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Franken-Coleman Recount: One reporter’s personal journey through the spin and Twitter of a post-modern, post-campaign campaign

By Jay Weiner | Friday, Dec. 5, 2008
Thrown into the rough-and-tumble world of Senate recount politics, I’ve seen up close the near-daily back-and-forth political bickering and efforts to grab the media’s attention. It ain’t been pretty.

Ever since the first day of the actual recount, such as this scene in Minneapolis, the two campaigns have held dueling briefings to offer their partisan take on the proceedings.
MinnPost photo by Marisa Helms
Ever since the first day of the actual recount, such as this scene in Minneapolis, the two campaigns have held dueling briefings to offer their partisan take on the proceedings.

I am on St. Paul’s University Avenue, commuting from an Al Franken campaign news briefing to a Norm Coleman campaign news briefing.

I am a passenger on The Forked Tongue Express. It’s a grimy ride, but about 10 of us take it daily, journalists and camera operators guarding our shaky democracy.

The scenery is lovely, including the Minnesota School of Bartending, which could be my next career option, and Bonnie’s Café, which I have always wanted to enter but been too scared to.

As the Great Recount of 2008 (and ’09) is set to end (again) today, the spin machines remain in high gear. It got so bad one day this week that both campaigns scheduled news conferences at the same exact time. No, the reporters yelled, don’t do that to us. The Franken folks kindly pushed theirs up 45 minutes.

It’s 1.2 miles on my minivan’s odometer between Franken headquarters, just west of Hwy. 280, to Coleman’s offices on Transfer Road., in St. Paul’s Midway.

I pingpong from one reality to another.

My problem
Soon after Election Day, the brilliant editors at MinnPost drafted me to “help out” on the Senate recount. Hah.

“Help out” has turned into attending every news briefing and chasing many news tidbits while seeking to add some fresh-eyed perspective. I am not a political pundit. I am an aging neophyte, who spent 28 years at the Star Tribune covering sports issues.

I am a 54-year-old political campaign virgin. Love hurts.

Two years ago, while still at the Star Tribune, on another editor’s whim, I wrote a profile of Republican Senate candidate Mark Kennedy. I kind of liked him — I was an outlier there — and enjoyed two weeks of learning about him. But I didn’t cover the campaign.

I’ve covered parts of a half-dozen legislative sessions at the State Capitol, all having to do with sports stadiums and arenas. So I’ve been around political leaders, but not as they ran for office.

And I’d never been a witness to the innards of political theater and sound-bite creation as I have the past month.

As we say in Minnesota, it’s been different.

Jabber, jabber
My introduction to this monster came on Nov. 13 at my first news conference. It was at Franken’s headquarters.

There, youthful attack dog and blogger Andy Barr, Franken’s communications director, started the session, thusly: “First, I’d like to discuss a pattern of misdirection and misinformation from the Coleman campaign and its surrogates and allies designed to undermine this process and keep votes from being counted.”

Was this Al Franken headquarters or al-Qaeda headquarters? I thought the bearded Barr was reading from a coded communiqué.

The speaker phone was on, and reporters from around the nation, from websites like and and were probably on the line ready to post every syllable.

I quickly got the drift. We were fish. Barr was an angler with tasty, quotable bait, and we were to bite. I also figured this out: This recount wasn’t a local story. I was catching on.

Of course, that day the Coleman side had its own fighting words, although when I first started covering this, I missed them because MinnPost was viewed as some sort of fringe-y news outlet. That treatment didn’t last long, and since about Day Three of me being held hostage by the recount, the Coleman campaign’s communications staff has been perfectly open and affirming to me and my kind.

But, on style points, Barr is particularly entertaining because of his inability to mince words. One day, his briefing began with, “The right-wing spin machine has done it again.”

I laughed. How can’t you?

What’s fascinating is the different approaches to media relations and propaganda that both sides have taken.

