He will be the “un-Al.” He will be Minnesota’s myth-busting senator. As much as he’ll tilt toward the left, he might sway toward Minnesota-style boredom, at least at the start.
What the nation expects, what some fans remember, what the cabled talking heads desire — an acerbic, comedic, unpredictable, celebrity U.S. senator — is not what Al Franken is going to give them.
At least that’s the plan.
So says Drew Littman, Franken’s new chief of staff. He’s been advising new senators for about a decade now. Since being hired by Franken in late April, Littman has been a key person to explain the nuanced ropes of the peculiar American political institution in which Franken is now the most junior and, for a while, most watched member.
“You really have to learn how to get along with all 99 of your colleagues,” Littman told MinnPost of the difficulty of being a senator. “That’s the hard part, and that’s what people are unprepared for. You can make a mistake, not realize you slighted somebody, and two weeks later they’re making a call to the [Senate] cloak room putting a hold on a bill of yours, and you don’t know why.”
Franken’s professional work as an entertainer, writer and media critic would suggest that Franken isn’t calibrated for such collegiality and civil discourse. And certainly not amid the passion of issues as important to Franken as health care, pensions, war, veterans affairs, good jobs and the environment.
“With the kind of background he has — comedian, entertainer — it doesn’t bode well,” said retired University of Minnesota labor historian Hy Berman, who worked closely with Sens. Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone during their careers. “But with the intellectual capacity he has, he could become a good senator. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Jeff Blodgett, one of the most respected Democratic strategists in the state, says he’s seen a change in Franken. Blodgett was there in 1990, when Wellstone, another liberal outsider and lightning rod, entered the U.S. Senate and stumbled with his passion and in-your-face personality. It took Wellstone a couple of years to recover from his early missteps.
“I think there are misconceptions and stereotypes about Al that he will dash immediately upon arrival,” said Blodgett, Wellstone’s longtime state director and campaign manager. “In that sense, he has a lot of short-term upside. When you meet him, there’s this image of him as the comedian. But he’s really made the transition, and people will see that.”
Is his personal and professional history gone? Just pfft? Has this funnyman — with controversial, sometimes foul-mouthed satirical writings and sketches behind him — stripped himself of the humor and replaced it with a boring wonkdom?
Not totally, said Blodgett, but, “You can change and become more self-disciplined and more self-aware in the context and environment you’re in. That’s what happened to Al. It took him a long time. I think he has. But who knows? He’s still a passionate guy.”
He has to prove himself
Already, even before the ink is dried on his coveted election certificate, national pundits are putting Franken on the spot, suggesting he, more than other new senators, has to prove he’s not who the nation expects him to be.
“Long before his memorable campaign in Minnesota, the rap on him was that he was perhaps too acerbically funny for his own good, too uncontrollably combative, too Hollywood — just too much of a hell-raiser for politics, too meta, too media,” commentator Howard Fineman, who identifies himself as a longtime Franken friend, wrote Tuesday at MSNBC’s website.
” … As the pivotal Sixtieth Democrat, Al will be on the very fault line of American politics. He will have to show the same remarkable discipline and control that he mustered in defeating Republican Sen. Norm Coleman … In an ironic twist, a man who got famous for his out-of-bounds, deliberately over-the-top humor must once again be a model of decorum and close-to-the-vest style as he enters the Senate.”
As the nation places Franken under a microscope and Minnesota puts on its seat belts for the Sen. Franken era, the question remains: What kind of senator will he be?
Think Wellstone, think Hillary Rodham Clinton and think Bill Bradley.
Franken plans to learn from Wellstone’s mistakes, Clinton’s wisdom and Bradley’s policy mastery.
After a marvelous honeymoon following his election, Wellstone wore out his Senate welcome quickly. He gave Vice President Dan Quayle a tape condemning the first Bush administration’s plans for the first Gulf War. He held an offensive news conference at the Vietnam Memorial to protest the Gulf War.
“Paul’s exuberance got him into trouble,” said Berman, one of Wellstone’s mentors. “He was kind of getting a sense of isolation.”
