WASHINGTON, D.C. — When the pomp was done, and the circumstance was clear — Al Franken was officially Minnesota’s new U.S. senator — no less than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid turned to the balcony in the majestic and ornate Capitol.
He raised his right thumb.
The friendly crowd in the almost-filled U.S. Senate chamber was still applauding vigorously four minutes after Franken’s membership in the nation’s most exclusive political club was official. Many stood, and most cheered loudly.
It was about 12:20 p.m., Washington time, today. Al Franken had already said, “I do,” and with those affirming words became Senator Franken, the 40th Minnesotan to hold such an honor and title.
About 100 of his invited friends and supporters on the right side of the balcony, filling perhaps 20 percent of the seats in the political arena, were on their feet, smiling and clapping. It was downright boisterous for such a historic place.
As the ovation — as if after a game-winning grand slam — seemed to begin to wane, as Franken was congratulated by Republicans and Democrats alike, hugged and back-patted, there was a brief spike in the seemingly dying noise.
That’s when Reid turned and looked up to the balcony, like an opera singer raising his head to the far reaches of the theater. A few of his colleagues — Rhode Island’s Sheldon Whitehouse and New York’s Charles Schumer — joined Reid to turn towards the balcony with their thumbs held high.
Their pudgy digits of approval were directed at three people who weren’t sworn in today, who weren’t elected officials, but who, it could be argued, got Franken his seat as much as the 312 voters who pushed him past Norm Coleman in the protracted election and recount.
There they stood, white-haired David Lillehaug, basketball player-sized Marc Elias and pencil-thin Kevin Hamilton, Franken’s recount lawyers. They were standing on the steps, the three together. They were making way for Franni Franken, the senator’s wife, to exit.
A salute to the lawyers
But before she could, Lillehaug, Elias and Hamilton, the attorneys who fought long and hard for Franken’s recount victory, were feted by Reid.
“I was just overwhelmed,” Lillehaug, the former Minnesota U.S. attorney, said later. “I wasn’t thinking. I was feeling. Franni had just given me a hug … Most cases end when a jury comes back with a verdict. This one ended when Al Franken raised his right hand.”
And Reid — with the 60th member of his caucus in tow — raised his thumb.
The lawyers’ seating locations couldn’t be minimized either. Minutes earlier, as Minnesota’s senior senator, Amy Klobuchar, prepared to introduce Franken to his colleagues — about 30 or so were in attendance — Franni Franken, Al’s wife of 33 years, summoned the three to sit next to her and her family, in the front row of the gallery: Lillehaug, the respected Minneapolis lawyer; Hamilton, who’d won a recount for Washington State’s governor a few years back; and Elias, who quarterbacked the Franken legal effort.
It was the cue for Klobuchar to tell the lone recount joke of the day.
“It is my honor today, along with former Vice President Mondale, to escort Al Franken as the new senator from our state. Al told me the third year of his campaign would be the best, and he was right,” Klobuchar said to a strong collective chuckle.
“Despite just a little bit of a delay — to be exact: 246 days since Election Day and 183 days since the new Senate convened — why would I know that?” Klobuchar said, “Al Franken now joins me in representing the state of Minnesota.”
Soon, Franken would enter the chamber. Soon, Klobuchar and former Vice President Walter Mondale would walk him down the middle aisle. If history could be tasted or smelled, those senses were in motion in those moments. Soon, Vice President Joe Biden would utter some ironic words: “Without objection, the chair lays before the Senate the certificate of election for a six-year term beginning January 3, 2009, for the representation of Minnesota.”
And then Biden read an oath and Franken solemnly swore.
A busy whirlwind of a day
Soon, Franken was whisked off to a repeat, ceremonial swearing-in for photographers, with Biden chatting with anyone who would talk to him.
Then, soon after, Franken raced off to his first Democratic Senate Caucus lunch, his life as a politician formally launched. He actually was accompanied by Elias, who serves as attorney to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, an inside-the-Beltway type if there ever was one.
Senators saw Elias. Staffers saw Elias. They congratulated him.
Soon, there was a party for his supporters and contributors in the Hart Senate Office Building, six floors above his new office. Soon, he voted no with most Democrats to block an amendment on homeland security brought by Sen. John McCain. Franken’s first vote ever preserved a $750,000 grant to the city of Minneapolis. Soon, Franken was swearing in his staff.
“The focus is on Al and not on us, not the lawyers,” Lillehaug said. “But I was gratified to be given that recognition.”
We might have thought the recount case closed last week when the Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously ruled. Not so. It ended in the Senate chamber, with Franken agreeing to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
It ended with Reid’s thumb high in the air, a rare bow to lawyers who can now breathe that sigh of relief and stamp this file, “Case closed.”
Jay Weiner can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.