Wellstone Action pushes out senator's sons; they push back
By KYLE POTTER
Feb. 15, 2018
ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A liberal campaign organization dedicated to the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone is pushing out the senator's two sons for what leaders said were differences in organizational vision. But one son countered that the board moved against them after they raised questions about possible financial issues.
Wellstone Action told The Associated Press on Wednesday that David and Mark Wellstone would be voted off the governing board in coming days following what group leaders described as months of friction. They said the Wellstones have pushed repeatedly to shift focus from training progressive candidates and campaigns to more aggressive issue advocacy following Donald Trump's election as president.
Co-founder and board member Jeff Blodgett, who was Paul Wellstone's campaign manager, said the "necessary but sad step" of removing the brothers from the board comes after months of tension. He said the brothers have asked that the group no longer use the family name.
"It's difficult, personally and professionally for us," Blodgett said.
But David Wellstone said the issues largely started after he and two previous board members — whose terms were not extended last fall — raised concerns about overspending in the organization's budget. He said those concerns were never addressed.
"We wanted to make sure everything was good, because our name is on it," Wellstone said.
Wellstone Action officials denied that those financial questions were what prompted the push to get rid of the Wellstones. They furnished a summary of an external audit that found expenses on training and venue rentals ran more than $200,000 over budget over a four-month period in 2017, but it concluded there was no evidence of improper spending.
Sam Kaplan, an attorney for the Wellstones, told AP the brothers had still not seen that audit Wednesday.
Blodgett, in a statement, called the claims of fiscal problems "red herrings, perhaps to create a smokescreen around some other motives on their part."
The Wellstone brothers and Blodgett formed Wellstone Action after Paul Wellstone's death in a plane crash days before the 2002 election. It has trained more than 90,000 candidates and campaign managers for races ranging from school boards to legislative and congressional offices. The organization's flagship program is Camp Wellstone, which holds three-day boot camps to train progressive candidates, campaign workers and organizers how to win office and make change.
Rep. Tim Walz, currently running for governor in Minnesota, was a schoolteacher with a National Guard background when he became one of its first trainees. A long list of alumni includes members of Congress from Illinois and Iowa, state legislators from New Mexico to New Hampshire and city councilors in Minneapolis and Baltimore.
Leaders at Wellstone Action said a difference of opinion has been building for the past year between the board and the brothers over what the organization's role should be.
Jessie Ulibarri, the group's interim co-executive director, said after Trump's 2016 victory the Wellstones began pushing for a more public role in issue advocacy. He wouldn't say what issues the Wellstones — and two former board members whose terms lapsed last year — believed the organization should take on.
David Wellstone insisted those differences were superficial, saying he merely suggested that the organization should examine ways Democrats can win back working class voters — "these folks that voted for Paul Wellstone, President Obama and President Trump."
Wellstone was in a close re-election fight when his plane crashed in rural Minnesota on Oct. 25, 2002, killing Wellstone, his wife Sheila and daughter Marcia, along with three aides and two pilots. The senator's death triggered an outpouring of grief, especially among his fellow liberal Democrats who mourned the void it left in their movement.
Blodgett said the organization can still honor Wellstone's memory without his family's input.
"The idea of helping people pick up where Paul and Sheila left off was the absolute best way to pass on the Wellstone legacy," he said.
But former board member Rick Kahn, a longtime Paul Wellstone adviser who was on the board until November, said the organization has missed its chance in honoring the Wellstone name.
"How can you claim that you're doing that as an organization when you kick their sons off the board? How can you defend that?" he asked.
This story has been corrected to show Jeff Blodgett is Wellstone Action's co-founder and board member.