Franken’s side has nationalized its position. It brought in noted Washington, D.C., political lawyer Marc Elias to oversee the recount. Barr’s role aside, Elias is clearly the face of the Franken recount. Dating myself, Barr is Ed McMahon to Elias’ Johnny Carson.

Coleman’s side has gone local and extremely narrow. Once in a while, Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan stands before the mics, but the chief voice and face of the recount is longtime Twin Cities lawyer and former state Sen. Fritz Knaak.

In my life, I had never met anyone affiliated with either campaign until three weeks ago, except for Mark Drake, the Coleman campaign’s communications director. I think we met once. Mark is notably courteous to me. (Later, I would find out that a neighbor and friend was one of Franken’s legal observers in northern Minnesota, but we haven’t talked about the recount to make sure we remain friends!)

Elias is a trip. He’s tall and balding, a suburban New Yorker who went to law school at Duke, and who is excitable and demonstrative. He waves challenged ballots. He crafts slogans: “Find the ballots! Find the ballots!”

I would not want him anywhere near the nuclear button because the more he thinks about something that he truly cares about, the more riled he gets, his voice rises and he suggests controversial things … like taking the recount to the U.S. Senate floor. It’s fun to watch.

What’s odd is that former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug, who makes cucumbers sweat, is actually the Franken campaign’s chief lawyer. Lillehaug is as calm and reasoned as they come, or so it seems. I have now met him a grand total of one time.

But I have seen him in court, and the man is cool as can be.

Lillehaug hasn’t attended one press briefing, not a one.

Exactly why Elias is the frontman seems odd to me, but, it seems, the Franken campaign has been playing to a more national audience during this recount, and Thursday’s announcement that it had raised $2.1 million to fund the recount suggests that was a strategy. Coleman’s side did OK, too, with $1.8 million.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m addicted to Elias. He makes me laugh. His media briefings are far better than watching CNBC as the market crashes.

On the other side is Knaak. He’s as Minnesotan as Minnesota gets. His name is Fritz, for gosh’ sakes, and he’s from Anoka and went to St. John’s and the U.

I know he’s partisan as all get out. I know his sneak attack on the Franken campaign right after Election Day, with the story of 32 missing ballots in a car, was just wrong. And his comments, along with GOP Chairman Ron Carey that Coleman had won the election twice or thrice even before the recount started was just silly.

But sometimes — and I could be wrong — I get the feeling that he’s a bit embarrassed by some of the propaganda he spews forth at the start of his briefings.

Knaak walks in to a small and cluttered media room. He’s almost always right on time. He puts down his head, places both hands firmly on the side of the lectern and he almost mumbles the talking points.

On Wednesday, he started by congratulating Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss for winning his runoff election — this in a briefing for Minnesota journalists only — and then added: “Minnesotans, like Georgians, are confident there will be an end to this process … Of course, the ball is now in the Franken campaign’s court as to whether or not they choose to respect the results of this recount and the will of Minnesota voters or if they’ll insist on employing every legal avenue open to them …”

Somewhat gratuitous, it seemed, as most of both campaign’s rat-a-tat-tats are, but then, when Knaak is done, he carefully and soberly answers the questions, often punctuated with knife-like digs, such as his comment the other day that Coleman was ahead by 2,200 votes … in response to Elias claiming Franken was ahead by 22 votes.

“I have no evidence of this,” Knaak said, “but I like the sound of it.”

To me, Knaak is that stern co-worker of your father’s you see three times a year at some gathering you were dragged to. The firm handshake, the sincere ‘How are you?’ … but you wouldn’t want to date his daughter.

Anyway, I asked Knaak about all the rhetoric. Why?

“Both organizations are on edge,” he said the other day. “It’s a very competitive environment that we’re in. Both organizatons keep their people focused and energized, as opposed to going ‘Scando’ on them. People want us to be focused. Volunteers want us to be focused.”

Playing to the base, so to speak, even though the election is over?

Sounds like it. Same with Franken.

