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Officials React to Wellstone's Death

Aired October 26, 2002 - 08:21   ET


CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: In Eveleth, Minnesota, federal investigators have begun the grim search for the cause of the plane crash that killed Senator Paul Wellstone. Also on board that private plane that slammed into the woods and burst into flames, Wellstone's wife and his daughter and five others.
Today's priority for investigators is finding that cockpit voice recorder.

Joining us now from Eveleth with more on the investigation, Trish Volpe from our affiliate KDLH -- bring us up to date.

TRISH VOLPE, KDLH CORRESPONDENT: Carol, the death of Senator Wellstone is really a tragic loss for many folks in Minnesota, especially here in northern Minnesota. This is Democrat country. The senator often traveled here and often referred to northern Minnesota as his second home.

As for the investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board investigators are expected on the scene of the crash, again, first thing this morning. It's been very difficult for them to get close to the crash site. It's a wooded area, very swampy. But once they do find the crash site -- or, excuse me. They found the crash site already. They are looking for the cockpit voice recorder. It will be sent to Washington for analysis.

And here's what Carol Carmody of the NTSB had to say about the investigation.


CAROL CARMODY, ACTING CHAIRWOMAN, NTSB: We have air traffic specialists with us and they will be headed down to the center today to talk to the controllers involved. We'll also be getting radar tapes and we'll also be getting weather information from the time of the accident.


VOLPE: And the weather here in northern Minnesota has been very bad since yesterday morning. It's been raining. It's been snowing. It's been very cold. And, in fact, one local pilot we spoke to had mentioned that perhaps icing on the aircraft's wings may have been a problem. That is certainly something the NTSB will look into as part of their investigation. They will be on site here in Eveleth for the next few days.

But in terms of determining the exact cause of the crash, that could take several months -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Understand.

Trish Volpe, thanks.


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The death of the 58-year-old senator has brought an outpouring of grief. The two term Minnesota Democrat was an outspoken liberal, to say the least, and less than two weeks away from election day, where he had hoped to win a third term.

Congressional correspondent Jonathan Karl joining us this morning from Minneapolis/St. Paul with more on all that.

A lot of pivotal races, but this was as close as they get when you start looking at this election coming up, right -- Jonathan?

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, this was one of the half dozen that really was going to determine who controls the United States Senate, the Republicans or the Democrats. And Wellstone had an army of volunteers and staffers that were working on this, some of them former students of his from when he was a professor at Carlton College, some of them current students.

Here we are outside his campaign headquarters. You can see there's been somewhat of a spontaneous memorial that is propped up out here in this section of St. Paul, where people have left notes, lit candles, brought flowers, remembering somebody who was clearly one of the most beloved figures in Democratic politics, one of the true liberals in the party, somebody who, although he was one of the liberals in the party, one of, perhaps the most liberal member of the Senate, also won respect from conservatives.

One of the first statements that we got after news of Wellstone's death hit the wires was from Jesse Helms, offering his condolences to the remaining family, and remembering Wellstone as somebody who stood for principles, even though those weren't the principles, obviously, that a conservative like Jesse Helms agreed with.

One of Wellstone's best friends in the United States Senate was Tom Harkin from neighboring Iowa, who remembered him fondly and broke down, as you remember, at his friend Paul Wellstone.


SEN. TOM HARKIN (D), IOWA: Paul Wellstone was my closest friend in the Senate. He was the most principled public servant I've ever known. Paul truly had the courage of his convictions and his convictions were based on the principles of hope and compassion, the good Samaritan helping those left on the road side of life. His courage was an example for all. He didn't just talk about political courage or about standing for what you believe in against all odds, he led by example.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KARL: And here in Minnesota, Democrats and Republicans alike are mourning the loss of Paul Wellstone. But they also know that this election is now just 10 days away. And as you said, as we talked about, Miles, this is going to determine largely, one of the key races to determine who will control the U.S. Senate. Democrats need to make a decision. They have till Friday to decide who they will put on the ballot to replace him.

The leading person that most people here in Minnesota, most Democrats in Minnesota and most Democrats nationally are looking towards and have talked to about running is Walter Mondale, the former vice president of the United States, former senator from Minnesota, of course, former presidential candidate, as well.

We know that Mondale has been approached by Democrats both here in and Washington and we also know right now that he has not said no to the idea of coming back into politics at the age of 74. But he also doesn't think it's appropriate to make a decision yet. This is a time to remember Paul Wellstone, not talk about the election.

But Democrats know the clock is ticking and they have to make a decision very soon -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Jonathan, the clock is ticking on me. But I do just want to get this across to viewers. It is quite possible there will be a shift in the Senate during the lame duck session, right?

