating DFLers and Minnesotans on a broad range of issues; bridged trans-religious, -racial, and -regional divides; and culminated in a populist sweep to the U.S. Senate in 1990.

After his losing campaign for State Auditor against Independent-Republican and eventual governor Arne Carlson in 1982, Wellstone turned his focus to deepening activist organizing and education within the DFL. This was, for reasons I detail at greater length in my MA essay and will write a lot about in my dissertation, a significant shift; the DFL’s 1982 convention had featured strong tensions between left-wing activists like the DFL Feminist Caucus, the State Central Committee, and the party’s rank-and-file members. Wellstone, in a letter to prominent DFLers, called for “A DFL Issue Oriented Education Foundation,” which he wanted to “address itself to a whole range of vitally important (and sometimes very complicated) questioned ranging from the nuclear arms race, toxic waste dumps, education, farm, labor, iron range, and urban economic problems.”[1] This group, which would of course be based around the wholesome “dinner (pot-luck) and debate series,” was to include “a farm/labor, urban/rural speakers exchange of party activists,” which would create an issue-oriented program to “help facilitate more grassroots involvement in developing our state DFL platform.”[2]

Throughout the 1980s, Wellstone worked to ensure that any crisis in Minnesota politics, whether economic, social, or political, brought with it an opportunity for interreligious, rural/urban, and interracial organizing. After the 1984 elections, during which DFL candidate for Senate Joan Growe was buried by Rudy Boschwitz and Minnesota gave its electoral votes to Walter Mondale by the slimmest of margins, Wellstone blasted the party for “trying to appeal to the same affluent, white, male constituency as the Republicans”  and making “no real effort to mobilize the electorate from below and no appeal to families with incomes below $30,000…”[3]

For Wellstone, whether the DFL would join him or not, this translated to action. During the Hormel P-9 strike in Austin, Wellstone walked the picket lines with the striking workers. That August, he and two prominent Twin Cities activists and professors, Peter Rachleff of Macalester and Tom O’Connell of Metro State, sent a letter to communities of faith in the Twin Cities asking if they could raise food and money for the strikers, along with if they would “be willing to take workers into your home while they canvass the twin cities [sic] community.”[4] Wellstone wrote that fall of how he, as a Jew, used this organizing (with groups like Groundswell) in rural areas to combat right-wing extremist and build relationships with Minnesotans on farms and in factories: “In the same breath, the people who feed the nation can be romanticized and viewed as ‘backward,’ unable to make it in the real world of today’s agribusiness. Usually, though, they are out of sight and out of mind.”[5]

This was, of course, put into wide-scale political action in Wellstone’s victorious campaign for Senate in 1990. You can read a pretty good write-up of Wellstone’s quirky campaign here, including the repeated analysis that Wellstone ran as–gasp–a populist. You can see the tensions within the party, though, as former Saint Paul mayor George Latimer quipped that “We’ll have years ridding Paul of his populist notions.”[6] Those “populist notions,” though, were exactly how Wellstone campaigned and how he intended to govern.

Wellstone campaigning for Senate in 1990. Photo from MPR:

He had pushed the DFL to use the lists of Jesse Jackson delegates from the Rainbow Coalition in the 1988 campaign, citing a claim that “No Rainbower was thanked for efforts made in behalf of DFL candidates throughout the campaign.”[7] Wellstone had co-chaired the Jackson campaign in Minnesota, making his indignation even more understandable. But his point, partisanship aside, stood: the DFL needed to be more inclusive of all voices, committed to activism and organizing around economic and social populism.

That Wellstone, long ahead of his 1990 run, had spent the better part of two decades involved in Minnesota activism and organizing is unsurprising to most readers of this blog. But given the debates surrounding the future of the Wellstone Action Foundation, it’s worth considering the “big-tent” language Wellstone consistently used, both internally to the DFL and externally to both activists and Minnesotans more broadly. He built a cross-racial, rural-urban, farm-labor, blue collar-white collar alliance which stunned Rudy Boschwitz in the 1990 U.S. Senate election. Even after his untimely death, Wellstone remains, as Politico notes, the “touchstone for the progressive cause.”

Just last October, on the anniversary of Wellstone’s passing, the Humphrey Institute at the University of Minnesota hosted an event headlined by Elizabeth Warren, Keith Ellison, and Walter Mondale titled “The Democratic Party at a Crossroads: The Wellstone Way and Economic Populism.” At that event, Duluth DFLer Jennifer Schultz argued that “whether another Wellstone comes around or not, Democrats need to go back to his strategy to win,” and 8th District (that’s the Iron Range congressional district, where Wellstone became “tuteshi,” or “one of us,” as Range historian Pam Brunfeldt has noted) DFL Chair Justin Perpich (there’s a name!) implored those present that “the way to regain his energy and make sure we are moving forward is to focus on the economic populism.”

