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Maintaining the ‘Wellstone way’

Ben Goldfarb (submitted photo)

Ben Goldfarb (submitted photo)

Ben Goldfarb doesn’t like to boast about himself, even though he easily could. But get him going on Wellstone Action, the 11-year-old progressive political training center for which he’s executive director, and he sounds like a proud daddy.

“If you look at people leading organizations in the state and looking at the leading actors in public office, virtually all of them have some connection back to Wellstone,” said Goldfarb during a recent interview. “Those connections come directly through their campaigns, through public office from when he was in the Senate, or through our training programs.”

Wellstone Action has worked with hundreds of organizations nationwide to advance progressive change by grooming candidates and promoting ballot initiatives. Between candidates, campaign staff and community organizers, the group has trained more than 65,000 people — or alums, as Goldfarb calls them — over the years.

“They all come from the same school and the philosophy of believing in the centrality of people and the politics of improving people’s lives and running campaigns that are people centered,” he said.

Rock star

The passion that runs through Wellstone Action’s programs have an obvious antecedent. Not long after the 2002 plane crash that killed Paul Wellstone, his wife, Sheila daughter Marcia Wellstone Markuson, and campaign staffers Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy, and Will McLaughlin, Wellstone Action began to take shape.

The surviving family of the late U.S. senator, along with his campaign staff, banded together to form the organization and its sister group the Wellstone Action Fund as a way to carry on the progressive hero’s work not just in Minnesota but throughout the U.S. The group has trained volunteers and staff working on behalf of candidates and ballot issues in all 50 states.

Jeff Blodgett, Wellstone Action’s founding director, brought Goldfarb to the organization in July 2007, and classifies him as “a complete rock star” with a gift for organizational leadership and political operative work.

“His greatest strengths are his management skills,” said Blodgett. “He has a knack for drawing out the very best in people in almost any setting. He’s a relatively young guy but has already made a big mark on progressive politics in Minnesota, so the sky’s the limit.”

Goldfarb, 37, came from a family that had an interest in public issues, but weren’t political advocates. After moving from his native New York to attend Macalester College in St. Paul, Goldfarb indulged an interest in community service and social- and justice-issue organizing by working on the ballot initiative campaign in 1999 that resulted in St. Paul voters rejecting a city sales tax to help subsidize a new Twins stadium.

“That piqued my interest in corporate welfare,” he said. “That experience got me interested in the idea that elections can be vehicles to make change in the areas that I care about.”

The experience encouraged Goldfarb to go deeper into electoral politics, and he managed Jay Benanav’s unsuccessful 2001 campaign for the St. Paul mayor’s seat. His work on the campaign and a subsequent stint with Progressive Minnesota caught the attention of Amy Klobuchar, who was coordinating her first U.S. Senate campaign. After meeting with Klobuchar and her advisers, Goldfarb — then 23 — was elevated to campaign manager.

“It was a great, formative experience for a young political organizer,” he recalled. “It taught me how much I didn’t know and that because of the compressed timelines and the urgency level in campaigns, you need to have a lot of smart, talented people around you if you’re going to win at any level.”

Following Klobuchar’s win, Goldfarb spent some time in Ireland working on a parliamentary election campaign, but with an eye on returning here. He had worked as a trainer for Wellstone Action almost from its inception, and in 2007 was tapped to lead it.

“It seemed like the perfect intersection of my interest in election organizing and community organizing and my other big interest, which is teaching,” he said. “I realized I didn’t just want to work on campaigns. I wanted to teach other people how to work on campaigns and make the changes they wanted in their communities.”

An essential role

Goldfarb leads a staff of about a dozen from a small office on University Avenue near where St. Paul meets Minneapolis. From there the organization administers numerous programs in areas including labor training, Native American leadership, as well as its flagship program Camp Wellstone, a traveling organizational seminar that has produced more than 30,000 people now working on behalf of candidates and issues throughout the United States.

According to Goldfarb, 2014 was Wellstone Action’s biggest year. It will have worked in more than 30 states and trained more than 5,000 campaign and community workers by the time the year ends.

“We’ve really cemented our place as the leading capacity-building organization and leadership development organization for the progressive movement in the country,” he said. “We’re viewed as an essential part of the national progressive movement infrastructure.”

Goldfarb found himself pulling double duty during the recent election season. While keeping his hand on the wheel at Wellstone, he also did a two-month stint leading state-level organizing group A Better Minnesota after Executive Director Carrie Lucking left to join Education Minnesota.

“Ben helped us with organizing and electoral priorities,” said Joe Davis, ABM’s interim executive director. “You run into a lot of consultant-speak in this world. Ben cuts through and speaks in a way that motivates people to get things done.”

The silver lining for progressive politics in the wake of November’s elections — which saw Republicans capture both houses in 31 states and gain control of the U.S. House and Senate — was that progressive ballot measures on everything from gay marriage to the legalization of marijuana saw much more success.

Wellstone Action helped train workers toward successful ballot initiatives involving issues including paid sick leave, reproductive rights, voting rights and others. Those wins are what Wellstone Action hopes to build from, and Goldfarb has every intention to keep leading and carrying on what he calls “the Wellstone way.” He wants the organization to offer longer, more experiential training options for people who want to work on campaigns or with community organizations leading up to elections.

“A lot has changed in the past 12 years in terms of the infrastructure, but the core beliefs about base-building and conviction-based politics is still very much alive and well,” he said. “Wellstone Action is my home. It’s an incredibly hopeful place to work.”

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