During his first visit back to Minnesota after only a few weeks in Washington, Wellstone telephoned Berman.
“He was close to tears,” said Berman. “He was choked up. I told him, ‘You’re not in Minnesota anymore.’ Go to work.”
And, said Berman of Franken, “My suggestion to him is, in the first month or two, keep your mouth shut, watch, listen, observe, learn the rules of the game … You can’t change your beliefs but don’t try to change the Senate overnight. Don’t try to change the political climate of Washington over night. This is what Paul Wellstone tried to do and discovered you can’t do it.”
Franken seems to have already gotten that message. In his victory speech Tuesday, he said: “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.”
“And, yes, to compromise” — Franken paused before uttering those words, as if to emphasize them and the notion.
Clinton, a far-higher-profile freshman senator in 2000 than even Franken will be next week, is another model. Franken has met with her and her staff. As well-known internationally as she was, Clinton focused exclusively on New York issues when she got into the Senate, on “potholes in Buffalo,” as Blodgett put it.
Said Littman, once Sen. Barbara Boxer’s policy director: “Every question that Hillary asked at a hearing was a New York-based question. The frame was how does this affect my constituents? … Conservatives were willing to work with her because they saw she operated based on local interest. They trust you more because you’re motivated by the same things they are. That’s the Hillary lesson.”
And, said Littman, expect that modus operandi from Franken, who already knows many senators, because of his activism, and even some Republicans.
Littman, working with Franken since April, said he hasn’t seen “the angry, ornery side. He’s a witty person, but not an angry person. I don’t know where that [perception] comes from. I think what people are going to see is that he’s going to be very hardworking and earnest. He’s going to be talking about Minnesotans and what Minnesotans need. That will be significant not only in Minnesota, but to other senators as well … If your concerns are locally based, they’re willing to work with you. They don’t care as much about ideology. That shows up in campaign commercials or in the press. They care about people they can work with constructively.”
Another example is former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, a well-known college and professional basketball star of the 1960s who entered the chamber as a star, too. Like Bradley, a Princeton grad, Franken, a Harvard grad, is known as a serious policy freak.
Bradley tackled the complex and highly political issue of tax reform, for which votes are hard to get. He succeeded over time.
“He put his head down and worked it,” said Littman. “It was almost as if he was working against his celebrity image. There’s some value of being a celebrity when it comes to fundraising. But in the institution, not much.”
With Franken assigned to the Judiciary Committee, a test will come early during the confirmation hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor.
Franken threw his hat into the Minnesota Senate race on Valentine’s Day, 2007. He was thin-skinned then. He could be a bit surly. He was still often in a radio-talk-show mode, seemingly searching for Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly in every corner as they were for him.
Then he donned his dress suit and entered the marathon of getting the DFL nomination, running against Norm Coleman and surviving the recount.
“This is the one good reason for campaigns to be as long as this in the U.S.,” said Blodgett, who ran Barack Obama’s campaign in Minnesota. “Al has been through the fire, and he has come out the other end a better, more-strategic public operator. He knows how to listen to staff. He knows how to regulate himself … People say, ‘Well, he’s boring now.’ I don’t have a lot worries about that.”
Franken himself acknowledges the campaign and the recount have taught him to turn the other cheek when, in the past, he might have tended to respond.
In an interview with MinnPost in February, Franken said his skin was much thicker now than when the campaign started.
“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,” he said. “This is about them.”
He spoke about a miner in Eveleth who lost most of his pension because of the bankruptcy of his company and about the man’s pressures to pay for his child’s college tuition. Franken talked about how it helped him to put things in perspective.
“So, if someone does a web video that isn’t fair … I think I’ll not bother to look at it,” said Franken, who has been known to still rail privately at what he views as unfair news coverage.
Can that campaign discipline extend to the pressure cooker of the Senate and the glare he’ll be under?
