WASHINGTON, D.C. – The nation looked on today as Minnesota’s marathon Senate race finally came to rest with Sen. Al Franken’s hand on the late Sen. Paul Wellstone’s family Bible.
But, perhaps none — outside of Franken’s family and close friends — watched with more interest as the Minnesota Democrat took his seat in one of the most powerful lawmaking chambers on Earth than those time-honored chums of the politically connected — interest groups and lobbyists.
“We know that things won’t change overnight,” said Brad Lehto, chief of staff at the Minnesota AFL-CIO. “[But] we are very encouraged … because now we get another vote to help break the logjam [on priority legislation like health care reform and the Employee Free Choice Act].”
Lehto was one of a cast of labor leaders, lobbying bigwigs, lawmakers and Democratic operatives who gathered this afternoon for a celebratory reception on the ninth floor of the Hart Senate Office Building, six stories above Franken’s new office.
This evening, the national AFL-CIO also hosted a private reception for Franken and his family.
While the key players who convened to toast the new senator were joined by hundreds of smaller individual donors and longtime family friends — including Franken’s grade-school teacher Val Molin, who was featured in early ads — their presence served as a reminder of the tit-for-tat reality of American politics.
“Clearly he owes a lot of groups a lot of favors,” said David Schultz, a professor of law at Hamline University in St. Paul. “I am not saying that he is bought and paid for, but clearly he will feel obligated to a lot of groups to really support their agenda … and it’s not just the lobbyists. There are a lot of people who are assuming that he will be a reliably Democratic vote and a reliable vote for the president.”
Much has been made about Franken’s position as the filibuster-ending 60th vote in the Senate if party affiliation holds. Franken, however, has tried to present himself first and foremost as the second vote from Minnesota.
But, Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, said today that he thought Franken’s appointment would still help the Democratic agenda.
“I think this is the first time that the Democrats have a chance to put their stamp on a set of policies that America needs,” said Stern.
Dan Gilchrist, a federal lobbyist for the University of Minnesota, said that he also was looking forward to working with Franken on health care and education issues.
“I had been getting a lot of grief from other higher-ed lobbyists” who said I didn’t have enough to do with only one senator, Gilchrist joked.
As a Democratic senator who ran in support of expansive health care reform, climate change legislation and union rights, Franken will probably satisfy many of his liberal supporters, according to Schultz. But, he added that Franken’s very low seniority and currently tepid popularity in Minnesota, where more than half of voters did not support him, could present complications.
He could “face tension on delivering on a national agenda versus having to worry about shoring up his own base,” Schultz said.
During today’s festivities, however, the plates were filled high with fancy appetizers and the air was thick with accolades. Potential legislative requests or concerns were kept far from the microphones.
“Al Franken is going to be a great senator. He is going to be a tremendous addition to this important body,” said former Vice President Walter Mondale, himself a former Minnesota senator.
“I am just so excited about this day,” said Minnesota’s senior senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar. “As you know it’s been 246 days … since the election. We are just so pleased that Al is here and that he will be my colleague … he never gave up.”
“This is an exciting day for him to join our caucus,” seconded Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D. “We’ve been waiting month and months and months for this.”
Minnesota Democratic Reps. Tim Walz, Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum also came to congratulate their new congressional colleague.
“It’s a very important moment now that Minnesota has full representation in the Senate,” said McCollum, “as we vote on health care, the energy bill and things that are not only going to effect today but also future generations. So it is very important that we have both votes being cast.”
Meanwhile, Franken’s family members said they were just trying to absorb the hard-won day and the official swearing-in.
“It was a huge moment that is so difficult to describe, but I can’t tell you how proud I am of Al,” said Franken’s wife, Franni. “I just really am in a state of delight.”
“It was just amazing,” added Franken’s daughter, Thomasin. “As you know, we’ve been through a lot in the last two years, so it was just a ‘wow’ moment.”
“It was very surreal, very overwhelming, very emotional,” said Franken’s son, Joe. “I am also extremely proud of my dad.”
“I am really looking forward to being an effective Senate spouse,” added Franni, who said that she would like to focus on human-trafficking and domestic-violence issues once she gets settled in their new house on Capitol Hill, which she found through Craigslist.
Asked if she was worried or nervous about the move and transition, Franni Franken replied with aplomb.
“I think that this is just the natural progression of our life,” she said.