A conversation with Al Franken on life in Minnesota’s political limbo

In the wee hours of Election Night, as an anticipation-filled Tuesday rolled into an uncertain Wednesday, Al Franken watched returns and received field reports in his Crowne Plaza Hotel suite in St. Paul.

He was surrounded by his wife, Franni, his two children, his sister, his mother-in-law and, from time to time, a sense of sadness.

He watched President-elect Barack Obama deliver a victory speech in Chicago. The nation collectively lifted a glass of champagne.

But 450 miles away, here in Minnesota, Franken was behind by 715 votes to Norm Coleman.

In that hotel suite, as much as Franken wanted it to be, this was no time for celebration.

“I wasn’t happy that we were behind, and I take a lot of responsibility on my shoulders,” Franken said Saturday in an interview with MinnPost. “The reason I did this is to get health care for people and make sure kids are better educated and to change our energy policy and make sure there’s oversight done by Congress to prevent waste, fraud and abuse … I felt the hopes and dreams of a lot of people were resting on our campaign … I was actually more than anything a little sad that there was a chance that I wasn’t going to be able to do that and had let down those people.”

Still, just hours after the polls had closed, his campaign was poised for a recount. Campaign manager Stephanie Schriock had already put together a legal team.
“I started talking to folks about what the pattern is in these things,” Franken said of the recount. “There tends to be a subset of people who vote Democratic who make errors on ballots … What we were looking at was a very, very good chance that we would prevail. I sort of became energized by doing the recount.”

Ninety-six days later, here we are, and here he is, in an odd political purgatory, having won that recount but still needing to win an election contest trial, which today begins Week Three.

Al Franken
MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
Al Franken talked about his priorities for the economic stimulus package.

Saturday, on an almost-spring-like afternoon, MinnPost chatted with Franken in his downtown Minneapolis townhouse. We talked about his winter in limbo, his January and February of antsiness, his disappointment in the “atmospherics” of politics despite the Obama election and the increased thickness of his skin.

The man who has been ahead by 225 votes since the completion of the recount on Jan. 5 wanted mostly to talk about policy and about his plans when — and if — he gets Minnesota’s second U.S. Senate seat.

He’s known to most as a polarizing, recovering comedian. But he’s a carefully talking wonk these days. Heck, Amy Klobuchar’s a barrel of monkeys these days, compared with Franken.

He wanted to talk specifically about how he would dive into the necessary oversight of any economic stimulus package, about his urgency to tackle health care reform, about funding for digital medical records and about reworking “No Child Left Behind.”

It’s his voice on them that Minnesotans are missing as one Senate seat remains open. That, he says, is why he’s unapologetically fighting in the Minnesota Supreme Court to provisionally receive his election certificate even as the trial drags on and state law seems to go against him.

But first …

All kinds of stuff
No, he said, he hasn’t been hiding, even though he’s been accused of that by the Republican Party of Minnesota and in the media, mostly by WCCO’s Esme Murphy.

The Channel 4 journalist went after both Coleman and Franken in one week’s time, first putting Coleman on the spot about a controversial lawsuit in Texas and then bashing Franken in her blog for allegedly being missing-in-action. (He did appear Sunday on WCCO’s morning news.)

Franken said Saturday that he conducted a series of interviews with Twin Cities-linked reporters in Washington, D.C., around the time of the inauguration. He didn’t think he was hiding, no.

But what of the trial? Coleman has been a regular visitor and has leveraged those days with the media corps to declare that Franken’s lead is “artificial.”

“When you see Norm Coleman in court, do you ever think: ‘Why is Norm there and I’m not? I wish I was there, too’?” I asked.

“I sometimes think, ‘Why is Norm there and I’m not,’ ” Franken said. “But I don’t think, ‘I wish I was there, too.’ “

He laughed his big-grin, noisy laugh.

He said he’s been watching some trial activity via TheUpTake.org live streaming and gets daily briefings from his lawyers. But being there every day? He said he’s been using his time more wisely.

“We just didn’t want to make it a media circus,” he said.

“You failed miserably,” I replied.

