By Esme Murphy

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Sen. Al Franken broke down on the United States Senate floor Wednesday as he paid tribute to his friend, Paul Wellstone.

Wednesday marks the 15th anniversary of the death of the former Minnesota senator.

Wellstone, his wife Sheila, their daughter Marcia, staffers Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy and Will McLaughlin all died in a plane crash in Eveleth just 11 days before the 2002 election. Two pilots also died in the crash.

Paul Wellstone (credit: CBS)

From his days as an activist college professor at Carleton College, to his upset win of a U.S. Senate seat, to his votes against both Gulf Wars, Wellstone’s legacy lives on in those he inspired and the grassroots organizing nonprofit that bears his name.

Even Wellstone didn’t quite believe it when former WCCO-TV reporter Amy Marsalis told him in 1990 he was a Senator-elect.

Marsalis: Our exit polls show that you have won.
Wellstone: Is that right?
Marsalies: 53 to 47 is what they’re telling me.
Wellstone: OK, well that sounds pretty good. Does that sound pretty good? [His supporters cheer].

Outspent 7 to 1, Wellstone had ridden a rundown green campaign bus around the state, starred in some low-budget and iconic commercials, and upset a sitting U.S. Senator Rudy Boschwitz.

“We never really had all the money, but I had you,” Wellstone said to cheering supporters at his victory celebration on election night in 1990.

It was the start of a career championing progressive policies in the Senate. Sen. Al Franken became emotional on the Senate floor Wednesday as he described how Wellstone was a mentor who continues to inspire him.

Sen. Al Franken honors Paul Wellstone on the U.S. Senate floor (credit: CBS)

“Paul’s life and his work meant a lot to me, too. His examples as a tireless, passionate champion for working families, for veterans, for farmers, for those who simply needed a voice have inspired my own time in the Senate,” Franken said.

Wellstone Action is a nonprofit, grass-roots organizing group founded after the Senator’s death. There are 11 people who work in the group’s St. Paul office, and 11 other full-time staff scattered around the country. They all work to promote progressive causes and campaigns.

“We train well over 2,000 a year, we have over 90,000 folks in our alumni and over 1,000 of those currently serve in elective office,” said Jesse Ulibarri of Wellstone Action.

Sen. Wellstone was killed just 11 days before the 2002 November election.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale was quickly drafted to run in his place, but he lost that general election to Norm Coleman.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar released this statement Wednesday in honor of Wellstone:

Paul and Sheila were always on the move. They were persistent in their fight against injustices large and small. During his lifetime as an educator, as an activist, and as a United States senator, Paul touched the lives of people throughout Minnesota and across the country. That’s because he stood up for them.

Even years after his death, Paul’s voice was heard loud and clear when we passed the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act in 2008. For Paul, this fight was always a matter of civil rights, of justice, and of basic human decency – and that landmark legislation is one fitting way we honor him.

Paul and Sheila accomplished so much together–their commitment to others never wavered–and neither did they. Now, 15 years after we lost them, it is our job to carry on the gift of joy in improving people’s lives that Paul, Sheila, Marcia, and their beloved staff members passed on to everyone they touched.

Esme Murphy