When it ended, there had to be some visuals, some imagery that matched the courtrooms that so dominated this saga. Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race — which technically began in 2007, clattered through 2008 and ended today midway through 2009 — deserved some telltale scenery.
And there it was. The opponents so nicely staged it. Call it closure.
There stood Norm Coleman, as gracious as he could be, right on time, at 3 p.m., speaking calmly, casually in his Crocus Hill backyard. His powder-blue shirt was open at the collar. His khakis were neat, his loafers brown.
The back steps of his St. Paul home framed his concession. To speak with the media in his garden, the former senator and former mayor walked through the back door of his yellow home. It spoke soft volumes.
Coleman was exiting.
An hour or so later, there stood Al Franken, as humble as he could be, senatorial in a blue suit and a multicolored blue tie. The front steps of his Minneapolis townhome framed his third victory speech in six months; once when the State Canvassing Board said he’d won, once when a three-judge panel declared he’d won, and now today when even Coleman allowed that — given the Supreme Court’s decision — Franken was Minnesota’s new senator.
This third Franken victory speech was the charm, the real victory speech. Celebratory balloons were attached to a nearby table of coffee and brownies. A crowd of supporters and downtown Minneapolis onlookers formed a public crowd.
The grayish blue front door told Franken’s tale. He was arriving. He was entering a new phase for him and for Minnesota politics.
After 34 Tuesdays of doubt, after nearly eight full months, over the course of every one of God’s seasons, from Tuesday Nov. 5, 2008, to Tuesday, June 30, 2009, Minnesotans waited painfully — some with annoyance, most with ennui — and wondered about who their second U.S. senator would be.
Then, like dominoes, it all fell into place, and all the hypotheses and speculation of the pundits of what would come after the Supreme Court ruled flew away like tattered newspapers in today’s cool summer breeze.
Some day soon — early next week — he will be officially Sen. Al Franken.
“We have a lot of work to do in Washington,” Franken said, “but that’s why I signed up for the job in the first place … When you win an election this close, you know that not one bit of effort went to waste … I want the people of Minnesota to know that I’m ready to work for all of you.”
For the protracted, contentious nature of the election, the final day moved swiftly, efficiently.
At 1 p.m., the Minnesota Supreme Court announced its unanimous decision favoring Franken. They shot down all of Coleman’s appeals issues. They said there wasn’t evidence or the law on his side.
It left no room for Coleman to reasonably appeal to a higher court.
As William Mitchell College of Law Prof. Raleigh Levine, an elections law expert, put it, the justices’ 32-page opinion was “virtually unassailable.”
The Supreme Court said it may have been only by 312 votes, but Franken clearly won. The Canvassing Board said it. A three-judge Minnesota district court election contest panel said it. And now the five-judge state Supreme Court said it.
Unanimously every time. All in all, a dozen judges sided with Franken.
By 1:47, Coleman spokesman Tom Erickson announced a news conference at the former senator’s home, a sure sign that concession was in the air. Every other time a legal decision came down, it was Coleman’s legal spokesman, Ben Ginsberg, who reacted and threatened appeal, or it was Coleman in a more formal setting, such as the State Office Building.
Some time soon after, Coleman, in his yellow St. Paul house, telephoned Franken, in his Minneapolis red-brick townhome, barely eight miles to the west on I-94, and they chatted.
Two men who’d spent — including the recount and legal contest — more than $50 million for that seat in the U.S. Senate – conducted an extremely civil conversation.
Coleman congratulated Franken.
“It was a very gracious call, I must say,” Franken said later.
Coleman said, with a smile: “I told him it’s the best job that he’ll ever have representing the people of Minnesota in the United States Senate.”
Franken: “I said, ‘Norm, it couldn’t have been closer.’ And I said to him that [his wife] Franni and I can only imagine what this is like for him and his family.”
Coleman said later: “It was a very personal discussion. A very positive discussion.”
Franken said later: “It was just a really nice moment between two people who really fought hard. That’s what I felt in the moment. This is nice. It’s a nice way to end this.”
Just past 3 p.m., with his daughter Sarah at his side (wife Laurie was in Rome), Coleman — very calm, “at peace,” he said, and looking at peace, said — “The Supreme Court of Minnesota has spoken. It’s time for Minnesota to come together under the leaders it has chosen.”
He added: “Sure I wanted to win … Not just for myself but for my wonderful supporters and the important values I have always fought for. I also thought it was important to stand up for enfranchising thousands of Minnesotans whose votes weren’t counted like the others were. After all, issues and politicians come and go, but voting is fundamental. It is the essence of democracy so I knew we needed to do everything we could to get it right.”
Then he said: “We have reached the point where further litigation damages the unity of our state, which is also fundamental. In these tough times, we all need to focus on the future. And the future today is we have a new United States senator.
“I don’t reach this point with any big regrets. I ran the campaign I wanted. I conducted the legal challenge I wanted. And I have always believed you do the best you can and leave the results up to a higher authority. I’m at peace with that. As to my future plans, that’s a subject for another day.”