“Well, we didn’t want to add to the circus,” he said.

It continues today, where a half-dozen cameras will be set up outside the courtroom and eight or 10 reporters will gather for news briefings at least twice daily by campaign spokesmen.

Not the Al I expected
He calls it “a career change.” It’s something lots of folks are doing these days.

For someone who had a chance to interview Franken for the first time, he’s not whom I expected.

He sat relaxed on a couch in his Minneapolis townhouse, the Elliott Park neighborhood traffic in the background. He’d just made a pot of coffee and sipped it from a baby blue cup imprinted with the words, “Scott County DFL Victory Mug.”

He wasn’t cursing. He wasn’t name-calling. He wasn’t angry. He didn’t call Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly or Norm Coleman a big fat idiot. Not once. Not even close.

I tried to lure him there. He wouldn’t bite.

I told him a story of a baseball pitcher who’d lost his no-hitter one night in a game I’d covered. The disruptive hitter was a nobody. A veteran sportswriter, bolder than I am, in a gaggle of vulture-like reporters, asked the first question to the dejected pitcher: “Do you hate that guy?”

So, I asked Franken: “Do you hate Norm Coleman? Do you really dislike him?”

Franken paused and said: “That’s not what this is about at all. And during the campaign, what the campaign became more about was the mom in Fergus Falls, who had diabetes and her 24-year-old son had diabetes and she had to share her insulin with him because he didn’t have health insurance. He couldn’t afford it … Any of that [personal] stuff pales to the stories that you hear and see every day when you’re campaigning.”

It was a transformation from my first impression of Franken nearly three years ago. I heard him speak then at a journalism awards banquet where he became publicly annoyed and repetitive about a short story in the Pioneer Press that called him “an omnipresent blabbermouth.”

He seemed a tad bit sensitive to be a U.S. senator.

Thicker skin now in February of ’09?

“Oh yeah,” Franken said.

He’s had to acquire it. The man who once dished it out continues to be the target for nasty jabs even now. Just last week, the Republican Party of Minnesota posted yet another web video, trashing Franken for his (somewhat ancient) in-campaign tax controversy and linking his case — in which he paid taxes but to the wrong states — with those of Obama appointees.

Franken hadn’t heard of the latest web slam, but he said: “One of the great things about being a candidate is traveling the state talking to folks and realizing this is not about you, it’s not about the press coverage of you — this is about them. This is about the people of Minnesota, this is about the retired miner in Eveleth who got 30 cents on the dollar on his pension because the company that owned the mine went bankrupt.”

He sipped his coffee calmly.

“So that sort of makes you go, ‘If someone does a web video that isn’t fair, I think I’ll not bother to look at it.’ “

If you voted for Franken, it was likely for four reasons: (A) he wasn’t Coleman; (B) he was a Democrat in a year when Republicans were on the outs big time; (C) you voted for who he’d been: a satirist-turned-lightning-rod author and right-wing targeted radio talk show host; or (D) you actually liked him as a candidate.

Franken stood at the intersection of venom and partisanship, on the left side of the street throwing and receiving tomatoes from guys on the other side.

But now, as he seeks this career change — with absentee ballots and statutes standing in the way — even he’s been taken aback by the partisanship in Washington and St. Paul in the wake of President Obama taking office and as the economic stimulus package dips into Minnesota-like political potholes along the way.

“I do think the Obama election signaled a change in the way politics was going to be done,” Franken said. “I also thought … the seriousness of the problems facing America meant a change in the atmospherics of our politics. And I’ve been disappointed actually. It seems like some don’t see it the same way I do it. I really thought this would be a more bipartisan period. That’s what Obama campaigned on.”

The partisanship — with few Republicans backing a stimulus package that Franken supports — has occurred while economic problems have nosedived — “We’re in a deep recession, and we really have to be careful that this doesn’t become a depression.”

But can Franken refrain from partisanship? After all, he’s been the ornery, dug-in leftist. How can such a nuclear personality change the atmospherics?