With the DFL facing a critical election this fall in which two Senate seats and the governorship are up for grabs, groups like the Wellstone Action Foundation are central for liberals and progressives seeking to win elections. A split in the DFL between progressive and moderate factions is something that the party can ill-afford. DFLers, no doubt, remember what happened the last time that was the case.

Edit: I neglected to publish the WAF’s February blog post describing its “Next Chapter,” which includes a statement that “An important next step in this process is that we’ve made the decision to undergo a full organizational rebrand. This process won’t happen overnight — we’ll spend deliberate and intentional time over the next year thinking about our story, our community, and our place in the movement as we write this new chapter together. This means we’ll have a new name, a new look, and most importantly: we’ll have an updated identity that reflects the fullness and depth of the thousands of hearts and minds that have influenced this work over the last decade.” Read the full statement here.

[1] Paul Wellstone, “A DFL Issue Oriented Education Foundation,” June 29, 1983, p. 1. Box 1, George Latimer Papers, Minnesota Historical Society.]

[2] Ibid, 1.

[3] Paul Wellstone, Memo to DFL members, December 26, 1984, p. 3. Box 16, “Strategic Planning and Vision, 1984-1990” folder, Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, Minnesota State Central Committee Records, Minnesota Historical Society.

[4] Paul Wellstone, Tom O’Connell, and Peter Rachleff, “Dear Friends,” August 18, 1985. Box 1, Peter J. Rachleff, Papers relating to Hormel strike support groups, Minnesota Historical Society.

[5] Paul Wellstone, “Turning rural anger into positive political action,” Minneapolis Star and Tribune, September 1, 1985, 7A.

[6] Charles Trueheart, “Paul Wellstone, Odd Man In,” Washington Post, November 14, 1990. Accessed at For a blow-by-blow account of Wellstone’s 1990 campaign, see Dennis J. McGrath and Dane Smith, Professor Wellstone Goes to Washington: The Inside Story of a Grassroots U.S. Senate Campaign (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995).

[7] Paul Wellstone to Lynn Anderson and Ray Bohn, attached to a memo from Bohn to Anderson, “DFL Communications Strategy,” December 12, 1988, pp. 3-4. Box 9, “DFL” folder, Governor Rudy Perpich Papers, Iron Range Research Center Manuscript Collections, Chisholm, MN.

Barnstorming the Midwest: Bloomington, Indiana

Between my trips to Saints Paul and Cloud and Iowa City, I presented or participated at three conferences relevant to various aspects of my dissertation: the Working Class Studies Association Conference (Bloomington, IN); and the back-to-back Midwestern History Association Conference and Agricultural History Society Annual Meeting (Grand Rapids, MI).

Having realized halfway in how long this post would be if I recapped all three conferences, I’ll focus first on the WCSA. I left Ames, Iowa, at about 8pm CT after my day of research and writing on the National Family Farm Coalition was done, rolling into Bloomington around 9am ET the next day and taking in the conference before heading to Black River Falls for a weekend getaway.

The drive across Iowa is not my favorite, but there’s a grace to the rolling hills of eastern Iowa before it gives way to the rage-inducing monotony of non-metro Illinois and Indiana or, worse, the drive through Chicagoland. It gave me, however, plenty of time to think about the research I’d done, the work I would be presenting, and exactly what made up the Midwest.

Working Class Studies Association

Where: Indiana University, Bloomington, IN
When: May 31 – June 3
Paper Title: “’From Farmhouse to Townhouse’: Bridging Rural-Urban Divides among Democratic Voters in the 1980s Midwest”

I should note, first and foremost, that I was able to attend this conference thanks to a generous $250 award from the WCSA Young Scholars and Activists Fellowship. Thank you to Dr. Michele Fazio and the entire WCSA board for this immense honor.

Joining a panel on “Organizing the Working Class in the Upper Midwest,” I had the opportunity to present my research on how Midwestern politicians like Tom Daschle, Paul Wellstone, and even Russ Feingold bridged rural-urban divides in their Senate campaigns, positioning themselves as champions of the working class. I argued that this “economic progressive populism” brought together rural, suburban, and urban interests alike in a successful coalition while downplayed social issues in favor of working-class solidarities. A brief feature from each politician:

