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Wellstone-style campaigns live on

Mark Ritchie's involvement in public policy goes back years, but he never wanted to run for public office.

That is, until U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone died in an airplane crash five years ago Thursday (Oct. 25).

"When Paul was killed ... it forced a lot of people to ask the question: 'What are we doing with our lives?'" Minnesota's first-term secretary of state said as the crash's fifth anniversary neared.

Wellstone's death not only forced Ritchie to question his future, but presented him with an answer via Camp Wellstone, an intense campaign training program that convinced him to seek office.

"I said I could do this, I should do this," said Ritchie, a Democrat. "And there were other people just like me, who also weren't politicians, who weren't on this path, who were willing to kind of jump in together."

Camp Wellstone is the most prominent legacy left after Paul and Sheila Wellstone, their daughter Marcia Wellstone Markuson and campaign aides Mary McEvoy, Tom Lapic, and Will McLaughlin, along with two pilots, died on Oct. 25, 2002, a chilly Friday morning, as they prepared to land at Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport.

Wellstone's death 11 days before the election and a subsequent memorial-service-turned-political-rally affected the 2002 election in ways political observers still debate. But there is no debate that the crash continues to affect politics across the country since an organization known as Wellstone Action sprang up from the senator's closest supporters in the months following his death. It continually expands to train thousands of political activists from coast to coast.

To date, more than 15,000 candidates, campaign workers and community activists have received the training. Nearly 100 have been elected to offices in 20 states.

Three members of Congress are Camp Wellstone graduates -- Tim Walz of southern Minnesota, along with congressmen in Iowa and New York. Twenty graduates serve in the Minnesota House, with eight in the state Senate. Other graduates start with school board and city council campaigns.

Many graduates say they probably would not have been elected if not for what they learned at one of the camps.

"People come for the skills it takes to win campaigns," said Jeff Blodgett, who heads Wellstone Action after managing the Democratic senator's campaigns.

Wellstone Action has been involved in several efforts to honor the Wellstones, and works to promote a Wellstone-inspired mental health parity bill making its way through Congress, but it is the training program that best maintains the Wellstone legacy.

Blodgett discussed Wellstone Action in downtown St. Paul's Paul and Sheila Wellstone Elementary School recently, shortly after he was honored on Wellstone Day.

Blodgett said Camp Wellstone programs help produce "a new wave of leaders."

"There wasn't a lot of good to come out of that crash," said Blodgett, a long-time Wellstone friend. However, upon reflection, he said that he did realize the senator's death inspired a lot of people "to step forward."

There are other campaign schools, but the 2.5-day Camp Wellstone -- which has been held in nearly 40 states -- is the only one teaching grass roots politics like Wellstone's campaigns.

Every Camp Wellstone emphasizes Wellstone's philosophy of involving lots of ordinary citizens in campaigns.

While billed as nonpartisan, few Republicans attend the camps. Some independents and third-party candidates join the majority Democrats.

The camps teach everything from fundraising to how to deal with reporters. Some of the work involves role-playing, which first-term North Dakota Sen. Jim Pomeroy of Fargo said helped him.

"We did a lot of things in role playing, starting out with ringing doorbells," Pomeroy said, and how to deal with voters.

A retired pastor, Pomeroy said that he had been a Democratic-NPL official, but still learned a lot from the camp.

Assistant Minnesota House Majority Leader Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, said the camp does a good job of delivering Wellstone's essence to would-be politicians.

While taking a political science class from Wellstone at Carlton College, Moe first began asking questions about his place in the world. But he did not get involved in politics until Wellstone died.

Like Ritchie and others, when Wellstone died Moe began thinking about public service and signed up for Camp Wellstone.

"I wasn't the same political ideology as many of the people there ... and yet it was such a powerful experience, primarily for me in the tools that it taught -- the fundamental of grass roots campaigning," Moe said.

If the camp did not make the full difference in Moe unseating incumbent Republican Rep. Doug Fuller, it gave him the tools to do so.

"At that point, I didn't have the tools because I didn't know how to do it," Moe said. "The key for me was learning how to mobilize and organize volunteers. How do you assemble a group of people ... and actually get this random group of people organized into a political force?"

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.