“A lot of what I wrote satirically was about how bad [partisanship] was, that was the irony of that,” he said. ” ‘Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot’ — part of the point of that title was the irony. ‘Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right’ is an ironic title. I was decrying the partisanship. I look forward to going to the Senate and working with all of my colleagues.”

58 percent solution
He seemed to be, to use the latest term of art, “shovel ready” for the job. That is, should the three-judge panel of Elizabeth Hayden, Kurt Marben and Denise Reilly start making some key legal decisions sometime soon, Franken’s poised. He plans to be in Washington again this week for meetings.

He reiterated what his chief recount lawyer Marc Elias has been saying for nearly three months: Franken wants every “legally cast ballot” counted. Franken rejected the notion that his legal team’s strategy in the election contest is to somehow negate votes.

Exactly how the judges ultimately define “legally cast” will go a long way in determining whether it’s Senator Coleman or Franken being sworn in later this year.

But, no matter what, if he wins, if he gets the seat, he will have won the support of barely more than 42 percent of the voters, with the other 58 percent having voted for Coleman or the Independence Party’s Dean Barkley.

“I realize that,” he said. “I’ll be the senator for all Minnesota … The most important way to show those 58 percent is through action and through my work in the Senate.”

He’ll spend lots of time in the state listening to citizens.

“My plan is to really get to know the pilots and flight attendants on Northwest,” he said, not bowing to the new Delta name.  “It’s Northwest to me.”

He said that, like Paul and Sheila Wellstone did, his wife, Franni, will be traveling with him most of the time “as a team.”

“We discovered we like aisle seats across from each other,” he said.

I said: “That’s good for holding hands on takeoffs and landings.”

“Or when you land in the Hudson,” he said, the comedian re-appearing.

Distance learning
Friday night, when the Senate debate on the stimulus package heated up, Franken said he received phone calls from the Senate “cloak room,” keeping him abreast of the situation.

He’s regularly on the phone to members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation and their staff members, he said.

He would be fighting to keep elements in the stimulus package that seem to be getting cut — for example, funding for research into renewable energy and for the expansion of rural broadband networks.

He’s been a big booster of “shovel-ready” infrastructure projects, even during the campaign. But, he said: “Maybe research in renewable energy isn’t as stimulative as building a bridge. But it’s something we need to do — whether it’s in the stimulus package … fine, as long as we do it. That’s what I would have liked to have been in the [Senate meeting] room to say. ‘You want to take out some funding for rural broadband because it’s not stimulative enough? … It does create jobs … If you want to take it out of the package and we’ll put in a energy bill or appropriations bill in a month, I’m fine with that.’ “

So, he’s preparing for those sorts of backroom discussions. But can Al Franken compromise?

“It probably depends on the issue,” he said. “There’s sometimes it’s better to get half a loaf than no loaf. And sometimes it’s time to take a stand.”

Week Three begins
If bad comes to worse, if push comes to shove, if this legal contest ends as political poetry might demand — in a dead tie — what happens then?

Apparently, there’s a coin toss.

If it comes to that, Franken was asked, would he call heads or tails.

He thought about it.

“I’m not going to commit to heads or tails,” he said.

How much more senatorial can you get?

As he walked me to the blue-gray front door of his house, Franken wanted a final word.  He wanted to talk more about policy and about his desire to have a “Truman Committee”-like group to oversee any stimulus package that passes.

During World War II, then Sen. Harry Truman formed a committee to investigate military contracts; it wound up saving the country billions of dollars. Franken said the stimulus package needs such monitoring — the kind last year’s bank bailout didn’t have — to protect against the “disastrous catastrophe of waste, fraud, abuse and stupidity” that occurred in Iraq war spending.

Franken seemed seriously shovel-ready. But today 10 miles from his home, the tedium and seriousness of the election contest continues. Franken will have to be antsy for a while longer.

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

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/09/2009 - 11:02 am.

    Putting aside the fact that so many people find Franken’s record of past behavior beyond reprehensible, his recent statements highlight why it is perfectly reasonable to expect that he will add this “career change” to the list of failed endeavors he has been involved in.

