Al Franken is not yet officially running for the Senate, but the comedian-turned-liberal pundit already may have unleashed the best joke of his campaign.
Franken’s favorite quip, the one he has repeated frequently at Democratic fundraisers over the past year, is that if he runs, he would be the only New York Jew in the race who grew up in Minnesota. The breezy one-liner is meant to undermine the charge that Franken is a carpetbagger, while also implicitly skewering his tentative 2008 rival, Republican Senator Norm Coleman, who is also Jewish but was born and raised in Brooklyn.
While it could be said that both Franken and Coleman are currently working to shed past skins — Franken as a jokester from out of state, Coleman as a vocal supporter of President Bush and the Iraq War — both men are indeed hewing closely to an oddly persistent Minnesota tradition: two Jews squaring off for Hubert Humphrey’s old Senate seat. Since 1979, the office has been held by a steady sucession of Jewish politicians, starting with Republican Rudy Boschwitz, followed by liberal Democrat Paul Wellstone and then by Coleman. Every election since 1990 has pitted two Jewish candidates against each other, except for the two weeks in 2002 when former senator and vice president Walter Mondale faced Coleman after Wellstone died tragically in a plane crash. (Franken also follows Minnesota’s more recent entertainer-turned-politician tradition: Pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura, winning his race for governor in 1998, became the highest-ranking Reform official in the country — unless one counts Rabbi Eric Yoffie.)
In recent weeks, Coleman, 57, has been among a cadre of Republican legislators vocally criticizing Bush’s plan to send additional American troops to Iraq, in what critics describe as an attempt to bolster his image in a state that went to Senator John Kerry in the 2004 race and saw high-profile Republicans defeated last November. Franken, meanwhile, has doggedly reached out to Democratic lawmakers and donors in preparation for a near-certain Senate bid.
Several Democratic insiders contacted by the Forward said they perceived Franken, 55, as a frontrunner — in part because of his charisma and visible support for a slew of Democratic candidates during the 2006 campaign — but also as a wildcard in a primary field that could be crowded with strong rivals, such as freshman Rep. Tim Walz, former Senate candidate Michael Ciresi and former Minnesota Senate majority leader Dean Johnson.
There are “great concerns that [Franken’s old] jokes can come back to haunt him,” said one Democratic insider, who wished to remain anonymous. “I think there’s a mixed reaction… some people really want him to run, but others think he’s better as a commentator and satirist. People are surprised that right now there is no obvious candidate besides Franken, and the fact that Franken appears to be near an announcement is intensifying the discussion.”
While some Democrats worry about Franken’s comedic past, Republican operatives are already busily working to dredge up any past missteps. In recent weeks, the blog MinnesotaDemocratsExposed.com has posted tasteless comments Franken made about homosexuals in the course of an interview with the Harvard Crimson in 1976. During the 2006 campaign, the website extensively detailed past ties between Democratic House candidate Keith Ellison and the Nation of Islam, and the issue utlimately spilled out into state and national news media. (Ellison later won the election.)
Although Franken is untested as a candidate, he is not new to Minnesota politics. He has supported state Democrats for years, and his ties also run deep: His mother, Phoebe Franken, was an active Democratic campaigner who served as a Minnesota delegate for Gene McCarthy during the 1968 presidential campaign.
Franken’s Midwest Values political action committee, formed in early 2005, has raised more than $1.1 million to date and supported a pack of candidates during the last election, including Walz and Minnesota’s freshman senator, Amy Klobuchar. Having moved back to the state about a year ago (Franken now broadcasts his Air America Radio show from Minneapolis), the pundit has also earned a reputation as a tireless campaigner. He attended more than 50 events in 2006, including appearances for both Klobuchar and Walz, as well as speaking engagements at such smaller venues as the Senate District 18 Wellstone Dinner and the Wabasha County Bean Feed.
“He is sort of repositioning himself to be more Minnesotan than Paul Bunyan,” said Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College. “What he’s going to do now is try to keep the field empty — scare off potential opponents — by being everywhere and raising buckets of cash.”
While Franken will undoubtedly attract out-of-state money from New York and California, he has yet to prove that he will be the frontrunner of choice among Minnesota’s Democratic bigwigs, chief among them power couple Sam and Sylvia Kaplan, and businessman Vance Opperman, head of the West Publishing empire.
“I will certainly wait to see how things turn out for quite awhile,” Opperman said in an interview with the Forward. “There are four or five people, any one of whom would represent the state very well, and the preliminary judgment is [that it could be] any one of them — depending on luck, and how things fall, and how the campaign comes together.”
Opperman said that Franken has contacted him a number of times to arrange a meeting, and that he plans to meet with Franken within the next few weeks, as well as with Ciresi, who narrowly lost the 2000 Democratic senate primary.
The state’s Democratic delegation is also taking a wait-and-see approach. “As far as our 2006 campaign, he did campaign with us a lot, but we’re really not commenting any further at this point,” said Meredith Salsbery, a spokeswoman for Walz, when asked about the new lawmaker’s potential support for Franken. Walz, a former teacher and military veteran, could himself emerge as a potential candidate, just as Minnesota Republican Rod Grams won election to the Senate in 1995 after serving just a single term in the U.S. House.
For his part, Coleman appears to have been put on notice by Klobuchar’s overwhelming victory last November. He has publicly opposed sending more troops to Baghdad, and last week he was one of only two GOP senators to initially vote for the Democratic ethics reform package, which passed in the Senate last Friday.
Coleman, who is married to a Catholic and opposes abortion rights, is also working to stake out a middle ground on the issue of stem-cell research. This past Tuesday, he introduced legislation to expand funding for research on stem cells that have died naturally, as well as research on a process called altered nuclear transfer, which involves programming an egg to produce cells that cannot become a human organism. He also introduced a bill that would extend the deadline, set by Bush, for federal funding of research using stem cells taken from embryos before August 9, 2001.
Should Franken and Coleman become the third pair of Jews to face off for Humphrey’s old Senate seat, it would be an interesting twist in Minnesota’s history. The state has fewer than 50,000 Jewish residents, and was at one time notorious for its antisemitism. In 1946, Nation editor Carey McWilliams declared Minneapolis “the capitol of anti-semitism in the United States” in an influential article that revealed the lack of Jewish participation in major Minneapolis industries.
In response, Humphrey, the city’s then-mayor, pioneered some of the country’s first anti-discrimination ordinances in housing and employment. Humphrey went on to be elected to the U.S. Senate in 1948, and was known as a champion of Israel throughout his career.
But observers in Minnesota say the state’s Jewish senator trend is coincidental.
“It’s an irrelevant quirk,” said Steven Silberfarb, who recently left his longtime post as the excutive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. “It just doesn’t seem to matter to anybody.”