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Some DFLers leaving party convention fearful of a Franken ‘hangover’

Al Franken accepts the DFL Senate nomination, promising a vigorous campaign against incumbent Norm Coleman. Despite a rousing reception for their candidate, some DFLers worry about his impact on other candidates on the ticket.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Al Franken accepts the DFL Senate nomination, promising a vigorous campaign against incumbent Norm Coleman. Despite a rousing reception for their candidate, some DFLers worry about his impact on other candidates on the ticket.

Mark Dayton threw one of his classic DFL convention bashes Saturday night in Rochester:  food, booze, a magician, a DJ playing rock and swing dance tunes. It all was free for DFLers who felt like partying after Al Franken quickly was endorsed as the party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate.

But will there be a hangover from the party and the endorsement?

Many left Rochester at the conclusion of the convention Sunday fearing that Franken, who won endorsement with 62 percent on the first ballot cast, will turn out to be a problem for DFL candidates across the state. Republicans, in their effort to re-elect Norm Coleman, will at least attempt to portray Franken as the symbol of a party out of touch with “main street” Minnesota values.

By her actions, Mari Urness Pokornowski of Cokato made that statement. Up until the weekend, she was president of the DFL Feminist Caucus. She quit that post, however, when the caucus board opted to endorse Franken.

“You have to make a choice where you stand,” she told reporters Saturday. “For me, my decision was to step down.”

Trying to avoid becoming a big part of the convention story, Pokornowski was not talking about her action Sunday. But those close to her said that it was something she’d wrestled with long before the convention began.  She is remaining active in the party.

Party feminists split over Franken
Porkornowski was not alone in her concerns. In an e-mail before the convention, Planned Parenthood’s political arm expressed concern about Franken. (Franken has long supported Planned Parenthood with appearances and donations.)

And, of course, 4th District Rep. Betty McCollum had spoken out a week before the convention about the problems Franken might pose for the DFL. She was booed by some delegates when she spoke at the convention Saturday.

In her speech, which came while first-ballot votes were being counted, she did not make direct references to Franken but she appeared to be indirectly talking about issues surrounding the controversial comedian and satirist.

“As Democrats, we have differences of opinion on candidates and policies,” she said. “There is room for healthy debate. But as a Democrat, we must be committed to defending the values Minnesotans treasure. We must never stand silent when the values we are fighting so hard to defend and promote are offended.”

The announcement of the endorsement of the DFL feminist caucus came at a crucial moment in the convention. Word hit the floor about 10 a.m. Saturday at a point when most at the convention thought that Franken was in for a long, bloody fight — and that he could lose — against Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer.

Franken had received the approval of 72 percent of caucus board members at a Friday evening screening.

According to those who were present at that session, women in the group laid it on the line with Franken: They were not amused by his “fantasy” essay in Playboy magazine eight years ago,  nor did they find funny his proposed skit  about rape during a “Saturday Night Live” brainstorming session.

 They also made it clear they did not want to hear any lectures about the art of satire. Franken, and his campaign, had tried to shrug off much of his controversial work as classic satire.

One member of the board asked Franken, “Is rape funny?”

The question brought tears to Franken’s eyes, according to Jackie Stevenson, a board member.

“He was open, and he was honest,” Stevenson said. She also said that Franken showed a remarkable knowledge of women’s political history.

Nelson-Pallmeyer wasn’t nearly so impressive during his screening. The St. Thomas professor spent much of his time talking about a book “he’d written 10 years ago,” said Stevenson.

The impact of the two 30-minute screenings? Franken got the caucus’s endorsement. The convention got a straightforward apology and even a confession. (“For 35 years, I was a writer. I wrote a lot of jokes. Some of them weren’t funny. Some of them were inappropriate. Some of them were downright offensive.”)  Franken got huge applause from the delegates.

But this may have been the most surprising outcome of all:  After it was announced that the Feminist Caucus had decided to endorse Franken, there was a line of women waiting to sign up to become members of the caucus, Stevenson said.

Generational change, ‘Obama factor’ at work in party dynamics
Stevenson, who is 71, believes this was another sign of the generational change going on in the political process this election year. Perhaps she’s right. Perhaps things that may be offensive to people over the age of 40 bring yawns from those under 40.

The generational change could be seen on the convention floor. As many as three-quarters of the delegates were first-time convention goers, according to former party chairman Rick Stafford.  Many of those had never before even labeled themselves as DFLers, Stafford said.

Some of this shift is a result of the aging of the boomers. But much of it could be traced to what has become known as “The Obama Factor.” Recall that on Feb. 5, DFL caucuses shattered all participation records. Many of Franken’s delegates arrived at the convention via “Obama-Franken” subcaucuses.

“The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” could have been the convention’s theme song.

Joan Friant, a delegate from Stillwater who on the eve of the convention decided to support Nelson-Pallmeyer, said that Franken’s controversial words had nothing to do with her decision.

