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Wellstone made mark as liberal champion

Colleagues remember a 'happy warrior'

By Sean Loughlin
CNN Washington Bureau

Sen. Paul Wellstone
Sen. Paul Wellstone

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Born: July 21, 1944, Arlington, Virginia
Wife: Sheila Ison Wellstone
Children: David, Marcia, Mark
Career: Minnesota U.S. Senator, starting 1991; associate professor, political science, 1969-1990
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A onetime college wrestler, Sen. Paul Wellstone took his competitive spirit to the political arena when he successfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 1990, becoming a champion to the political left.

The unabashed liberal fought for civil rights, environmental causes, farmers, hikes in the minimum wage and health-care reform. One colleague, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, remembered Wellstone as a "happy warrior," comparing him to the late Hubert Humphrey, a legend in Minnesota politics.

Passionate and vocal, Wellstone was quick to debate his colleagues on a host of issues -- most recently the congressional resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, which Wellstone opposed.

"I really tried to never do anything I don't believe in, so I don't want to change it now. I really don't," Wellstone said in a recent interview with CNN.

Wellstone was in a tough fight for re-election this year, running against Republican Norm Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota.

That political fight came to a sudden end with his death in a plane crash in northeastern Minnesota. The senator's wife, Sheila, their daughter Marcia and three staff aides were also killed, along with the pilot and co-pilot.

In recent weeks, Wellstone had talked about his tenure in the Senate, citing his desire to "push the envelope."

The son of Russian immigrants, Wellstone was born July 21, 1944 in Arlington, Virginia.

Before he entered politics, Wellstone was a political science professor at Carleton College in Minnesota. Political biographies note that in his academic career, he sometimes attended faculty meetings where he would lead students in protest.

Diminutive in stature, the senator was nonetheless a powerful presence on Capitol Hill. While he could be combative and bold, he also had an easy smile and often tried to inject humor into politics. He was close to other liberals, but also struck friendships with his ideological opposites.

Even staunch conservatives, such as Sen. Jesse Helms, who was often a political foil for Wellstone, admired his steadfastness on the issues. "He unfailingly represented his views eloquently and emphatically," Helms, R-North Carolina, said in a statement.

Wellstone began his political career as the underdog, deciding in 1990 to challenge incumbent Republican Rudy Boschwitz for the U.S. Senate. Wellstone garnered national attention with that campaign, in which he traveled the state in a green bus, and aired quirky and humorous TV ads. "I'm better looking," he proclaimed in one ad.

Wellstone became the only candidate to beat an incumbent senator that year, winning 50 percent of the vote to 48 percent.

He went on to become a consistent liberal vote in the Senate, and, like most lawmakers, he found mixed results in the chamber.

His first year in office, he led a coalition in 1991 to defeat an energy bill that would have opened Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife refuge to oil drilling. But he failed repeatedly in his bid to have Congress approve a single-payer health insurance plan, similar to the Canadian system.

He opposed U.S. military action in the Persian Gulf War under the first President Bush and criticized President Clinton when he sent troops to Haiti without congressional approval.

In 1997, Wellstone traced a trip that Robert F. Kennedy had made decades earlier by visiting impoverished regions of the country. Sensing that it had drifted from its liberal roots, he called on the Democratic Party to find its "soul."

He flirted with a 2000 White House run, but decided against so, saying a back injury would prevent him from running a vigorous campaign.

In an interview Monday with CNN, Wellstone -- who in running for a third term had reneged on an earlier term-limits pledge -- said his tenure in Washington had changed him. Wellstone said he had learned to appreciate the procedure and the need for "leverage" to get things done.

"What hasn't changed is the same values, same hopes, same dreams, and sometimes the same indignation," Wellstone said.

The senator and his wife are survived by their two sons and six grandchildren.

--Capitol Hill Producer Dana Bash contributed to this report.

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