Al Franken Seeks the Wellstone Seat
Not all DFLers are on board for Franken, who is still seen by many as a divisive figure. While he is better known than the other Democrats, Franken has an unfavorable rating of 34 percent among Minnesota voters. With the state trending in a Democratic direction that suggests Coleman's close ties to the Bush Administration will be a major burden, there are a good many DFL stalwarts who think the party should nominate a "blank slate" contender without the baggage carried by a candidate whose references to Republicans as "shameless dicks" might undermine his bipartisan appeal. The state GOP organization drives the point home with a steady stream of "Franken Is an Angry, Mean-Spirited and Divisive Partisan" press hits.
Most of the anybody-but-Franken energy has moved toward Mike Ciresi, a tort lawyer who made a fortune suing tobacco firms and other corporations and then earned a fine reputation giving away portions of the settlement fees to noble educational and community causes in Minnesota. Ciresi is sincere and credible, if uninspiring. His hope is that major labor unions, particularly those representing public employees and teachers, will decide that Franken is too risky a pick and swing their considerable influence behind a less volatile contender. Franken's aides don't seem overly concerned, in part because his fundraising prowess has decreased the appeal of a self-financed candidate like Ciresi and in part because Ciresi seems to be struggling to distinguish himself from the frontrunner.
Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, an assistant professor of justice and peace studies at the University of St. Thomas, doesn't have to. Even Franken hails Nelson-Pallmeyer, a veteran Twin Cities activist who is in the race for the DFL nod as an antiwar champion. And rightly so. When Franken was cautiously finding his antiwar footing in 2003, Nelson-Pallmeyer was rallying opposition to the invasion with passion and consistency. Nelson-Pallmeyer offers DFLers concerned that Franken is a mainstream liberal rather than a muscular leftie an appealing alternative. Franken's regard for him is obvious. At a Progressive Caucus debate, the frontrunner recalled the professor's prewar activism and told the crowd, "I regret not doing what Jack did." In his own defense, Franken added, "Once it became clear [that the Iraq attack was based on lies], no one spoke against this war more than I did--three hours a day." The reference to his Air America gig returned Franken to his strength: he may not be a perfect progressive, but he is an able popularizer of progressive ideas. Indeed, as the Progressive Caucus debate unfolded, it was Franken who kept expanding the focus, bringing up without prompting his concerns about media consolidation, passionately arguing that it is essential to control the influence of corporate money in our politics and blasting the Bush Administration and Coleman.
It was only after Ronald Reagan won a surprisingly large victory in his 1966 Republican primary over a moderate former mayor of San Francisco that national reporters began to recognize that he might not be the "lightweight amateur" or the "spokesman for a harsh philosophy" Democrats dismissed. Indeed, as a Time writer suggested, the fact that Reagan had "maintained a nice-guy, down-to-earth presence while perfecting a smooth platform style throughout a durable career as radio announcer, movie actor, lecturer and television performer" might just make him a "tremendous" new voice, not merely for conservatism but for the Republican Party. Al Franken still has some campaigning to do to get to the point where Reagan was when those words were written. But if Franken gets there, and if the names, dates and ideologies are changed, the comparison with the Great Communicator could turn out to be more apt, and more significant over the long term, than conservatives or liberals, Republicans or Democrats, dare imagine.