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Obituary: Sen. Paul Wellstone, 58

Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, one of the last unapologetic liberals left in Congress, was seeking re-election to a third term in the Senate when he was killed in an airplane crash Friday. He was 58.

When Congress voted overwhelmingly earlier this month to authorize military force against Iraq, Wellstone was the only senator facing a tough re-election challenge to vote no.

A former champion 126-pound wrestler from the University of North Carolina, he announced earlier this year that he suffered from a mild form of multiple sclerosis, evidence by a pronounced limp when walked around the Capitol and the Senate chamber.

He often was the last person in the Senate chambers at night, giving speeches and advocating his position late into the evening long after most others had gone home.

Wellstone led crusades against bills he felt put the average Americans at a disadvantage. He railed against still-to-be-enacted bankruptcy reforms that enjoy overwhelming support in Congress as benefiting only banks, credit card issuers, automobile finance companies and retailers at the expense of people who "now find themselves in brutal economic circumstances."

"Are single women with children deadbeats? This bill assumes that they are," Wellstone said before voting against the Senate measure in July.

Before becoming a senator, Wellstone was a professor and community organizer. He fused the two together in a course he taught at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., called "Social Movements and Grassroots Organizing."

Using the lessons from that class, Wellstone launched a longshot bid for Senate in 1990. He toured the state in a rickety old green bus that became a metaphor for his campaign, and stunned the political establishment by knocking off Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz.

In seeking re-election this year, Wellstone reneged on his pledge of 1990 to seek no more than two terms, leading some people to suggest that Washington had changed him.

Labeled by a magazine, Mother Jones, as "the first 1960s radical elected to the U.S. Senate," Wellstone still manage to disappoint liberal followers on occasion. In 1996, he angered gay rights supporters by voting for the "Defense of Marriage" bill, which allowed states to withhold legal recognition of same-sex unions from other states.

Last year, he disappointed some civil rights and civil liberties activists by voting for legislation broadening the government's authority to conduct wiretaps in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat often compared to Wellstone, was the only senator to vote against it.

It was reminiscent of his 1996 campaign, when he was the only senator up for re-election to vote against welfare reform legislation. Wellstone wound up defeating Boschwitz in a rematch that year, 50 percent to 41 percent.

Wellstone was married to Sheila Ison Wellstone and had three children.