Months ago, when Al Franken was riding high in his U.S. Senate race, he urged caution among his DFL supporters.
“Many a slip betwixt cup and lip,” he cautioned.
The most recent “slip” in Franken’s bid to win DFL endorsement at the party’s convention June 6 came from a surprising source: U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, a fellow Democrat, blasted Franken Thursday for a fantasy article he wrote in the January 2000 edition of Playboy magazine.
In a meeting with other DFL members of the Minnesota House delegation, McCollum raised the question of whether the party really wants to stand with Franken in November’s elections.
“Her concerns aren’t about dividing the party,” said Bill Harper, McCollum’s chief of staff. “Her concerns [are] do we, in a year that we have with a gale force behind our backs, really want to find ourselves always trying to defend Al Franken?”
McCollum’s public concerns have raised all sorts of questions in political circles. Is she carrying water for one-time Senate candidate Mike Ciresi, who still hungers for the job but dropped out of the race when it was clear he had little support among DFL convention delegates? Why would she raise her concerns now, just days before the state convention? Can Franken withstand this latest embarrassment from his past? Will someone, besides Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, jump into the Senate race either at the convention or in a primary?
GOP noted article earlier
Interestingly, the state’s Republican Party tried to raise this “issue” with a news release of its own May 20. The Republican release was timed to a fundraiser Franken held with Playboy’s CEO, Christie Hefner, on May 19.
The Republican news release was written by state Rep. Joyce Peppin of Rogers and was followed a day later by an open letter to Franken from several Republican women who expressed disgust with the Playboy fantasy penned by Franken.
“… [The article is] an extreme example of the kind of disrespect for the role of women in society that all of us have fought our entire lives,” the women said in the letter that was signed by eight women, including longtime activist Annette Meeks, state Sen. Michelle Fischbach and state Rep. Laura Brod.
Republican news releases have been incredibly successful in jolting the mainstream media into digging into Franken’s tax and bookkeeping woes.
But the Playboy release appeared to be largely a dud. The Star Tribune made reference to the article, but most of the mainstream media did not pick up on the story – until McCollum’s reopened the door.
“As a woman, mother, a former teacher and an elected official, I find this material completely unacceptable,” McCollum told the Star Tribune.
U.S. Reps. Tim Walz and Keith Ellison also expressed concern. For the record, Rep. Jim Oberstar was vague, saying that the DFL convention should deal with Franken issues. Behind the scenes, however, several people said that Oberstar is very upset by the latest Franken headlines.
No comment from Ciresi
McCollum and Harper, her chief of staff, insist that her action was not done to boost Ciresi, who is a close friend of the congresswoman.
“Absolutely not,” said Harper.
Ciresi will not comment other than to say he had nothing to do with raising this issue with McCollum.
Harper also admits that her public questioning of Franken’s ability to be a uniting candidate for the party has angered New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Nationally, Democrats are fond of the idea of a Franken candidacy because if he can defeat incumbent Norm Coleman in November he can be the type of celebrity senator who could be a big fundraiser for the party in the future.
Franken’s campaign is falling back on the mantra that the piece Franken wrote was “satire.”
“Al understands, and the people of Minnesota understand, the difference between what a satirist does and what a senator does,” Franken campaign spokesman Andy Barr told the Associated Press. “It’s unfortunate that she’s trying to create divisions in our party rather than working with other DFLers (Minnesota Democrats) to take on the special-interest senator.”
The piece is not exactly senatorial. It deals with a fantasy of oral sex with “sexbots” (sexual robots) at the “Minnesota Institute of Titology (MIT).”
“We have to be able to inoculate our other candidates from this guy,” said Harper, referring to candidates in congressional races and state legislative races. “We have a tremendous opportunity this year. We don’t want people pushing the literature of our candidates back in their faces because they’re trying to defend Franken.”
Other than Schumer’s anger, Harper said McCollum’s office has received nothing but praise for raising questions about Franken. He predicted a feminist group soon will voice its displeasure about the Franken article.
There is speculation among growing numbers of DFLers that Franken is being “bled to death by a thousand cuts.” There’s concern that at least a few of the more conservative trades unions in the state will throw their support to Coleman. And there’s fear that there always will be “one more problem” coming out in regards to Franken’s controversial past.
Still, most DFL insiders believe that Franken will win endorsement next week in Rochester. He has spent two years working closely — and hard — with DFL activists across the state. Their loyalty runs deep.
But even if he manages to hold on to endorsement, there’s growing belief that Franken will face a primary challenge in September by either Ciresi or a surprise candidate.
Doug Grow, a former metro columnist for the Star Tribune, writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.