Al Franken Seeks the Wellstone Seat
That familiar-looking candidate in the dark Washington-ready suit appears entirely at ease in front of the crowd of earnest activists who have gathered at Minneapolis's Augsburg College. They have come to review the relative merits of the man who would carry the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party's (DFL) banner into what will likely be the fiercest Senate race of 2008. The candidate listens intently when questions come his way, goes slightly but never theatrically serious as matters of war and peace arise, yet knows precisely when to add a measure of the hokey self-deprecation that is a staple of Minnesota politics.
Al Franken is smooth without being slick; he's smart and steadily senatorial. Yes, senatorial. As the candidate makes the case that he is the right man to reclaim the seat once held by his friend Paul Wellstone, memories of bumbling self-help TV character Stuart Smalley, of the comedian who proclaimed that the 1980s would be "The Al Franken Decade" and even of the political prankster who so infuriated Bill O'Reilly that the Fox bloviator ranted, "Shut up! Shut up!" are slowly displaced by recognition that the actor who segued from his Saturday Night Live persona to serving as a fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government is a serious new voice in American politics.
Franken is not playing catch-up. He is not learning the ropes. Yes, of course, his celebrity helps. Not every first-time candidate is greeted by spontaneous chants of "Al! Al! Al!" while working the crowds at the Twin Cities Gay Pride Parade and "Franken! Franken! Franken!" along the route of the Fourth of July parade in rural Brainerd. But when Franken is asked what he will do about healthcare or free trade or ending the war in Iraq, the fun and games stop. He does not "de-humorize" himself; there are still flashes of wit. But there is, as well, a depth of knowledge and a sense of purpose that makes it clear Franken has no taste for campaigning as performance art. "Ask Al about an issue, any issue, and he'll give you chapter and verse," says Niel Ritchie, executive director of the Minneapolis-based League of Rural Voters. "That's what strikes people. After they get over the fact that he's this guy they've seen a thousand times telling jokes on TV, they start to notice that he knows more than some senators, maybe more than most senators. And that he's connecting what he knows about policy to their experience. It's powerful stuff."
After three years of hosting an Air America radio show that was supposed to be funny but ended up spending enormous amounts of time pondering No Child Left Behind, and after writing a stack of books that mixed punch lines with pragmatic liberal responses to every Bush/Cheney initiative, Al Franken enters politics a confident man. He knows the issues. And he knows there is nothing funny about the task he has taken on. The men who would deny him the DFL nomination treat him as the frontrunner, prodding this determinedly mainstream liberal for being too cautious in challenging the Administration. At the same time, supporters of embattled GOP incumbent Norm Coleman--a man who was recruited to national politics by Karl Rove and Dick Cheney and who has done nothing to disappoint his mentors--bash hysterically at an Al Franken they portray as a wild-eyed radical driven by rage at all things conservative, Republican and American.
The notion that Franken has fully arrived on the political stage takes some getting used to. Even he admits that Minnesotans "have a right to be skeptical" about whether a gag writer who spent the better part of two decades presenting himself on national TV as an arrogant jerk strung out on his own celebrity is sincere when he says his fondest desire now is "to serve the working people of Minnesota" and, perhaps, to restore the promise of American liberalism. But Franken is almost a year into a campaign that has consumed the funnyman of old and produced a conscientious candidate who, a year from now, might well be on his way to sitting beside Ted Kennedy and Patrick Leahy on the liberal--if not quite Russ Feingold progressive--flank of the Democratic caucus.
If Franken wins, and if he keeps growing as he has during his Minnesota campaign, he could emerge as one of the most significant exponents of mainstream liberalism in a generation, picking up and carrying forward the battered banner of his ideology the way Ronald Reagan reinvigorated the conservative cause in the aftermath of Barry Goldwater's failed 1964 presidential campaign.
Grassroots Democrats who have had a rough go of it in the past few years respond to Franken as battered grassroots Republicans did to Reagan in the mid-1960s. Franken does not work the streets in the towns along Minnesota's Iron Range, the union-dominated heartland of the DFL, in the usual fashion of visiting pols, alone or with a solitary aide. Franken wears a navy-blue United Steelworkers T-shirt and is surrounded by USW members, who form a posse on his behalf. His appearance in Duluth shortly after he formally announced his candidacy drew 800 people and inspired a columnist for the local union paper, the venerable Labor World, to write, "In all my years...I've never seen so many people there.... Al Franken has northern Minnesota progressives fired up and ready to go to work."