But when I asked Barr why all the trash talk every day, he basically answered: “They started it.”

Sort of like in fourth grade.

And they said they’d won and they talked about the 32 lost votes in the car and they got Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Fox News talking about lost ballots and … and …

“It’s been a long campaign,” Barr said, sheepishly.

We are the problem
That’s the real point. The campaign is STILL on in their minds. The structures exist. The staff is there. The fundraising continues. The bitterness remains.

And then there’s us. The big, bad media. And there’s our news cycle, which is the half-life of a firefly.

I’m a perpetrator. For this fine website, I have sent stories on my iPhone and within minutes those stories have been Twittered back to me on my iPhone by my Gnews RSS.

If you understand that, then you know that it’s dangerous out there.

You’ve got the legacy media — like the local newspapers. You’ve got the local website, like ours and Minnesota Independent and the UpTake. You’ve got local and national partisan bloggers. You’ve got national political websites, like Politico.

“It’s feeding the beast,” said Jon Austin, the Twin Cities-based public relations and public affairs consultant, who once represented Northwest Airlines and political candidates. “And for political junkies, now that elections are over around the country, this recount is the only political theater left.”

There is a frenzy among the intellijunksia with our mobile phones and instant messaging. It’s not healthy.

Going national, on Franken’s part, means the eyes of the world are on Minnesota, perhaps pressuring public officials here.

Meanwhile, Coleman has his core constituency, and it needs to know their side has its Rhetorical Army on guard.

“If you don’t do something and the other guys do, you get lost,” said Mike Zipko, of the public affairs firm Goff & Howard, who once worked for Coleman. “If you don’t pull the rope, it slips down on your hands. Everything is so constant. There’s not a news cycle anymore. It’s like a news moment.”

So, if Elias says Franken is ahead by exactly 22 votes or Knaak says Franken’s team is trying to overturn the recount … that sort of stuff is “news” … for 10 minutes on many websites before there’s more news.

“It’s the race until the finish line,” said Zipko. “And both sides keep pushing.”

Tell me about it.

Transparency Alert
I have covered Sen. Coleman, off and on, for about a dozen years, starting, of course, when he was the mayor of St. Paul, where I live.

Our relationship, I’d say, was cordial but a bit chilly, mostly because I often wrote about the problems with the funding of arenas, and my belief that bringing an NHL team back into the Twin Cities would unduly clutter the sports market and stress other franchises and publicly funded facilities. I was also unconvinced that an effort he made to bring the Twins to St. Paul was ever legitimate.

Plus, I knew guys who knew guys who knew Coleman, and they weren’t big fans of his single-minded ambition and political party-switching.

We had some moments — as all reporters and public officials do — but were always, generally, respectful of each other. Once, in an interview about how Xcel Energy Center was to be funded, Coleman condescendingly assured me that he was a better businessman than I … which is absolutely true, but I don’t think he’s ever been a businessman either.

The last time I saw the senator was at a fancy downtown Minneapolis restaurant with my family.

“Hey,” I said to my teenage sons after we’d finished dinner, “would you like to meet a U.S. senator?”

“Not, really,” they said in unison, as they gulped down their expensive meal. “Thanks for asking.”

But, to score points with a man who could, potentially, bail these same sons out of a foreign jail one day, I proactively brought my wife and sons over to Coleman to say hello and kiss his ring.

It was a friendly exchange — Coleman’s children are close in age to ours — but it turned into a conversation in the car going home about the senator’s extremely bright dentist-induced smile.

As it turns out, Coleman was sitting with an older man who, I now believe, was his suit-buying, trip-supporting patron, Nasser Kazeminy, but I don’t know that to be sure.

As a Minnesotan and St. Paul resident, for all the times and all the offices he’s sought, I have never voted for Coleman. I was particularly numbed by his defeat of Walter Mondale after Paul Wellstone’s death.

So, that was my bias coming into the recount. Yes, reporters have biases.

