Minnesota Republicans hold the governor’s office and a majority in the state House of Representatives, while Democrats hold a majority in the state senate. In 2004, however, state Democrats picked up 13 seats in the state house and stand within two seats of recapturing the majority in November 2006, when popular Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty will be up for reelection. (Democrats will be defending Mark Dayton’s Senate seat in a probable contest between prosecutor Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Mark Kennedy.) Today Pawlenty is in a bruising budget battle with the state senate and he has ceded some ground by advocating a 75-cent per pack “user fee” (a/k/a “tax”) increase on cigarettes. State Democrats are feeling their oats.
Last night Minnesota’s House DFL (Democratic-Farmer-Labor, i.e., Democratic) Caucus held a fundraiser at the University of Minnesota’s Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis. Al Franken was the attraction, and tickets ranged in price from $25 to $1,000. I attended the fundraiser on the kind invitation of House DFL Caucus Finance Director David Kaplan, who provided press credentials.
Entering the 21st Avenue Parking ramp across from the concert hall, I found the car in front of me to be sporting “Bush ’04/Sieg Heil” and “Who Would Jesus Bomb” bumper stickers. I think it’s fair to say that the bumper stickers represented the prevalent spirit of the crowd, which in appearance on average was the kind of clean-cut all-American group that bears out the “Minnesota nice” cliche. Bush hatred has gone mainstream among Democratic Party supporters and activists. The event drew an enthusiastic audience of 1,100 on a Saturday evening. They arrived early and filled the $100 seats. By any measure, the event appeared to be a great success.
A Minnesota country-western band warmed up the crowd for Franken, but this audience had come for red meat rather than music. Franken provided the red meat.
Franken is originally from Minneapolis suburb St. Louis Park. He is buying a house in Minneapolis and moving back to Minnesota while he contemplates a possible run against Sen. Norm Coleman in 2008. He graduated from Minneapolis’s elite Blake School in 1969, leaving Minnesota for Harvard and moving on to make his name in show business.
Franken spoke for about 70 minutes from a lectern on stage. He said four or five times that he hasn’t decided whether he’s going to run in 2008. Minnesota Democrats have a substantial bench from which they could draw a candidate to challenge Coleman in 2008, but none of them has Franken’s name recognition, fundraising prowess, or electricity. It seems to me that he wants to run and that he would be the likely nominee if he chooses to do so.
Franken’s speech was in large part a personal introduction of himself to a Minnesota audience. He fashioned the speech around anecdotes involving his father (Joe Franken), who died ten or eleven years ago. Franken choked up repeatedly as he related the stories involving his father, whom he obviously loved. It was powerful stuff.
The last time I saw Franken live was in the summer of 1976, when he was a Saturday Night Live writer. He and his then-partner Tom Davis performed at the Dudley Riggs comedy club that was located about a mile from last night’s venue, trying out skits they had written for the upcoming season. As I recall, one of the skits involved his father, who was sitting in the audience for the show. When the skit ran on SNL later that year, his father was in the New York audience as well.
I don’t have the critical distance necessary to see Franken from a detached perspective. My personal background closely resembles his. We’re the same age, I grew up in the neighborhood that was the St. Paul equivalent of St. Louis Park, I attended the high school that was the St. Paul equivalent of Blake (Franken is giving the commencement speech at my alma mater this afternoon), I attended the temple that was the St. Paul equivalent of Minneapolis’s Temple Israel about which Franken spoke, and my dad died 13 years ago. On a personal level I identified with him last night.
The personal anecdotes were laced with current political points. Franken emphasized his Jewishness in a way that drew friendly laughs. Although Jews are about one percent of Minnesota’s population, since 1978 Jews have held the Senate seat of interest to Franken.
Franken first talked about gay marriage. He portrayed it as a basic issue of civil rights, invoking miscengenation, Barry Goldwater, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His father had been a Republican until 1964, Franken said. Goldwater’s vote against the civil rights act turned him into a Democrat. He became a Democrat “and kept moving left.”
Forty years from now, according to Franken, we would be embarrassed to look back on the controversy over gay marriage as we are now looking back on the controversy over outlawing segregation. Franken lacks the discretion of a professional politician and used this issue in particular to launch an attack on Sen. Coleman’s marriage. If he runs against Coleman, Franken said, he would ask him if he didn’t want gay couples “to have what you have.” He riffed on that theme while the crowd tittered.
Franken spoke powerfully and in detail about his five USO tours entertaining the troops, including his most recent tour in Iraq. He also spoke with great passion about his recent visit to Walter Reed Hospital. I admire his good deeds and wish I were in a position to do what he has done. He taunted supporters of the war who haven’t made the USO tour or visited Walter Reed. He balanced support and affection for the troops with opposition to the Iraq war and a relentless attack on what he portrayed as President Bush’s lies and corruption.
Franken spoke with outrage about $8.8 billion missing from the Coalition Provisional Autority. The money missing from the CPA, according to Franken, is being used to kill our troops. (The money was given by the CPA to Iraqi ministries and is missing from the ministries.) Franken asserts that there has been no investigation of the missing CPA funds because the people who stole the money are President Bush’s friends and cronies. He urged Sen. Coleman to investigate the missing CPA money instead of the UN’s oil-for-food program.
A recent profile of Franken by David Paul Kuhn asks: “Senator Franken?” The profile does not provide even a qualifed affirmative answer to the question from anyone other than Franken. As I say, I lack the critical distance necessary to offer a trustworthy hunch. Based on what I saw last night, however, I join Franken in his assessment of himself as a potential Minnesota senate candidate.
JOHN adds: I’m not sure it’s because I have any greater distance, but I can’t help viewing the fact that the DFL party is seriously considering a once-popular comedian as its Senate candidate is a measure of how far that party has fallen, notwithstanding its 2004 gains, which I think were due to the extraordinary turnout generated by MoveOn and ACT for the Presidential contest.
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