Today in 2002: Senator Paul Wellstone dies in a plane crash

October 25, 2013

Today in Legal HistoryWe rarely cover deaths in our Today in Legal History series.  This is primarily because the event of the person’s death is not usually, in itself, a significant legal event.

This is not the case with the subject of today’s topic: the death of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone.

Wellstone died in a plane crash in Northern Minnesota on October 25, 2002 – 11 years ago today.

His death had several historical implications.

First, Paul Wellstone was a well-known senator because of his status as a leading spokesperson for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.  He was first elected to the Senate in 1990, defeating incumbent Republican Senator Rudy Boschwitz – the only incumbent in the Senate to lose that year.

Making Wellstone’s victory even more remarkable was the fact that he was outspent by Boschwitz by a seven to one margin.  Wellstone owed the success of his campaign to his strong grassroots support among young, lower class, and minority voters (along with several notable missteps by the Boschwitz campaign).

As a Senator, Wellstone took several notable positions.  As noted two weeks ago, Wellstone voted against the Iraq War Authorization; Wellstone also sponsored an amendment to the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (BCRA) that closed a loophole that had allowed non-profits to pay for late election season political ads from their general treasury fund.  This amendment was among those provisions of the BCRA struck down by the Supreme Court in 2010’s Citizens United v. FEC.

Wellstone defeated Boschwitz again in 1996 to secure his reelection, and was widely favored to win reelection in 2002 had it not been for his sudden death.  By the time of the tragic plane crash, Wellstone had a broad base of loyal followers, and he would have, in all likelihood, enjoyed a long political career had the plane crash not taken his life at age 58.

There were more immediate political implications from Wellstone’s death, however: because his seat was lost to Republican challenger Norm Coleman, the Republican Party gained control of the Senate with a 51 to 49 margin, marking the first time since 1929 that the Republican Party had controlled all three branches of government.

In addition, the nature of Wellstone’s memorial service was described by many as being overly political.  Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura “stormed out” of the service reportedly because of this political nature.  Purportedly as a consequence of Ventura’s feelings about the memorial service, he appointed Dean Barkley, founder and chair of Ventura’s own Independence Party of Minnesota to serve out the remainder of Wellstone’s term, instead of appointing a Democrat as originally planned.

Many of those familiar with Wellstone and his supporters weren’t terribly surprised by the character of the memorial; Wellstone was passionate about politics, and he evoked similar emotions in his supporters.  Many of his supporters remain strongly loyal to him and his ideals today.

Reverence for Wellstone’s ideals aren’t the only legacy sparked by his untimely death, though.  There is another that is marked by a great deal more controversy: the circumstances of the plane crash.

Namely, there are some circles that maintain that Wellstone was the victim of a political assassination.

The first reports of the crash blamed it on bad weather or icing, but there was no evidence to corroborate those claims.  The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) eventually concluded that the likely cause of the accident was “the flight crew’s failure to maintain adequate airspeed, which led to an aerodynamic stall from which they did not recover.”  In other words, the NTSB found that the pilots were both grossly incompetent in failing to maintain an adequate airspeed that essentially caused the plane to crash.

This story is disputed by those who claim that Wellstone was the target of political assassination.  Also noted in these claims is the account of Pat O’Reilly, a reportedly close friend of Paul Wellstone’s, who claims that Wellstone, in the presence of ten military veterans, intimated that then-Vice President Dick Cheney had threatened Wellstone with “serious ramifications in Minnesota” if he didn’t get on “their bandwagon,” and further that Wellstone should “stop sticking [his] nose into 9/11” (according to some accounts, Wellstone questioned the official story of the September 11 attacks).

The credibility of these claims, however, is often regarded at the same level as those claiming that the U.S. government had a hand in the planning and/or execution of the September 11 attacks.  Nevertheless, Wellstone’s death remains a source of significant controversy among those that adhere to these claims.

This controversy behind the circumstances of Wellstone’s untimely death, although especially persistent among some circles, continues to be only a small portion of the larger legacy formed in the wake of the tragedy.

Specifically, Senator Wellstone left behind a great many followers who were inspired by not only his political views but also how he expressed them and acted out his politics.

These followers continue to respect his ideals even today, 11 years after his death.