As for Franken, I have met him once. It was at a Ramadan fast break earlier this year hosted by an acquaintance of mine. I didn’t know Franken would be there, but it turned into a campaign stop for him.

I have been told a million times I look like him. (You be the judge.)

I’ve never been a big “Saturday Night Live” viewer, so haven’t been that familiar with his work.

My wife and he happen to have been in the same college class — Harvard 1973 — but didn’t know each other. I attended their 25th reunion as an alumna spouse where Franken emceed the class talent show.

He was fall-down, stomach-aching, nose-running hysterical with his jokes and comments. I didn’t even get the inside-Hah-vud jokes but was in pain from all the laughter. The guy, that night, was major-league funny.

That’s all I knew about Franken until the night of June 14, 2006. That’s when I somehow won some journalism award while at the Star Tribune and was invited to a banquet of the Society of Professional Journalists at the Town and Country Club.

I never go to those banquets — who wants to hang out with professional journalists? — but saw that he was going to be the keynote speaker, and decided that Ann and I should enjoy a couple of yuks and get a feel for his political future.

I got that feel early. I don’t have a tape of his way too-long, self-serving speech, but I remember it clearly for being absurdly boring and defensive.

That very same morning, the Pioneer Press had published a wire-service feature about right-wing darling Ann Coulter, her latest nasty new book and how she used “outrageousness as a marketing tool.” The writer of the piece — not a Pioneer Press staffer, but someone from Newhouse News Service — listed Franken as someone with the same marketing shtick and described him as, among other things, an “omnipresent blabbermouth.”

Franken took to the microphone that night — with, what? 250 local journalists, journalism professors and their guests all poised to be entertained — and proceeded to take repeated umbrage at the Pioneer Press calling him an “omnipresent blabbermouth” … although that’s exactly what he was on that otherwise lovely June evening.

Amid a rambling presentation, he must have circled back to the blabbermouth label three or four times, clearly bothered by it, even after calling someone else a “big fat idiot” and getting rich off it.

Jason Hoppin and Dave Orrick of the Pioneer Press — who are both doing a strong job covering this recount, by the way — wrote about Franken’s performance in their “City Hall Scoop” blog and described the scene aptly, with everyone “squirming in their seats.”

Franken’s speech confused and alienated just about everyone in attendance and, as we drove home, I knew then he wasn’t ready for prime-time and the slings and arrows that candidates receive from the media.

If “omnipresent blabbermouth” bothers you for more than 10 seconds, you’re not going to be able to handle the sharp elbows of real-world politics.

So, this all goes by way of saying that I find it odd that this recount has seemed so punky and chippy from the PR side.

I would bet both of these candidates take the stuff from the other side personally. Why dish it out?

Random thoughts
Some other random thoughts as I watch my credibility circle down the drain:

• Where are the women?
If this recount has been anything, it’s been a guy thing.

Lots of chest puffing. Lots of trash talk. Lots of bald guys. Lots of testosterone.

I wonder — as a newcomer to this whole scene — what if the Dems had run a woman against Coleman this time around and not Franken?

Would we be here with the vote this close and the atmosphere this nasty?

In my long weeks of political coverage, the most influential woman in this recount is the Pioneer Press’ Rachel Stassen-Berger, who, as much as any reporter, gives Knaak and Elias a hard and disbelieving time.

Maybe Rachel, granddaughter of former Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen, should run for the Senate. A Stassen is due to win.

• Are there only two experts in town or in the universe? Are there only a pair of quote machines?
I admire University of Minnesota political scientist and workaholic Larry Jacobs, and not only because he had the courage to play football at Oberlin College, which is the ultimate anti-football factory. Larry does great scholarly work and has cranked up the energy at the Humphrey Institute big-time.

But is Larry the only expert on anything political in this town? I swear he had an opinion on the recent Student Council vote at Battle Creek Middle School … and MPR highlighted it at the top of the hour. And I listened!!

