Twin Cities, Minnesota
Saturday, July 12, Humboldt High School auditorium, St. Paul. Al Franken has just taken the podium to address the central committee of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party, a rowdy force of several hundred seated by district. The crowd falls silent as the candidate adjusts the microphone. “I filed my paperwork this week,” Franken tells the party leaders. And after a perfectly timed pause, adds, “It went flawlessly.”
This one-two, uttered by any other candidate, would have fallen flat or made no sense. But Franken is not any other candidate, and with his delivery, the line is funny. Very funny. The auditorium fills not with the polite chuckles common to candidate jokes, but with genuine belly laughs. The veteran comedian turned senatorial candidate slays the room with ease.
Franken then gets down to business. “We have 115 days to go,” he says. “Now is the time. We have to get up early and stay up late. Canvass until our feet hurt. Then pick up the phone.” To motivate the troops, he recounts a story illustrating the passion and endurance of the late Paul Wellstone, whose seat Franken and the DFL are determined to take back from the current occupant and usurper, Republican Norm Coleman.
Wellstone’s memory is alive and strong among Minnesota’s DFL, and Franken’s anecdote about the late senator, who died with his wife and daughter in a plane crash while campaigning in 2002, sends the energy in the room to fever pitch. Franken leaves the auditorium to a rafter-shaking chant of “Go, Al, Go!”, the candidate pumping his fist in the air as he makes a dramatic exit.
Not long ago this scene of DFL party unity was hard to imagine. At the DFL endorsing convention in June, Franken won the party’s official stamp of approval following a vigorous debate over Franken’s suitability to carry the DFL banner. At the center of the debate was a moderately racy Playboy article Franken penned in 2000, dredged up by the opposition research office of the Minnesota GOP. Some Democratic leaders felt that the article, entitled “Porn-o-Rama,” was too much for Upper Midwest sensibilities. Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum spoke for many when she expressed sharp fears that Minnesota Democrats would suffer from sharing a ballot with someone responsible for “pornographic writings that are indefensible.” Minnesota’s Keith Ellison, Congress’ first elected Muslim, also expressed public discomfort with the article, but stopped short of asking Franken to step aside.
It’s true that Minnesota often has a PG feel to it. In the capital, signs in light-rail cars urge passengers to watch their language (“Keep it down, and keep it clean”), and adults can frequently be overheard proclaiming, “Oh, my gosh!” But Franken survived the controversy over perceived bad taste to win the DFL endorsement in the first round of voting. He emerged with no visible political scars. A post Porn-gate Quinnipiac poll found Franken running strong with women, the demographic Democrats feared would be most put off by some of the his more explicit satire.