  • South Dakota, 1986: Tom Daschle’s “Farmhouse to Townhouse” program (at its zenith in 1983-4) was designed to foster conversations between South Dakota farmers and urban congressmen around the nation, who were seen as the largest opponents of farm legislation. This resulted, during the peak of South Dakota Farm Crisis activism, in congressmen from urban California and Detroit visiting various cities in northeastern South Dakota for Daschle’s listening sessions with farmers.
  • Minnesota, 1990: Paul Wellstone remains the icon of progressivism in Minnesota, and that began not with his 1990 campaign but with his nearly two decades of reaching out to rural interest groups from miners on the Iron Range to packers at the Austin Hormel plant to dispossessed farmers in Groundswell, a rural advocacy group. Most notably, Wellstone articulated a need for understanding between those groups and more traditional “urban” voters in the Twin Cities and actually facilitated meetings between all four groups.
  • Wisconsin, 1992: Russ Feingold ran a “Wellstone Lite” campaign in 1992, running goofy TV spots in which he proclaimed there were “no skeletons in [his] closet” as he literally opened his home closet. The Middleton (Madison-area) legislator wrote his campaign pledges on his garage, fought for dairy regulations to defend farmers in southeastern Wisconsin, and built a coalition beyond just Madison and Milwaukee–which were becoming increasingly isolated in Wisconsin politics. I compared Feingold’s 1992 run to his 2010 run: the decrease in his share of the rural vote across western Wisconsin was stunning. But it’s a good reminder that at one point, Midwestern Democrats commanded coalitions of the working class that stretched across the rural-urban-suburban divide.

Because one of the three papers on our panel dropped unexpectedly, it was just me and Mara Fridell, a professor of sociology at the University of Manitoba. After learning that she was from Red Wing, MN (just an hour and a half down the Mississippi from Inver Grove Heights), I was even more stunned when I learned that we were born at the same hospital (albeit a few years apart)! Her paper titled “Working Class Solidarity: Immigration to the Midwest, Internationalism, and the Red-Green Politics of Midwestern Foresters in the Early 20th Century.” Exploring the ecosocialism of the Iron Range labor unions, especially in forestry, Dr. Fridell made a convincing case for the internationalism–rather than the insularity or nativism–of rural Minnesota, where labor solidarity syncretized Native traditions with socialist principles and ethnic identities. It was a fascinating paper and one which forces me to consider how I historicize the Iron Range into the 1970s.

Moreover, a question from the audience prompted me to continue to think about where race entered the conversation in places like Minnesota and Wisconsin. Were African-Americans part of the “working class,” or did they effectively constitute an “underclass” in society, taken for granted by politicians? My research into Vel Phillips’ papers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee implies that African-Americans in Milwaukee voted Democrat reliably but not overwhelmingly, rarely inspired to participate in state politics. That thesis needs a lot of work, though.

My favorite part of the conference, though, was Brown sociologist Josh Pacewicz’s keynote address on “Trumpism before Trump: Rust Belt Populism during the 2008 and 2012 Elections.” Dr. Pacewicz highlighted the decline of political institutions like labor unions and city government in two cities in Iowa, arguing that the decentralization of political authority (and, indeed, groups’ desire to be “outside” politics) laid the groundwork for the conditions which made Iowa ripe for Trumpian populism. A couple rambling questions from the audience aside, it was an incredibly insightful and thought-provoking argument which I hope to better historicize in my research on the Midwest.

The Beer

The big brewery to check out in Bloomington is Upland, just on the north end of town. While I wasn’t able to make it there, I had their wheat ale, which was a fine if unspectacular wheat that wanted for some citrus or something to add a little taste. I also managed to track down their Ship Hop Hooray kolsch, which was light and drinkable; definitely top 10 kolsch beers I’ve had. Best of all, though, the wheat ale came in one of these cool mason jars featuring the old buffalo mascot for the Hoosiers:

Perhaps this is the answer to the question of what a Hoosier is.

There was also a jersey with a patch commemorating Indiana’s appearance in the 1993 Poulan/WeedEater Independence Bowl (they lost 45-20 to Virginia Tech), which I took a picture of just because it’s Indiana in a bowl game:

Behind a display case at Nick’s English Hut, home to a great deal of IU memorabilia. No, I did not “sink the biz.”

While waiting for my hotel check-in time, though, I did walk downstairs to Function Brewing, right in the heart of downtown. Their math-themed offerings paired with a gourmet-looking menu which had people coming in right when they opened at 3pm, and I settled on a flight: their Row Red Rye ale, Kite Farmhouse Ale, Reflection American IPA, and Theorem Milk Stout. While the Reflection didn’t do a ton for me (I don’t know the last time I’ve had a truly good IPA), the other three had unique flavors which I really enjoyed. The Row had notes of orange peel, which added a citrus flavor to the maltiness of the red, the Kite had the nice spiciness emblematic of a complex farmhouse, and the Theorem was just a quality sweet offering. Give them a look when you’re in town!

My last stop was The Tap, a beer bar and brewpub in downtown Bloomington. Their Bluebeard Berliner Weisse tasted every bit the sour blueberry it was supposed to, but best of all, for me, was their Witch Finger black IPA. I love a nice blend of malt and hops, and it obliged.

What’s Next

After a brief trip to Black River Falls for a weekend celebrating my friend Kyle’s impending wedding, I’m off to Iowa City for a four-day research trip to look in-depth into the papers of Roxanne Conlin.

Past Trips

Saint Cloud and Saint Paul