    For instance, despite the fact that he has blamed his tax woes on his accountant, and blamed his embarrassing involvement with the Gloria Wise charity scandal and the subsequent prevarications he issued in his defense on his lawyer, he claims to be an “oversight stickler”.

    Excuse me for saying so, but how a man that failed to oversee his one man tax shelter is going to effectively oversee the business of millions of Minnesotan’s is beyond me.

    During a recent interview on MPR, Franken was asked for some details regarding his efforts to “stay informed” with Senate business and was utterly unable to speak to any issue with any more insight than someone that reads the daily newspaper.

    Having said all that, I have to admit that it is a sad fact that the best we can hope for if, and when Senator Coleman is returned, is that he probably won’t become the national laughing stock our would-be comedian turned US Senator is guaranteed to be.

  2. Submitted by Ted Miller on 02/09/2009 - 11:49 am.

    Our nation is in dire straights.

    Our economy has been desimated by eight years of right wing buffoonery.

    Republicans are holding our nation hostage to a failed minority viewpoint in the senate.

    Minnesotans, we need your help. Tim Polenteeee is making a mockery of the election process.

    Rise Up. Demand that Franken is seated.

    We need you. NOW.

  3. Submitted by jon Schumacher on 02/09/2009 - 12:49 pm.

    Mr. Weiner,

    First, I am disappointed that you didn’t get a picture of the two of you together, I am told the resemblance is uncanny.

    Second, I think that if you start looking into the history of our leaders, many of our best have probably had tax/legal problems far greater than Mr. Franken’s. Mr. Swift talks about returning Mr. Coleman as if he has had no involvement in questionable practices over his career.

    So, either you exclude every single person from office who has ever had trouble with the IRS or the law (95% of our citizens) or you make some common sense judgements based on the candidates’ handling of these issues.

    In Minnesota’s senate race, i don’t think either candidate has been completely honest with us about their problems. So, we base our vote on past performance. That is, of course, a subjective process, but one which should use similar criteria for evaluation.

  4. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/09/2009 - 04:59 pm.

    As the Senate tried to piece together it’s own stimulus bill, the last days involved about ten Senate “moderates” who by virtue of being part of this small group became more powerful than the other 90 plus senators. If either Franken or Coleman was now seated in the Senate, would either of them been considered one of the “moderates”?

  5. Submitted by B Dan Forth on 02/10/2009 - 11:01 am.

    Sitting in Florida, and having been involved at the edges of the Y2K election fiasco, the World would be a much less disastrous place if we had been able have the kind of vote count MN had.

    What we have seen is that there is an extremist element that has captured the Republican Party and has no concern for fact or even consistency except to destroy or block anything that might help actual walking around people.

    Coleman’s insistence of quick resolution when nominally ahead, and then grasping at the tiniest straw no matter how long it takes, with what seems to be more about preventing MN from having a voice in the Senate for as long as possible, than actually expecting that he had won.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/14/2009 - 09:52 am.

    Franken’s tax problems are a non issue. Earning revenue in multiple states and paying the right taxes in every state is a very complex issue prone to mistakes. Al didn’t dodge any taxes, he paid them. Those who still try to make hay out of his tax mistakes are grasping at straws.

    As for this bi-partisan fantasy so many people seem to be floating around with… Contemporary Republican’s are one of the most ideologically fervent groups of people the US has ever seen in it’s entire history. Essentially what we have witnessed in the last 20 years is a third Great Awakening of Christian Fundamentalism, and the Republicans have been the political point men. Expecting these guys who have politicized everything from climate change to public education is ridiculously naive. They want nothing less than to erase the twentieth century and they’re not going to change. You can’t make nice with these guys, they’re not going to work with you. Despite the fact that they’ve trashed the economy every time they’ve got in power, they continue to advocate more tax cuts. Despite the fact that every time they get in power they produce some or another huge economic bubble caused by some corporate crime wave or another they continue dismantle the very agencies that would have prevented such bubbles. They see an ideal world of fantasy rather than the one that we live in, it’s like trying to reason with a psychotic.

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