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Louisiana's Loss 

Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone's work crossed state boundaries, say local activists.

"I think that there's a culture of popular dissent that went up and down that river," says University of Minnesota history professor Hy Berman, explaining the similarities between Louisiana and Minnesota politics. Sure, Minnesota is usually known for clean-cut politics and Louisiana is known for, well, the opposite. But, Berman says, both states share a long history of populism, of looking out for the little guy.

This may explain, says Berman, why people in the city of New Orleans are mourning the death of a little guy from far upriver. Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone died last week in a plane crash in his home state, near a small mining town called Eveleth. Seven others, including his wife and daughter, died with him.

Wellstone had all of Huey Long's original "share-the-wealth" appeal, minus the opportunism and the bigotry, says Berman. "Wellstone was the first genuine populist senator to serve in the Senate since the mid-1940s," he says.

Wellstone's personal style was a mix of Energizer Bunny and 1960s intellectual. A former college professor, he was short and wiry and delivered barn-burning stump speeches across the country. "Wellstone didn't pay attention to state boundaries when it came to helping the poor and the downtrodden," Berman says.

Last week, it was clear that Wellstone's influence had made it this far downriver. During a peace rally in Jackson Square the day after the crash, everyone stopped for a moment of silence, reports Loyola Law Clinic director and longtime social-justice advocate Bill Quigley.

"Wellstone's passing hurts progressive people everywhere," Quigley says. "He stood out to people in Louisiana as an example of what might be possible in the electoral system. His was a voice for campaign finance reform instead of big bucks, peace instead of war, economic justice instead of 'let the market decide,' reform of the criminal justice system, and many other social justice causes."

David Utter, director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, recalls that, back in 1998, they were desperately seeking help with the wretched conditions at what was then called the Tallulah Correctional Center for Youth. (The facility is still open, but it's been re-named.) "Wellstone was the only one who responded," Utter recalls.

In July 1998, Wellstone made a visit to the Tallulah facility that was heavily covered in the national media. Later, he held a Washington, D.C. press conference with a 16-year-old child named Travis, who had spent 18 months in Tallulah for stealing a bicycle. "Travis is a classic Tallulah case," says Utter. "Here was a kid who was developmentally disabled, incarcerated for a low-level non-violent offense. And his experience at Tallulah was unfortunately all too typical. He was beaten by guards, targeted by other kids and by all accounts just terrorized during his stay there."

Wellstone continued to be worried about Travis and the other kids he met, Utter says. "For about a year or two after his visit, he would call every few months and ask, 'How were the kids I spoke with?'"

When things didn't improve, Wellstone demanded that the Department of Justice investigate. "A year ago," Wellstone said, "I visited this facility, and I know first-hand the problems there and the danger that these children face daily."

"Paul's concern was for the kids," says Utter. "The Senate is a diminished institution and the United States is a diminished country as a result of his loss."

Sara Woodard, executive director of the Mental Health Association of New Orleans, also recalls Wellstone's visit to Tallulah. "Louisiana was in the forefront, still is unfortunately, as far as incarcerating children with mental illnesses and not assessing their problems or treating them. And Wellstone was so passionate about it. About children being beaten or pepper-sprayed or inadequately fed or clothed in prison.

"We still have the problem," Woodard adds. "And we have no Wellstone."

In his efforts on behalf of those with mental illness, Wellstone reached out to senators on both sides of the aisle. In 1998, he partnered with Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu to pass an amendment to require mental health treatment in federally funded juvenile and adult correctional facilities. "I thank Senator Wellstone for bringing before the Senate what I think is a real problem in our nation," Landrieu said then. (Landrieu could not be reached for comment for this story.)

Wellstone, motivated partly because his brother suffered from mental illness, also focused on mental-health parity, which requires insurance companies and HMOs to cover certain mental illnesses on a par with physical illness. Along with Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Wellstone wrote the first Mental Health Parity Act. It was passed in 1996.

"Mental-health parity started at the national level and then one by one the states have taken on parity at a local level," Woodard says.

Wellstone's most recent national fight was for comprehensive parity, which would treat all mental illness. "Louisiana passed [partial] parity several years ago, covering 13 disorders," says Woodard. "[Wellstone] helped start that movement."

In the early 1990s, when Paul Wellstone first introduced the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), he was subject to ridicule, says Merni Carter, executive director of the Louisiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "People were making fun of him," she remembers. "They said things like 'That will never pass' and 'If you have a Violence Against Women Act, why don't you have a Violence Against Men Bill?'"

