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AUSTIN EDITION Austin hit hard by deaths

By Nikki Merfeld

*merfeld@postbulletin.com

Sen. Paul Wellstone will be remembered as the man who would take on issues no one else cared to address. One of the top issues he brought to the fore was the topic of mental health parity -- treating mentally ill patients in the same caring manner as the physically ill and providing equal health benefits to them.

Bruce Henricks is the director of the Mower County Human Services Department. Contacted on Friday about the death, Henricks shared his grief as well as his professional concerns.

"I'm so shocked," Henricks said. "Republican or Democrat, I think we're all hurting right now."

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Henricks noted Wellstone's loss could have a devastating effect on the causes he so fervently promoted.

"It's obviously going to be a blow to the whole parity movement for mental health services. He was a very powerful senator," he said.

Still, Henricks believes someone will step forward to carry the movement in the next leg of its journey toward acceptance.

"Those are going to be some big shoes to fill but I believe he at least got the ball rolling in the right direction," he said. "Even the president has talked about improved health services, though I don't think he's said 'parity.' "

In his work on the Mower County Board, Len Miller had occasion to develop personal and professional relationships with Wellstone. Miller serves on the state subcommittee for children's mental health and is chairman of the Association of Minnesota Counties, which deals with health policies.

"I've been involved in a lot of the same issues he has been," said Miller. "I personally know Sen. Wellstone and am proud to call him a friend. My heart goes out to his family."

Miller said Wellstone's charisma would fill a room upon his entry.

Miller also noted the tremendous import of Sheila Wellstone's continuous efforts to advance the needs of domestic abuse victims. Sheila's death will cause similar reverberations throughout the state, he said.

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One state Senate hopeful, Dan Sparks, had received support from Wellstone. A television ad promoting Sparks' campaign had been airing on local channels. That commercial has been pulled from the airwaves, said Sparks.

"It's a blow. It makes you want to pull over," he said. "We've suspended our campaign."

The Wellstones' daughter, Marcia, also killed in the crash, was in Austin last week to get out the Hispanic vote at a Sparks campaign event at El Mariachi, he said.

People not only speak favorably of Wellstone, they speak of him in superlatives.

"He could have been president if he wanted to," Henricks said.

"If you looked up integrity in the dictionary, you'd see his picture," said Miller.

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