No, there’s also Steven Schier at Carleton, who seems to have been a pundit in Minnesota even before it was trendy to be pundit. And his voice makes the sound of nails on a chalkboard appealing.

• The back story.
When I was drafted onto this merry-go-round, I watched my colleagues in the mainstream media do their jobs. I was a newbie observer more than a participant. I found their questions to be very narrow, detailed and minutiae focused.

It’s like sports writing. Too many of my jock journalists ask about curveballs and zone defenses and not enough about steroid use and public funding of stadiums. It is a forest-and-trees deal.

But like most controversies, I’ve gotta say that I think the local legacy newspapers have done well, particularly in uncovering the details and minutiae of problems within our voting system, with missing ballots and finding out that the 84-year-old woman from Bemidji with a stroke wasn’t 84 and maybe not a woman and probably didn’t live in Bemidji and never had a stroke.

(We need to chest-bump that MinnPost’s David Brauer uncovered the reality that 32 votes that the Coleman campaign said were missing in a car early on actually weren’t.)

The Star Tribune, Pioneer Press and Minnesota Public Radio have helped bring the ballots — and some of the frivolous challenges — to the public via their websites.

So, as we witness the power of these mega-journalism shops, it’s been mindblowing to simultaneously see the financial troubles of the Star Tribune — my employer for 28 years — even as the recount has puttered along and I’ve traversed University Avenue daily.

It’s as if Mother Democracy is having a senior moment, permitting all this recount noise while overseeing the long, slow goodbye of well-staffed, well-resourced relatively unbiased watchdogs.

• Is this Chicago or Argentina?
This election process is scary. Lost ballots. Challenges of ballots that are crystal clear as to voter intent. Absentee ballots being turned down for silly reasons. Machines jamming.

We are supposed to be a model for the U.S. electoral system. And I do believe that the public servants who oversee, judge and count our state elections are honest folks.

Still, when this is all over, someone needs to sit down and figure out how to make this process more exacting. Jimmy Carter flies from Outer Slobovia to Inner Backwaterstan observing primitive elections.

If I didn’t know better, I’d recommend he observe this one, too.

Former Gov. Arne Carlson has become a sage in retirement.

It’s amazing. I don’t think there’s anyone in Minnesota politics who had a reputation for nastiness and a long memory more than Carlson. I covered him when he was state auditor, and I reported on stories about a State High School League scandal and, then, as he was governor and I wrote on pro sports finance issues.

In this maelstrom of bad vibes, no-new-taxes and mean-spirited websites, Carlson has become a voice of reason.

When, in my not-so-best-selling book about stadiums, I wrote about his administration’s attempt to keep the Twins in Minnesota, the governor went ballistic on every radio station he could and blasted me. It wasn’t fun.

But I heard him again the other day on radio and the man made enormous sense.

When he was asked by MPR host Gary Eichten about the state of politics in America, Gov. Carlson said simply and, it sounded, with sadness in his voice, “It’s all about winning, not about serving.”

His words came amid a day or two when the Coleman and Franken sides were slinging so much propaganda I had to duck to avoid serious injury.

I know that a candidate has to win so he or she can serve, but there is that awful notion of winning at all costs or believing that the ends justify the means.

I know that the Democrats controlling the Senate is important for most of my friends (including me), but riddle me this: When this recount ends today, and then goes to the State Canvassing Board and, perhaps, into the courts, who will the winner truly be?

No matter who takes that seat, he will know — we will know — that 58 percent of Minnesotans voted against him, give or take 130 votes floating around in Minneapolis somewhere.

Nearly 60 percent of us voted for “none of the above.”  That’s a landslide of a defeat for “the winner.”

All of these news briefings, all of this money, all of this broadband width, all of this “partisan bickering,” all of this anger, for what?

For 42 percent of the vote?

I need to cover political campaigns for longer than a month to understand that math.

Jay Weiner can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.