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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Paul Wellstone: Unabashed Liberal

Air Date: Week of

Minnesota Congressman Paul Wellstone is well known for his environmental protectionist voting record, but that's just what's upsetting some citizens in his district who feel protections are too often restrictive and imposed on the federal level. Mary Stucky reports from St. Paul on how Wellstone's strong pro-environmental voting record may affect his re-election bid this November.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. In their fight to keep control of the US Senate, Republicans have picked a large if not easy target in Minnesota. Freshman Democrat and former college professor Paul Wellstone is an unabashed Liberal, friend of the environment, and a vocal defender of Welfare and abortion rights. His opponent, the man he unseated 6 years ago, is moderate Republican Rudy Boschwitz. And while the stakes may be national, perhaps the most intense issue is local: how much protection is enough protection of a popular wilderness area in the northern part of the state? Mary Stucky has our story.

(Cowbells amidst a cheering crowd)

STUCKY: At the Minnesota State Fair this year, there were the usual booths selling hot dogs and cotton candy. But next to these were some selling a commodity of a different sort. Political candidates. The 2 men running for US Senate stood in front of their campaign booths at the fair: the perfect opportunity to meet and greet the voters.

WELLSTONE: Hi! Nice to meet you, Paul, and your first name?

WOMAN #1: Sandra.

WELLSTONE: From where?

WOMAN #1: Minneapolis.

WELLSTONE: Thank you for -- thanks for waiting in line.

WOMAN #1: Certainly.

WELLSTONE: I appreciate your being here.

WOMAN #2: We're from Columbia Heights, we just want to say keep up your good work. You have our vote.

WELLSTONE: Thanks, you guys, it means a lot.

STUCKY: Incumbent Paul Wellstone is running his first campaign to hold onto his US Senate seat. Wellstone is one of the most liberal members of Congress and Republicans have targeted him in a high-stakes, high-profile race against the man he upset in 1990: former 2-term Republican Senator Rudy Boschwitz.

BOSCHWITZ: What's your name?

WICK: Gunnar Wick. Gunnar Wick. Swedish name.

BOSCHWITZ: Is that right? G-U-N-N-A-R, nice to meet you, Gunnar.

WICK: Nice to see ya.

BOSCHWITZ: What's your name?

LORUS: Jim Lorus.

BOSCHWITZ: Hello, Jim, nice to meet you.

STUCKY: The issues range in this race from Welfare reform to taxes, but at the state fair Minnesotans also expressed strong opinions about the environment.

WOMAN #3: I come from a background where I feel it's entirely important to protect whatever we have environmentally. And I feel the candidates that we vote for have to encompass those beliefs.

(Cowbells and shouting fade out)

STUCKY: The candidate for this voter is Paul Wellstone. Wellstone has come to embody an environmental agenda as represented by the Sierra Club and League of Conservation Voters. Organizations that have given him a nearly perfect voting record. Wellstone serves on the Senate's Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He's worked on many environmental issues, but is best known for his fight against opening up Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling.

BELLAIRS: I think had Wellstone not been in the Senate we would be seeing oil exploration going on in that last million-acre wilderness up there.

STUCKY: Keith Bellairs, who's chair of the Sierra Club's Minnesota Political Committee, says Wellstone was one of the most reliable opponents of the Conservative environmental agenda.

BELLAIRS: From the very beginning the very first regulatory reform so-called bills, which proposed stealth attacks on the EPA and other environmental protections, he held firmly to his position. As I say, in the last couple of years, he has had a 100% rating in key environmental votes.

STUCKY: Wellstone is fast becoming a Congressional leader on environmental issues. During an interview on a late summer day in the back yard of his St. Paul home, Wellstone recalled what he and a small group of Liberals told their fellow Democrats in the early days of the 104th Congress.

WELLSTONE: You know, to be silent about this agenda, which is so extreme, silence would be betrayal. And I remember we were talking about environmental protection, and we were saying look, people didn't vote for a dirty water bill, they didn't vote to gut wetlands protection. This is what they voted for. And if you stop this now, if you're worried about re-election, so help us. Come 1996 you will be on the right side. I think the first evidence of the people in the country turning away from Speaker Gingrich and others actually was on environmental protection.

STUCKY: But Wellstone's environmental activism in Washington managed to make a good number of enemies back home in Minnesota. People like Todd Indehar, President of Conservationists with Common Sense. Indehar says regulations are much too concentrated in Federal hands.

