Liberal senator to retrace Robert Kennedy’s Mississippi Delta tour
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Thirty years ago this spring, Robert F. Kennedy took a tour of Mississippi that drew national attention to the hunger and poverty plaguing the rural South. The trip did not hurt his presidential aspirations either.
Now, Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota is aspiring to walk in Kennedy’s footsteps by retracing RFK’s 1967 trip to the Mississippi Delta in May.
It is the latest of the publicity-minded Democrat’s efforts to establish himself as a national champion of liberal causes. Wellstone, who coasted to re-election last year in a state that has always prided itself on progressive politics, also does not rule out running for president himself sometime.
That would be a long reach for Wellstone, better known for backing losing causes such as national health insurance than for major legislative accomplishments.
The 52-year-old former college professor is working with former RFK aides on the Mississippi trip and frequently invokes Kennedy’s name in speeches. Wellstone says he wants to emulate the New York senator, who was assassinated in 1968, and focus national attention on the poor.
``I am going to travel the length and breadth of this country, as Robert Kennedy did 30 years ago and as Eleanor Roosevelt did during the Depression, to observe the face of American poverty _ not from behind a Senate desk, but in the streets, the villages and neighborhoods of those in distress,″ Wellstone said at Harvard University recently.
Wellstone’s re-election last year heartened fellow liberals. Some now are urging him to run for president in 2000, although he denies he’s considering it.
He was the only senator facing re-election in 1996 who voted against the welfare overhaul bill, contending it was too harsh. Recently, he has criticized President Clinton’s proposed tax cuts as tilted too much to the middle class.
Wellstone ``got elected despite the fact that ... he had the courage to stand up against the welfare bill. That creates a certain national interest and national symbolism,″ said Peter Edelman, who quit a top administration post over Clinton’s signing of the welfare bill.
Edelman is helping Wellstone plan the Mississippi trip. Another former Kennedy aide, speech writer Dick Goodwin, is encouraging the senator to run for president.
Wellstone, who was first elected in 1990 with a humorous television ad campaign that showed him stalking Republican incumbent Rudy Boschwitz, has pledged not to seek a third Senate term in 2002.
But he has stepped up his travels outside Minnesota, including an address to the Kansas Democratic Party in Topeka over the weekend. He has also proposed a national Reform Day, which he likens to Earth Day, to drum up public pressure for changing campaign finance laws.
Raising his national stature will give him more leverage in the Senate for the causes he cares about, Wellstone said in an interview. ``I have never felt more strongly about having an impact and it’s all focused on being a senator and having a national presence,″ he said.
Edelman said Wellstone’s trip has ``important potential″ to provide fresh national exposure to the plight of the poor.
Wellstone ``doesn’t have to come to Mississippi to find poverty and poor folks,″ said Charles Evers, a black leader in the state Republican Party and brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers. ``I resent our state always being pointed out as the poorest state in the country.″
Kennedy’s trip helped lead to emergency food assistance being provided in several Southern states despite the insistence of Mississippi’s governor that there wasn’t a hunger problem.
Kennedy and then-Sen. Joseph Clark, D-Pa., toured a half-dozen communities. The Delta’s poor ``were just ecstatic that he was there,″ recalled Bill Minor, then a Mississippi-based correspondent for The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.
The trip also embarrassed the state’s white leaders, said state Rep. Robert Clark, a black state legislator whose district includes some of the places RFK visited.
``They realized that they were no longer an island to themselves,″ Clark said.