Mr. President, I wish to speak this afternoon to honor the memory of Paul and Sheila Wellstone. Today marks 15 years since we lost Paul and Sheila, their daughter Marcia, and staff members Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy, and Will McLaughlin. It is hard to believe because Paul is such a memorable and incredible person. It's hard to believe it's been 15 years since we lost all of them. For me, as so many Minnesotans, it is impossible to forget the moment that we first heard about their plane going down. It's impossible to forget the wait to get the final news that there were no survivors. That's how much Paul and Sheila meant to the people of our state.
I hear my own special reminder every day. First from the employees of the Capitol who were around back when Paul graced these hallways. They remember him because he treated everyone with dignity, whether it was the tram operator or the elevator operator or the police at the front door. He treated them like they were senators. I also have the flags in my office from his Senate office, and they are in my office. And every day it's a reminder for me of Paul and all he did for the people of our state.
Paul and Sheila were always on the move. They were full of joy. They were persistent in their fight against injustices, small and large. During his lifetime as an educator, as an activist and as a United States Senator, Paul Wellstone touched the lives of people throughout Minnesota and across the country. And that's because his philosophy was simple. A lot of people, he said, would have paid to represent them in Washington, but he was going to represent the other people. As he said in one of his famous campaign ads, he wasn't there to represent the Rockefellers. He was there to represent the little fellers.
So you go to any local mental health group, and they remember Paul. You go to any Somali event, and they remember Paul. You go to any community on the Iron Range in Northern Minnesota, they remember Paul. Both the man and what he did.
Paul is my friend and mentor. He told me I should run for office. And like he did with so many others, he taught me that politics should have a purpose. He also taught me how to campaign on city buses. So this is how we would do it. On Nicolette Mall--the Presiding Officer is aware of this. We would get on one end of the mall on a city bus and work it like we just get on the bus, meet everyone on the bus, get way to the end, get off, and then get on another bus going the other way and meet a whole group of people. I have no idea what the bus drivers thought after an hour of this, but that's what we did.
Paul Wellstone worked it bus by bus, block by block, precinct by precinct, and he made a lasting impression on people in a way that made them believe and made them know that getting involved in politics could make a real difference in their lives. He had the unending sense of optimism. Optimism that maybe people he didn't agree with in this chamber would eventually change their views. He made a lot of friends here on both the Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle. That was the message that Paul took to new citizens, new voters, and everyone looking to get involved. He told them that working in public service can make a difference, and he showed them through his actions.
He had many passions. He fought for everything from campaign finance reform to improving our rual economies. He fought against veteran homelessness, to protect the environment, and of course, he fought for the rights of workers. He truly believed, as he famously said, that we all do better when we all do better. And that politics is simply about improving people's lives.
But anyone who ever met or talked with Paul found out that he had a special passion for helping those struggling with mental illness. That was shaped by his own family. As a young child, Paul watched his brother Steven's traumatic descent into mental illness. In college, his brother suffered a severe mental break down and spent the next two years in hospitals. Eventually he recovered and graduated from college with honors, but it took his immigrant parents years to pay off the hospital bills. Paul would always talk about that. When he grew up, his house was dark because no one wanted to talk about mental illness back then, because it had so much stigma. He wanted to get it out in the sunlight. He knew that there were far too many families going through the same experience. Too many devastated by the physical and financial consequences of mental illness. And he knew that we could and we should do better. So for years as a senator, he fought for funding for better care, better services, and better representation for the mentally ill. And he fought for mental health parity and health insurance coverage.
Even years after his death, Paul's voice was heard loud and clear. Congressman Ranstad, a Republican congressman at the time from Minnesota, took up his cause in the House. I helped Ted Kennedy lead the way and of course Pete Domenici, who had paired up with Paul on this important bill. And finally, in 2008, we passed the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act. The bill requires insurance companies to treat mental health as an equal basis with physical illness. For Paul, this fight was always a matter of civil rights, of justice, and of basic human decency. And that landmark legislation is one fitting way we honor him.
Sheila, of course, also dedicated herself to helping others, especially survivors of violence. I had the opportunity to work closely with Sheila when I served for eight years as Hennepin County Attorney. She focused on domestic violence and was instrumental in creating and getting the funding for the Hennepin County Domestic Abuse Center. That center is an international model for serving victims of domestic violence by bringing together a full range of services and resources in one central location. Victims of domestic violence don't have to go through the red tape that would be difficult even for a lawyer to figure out. And of course, one of Paul's greatest legislative achievements was the work he did along with Vice President Biden and others to pass the originial Violence Against Women Act. It was a team effort, and Sheila was right there on the front lines with Paul. Together they accoumplished so much. Their commitment to others never wavered, and neither did they.
It was just a few weeks before that tragic crash that I last saw Sheila and Paul. Sheila and I had been asked to speak to a group of new citizens, immigrants from Russia. It was a very small group, and we were to talk about our own immigrant experiences, our own relatives. And she--I remember--talked about the relatives in Appalachia, and I talked about my relatives on the Iron Range coming over from Slovenia. And so the event was winding down. Small, small thing in the synagogue with these new immigrants, and all of a sudden, a big surprise. In walked Paul. He wasn't supposed to be ther. It was just a few weeks, a month, away from one of the biggest elections he had ever faced in the United States Senate. But he had gotten on an early flight and came home from Washington, and there he was. Him and just a group of immigrants, and us. No press, no TVs, not even a big crowd. All just a few weeks before his election. He came for two reasons: one, he loved Sheila, and he wanted to be there to support her. But he was also there because he loved the immigrant experience. He embraced it. His family, like so many Minnesota families, was an example of how you can come to America, succeed in America, and then in turn help America succeed.
So that's my last memory of Paul as he stood before those immigrants telling about his ow story embracing them. I will remember him in that way, but I will also remember the joy he felt for politics--how we would run around that green bus of his with people running alongside of him on the parade routes. And in the last year of his life, he told the public he had M.S., and he couldn't run like that anymore. So he would stand in the back of th ebus with Sheila and wave. But what was so amazing about it was that he had energized so many people in those green Wellstone shirts to run around that bus that you didn't even notice that he wasn't running. He had given them the energy and the hope to carry on his work, and they were doing it for him.
Now 15 years after we lost Paul and Sheila, it's our job to carry on and run around that bus. That's organizing. That's politics. And that is the gift of joy in improving people's lives that Paul and Sheila and Marcia and those other beloved staff members left for us.
Thank you, Mr. President. I yield the floor. I note the absence of a quorum.