Al Franken Seeks the Wellstone Seat

Al Franken Seeks the Wellstone Seat

Minnesota Senate candidate Al Franken has won wide support among voters–and conservatives are getting scared.


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.”

There is nothing novel these days about actors, radio hosts, authors, billionaires and even the accidentally or tragically famous entering politics. But celebrities come to the campaign trail in different ways, and with decidedly different purposes. There is no useful reference point for Franken’s run to be found, for instance, in the political career of fellow Minnesotan Jesse “The Body” Ventura, who never quite stepped out of his all-star-wrestler character during a single uninspired term as governor. Nor is Franken a Midwestern version of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg or most of the other famous or rich, or rich and famous, fellows who have in recent years spun their prominence into a measure of political gold. The model for a contemporary celebrity candidate is that of someone who rises above politics. But Franken is the champion of an old-fashioned liberal credo–rooted in the spirit of Franklin Roosevelt and Wellstone–that rejects the notion that government is evil.

Despite Minnesota GOP chairman Ron Carey’s characterization of him as “the most far-left, polarizing and out-of-the-mainstream candidate to run for the US Senate in our state,” Franken is no radical. His is a traditional and sometimes frustratingly responsible liberalism. He favors single-payer healthcare but says it will have to be achieved in steps because the political will is not yet there for the great leap forward. He preaches the gospel of energy independence, only to scare people with Al Gore-style speculation on the green virtues of nuclear power. After initially accepting at least some of the Administration’s arguments for invading Iraq, Franken emerged several years ago as a vocal critic of the war. He now argues that Congress should use the power of the purse to force Bush to start bringing troops home. Yet the candidate’s still a little murky on the precise timing of the withdrawal process–not because he doesn’t want it to happen but because he frets about getting the exit right. In the Senate, Franken would generally vote as Wellstone did, although it might take some prodding to get him to take some of Wellstone’s riskier positions.

On the “government is good” theme that Wellstone so deeply valued, however, Franken needs no encouragement. Here, he becomes the great communicator. “As a middle-class kid growing up in Minnesota [in the 1950s and ’60s], I felt like the luckiest kid in the world. And I was,” explains Franken, whose argument that government exists to “provide security” for middle-class families like his own and a leg up for working-poor families like that of his wife, Franni, strikes a homespun, nostalgic note. “Maybe you know what it’s like to be one health crisis away from bankruptcy. Maybe you, or your parents or grandparents, can’t afford prescriptions. Maybe you have kids, and you’re worried about paying for their college. Maybe some one you love is in Iraq, and you don’t know how long they’ll have to stay there, or what will happen when they come home. Middle-class families today struggle with that feeling of insecurity–the sense that things can fall apart without notice, outside of your control. Your government should have your back. That should be our mission in Washington.”

Franken points to people’s overwhelming rejection of privatizing Social Security and says, “I think most Americans are liberals.” He’s running not to replace old paradigms of left versus right or Democrat versus Republican, as Schwarzenegger and Bloomberg sometimes claim to do, but as a candidate who accepts the paradigms while suggesting that some tricks learned backstage at SNL might make it easier to master them. And Franken has proven to be masterful.

A year before the 2008 election, it is clear the comedian is a serious candidate. His fundraising, in Minnesota and nationally, is phenomenal. He has already outraised Coleman in two quarterly cycles, creating a sense that Franken will be able to match the incumbent blow for blow in a Senate race that could easily cost the candidates $20 million. Polls show Franken, who once trailed Coleman by a wide margin, pulling even. And the challenger’s tireless trekking across Minnesota has eased doubts about his viability. “The only way we’re going to win this race is with a candidate who’s passionate, principled and understands how the failed Republican agenda impacts Minnesota families. That’s Al,” declares State Senator Steve Murphy, a Democrat from the Mississippi River factory town of Red Wing, which is about as far from Hollywood or New York as you can get physically and politically. Murphy, who represents some of Minnesota’s most competitive swing counties, is not one to bestow an endorsement casually. Nor are the forty-two other DFL legislators who have endorsed Franken, along with powerful Teamsters and Steelworkers district councils and locals in a state with deep labor traditions.

The deal has not been closed, however, not even among Democrats. To a far greater extent than any Democratic Party in the country, the DFL is organized down to the precinct level. At precinct caucuses in February, thousands of party activists will begin choosing delegates to a state convention that will endorse a Senate candidate in June. The convention endorsement could still be challenged in a September primary, but Franken, like his challengers, has agreed to abide by the convention’s call. This means that the party’s Senate nominee will be chosen by party activists who are serious about winning elections and pushing the political discourse to the left. The DFL has historically been remarkably good at identifying what Democratic Socialists of America founder Michael Harrington used to refer to as “the left wing of the possible.” No one in Minnesota loses sight of the fact that it is Wellstone’s seat, the loss of which DFLers have never accepted, that will be filled in 2008.

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.

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