‘This Is Not Florida’: Franken says, ‘You know, you’re a very funny guy,’ and wins over the lawyer he needs

Marc Elias

MinnPost photo by Jay Weiner
“This is one of the great comedians of our time and he thinks I’m funny,” lawyer Marc Elias told anyone who would listen.

This is the first of three excerpts from Jay Weiner’s new book “This Is Not Florida: How Al Franken Won the Minnesota Senate Recount.” Part I is set on Nov. 4, 2008, as Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee lawyer Marc Elias monitors races across the nation.

Countless web sites and CNN were streaming election results on side-by-side screens on his desk. Marc Elias talked rapid-fire with operatives from New Hampshire to Alaska. A tiny Blackberry filled his right ear. His 6-foot-5-inch frame was hunched over like an elongated question mark as he paced in the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee War Room in Washington, D.C., a short walk from the U.S. Capitol. A Democratic Party operative shouldn’t have been nervous on this Election Night, November 4, 2008, but Elias is just that way.

The Republicans were about to get crushed. It was blossoming into a joyous night across America. Six hundred miles and a time zone away in Chicago, Barack Obama was poised to emerge as the nation’s savior. Elias’ partner and mentor, Robert Bauer, one of the pioneers of election law in Washington, D.C., was in Chicago with his client, the next President of the United States. People were clinking champagne glasses in living rooms from Aliquippa to Yakima as news spread that Obama was the nation’s 44th president. But Elias was in his own zone, pacing, that cell phone an appendage to his ear…

Elias is brilliant and well-off, commanding more than $500 an hour for his time and advice. He simultaneously earned a masters degree in political science and a law degree from Duke. He is happily married to another Duke-bred lawyer with whom he has two children. He has been a political and legal wunderkind, representing high-powered politicians since he was 25 years old. He is marginally good looking, although he appeared significantly older than his thirty-nine years on that historic night.

For all of that, he is the insecure sort, his constant anxiety reflected in his childish superstitions; wearing the same clothes, consuming the same foods — chili, hash browns and a Diet Coke for breakfast — and drinking the same beverages for days on end after good things happen …

On this Election Night, Elias was the lawyer for nearly all of the fifty-one sitting Democratic U.S. senators and every Democratic candidate in competitive races nationwide…Minnesota’s Al Franken was the most unorthodox and most targeted by the GOP. In his attempt to inherit the late Paul Wellstone’s mantle, Franken wanted badly to take on incumbent Senator Norm Coleman.

…It made for the nation’s dirtiest and most expensive U.S Senate campaign, with nearly forty million dollars worth leading up to Election Day, and, incredibly, another twenty million dollars in recount costs afterwards. A Franken victory, plus a handful of other victories in other states, could strengthen the Democrats’ hold on the Senate. There was even a possibility that Franken would become the sixtieth Democratic senator, making the chamber filbuster-proof…

Franken was Elias’s favorite candidate this cycle, mostly because of their first encounter on March 7, 2008, after a training session for senator wannabes and their campaign managers. At the Phoenix Park Hotel, in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, Elias, known for his theatrical presentations, warned candidates of what sorts of donations could get them in trouble, which sorts of solicitations could lead them to perp walks, what kind of gifts they should never, ever receive, and, generally, how to approach a campaign.

This particular presentation included a David Letterman-like top ten list, with the final piece of advice being, “You’re running a multi-million dollar business. Act like it.” Another item on his list: “Recount.”

When Elias’s show ended, Franken approached Elias. Franken made millions as a writer and performer on TV and with his best sellers, such as, Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Idiot. He was a big-time joke writer. Franken waited for the other new candidates to leave the conference room, sidled up to Elias and said: “You know, you’re a very funny guy.”

Elias replied: “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

For weeks, anyone Elias bumped into heard about his exchange with Franken. As he tends to do, Elias fixated on the comment. “This is one of the great comedians of our time and he thinks I’m funny,” Elias told anyone who would listen. Four months later, at a political fundraiser in Martha’s Vineyard, the two saw each other again. Of course, Elias reminded Franken that he’d called him funny a few months back and added, “That is the most significant thing anyone has ever told me at any political briefing ever. So, anything you need, you let me know.”

Franken looked at him quizzically, but apparently kept that promise in the back of his mind. “I think I won him over,” Franken said, with his wry, dry delivery. “I won his eternal loyalty.”

Excerpted from “This Is Not Florida” with permission from the University of Minnesota Press.

Tomorrow: The recount process moves to the State Canvassing Board.

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