Sen. Paul Wellstone, one of the staunchest supporters of gay rights in the U.S. Senate, was killed in a plane crash in northern Minnesota Friday morning. The 58-year-old senator, who was traveling to attend a funeral, was accompanied by his wife, Sheila, and their daughter, Marcia, along with five other people. There were no survivors. The plane, a Beechcraft King Air 200, went down in freezing rain and light snow near the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport, about 175 miles north of Minneapolis.
Throughout his career, Wellstone fought for equality and spoke in favor of legislation such as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would outlaw antigay discrimination in the workplace. "I really do think that the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is a matter of simple justice," Wellstone once said. "I really hope that the U.S. Senate will vote for this piece of legislation. I am very proud to be an original cosponsor, because I believe if we vote for this piece of legislation, we really will have taken an enormous step forward toward ending discrimination in our country. It is just not right that a man or a woman, because of sexual orientation, should be in a situation where he or she could lose a job or not be able to obtain employment because of their sexual orientation. This is a basic civil rights issue."
At the 1993 march on Washington, Wellstone was the only member of the U.S. Senate to address the crowd. "I come here as a United States senator from Minnesota," he said. "I have always said to my wife, Sheila, and our children that leadership is not about appealing to the hatred or the fear or the frustrations of people; leadership is about inspiring people to be their own best selves. And as a United States senator, I want you to know that I support this rally for human rights and civil rights for all people, regardless of sexual orientation."
Labeled by the magazine Mother Jones as "the first 1960s radical elected to the U.S. Senate," Wellstone still managed to disappoint liberal followers on occasion. In 1996 he angered gay rights supporters by voting for the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states to withhold legal recognition of same-sex unions drawn up in other states. Nevertheless, gay activists said they lost a great ally Friday. "America has lost a powerfully eloquent and passionate voice for fairness today," said Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based gay rights group Human Rights Campaign. "Paul and Sheila Wellstone were personal friends. This is a deep personal loss as well as a devastating loss to our community. Both the senator and his wife were strong allies in our quest for equality. Our hearts go out to his family and staff."