A reporter asked if he felt all the votes had been counted. After all, Coleman, during his trial and in his appeal, wanted another 4,000 or so votes to be counted. The three-judge panel said no. The Supreme Court now said no.
The reporter wanted to get Coleman to complain or whine. Not today, sir. Not now.
“That’s history,” Coleman said. “I’m not looking back. I’m not questioning what’s counted, what’s not counted. The Supreme Court of Minnesota has decided.”
With that, any doubt that he would appeal was wiped away. With that, any syllables of bitterness wouldn’t be uttered on this Tuesday.
The dead end
Coleman was a good lawyer in his day, and he knew the strength of the Supreme Court’s opinion.
Levine, the Mitchell Law prof, said that, in reading the decision, “his route to the United States Supreme Court may have remained open, but it would have been a dead end.” The ruling was “carefully considered, well-reasoned” and it was unanimous, she noted.
“The ruling surprised me,” Coleman said, with a twinkle and his voice rising. “I thought we had a better case.”
He laughed, and as he did, gray clouds moved through a white sky above his backyard.
By then, by the time he’d walked out his back door, Coleman had called Gov. Tim Pawlenty, told him of his decision to halt the legalities, and thus freeing Pawlenty to sign the election certificate.
“I told him I was coming out here to make his life a little easier,” Coleman said, again with a smile, lifting any doubt about Pawlenty’s duty to sign the certificate.
As if on cue, at 3:17, the governor released a statement declaring, “In light of that decision and Senator Coleman’s announcement that he will not be pursuing an appeal, I will be signing the election certificate today as directed by the court and applicable law.”
With that, another domino fell. For months, the jabbering class had been wondering what the governor would do if Coleman sought to block the state Supreme Court’s ruling. The governor had long said he’d sign it when he was told to. And Coleman and the judges today told him to.
By 4:20, with that gaggle of curiosity seekers lining both sides of South 10th Street in Elliot Park, Franken emerged joyous through the front door, holding hands with his wife, Franni.
He downplayed his role as the 60th Democratic senator.
“That’s not how I see it. The way I see it I’m not going to Washington to be the 60th Democratic Senator, I’m going to Washington to be the second senator from the state of Minnesota.
He went on: “I promise to do my best to work hard to stand on principle when I believe I must and, yes, to compromise when I believe that that is in the best interests of the people of Minnesota …I can’t wait to get started.”
The new senator, once a comedian, has not lost his sense of humor.
When Don Davis of the Fargo-Moorhead Forum asked Franken, “How many more people do you have to hire?”
Franken, deadpan, didn’t miss a beat.
“You should send your thing to …,” he said, kibitzing with Davis about applying for a job.
But, Franken noted, as he waited for this day, he’d staffed up pretty well in Washington, D.C.
Later, answering more questions, Franken told a story about running into a new American citizen in a coffee shop the other day. Franken said he told the man that, because of the preparation for citizenship, this man might know more about how the U.S. government works than many longtime citizens.
The man told him that one of the questions on the citizenship test is, “How many senators are there?”
“I said, ‘What you put?’ ” Franken reported. “He said, ‘I put 100.’ ”
Franken continued: “I said, ‘There’s 99.’ We laughed … He laughed a little harder than I did.”
Now, there are 100 again.
“I see myself as the hundredth Senator,” Franken said, for that is his seniority rank. “I’m going to be entering with a lot of humility …I won by 312 votes. So I really need to earn the trust of the people who didn’t vote for me.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid confirmed in a phone call with Franken that he’ll be on the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, the Judiciary Committee, Indian Affairs and Aging Committees.
Despite arriving at midterm, Franken said he hoped to “hit the ground, if not running, trotting.”
By 5:30 or so, Coleman had Tweeted at his Twitter site.
He wrote, in lower case: “the minnesota supreme court has spoken. i congratulated al franken shortly before i spoke to the press. sorry i didn’t tweet here earlier!”
By 5:51, Franken had sent an email to his supporters.
“As Senator-elect, I intend to take our shared vision of progress to Washington and try to do right by every single Minnesotan … That’s the good news. Now, the bad news. Even though this process has reached its conclusion, we still very much need contributions to our recount fund.”
By 6:15 p.m., at the Governor’s Residence on Summit Avenue, a short stroll from Coleman’s house, Pawlenty signed the priceless election certificate. Minutes later, in his State Office Building office, down the hill from the residence, Ritchie counter-signed it.
Wednesday at noon, Franken will hold a rally at the State Capitol. Soon after, he’ll head up to the Iron Range for some Fourth of July events.
Next week, Coleman said, he’ll likely have an announcement about his political future. That will come about the same time Franken becomes Minnesota’s second U.S. senator in what’s sure to be a media circus at the Capitol.
“The election of November, 2008 — it was a long time ago — is over,” Norm Coleman, private citizen, said. “And we should all work together and support our new United States Senator.”
Sen. Al Franken.
Jay Weiner can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.