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.