October 25, 2002 was probably the worst day of my life. In the blink of an eye, I lost my job, my hero, my career path, and my cherished coworkers. Like so many times in my life, what I worked so long and hard for, reaching a good place with a bright future, was taken from me in an instant.
Wellstoneia, as we called 136 Hart, was a special place. We were all different, with plenty of eclectic and eccentric qualities, but we were united on a common mission. We were allowed, even encouraged, to be ourselves. I have always hated wearing ties, but I donned one on a day when my Legislative Correspondent colleagues and I were scheduled to meet with Paul. (I don’t mean to show off a sense of familiarity—he insisted on being called by his first name. By everyone. He was humble and populist.) When my boss saw me in a tie, she immediately exclaimed, “What are you doing? Take that thing off!” I explained that since we were meeting with Paul, I thought maybe I should wear a tie. She scoffed and made me take it off. One: it’s not me; I don’t wear ties. Two: Paul couldn’t care less. He preferred honesty and authenticity and didn’t care about the unimportant things—your clothes, your wealth, your title, your physical or mental disabilities—he was interested in your work, your ideas, your family, YOU.
I was painfully shy when I worked for Paul, but he knew who I was. Not just “bigshot politician remembers the name that goes with that face in his office”. He knew what I believed. He knew my work. He knew my passion, intelligence, and commitment. He didn’t care that, when Congress was out of session, I might come to work in a T-shirt, jeans shorts, Birkenstocks, and a pony tail. After all, Paul had repeatedly been voted the worst dressed senator—an honor that only made me surer that he was the politician for me. In my 3 ½ years in the Senate, I only ever saw one other man with a pony tail. Paul cared that you did good work and treated people well. And I think he knew that the more freedom and support you give people to express their individuality, the more comfortable and loyal they are, and the higher their morale. Staff in other offices poked fun at us for having it easy, but the truth is that we were more effective and productive than most other Senate offices.
The evidence of how well Paul knew me despite my shyness came in May 2002. That month, my parents came to DC to visit me (the last time my mom has visited me). I asked our executive assistant if we could have a little time to meet with Paul and get a photo taken. She said, slightly ribbing me, what a good son I was. I think we got 15 minutes on the schedule. But being Paul, that turned into more like 30. My parents and I met with Paul AND Sheila. Her desk was across the cubical divider from mine, so she heard me talking to constituents a lot. Mom asked what we could do about Bush and these crazy Republicans. Knowing Paul was a political science professor by background, Dad discussed his former Washington U. professor Walter Dean Burnham, a heavyweight in the field, with Paul. I was surprised and embarrassed that Dad interrupted Paul, maybe out of nervousness.
What Paul wanted to discuss was different. He asked what my parents did for a living, how they were doing, how my grandparents were, what my sisters were doing, and what was coming up for them. Finally, Paul THANKED them for giving him me. He told my parents what a hard and committed worker I was and said I really believed in what we were doing. I couldn’t help beaming. I was speechless. How often does a US senator, much less your hero and role model, tell your parents face to face—parents to whom you’re never good enough, what a great employee you are and that he’s thankful to have you? That was a great moment. We got a group picture of everyone, and I got another with just Paul. He signed copies for my parents and for me, and theirs hangs in their living room. It wasn’t meant to be a final or memorial picture, but it’s become that. My picture with Paul wasn’t meant to be testament to how high I’d risen or happy I’d once been, but that’s how I see it now.
Paul Wellstone was the best senator in a generation. There wasn’t anyone else like him, and there won’t be again. Working for another senator next was a rude awakening. It was so different from Wellstoneia, even though she is also regarded as a liberal. I got more appreciation for how special Wellstone and his office and staff were, and how Capitol Hill really worked. Though my goal since interning for Paul in 1997 had been to be a Legislative Assistant (policy advisor) in the Senate, I realized that without Paul there, Capitol Hill had no place for me. I decamped to a non-profit, where I further contemplated my future without Paul and banged my head against the wall lobbying against a Republican president, Senate, and House, and decided I needed some time outside DC, outside the US, to consider whether I still wanted to work in politics. The answer gradually emerged: no.
From there, my occupational situation and hopes, my physical health, my mental health, my finances, my idealism, my personality, and more have steadily declined. At 25 years old, the best boss, coworkers, job, and work environment of my life were behind me. I’ll never have them again. I wish I could be with my old Wellstone family today, but I alone am in Seattle. I haven’t been to Paul’s grave in Minneapolis or the crash site memorial in St. Louis County. I hope to visit them someday. I sometimes wish I could’ve died instead of Paul. I was going to go to Minnesota the next week to campaign. One of my MN coworkers who died had just been emailing me about the transit benefit I was trying to start. It’s not a huge leap to a scenario in which I could’ve been on the plane. I’ve had a little survivor’s guilt. I wish I could tell Paul not to take that flight, or to change the plane or pilots. Of course I wonder what would’ve happened if he had lived. The more time that elapses since that horrific day, the harder it is to project. I wonder, if I could talk to Paul now, what he’d say to me. He sometimes feels like the only person I’ve ever really loved, and my one regret is simply that I never hugged him.
Recently, my therapist and my psychologist aunt suggested that I likely have post-traumatic stress from the Wellstone crash. Seems pretty clear to me. I knew immediately that that plane crash would change my life forever. I’ve grown, learned, and matured plenty in the past 11 years. But the truth is that nightmarish day took much of my life, my hopes, my plans, and my aspirations too. And like Paul, Sheila, Marcia, Tom, Mary, and Will; they’re not coming back.