BOSTON – A plane crash nearly two years ago silenced Minnesota’s Senator Paul Wellstone, who often stood alone in the well of the U.S. Senate hammering Bush administration policies and defending affirmative action, peace, civil liberties, and the rights of working families.

As the Democratic National Convention was poised to open here, Jobs with Justice, a national coalition of labor, faith-based, student and community groups, hosted a living tribute to Wellstone on July 25. Hundreds filled the historic Old West Church to tackle the question, “What must the Democratic Party do to live up to the progressive vision of Paul Wellstone?”

“Paul had the courage to stand the pain that comes with standing for something and not fall for anything,” said United Steelworkers of America union International President Leo Gerard. “That’s what the Democratic Party needs right now. He gave people a reason to fight, to hope.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), another panel member, cast the lone vote in Congress against Bush’s Iraq war. Turning her eyes toward Nov. 2, Lee called for “Wellstone Democratic Clubs” to mobilize neighborhoods into the political process to re-order national resources. To cheers, she demanded the presence of international election monitors this November “to prevent the election from being stolen.”

Many in the audience were students at Camp Wellstone, a workshop conducted in Boston for prospective candidates and campaign workers conducted by Wellstone’s campaign manager, Jeff Blodgett, also on the panel. Since its founding in 2002, Wellstone Action has held 34 “camps,” training 4,000 new activists and fielding 50 progressive candidates in the 2004 election cycle. Graduates are currently working in the swing states of Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida.

Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.) pointed out that too many liberals, including himself, voted for “welfare reform” in 1996, a legislative measure that has plunged families deeper into poverty. He praised Wellstone as the lone voice defending welfare at the time. He charged the Democratic Party leadership with being too quick to compromise with the GOP, and that such compromises have led to the erosion of the Democratic Party’s support at its base.

Boston City Councilor Chuck Turner quickly jumped in, igniting the audience with a clarion call for popular direct action to ensure accountability from a Kerry administration. “We need Kerry there and we need to be there to purge the cancer (of the Bush administration) from the soul of the body politic,” he said.

When Horace Small, the moderator, pooh-poohed the importance of trade in this election, Jim Hightower, author and radio personality, nearly jumped out of his seat.

“Tell that to Texas farmers who are losing their farms or workers who have lost their jobs to NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement),” Hightower said. “Who the hell elected the WTO (World Trade Organization)? Right now, in Washington, there are too many 5-watt bulbs sitting in 100-watt sockets. The people are revolting – in the best sense. I think we are going to get George.”

Confessing to once being a Republican, columnist Arianna Huffington reminded the assembly of all the dirty tricks and disgusting tactics that are on the horizon as November nears. Saying that “Mobilization is the key,” she proposed reaching out to the 50 percent of the eligible electorate that stayed home in 2000. “If we are able to just energize 10 percent of those voters, we win.”

The program included the presentation of awards to two attorneys, Julie Patino and Nadine Cohen, both of whom have fought difficult battles to protect affirmative action and voting rights of Massachusetts residents and immigrants. Other panelists included Al Franken, media personality, noted Columbia professor Frances Fox Piven and Anna Burger, vice president of the Service Employees International Union.

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