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Direct Access: Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.)

Wednesday, June 24, 1998

Minnesota's Paul Wellstone calls himself a "Hubert Humphrey senator." Mother Jones magazine says he's "the first 1960s radical elected to the U.S. Senate." The former college professor came to Washington in 1990 and has been a constant champion of liberal causes. He opposed recent legislation to curb welfare and wants to tie human rights assurances to China's Most Favored Nation trade status. In April, he was the first person to announce the formation of an exploratory committee for a potential 2000 presidential campaign.

Today, Sen. Wellstone answered users' questions live online. The transcript follows.

St. Paul, Minn: How is it possible that a state elect Paul Wellstone and Rod Grams as its two Senators? What does this suggest about the prospects for the Minnesota governor's race this fall?

Wellstone: So much of politics is timing, and I think that November of 1994 was a very different kind of climate in Minnesota and in our country than it was in 1990 when I was elected. As for the governor's race, I think it's going to be a very close race in Minnesota, but it's very hard to apply the Senate to the governor's race.


Washington, D.C.: In much media coverage about you, you are characterized as the last real liberal, tilting at windmills from the Senate floor. Regardless of whether one agrees with you, it seems like our electoral system produces too few people who are passionate about their politics. Why do think this is? Is it a problem with the two-party system? How do you feel about the American electoral system vs. the parliamentary concept of proportional representation?

Wellstone: First of all, I'm blessed with a lot of great people who work with me, and almost every day we're able to make a difference. I pride myself on being effective on issues such as children, education, jobs, health care, education, the environment and human rights. Luckily I don't have to just tilt at windmills, though I'd like to see the victories be much bigger. They're smaller victories, but they matter.

I think the biggest issue is not so much single-member district, winner-takes-all system. I think the biggest problem is the way in which money has come to dominate in politics. That to me is by far the biggest problem in preventing a lot of people from running for office. All too often money determines who gets to run, who wins, what issues get discussed, what legislation passes through Congress, and undercuts democracy.


Fairfax, Va.: Do you think that Clinton should be received in Tiananmen square? What should be Clinton's priorities while he is in China?

Wellstone: I think it's a real mistake to be received in Tiananmen Square. Nine years ago, students were murdered there by this government and my fear is that the symbol of the president's visit there will be so powerful that it will be used by the government and will overwhelm everything else. I think we should be engaged with China, but I believe the president has to be much more forceful and outspoken on human rights than he has been.


Indianapolis, Ind.: Do you think it would help save Social Security to make the payrole tax (FICA) progressive and remove the cap on income subject to the tax?

Wellstone: I think this is certainly a proposal that I'm going to seriously consider. I think the proposals to privatize Social Security are profoundly mistaken. This is a system that has worked very well, it's all about children and parents, parents and children. It's a kind of social contract that we have in our country. And the privatizers are making proposals which will lead to serious cuts in benefits to the elderly or will shift more of the burden to their children, who will have to figure out what to do if their parents can't pay. Privatizing social security will lead to huge fees for Wall Street, but it will be a terrible mistake for our country. We can modify Social Security, make the needed changes, without dismantling Social Security.


Los Angeles, Calif.: Do you honestly belive you have a reasonable chance at winning the presidential election in 2000, or would you be making the run to put certain items on the Democratic agenda.

Wellstone: I certainly want to put a whole set of issues back on the political debate screen. I want to raise the question over and over again, "How can we be at the peak of our economic performance, and we're still being told we can't provide good education for every child, health care for every citizen, good jobs that pay decent wages?" Here we are, at the peak of our economic performance, and yet today one out of every four children under the age of three is growing up poor. One out of every two children of color. It's not acceptable, and I believe we can do much better as a nation. So I certainly intend to raise these questions, and I want this to be a campaign that's the opposite of cynical, that's honest, great grassroots organizing, lots of volunteers, lots of excitement, many students and young people helping, all of this is key.

And yes, I do honestly believe I have a chance. And this will be a serious effort to win.


Falls Church, Va.: How do you feel about an expanding system of residential and/or charter schools?

Wellstone: I think that it is really healthy to focus on different ways of teaching and learning – the more creativity the better. I say this as someone who was a teacher for 20 years before becoming a senator. I think that schools within schools, magnet schools, alternative schools, and charter schools within the public system all contribute toward more creativity and more exciting education. I think the voucher system, which takes resources out of the public system, represents a step backward, not a step forward.

In many ways, really my passion is children and education. And I think that really the focus in our country should be on how we can do better for young people who are, after all, 100% of our future. Part of that is education, but part of that is giving families the kind of support they need. I'm all for family values. But that means you value families. I want to have a real debate about family values, and a real debate must focus on how can we help, provide the kind of support that a parent or parents need to have more time with their children, to make sure there is child care if both are working, to make sure there are decent jobs that they can support families on, to make sure there is a good education for kids. To make sure that there are positive things for young people to do in the community. This is the most important challenge – to do well by young people and to do well by families.

The biggest mistake we're making as a nation right now. We've abandoned too many young people, and we've devalued the work of adults who work with young people. And I think that's a tragic mistake that needs to be corrected.


Mountain Iron, Minn.: What was the most valuable lesson you learned from your poverty tour?