“I would have no problem supporting him,” Friant said of Franken before the balloting began. “It’s tantamount to Bill Clinton. I didn’t want to marry him — I voted for him based on his stands on the issues.  I think most Minnesotans will be concerned about the issues that affect them.”

But some of the DFL’s  more-seasoned politicians believe that Franken might represent another aspect of the Obama campaign.  Franken could be for some DFLers  the sort of albatross the Rev. Jeremiah Wright almost became to Obama.

In a year in which the DFL had high political hopes of running a massive unity campaign — from Obama to state  legislative races — Franken may be a problem in tightly contested swing districts.

Ashwin Madia, an out-of-nowhere DFLer who is running against Republican Erk Paulsen in the 3rd District seat that is opening because of the retirement of Jim Ramstad, sidestepped the question about whether he could march in a parade with Franken.

“I’m not thinking about that,” Madia said. “I just know what I have to do. I have to show my independence and moderation because that’s what the voters are. The voters in the 3rd District are very thoughtful. They will look at each office separately.”

Other DFLers were expressing great concern for the party’s No. 1 rising star, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz,  who defeated longtime Republican incumbent Gil Gutknecht in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District two years ago. Walz will face the winner of a primary fight between the endorsed Republican, Brian Davis, and state Sen. Dick Day.

Franken contributed mightily to Walz’s victory over Gutknecht. Not only did Franken  campaign for Walz, but he also made financial contributions to the Walz campaign — as well as the Senate campaign of Amy Klobuchar — through Midwest Values, a political action committee he formed before announcing his candidacy for Senate. That PAC, which made contributions to Democrats across the country and to Minnesotans in all levels of races, is dormant at present. 

Republicans will blanket the district with photographs of Walz and Franken together. At the same time, they’ll surely be asking Walz to “denounce” the man who is now the party’s Senate candidate.

Walz was on the podium with Franken following his acceptance speech Saturday. But, a few days before the convention, he did express concerns about some of Franken’s work.

Some wonder why party was the last to know
One of the big questions coming from many corners of the DFL convention was why DFLers were the last to know about Franken’s problems.

“We have to do a better job of vetting our own candidates,” said Minneapolis City Council Member Gary Schiff, a Nelson-Pallmeyer supporter. “Our candidates should not have been put in a position of being surprised by any of this.”

Others wondered why some of the questionable things about Franken hadn’t been raised early in the campaign by onetime opponent, Mike Ciresi.

A Ciresi adviser, who requested anonymity, said that the campaign did know of some of Franken’s potential baggage.  But the rules of engagement in campaigns for endorsement are vastly different from general election campaigns.

“Even if you criticize someone for their position on an issue, you get people angry at you,” said the adviser. “You have people saying, ‘DFLers shouldn’t attack other DFLers.’ ”

There are no rules now.  Even Franken’s most devoted followers are expecting the Republicans to gleefully keep releasing more material about Franken that they believe will offend Minnesotans.

But what if the times truly are changing?  Isn’t there a danger this stuff might start backfiring?

“Oh no,” says a confident Ron Carey, executive director of the Republican Party.

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.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Dave Wright on 06/09/2008 - 12:33 pm.

    Two observations here.

    1) Franken’s past work will only be a big issue if he and the DFL allow it to be. Of course there will be more attacks … and a lot of them. Bill Clinton was able to overcome all the “bimbo” attacks when he ran for re-election because he simply ignored them. In the end, this only appealed to Republican diehards who looked like one-trick ponies. If Franken spends his time concentrating on Sen. Coleman’s record (I would mentuioned often how many voting precincts Coleman carried in St. Paul in 2002 — 0), he can (and should) win the election.

    2) However, I am curious why more isn’t being made of the fact that Rep. Betty McCollum is tied at the hip to Mike Ciresi in many ways. Everything she said or did the past two weeks seems to be aimed at getting Ciresi back in the race. She’s free to do that sort of thing but the media rarely mentions this connection and didn’t question her intentions at all. For that, shame on them.

  2. Submitted by Jeremy Powers on 06/09/2008 - 12:05 pm.

    Two things come to my mind here. If the Republicans truly wanted to run against Al Franken, they wouldn’t have said a single word until today. They would have let a weak candidate walk into the slaughter. I don’t believe the Republicans are that stupid. The other is, everyone will have moved beyond a dirty story and some off-color jokes and by election time. Now Norm Coleman has five months to explain why he has been nothing but a rubber stamp for the worst president imaginable and done nothing to stop the biggest international train wreck in American history.

  3. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 06/09/2008 - 02:00 pm.

    This isn’t about McCollum. I’m disappointed at the way a fine Democratic Comgresswoman has suddenly become a target. She raises important points about electability.

    I’ve asked this before. Does Barack Obama want his name alongside Franken’s in frontyards and on bumper stickers all over the state?

    Al can’t just brush this off. He needs to pile some major $$ into a TV ad that puts this to rest. Maybe he needs to remind people that we have comedy clubs and cable channels offering distinctly off-color humor. The Playboy piece was written when Wellstone was firmly ensconced and Franken never dreamed he’d be running for public office.