Wellstone persevered, urged forward by his wife, Sheila, who became a nationwide expert on domestic violence. The resulting act, passed in 1994, has brought "unbelievable amounts" of funding to Louisiana, says Carter. Among the programs funded by VAWA money were outreach offices in 25 parishes that were totally unserved, says Carter. "That's money coming through VAWA, which the Wellstones can take credit for, Paul and Sheila both."

The work continued on, Carter says. Even within the last few weeks, she says, the Wellstones had made sure that the recently passed Department of Defense authorization bill did two things -- funded victim advocates and ensured confidentiality for battered women on military bases.

"Paul Wellstone is one of the few senators who had the courage to speak up," says Dr. Dale Johnson, who along with his wife, Dr. Bonnie Johnson, wrote the book High Stakes: Children, Testing, and Failure in American Schools, about their experiences teaching in a small Louisiana town.

Wellstone himself had a mild learning disability that made it very difficult for him to take tests. "But the main focus of Wellstone's message was that high-stakes tests discriminate in favor of children who go to affluent schools in well-to-do neighborhoods and against children who go to schools that are not funded sufficiently," Johnson says. Wellstone called high-stakes testing "reform on a tin-cup budget," Johnson says, because it didn't put enough money into closing the gap in investment between poor and rich schools.

Wellstone sometimes told the story of how two of his fellow senators had introduced an amendment mandating "an end to social promotion" that everyone thought would pass. In response, Wellstone added an amendment to modify theirs, saying that the provisions would "not apply to any child who had not had proper childhood education, had not had the access to Title I, special ed and bilingual education which they deserved, or had not been taught by a fully qualified teacher." After a lengthy debate, his amendment lost -- but so did the amendment to end social promotion.

Public discussions like this, says Johnson, benefit Louisiana -- a state that suffers from "the most draconian" of high-stakes testing coupled with the nation's highest rates of child poverty.

"We had probably 500 people at this AFL-CIO meeting and Paul Wellstone brought them all to their feet in a big roar," recalls Robert "Tiger" Hammond. "He was a little short stack of dynamite."

Hammond is president of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO Central Labor Council and the business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), Local 130. Wellstone spoke on the Senate floor about Hammond's co-horts at the Avondale shipyard workers -- IBEW Local 733.

"Paul Wellstone came from the old school," Hammond says. "He knew what it was to work, you know, give your blood, sweat and tears every day. He saw his grandpa and father put kids through college and work two and three jobs. He said that, by God, if there's anything he wants to do is to make sure that all workers in this great United States of America are treated with dignity and respect.

"The tragedy is that this man worked tirelessly and endlessly on our labor issues. Issues that affect not just organized labor and unions, but all working people -- the 40-hour workweek with overtime after 40, minimum wage, prevailing wage. We all are going to dearly and sorely miss Paul Wellstone across this nation."

Wade Rathke is one of the founders of ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and chief organizer of the New Orleans ACORN and of Local 100, Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Rathke met Wellstone decades ago, he says, when both were organizing against power lines and power plants. "From that point on," says Rathke, "he has consistently been a friend to me personally and to our work. So I took his loss very seriously on many levels."

Wellstone followed his conscience, not approval ratings, says Rathke. "He was a very clear and uncompromised voice around low-and moderate-income families. Paul was not a person cowed by polling. He was willing to stand for what he believed. What should have been a lesson to so many is that when you stand for what you believe, people accept you that way. There's an integrity there."

And nobody, absolutely nobody had a network of volunteers and the door-to-door field operation that Wellstone did, says Rathke. "Too many times, people worry about how much money they can throw in the media the last number of days to get their vote. Paul was old-school, he was shoe leather, he was somebody who rolled up their sleeves and did the work. And people responded and worked with him and for him.

"It will be a while before we see the likes of Paul Wellstone."


CORRECTIONS: In last week's column by John Maginnis, an incorrect Web address was given for the Public Affair Research Council of Louisiana; the correct address is www.la-par.org. Also, in last week's Fall Restaurant Guide, the hours or Dante's Kitchen were incorrectly reported; the restaurant is open for lunch and dinner daily, including brunch on Saturday and Sunday. Additionally, Crustacean's & More is located in Gentilly, not in Faubourg Marigny as it was listed. Finally, Bull's Corner features wine tastings on Tuesday, not Thursday as listed. Gambit Weekly regrets the errors.
click to enlarge DANIEL CORRIGAN
  • Daniel Corrigan
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