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Poverty, Parking, Politics and Paul Wellstone


by Gary Gordon
October 29, 2002

It wouldn’t surprise me if many people around the country had a Paul Wellstone story, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re writing or telling it as I write this.

He was that kind of person. A man of action you’d want to tell other people about.

Not action-hero. Hero of action.

He was the kind of person who took action and inspired you to take action. It was the rare person who would listen to him speak and then just walk away unmoved.

I met Wellstone twice, both times through a now-defunct L.A.-based organization called the Show Coalition. He was easily the most interesting, approachable person I’d ever met in the 8 or nine years of living room gatherings this group had-much more so than Bill Clinton, Gray Davis, Richard Gephardt and the rest.

He seemed wonderfully knowledgeable and wonderfully non-senatorial.

What I call a “pothole” politician-he wasn’t there to flash the grand utopian ideas, even if he had them: he was there to fix the potholes. He may have had a grand vision-most people who inspire us do, but he was nuts and bolts: the kids are hungry, they need food. These Cats are Fat: trim that.

I’m sure he had dreams, but he did not let his dreams become the sole extent of his action as so many seem to have done in the last couple of decades. He was willing to roll up his shirtsleeves and Contend.

I met him in Brentwood one year, and a few years later, maybe 1999, at a small living room gathering in Beverly Hills. And it was evident at both that he was not just their to raise funds; he was there to teach, to motivate.

Both times the focus of his talk was poverty in America. A subject that has not really been addressed since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society efforts in the 1960s.

But the second time I heard him, there was a wistfulness. He wondered aloud what had happened to the traditional liberal Democratic Party. He said although he was often described as a radical, he wasn’t. He was part of an historic tradition within the party. He talked about leaving the Senate and challenging Jesse Ventura for governor; he talked about leaving the Senate and going back to teaching.

The problems today are the same as many of the problems that were faced in the 60s, yet they were faced head-on then and they are not now, he declared. What happened?

Although it was a rhetorical question, I jumped in with a short comment about the dulling effect of the Reagan years combined with the unprecedented and ongoing centralization of the media and the lack of societal support for those who commit to an activist path.

I felt comfortable jumping in because his talk was more like that of a professor with a seminar group. And he responded like a professor, reading my nametag and saying “Gary has a point, but is that it? It may be part of it, but is there more? And what can we do?”

And he proceeded to continue his talk, with others responding now and then, as we discussed the nature of activism, of social change, of power, of speaking truth to power.

Afterward a group, including me, gathered around him, not really wanting to let him go, wanting to talk more, wanting a post-seminar seminar. After all, L.A. has plenty of restaurants, but where do you go to feed on ideas?

Perhaps it’s because I used to be in politics, perhaps it’s because I was wearing a coat and tie that night, having come from work; perhaps it’s because I love that element and tend to speak somewhat forcefully when I’m in it, like an experienced advocate. For whatever reason, someone asked what I was involved in.

“I work for the Main Street Merchants Association in Santa Monica, mostly on trying to solve the parking problems.”

Immediately the group around Wellstone split into two, with half of them forming around me.

“What can be done about that? The parking there is terrible!” several of them said, and I was suddenly uncomfortable. Wellstone was talking poverty, I was talking parking, and our circle of listeners was the same size.

“We’re trying to get the city to change its policies about the way the nearby beach lots are priced, so people will use those lots,” I said as quickly and succinctly as possible, not really wanting this conversation.

But parking in L.A. is a problem, I’d touched a nerve, so the conversation continued as I was pressed for details, and, like any activist or politician, was targeted for complaints.

“Why does it cost so much to park at the beach?”

“Why are the parking tickets so much?”

“One day I was walking back to my car…”

As the gathering broke up I walked over to Wellstone’s wife, Sheila, to say that I was happy she was there. Much of her work was in education, and so I told her that my dad had been a professor who worked to improve schools in the south during the 60s and 70s.

“You had quite a group around you,” she said. “Parking?”

I told her Main Street was mostly small businesses that needed an association and a lobbyist. “They have no representation. The Republicans don’t represent small business, the Democrats left them awhile ago when the DLC took over the party, and the Greens-well it seems like very few of them have ever been in business, so they don’t have a visceral sense of what it’s like to deal with a city planning department or meet a payroll at the end of the week.”

“Tell that to Paul,” she said.

The news of his death last week, and the death of his wife and daughter, hit hard. Similar to when King and RFK were killed.

Paul Wellstone was not a saint, and I’m not sure I ever got over the fact that he could have, as a Senator, responded to the Black Caucus and thrown the 2000 presidential election into the Congress.

But he was a good person. And it wasn’t just, as some of his eulogizers have said, that he was a man of conviction. It was the substance of his convictions and his willingness to wake up everyday and do what he could that made him a hero that will be missed.

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