INDEHAR: Our position is, is that the best way is not simply command and control, central Federal Government management. And the reason we don't feel that's the best is because first of all, it's not worked very well in our area. It limits public involvement to the people who have access to the policy makers in Washington. There's no question that, you know, as I get stopped on the street in my role in this issue, you know, I get a lot of feedback from a lot of people. And it tends to be running strongly anti-Paul Wellstone.

STUCKY: And indeed, that anti-Wellstone sentiment is expressed by some voters, including this couple, hovering around Boschwitz's campaign booth at the State Fair.

(Cowbells and background cheers)

MAN: The environmental issues matter, but I think they've gone overboard, you know. When you have the government taking away a guy's farm because he killed some kangaroo rat I think it's time to rewrite some of the environmental --

WOMAN: Or you wait 3 days to save a young man that's out in the wilderness because they don't want to disturb with the helicopter the foliage. Yeah, that's too far.

STUCKY: These are the voters republican Rudy Boschwitz is out to attract. Boschwitz is something of an environmental moderate. As a US Senator in the 80s, Boschwitz had about a 50% rating from environmental groups like the League of Conservation Voters. He says environmental safeguards are necessary only up to a point.

BOSCHWITZ: There's an enormous amount of duplication. If you are a property owner you have to deal with 3 or 4 state agencies, 3 or 4 Federal agencies, often don't have use of the land that you have owned, often for generations. It's very hard to cope with particularly for property owners, and their rights are really being trampled upon in many cases.

STUCKY: One environmental issue, perhaps the most divisive in Minnesota history, has resurfaced this year. It involves a boundary water's canoe area wilderness, an area of roughly a million acres along the Minnesota-Ontario border. It is the only lakeland wilderness in the nation, and in 1978 legislation imposed restrictions on recreational activities in the area, especially involving the use of motorized vehicles. Environmentalists support the measure as a way to protect a pristine wilderness, but it has long rankled resort owners and sportsmen, who rely on the wilderness for their living. They're supporting a new bill, which would loosen the restrictions on motorized vehicles. Rudy Boschwitz supports the bill. Paul Wellstone is against it. Wellstone is in something of a political bind over the issue, which pits 2 of his biggest supporters against each other: environmentalists and northern Minnesota Democrats. In an attempt to find a middleground, Wellstone has proposed mediation.

WELLSTONE: Around the country, a lot's changed since 1978, when we had this pitched battle in the state of unbelievable bitterness. There's been some very good alternative dispute resolution, including on land use issues, on environmental disputes, where people come together. They think they hate each other's guts, they've never talked to each other, and they see whether or not there are any places that they can find agreement. We're doing that now.

STUCKY: Wellstone's mediation process is expected to continue through the election and neither side is happy with the plan. Republicans call it a dodge and are taking advantage of that especially up north. That's where the Republican Senatorial Committee has targeted its attack ads on Wellstone.

(Music background with man's voice-over: "Paul Wellstone won't listen to us. Bureaucrats from Washington telling us what to do? That's unbelievably liberal. But sadly, that's Paul Wellstone. Call. Telephone your...")

STUCKY: Of course, liberal environmental groups aren't going to let Republicans control the airwaves. They're expected to spend considerable sums for their own ads attacking Boschwitz. In fact, in 1990 national environmental groups helped the underdog Wellstone at a time when he needed it most, and according to Steven Shier, chair of the political science department at Minnesota's Carlton College, 1996 won't be any different.

SHIER: This fall you're going to see so much outside money coming into this state, 'cause this is a hotly competitive race. You'll see environmental groups. I think you'll see labor. I'm sure you'll see a number of business organizations running ads for and against Wellstone and Boschwitz. It will be competitive, it will be a very cluttered environment and a very negative environment. I think the public will probably get fed up with it.

STUCKY: So far it's difficult to gauge the effect of the media campaigns on voters. Polls show a tight race. According to the latest numbers just one percentage point separates the 2 candidates. And in the remaining weeks, both sides expect a bitter fight, with considerable national attention focused on Minnesota. By electing Rudy Boschwitz, Republicans hope to maintain their edge in the Senate, and knock out Paul Wellstone, who is emerging as one of the clearest environmental voices on Capitol Hill. A second term would only enhance his position, especially if Democrats recapture Congress and re-elect the President. For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Stucky in St. Paul.



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