MINNEAPOLIS — A memorial service that began as a poignant farewell to the late Sen. Paul Wellstone culminated Tuesday night in a furious series of partisan speeches, with Wellstone’s family and friends exhorting supporters to help his ballot replacement to victory next week.
The first eulogies were tender remembrances for the seven people killed along with Wellstone in a northern Minnesota plane crash Friday. So, too, were remarks for Wellstone, who had been locked in a difficult re-election battle with Republican Norm Coleman.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and one of Wellstone’s closest friends in the Senate, called him “the soul of the Senate.”
“Now we see an outpouring of grief, an admiration in this arena and all across the land, every bit as authentic as he was,” Harkin said. “It’s a tribute to him. But it’s also a tribute to the yearning for a politics that truly can be the noble profession of putting principle above the latest poll results.”
By the end of his talk, though, Harkin had shed his jacket and was imploring the crowd — some 15,000 people at a University of Minnesota sports arena — to work on Wellstone’s behalf. That likely means backing Walter Mondale, who is expected to take Wellstone’s ballot spot after a Democratic party meeting Wednesday.
“For Paul Wellstone, will you stand up and keep fighting for social justice? Say YES!” Harkin shouted. The crowd roared.
Rick Kahn, Wellstone’s friend and former student, whipped up the crowd before Harkin took the stage by adopting the late senator’s fiery speaking style.
He chopped the air with his hands, as Wellstone often did, and exhorted the crowd to keep Wellstone’s dream alive.
“A week from today, Paul Wellstone’s name will not be on the ballot,” Kahn said. “But there will be a choice just the same ... either keep his legacy alive, or bring it forever to an end!”
As the crowd erupted in a loud “No!” Kahn continued:
“If Paul Wellstone’s legacy in the Senate comes to an end just days after this unspeakable tragedy, our spirits will be crushed, and we will drown in a river of tears. We are begging you, do not let this happen.”
An overflow crowd of thousands gathered outside the arena to watch on giant video screens, and multitudes more watched and listened on statewide TV and radio to the ceremony for Wellstone; his wife Sheila, 58; his daughter Marcia Wellstone Markuson, 33; and campaign staffers Mary McEvoy, 49, Tom Lapic, 49, and Will McLaughlin, 23.
All were killed in a plane crash Friday in northern Minnesota. The plane’s two pilots, Richard Conry, 55, and Michael Guess, 30, also died.
Republicans were quick to criticize the partisan tone of the memorial’s final hour.