Wellstone:
The first is that there are heroes and heroines in communities all across the country, who do wonderful work. And they should be famous. There are so many people I've met who should be famous for the work they do. There are so many problems -- inadequate housing, substance abuse, inadequate health care, jobs, inadequate education – that can be best solved at the community level. I really am a strong believer in community-based solutions in our country. But that's if we're willing as a nation to get the resources we need into the community.

Second thing I learned is that everywhere I went – North, South, East, and West, rural and urban, what I heard more than anything else was, "We want to be able to find a good job, earn a decent living, and be able to give our children the care we know they need and deserve." And that's the goal for the vast majority of Americans.


Annandale, Va.: You have championed many causes and have won over some Republican detractors. Whom, if anyone, do you admire on the other side of the aisle?

Wellstone: There are a number of people on the other side of the aisle that I really admire and feel close to. Mark Hatfield from Oregon was a great senator, a real giant. Nancy Kassebaum, from Kansas, was a very very decent person and good senator. Alan Simpson from Wyoming – I appreciated his independence and outspokenness.

Pete Domenici of New Mexico we don't always agree on all issues, but we've done some work on mental health issues.

Dan Coats from Indiana is someone that I have a lot of respect for and consider a friend. Wants to focus more on empowerment of people, dignity of people, get people to help make things happen in their own communities.

John McCain is another that I'm close to. We've done a lot of work together.

Thank you for the question. It's always nice to be able to work with people even though you don't agree on all issues.


Richmond, Va.: Is there any possibility of getting meaningful tobacco legislation out of Congress in this term or the next term?

Wellstone: I don't know about next term – I think the chances are very slim that we will pass any. If "meaningful" means is dramatically reducing the demand and the addiction of young people to tobacco, I'm skeptical. Again, you see the power of money and a very strong interest group. The only way to take on this money politics is to counter with really strong citizen politics. We have to get more citizens involved in public affairs. And if we're able to do that, then next session, we'll get the job done.


Washington, D.C.: Do you think that the Senate will budge on the James Hormel nomination?

Wellstone: I've been quite involved in this, and have been really pushing hard, because I think it is unconscionable that his nomination has not been brought to the Senate floor. James Hormel is eminently qualified to be ambassador to Luxembourg. He's had a distinguished career in law, in business, in philanthropy, and I see no reason that anyone should oppose him. My concern is that this may be an example of discrimination against someone because of their sexual orientation. He is a gay man. And I hope this is not the case, but we need an honest discussion on the floor of the Senate, and we need to have an up or down vote. The Senate Majority Leader has given no indication of a willingness to bring James Hormel's name up for Senate-floor confirmation. So I'm going to continue to push very hard.

We should judge people by the quality of their character and their vision and their leadership ability. That should be the only test.


Hyde Park, N.Y.: What should we use the budget surplus for?

Wellstone: I think the single most important goal for our country, the first investment, should be in the health, skills, intellect and character of our children. Our goal should be to make sure that in our country, every kindergarten student comes to school ready to learn. She knows how to spell her name, he knows the alphabet, she knows colors, shapes and sizes, he's been read to widely, and they're excited to learn. We should be able to achieve that goal as a nation.


Chapel Hill, N.C.: Mother Jones magazine called you a 60s radical. What did you learn as a student here during that time that has been useful to you in Washington?

Wellstone:
What I leaned in the '60s in Chapel Hill was, first of all, I learned to really appreciate the courage and the skill and ability of ordinary citizens who have the capacity to make tremendous changes in our country. Because that's what the Civil Rights movement was about. We had leaders like Dr. King and Malcolm X and they were great leaders. But there were so many people I met in Chapel Hill who exhibited extraordinary courage and who changed our country for the better. So I continue to believe in people.

And the other learning – the formal learning – I certainly had a good formal education in the political science department at the University of North Carolina.

And our two children were born there. So I learned that being a parent is serious stuff. Having children at a very young age changed my life all for the better.


Harmony, Minn.: What can Washington do to help keep our young people from moving out of our small towns and rural areas? It is becoming more difficult to support rural school systems and merchants because young people move to cities. A way of life is disappearing.

Wellstone: I think, first of all, I still look at agriculture as the foundation of our rural economy. And right now, we don't have fair prices for family farmers. So it's key to do much better for family farmers.

The second thing has to do with quality of life. Young people have to think about can they make it as a family farmer, can I make it as a small business person, can I find a good job or affordable housing.

Another quality of life issue: Not just can I stay in the community, but do I want to stay there? Are there going to be good schools, is there going to be good health care, is there going to be a good environment?

I emphasize the three E's – education, entrepreneurship and empowerment – with the idea that people in rural America, there's much more of an understanding that we can make positive things happen. Too many students are being told in rural communities that to get ahead, you need a good education. But what is meant by that is so you can get out of here. As opposed to so you can come back to our community and make positive things happen here.

I have a real love for greater Minnesota. But these are the challenges that are out there.


Vienna, Va.: What ever happened to your "infamous" green bus which was your trademark during your first Senate race?

Wellstone: A quick story – at the Minnesota State Fair, more people ask me, "Where's the bus?" than about any issue. And the bus is now in a Greyhound Bus museum in Hibbing, Minn. It needs tender loving care.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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