    So the feminist caucus was moved by tears in Al’s eyes. Maybe the state needs to see those tears. I’ve been a supporter of his from the first hints he might run, but I am furious that he’s placed us in this position.

  4. Submitted by Greg Schlichter on 06/09/2008 - 08:45 pm.

    Who doesn’t believe Ron Carey is a donkey’s patoot? Grow’s foreshadowing that this rabid dog strategy may backfire is right on. Minnesotans are hungry for their candidates to address the important issues of our day. A joke about rape may not be particularly funny…but the unrelenting rape Norm Coleman perpetrates is very real. He’s sold us all out to ingratiate himself with the Bush oil robber barons. Thank goodness we have someone honest and courageous enough to stand up to that.

  5. Submitted by Amy Bibeau on 06/10/2008 - 02:41 pm.

    As a delegate I participated in the convention in Rochester. The DFL had a chance to avoid all of the problems related to Al Franken by choosing Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. Jack is thoughtful, intelligent, and listens to the concerns of the people.
    He is the only candidate who raised questions about the military budget—do we really want to be spending $.57 of every tax $$$ on weaponry and illegal, immoral wars. Most of us don’t. Thank you Jack for being brave enough to raise these important issues.
    Everyone at the convention was expecting multiple ballots and that would have made a huge difference. The 2nd ballot, is when many of the people who felt ‘obligated’ to vote for Franken on the 1st ballot would have felt free to cast their vote for Jack. He was the candidate who is not only better on the issues, but more electable as well. I do feel that having Jack in this race raised the level of the debate, but sadly it’s in the dirt again now.
    The folks who worked on Jack’s campaign will still be working hard, continuing to build upon the momentous citizens movement that coalesced around Jack N-P. Keep checking for more details.
    We still need to work together to get rid of Norm!!!!

  6. Submitted by Patrick Guernsey on 06/09/2008 - 04:10 pm.

    T-Paw can make comments about not getting sex from his wife and people laugh. Franken writes jokes 10-15 years ago and the Republicans are offended? Does anybody else see the hypocrisy? Lets talk about Health Care, The war, the price of gas, and the total failure of the Republican Party. A party who has Karl Rove address their convention is way out of touch with Minnesota.

  7. Submitted by Alan Davis on 06/09/2008 - 06:04 pm.

    I think we need some good political satire aimed at Coleman. Franken hopefully will provide some of that. I find that satire scares people, particularly fundamentalists, and it angers them because they don’t understand how it works. Jonathan Swift, remember, was castigated for suggesting the Irish eat their own children. Franken should simply make clear that the kind of humor he practiced as a comedian is a different sort of beast from the kind of satire that he will use against an empty suit like Coleman. I’m embarrassed for the woman who resigned from the Feminist Caucus; it’s as if she’s been a member of some cult for years and has never turned on her television set, which is the medium where Franken made his living. I think most voters will see through the false allegations the Republicans will make against Franken. Al seems very good at bringing the discussion back to where it belongs – the issues.

  8. Submitted by Tom Lindquist on 06/10/2008 - 08:55 am.

    To Jackie Stevenson: To make a last minute endorsement, in the absence of the president of your caucus, to endorse a man who has made a living making raunchy jokes about women over a man who has spent his life fighting for the rights of all people, including women, is incomprehensible to me. I do believe that you placed the politics of fear and entrenched power before values in this case. I would like to know if you would be willing to fully disclose the process you used in deciding upon this endorsement. I’m curious also, did Jack need to apologize to you or to those gathered at the convention for the book he wrote 10 years ago?

  9. Submitted by John Olson on 06/09/2008 - 06:27 pm.

    I cannot fathom how there can be so much outrage about a body of “work” that Franken has done that spans decades and yet it seems it has taken the DFL 16 months to figure out what this guy did for a living. Maybe–just MAYBE–there was some offensive material in there? Ya think?

    Al needs to focus on the issues. And Gail, it is the PARTY that has placed you in that position–not Al. Remember, this is the state that elected a professional wrestler to the Governor’s mansion long before Ahnold came around, so it seems clear that the electorate in Minnesota is not afraid to make an unconventional choice. They are also not afraid to thumb their noses at both parties in the process.

    Personally, I am undecided. If I had to vote today, I would be tempted to skip it altogether and move onto the race for watershed district supervisor or something like that. Both parties have presented the voters with their candidate, but you have to buy your own antacid.

  10. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 06/11/2008 - 03:06 pm.

    Thanks, Amy, for a point of view that hasn’t been much expressed. I think many people expected the voting to go on and delegates to have the chance to switch to Jack. The fight between Ciresi backers and Franken backers co-opted what should have been a serious examination of what would be best for Minnesota and the country. This seat could make the difference in the Senate’s being able to overcome Republican filibusters and to approve judicial appointments that will affect generations to come. We’re all going to have to work hard ensuring that we have another Democratic Senator in Congress and a Democrat in the White House.

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