One thing a senator needs to do is prioritize. On any given day, Franken could have six amendments to vote on, meetings with constituents and staff, media calls and an unexpected crisis to boot. While dealing with all this “incoming” matter, he’ll also need to be proactive, working on issues and bills he wants to turn into law.
“His challenge will be Paul’s challenge,” said Blodgett, Wellstone’s aide, “which is, ‘I care about the world. I want to be involved in everything. How do I do that and still be the senator from Minnesota who does well for people?’ That means he’s got to prioritize.”
People who know Franken say if he is a policy wonk of the highest order, he is not a control freak. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, one of the Senate’s rising stars, is considered someone who likes to know what’s going on at every moment with every staffer. Franken has learned to delegate.
When in doubt, Blodgett said, a new senator, who can become inundated with the day-to-day realities of the job, should go back to his campaign themes and promises.
During the campaign, Franken spoke of an “Apollo Project” for renewable energy (focused on job creation), easing the middle class squeeze (with a series of tax credits and a new retirement plan) and getting to an American model of universal health care.
During his victory speech Tuesday, he echoed those priorities, saying he wants to make quality health care accessible and affordable to all Minnesotans, to educate the state’s children to prepare them for a “21st century economy,” to make Minnesota “the epicenter of a new renewable energy economy,” to restore “our standing in the world and put people to work here at home.”
Thus we heard the Franken priorities and a map to chart over the next five-and-half years.
When Coleman was asked Tuesday what kind of senator he thought Franken would be, he said, “I hope he’ll be a senator in the Minnesota tradition. We’ve had great senators.”
Coleman said he wanted to be careful about offering advice, but added: “So often, we think of the job of the U.S. senator as standing on the floor debating the great issues of the day … A lot of what I thought was important was the customer service aspect, the citizen service aspect … There are great debates to be had, but helping that mom get a kid in Haiti . . . is a pretty big deal. My hope would be that he understands, as I understood in my public career, that the public service part is really fundamental.”
Franken’s local office is already revved up to begin such constituent services and has been planning for that “customer service” mode throughout the election contest.
This much seems clear: No matter how many requests, Rachel Maddow isn’t on Franken’s agenda, nor any cable news show that requires shouting or joking; also, Sunday morning news shows that demand instant policy wonking won’t see Sen. Franken any time soon.
Perhaps we’ll see the freshman senator on a friendly “Good Morning America” or softball “CBS Evening News,” if only to show the world — and other media — how un-Al and un-“Saturday Night Live”-ish he can — and will — be for the foreseeable future. Perhaps. That’s still a debate inside the Franken camp.
Said Littman: “Getting him on TV generally is not going to be a priority. Making sure he’s prepared for Supreme Court confirmation hearings is going to be a priority. We’re generally not focused on national media opportunity. We’re focused on making sure he’s ready every day.”
Blodgett, who advises candidates and parties worldwide now, said: “I would tell him to do no national media of any kind for six months. He should do a lot of media in Minnesota. He needs to establish himself as a senator from Minnesota first, a nationally interesting senator second.”
That national interest makes Franken a major Democratic fundraiser. He’s adept at that. But Blodgett also recommends Franken take a breather from that. Still, in the end, that fundraising can enhance his standing with his colleagues and serve to aid him on Minnesota matters in the Senate.
As MSNBC’s Fineman wrote: “Republicans already are decrying what they regard as a dictatorship of the majority. Rather than take on a popular president, or a Senate leader no one has ever heard of, the GOP is going to delight in trying to blame the passage of controversial legislation on a former comedian who won his Senate seat by  votes.”
They’ll try to goad him into being either too funny or too nasty or both — but, based on what we now know, it won’t be easy.
Not if Littman and others around Franken have anything to do with it. Not if Franken puts his head down, does his work and establishes himself as the un-Al.
“Al’s going to be Al, and we’re not going to change him,” said Littman. “Everyone in the Senate, I think, appreciates self-deprecating humor … If a joke can be inserted every now and then to lighten the moment, that’s fine. But no one comes here to be a joker.”
Jay Weiner can be reached at jweiner [at] minnpost [dot] com.