KARL: Well, there certainly is. This would potentially complicate that. And there's also a race in Missouri which is technically a special election, because you remember Mel Carnahan, who was the Democratic candidate two years ago, died in a plane crash right before the election, as well. His wife was appointed to fill in for him at the Senate. So that's a special election.

So right now when the Senate comes back, they're going to be missing Paul Wellstone and they also are going to have a senator, who knows, from Missouri, because the Republican in that special election would get appointed immediately if the Republican, Jim Talent, were to win in that race. So everything is up in the air right now in the Senate.

O'BRIEN: Wouldn't the race there be considered a special election, as well, and whoever wins would go straight to the Senate, appointed by the governor, perhaps?

KARL: This is, that is unclear. And lawyers in both parties are trying to come to terms with the political ramifications. It is possible that whoever wins here would be sworn in immediately. But they're really looking at the ramifications. Remember, you're talking about an out and out election. You're not talking about a situation like in Missouri, where the dead candidate was actually elected and then somebody got appointed for his place.

O'BRIEN: Right.

KARL: That's not the case here. O'BRIEN: OK. Very interesting. Very interesting.

Jonathan Karl, we appreciate it.

KARL: It is confusing. And even as they mourn, these lawyers are still trying to figure out, you know, the implications here, because it's so close to the election.

O'BRIEN: Well, it's tough. You're so torn between the emotions of the moment.

We appreciate it.

KARL: Yes.

O'BRIEN: All right, Carol?

COSTELLO: Well, as you heard, Senator Wellstone is being remembered today as a passionate and a charismatic law maker who stood up for the little guy.

One of the people who knew him quite well, Roger Wolfson, a former staffer of the Minnesota senator, and he joins us now live from Washington.



COSTELLO: Tell us more about the senator. He was fiery, he was passionate. But what was he like as a family man?

WOLFSON: Oh, he was completely devoted to his family in ways that very few people, I think, can relate to. He worked with Sheila, his wife, every day. They were married at 19. They were married for 39 years by the time they died together. And I think a lot of the people who know them very well also realize the fact that had one of them survived, it might have been unbearable for the survivor and in some ways it is best that they went together.

COSTELLO: And one of their daughters was also on board that plane. Tell us about her.

WOLFSON: Well, Marsha was amazing. She was devoted to her family, as well, and loved her parents deeply. I think that she was always down to earth. She was always very kind and decent. And I think just recently she was just starting to be aware of her own power as a political person. She was starting to do some campaigning at her father's side, more than she had when she was younger. She was finding her own voice.

And we've lost three leaders in that crash. In fact, more, because we lost Mary McEvoy and Tom Lapic.

COSTELLO: Yes, the staffers on board with the senator. Tell us more about them, too. WOLFSON: Tom Lapic was a very, a sweet man. He moved to Minnesota with his wife. I'm almost certain that he was offered secretary of agriculture in the Ventura administration but turned it down because he wanted to stay working for Senator Wellstone. Mary McEvoy, I feel very responsible for this because I'm one of the many people in Wellstone's office who actively recruited her. She was our early childhood development expert on the outside and she became more and more involved in Paul's races and in his life and in his politics. And she was devoted to him completely, as were we all.

COSTELLO: Oh. One of the things I read about her was that apparently the Wellstones were afraid to fly and she often flew with them just to comfort them.

WOLFSON: Yes, that's true. And she had that comforting presence. And she leaves behind three children, by the way.

COSTELLO: Why were they afraid to fly and, you know, I know the senator was going to a funeral and it wasn't a campaign stop, but when you're campaigning you fly a lot on these small planes and some people do find it quite nerve-wracking.

WOLFSON: I think that Senator Wellstone probably didn't like flying in part because he was physically uncomfortable in small spaces. I also know that with the complete devotion his family felt for him that they were concerned about him taking any risks at all and a lot of politicians have died, some very recently, Mel Carnahan, John Hines (ph), Mickey Leland, and it was a risk that nobody ever really wanted Senator Wellstone or his family to take unless they had to.

COSTELLO: Is there too much pressure in a campaign like this to travel too much?

WOLFSON: Certainly in a state like Minnesota, where it's very spread out, where in order to get the vote out in the way that Senator Wellstone was uniquely capable of doing, you have to travel miles and miles, often in terrible weather. I know, I was out in the campaign in '96, running a phone bank from the basement of a union hall. The weather was just awful in ways that the East Coast people can't really relate to.

And in general, the travel can be a killer, even if it, in not a literal sense. It can be taxing. It can take years off your life.

COSTELLO: All right, Mr. Wilson, thank you very much.

And our sympathies go out to you, too.

WOLFSON: Thank you very much.



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