“So you seriously voted for the Franken guy?” It’s a question I’ve been asked before, and one I anticipate I’ll continue to hear if Al Franken ever takes his seat in the 111th Congress. I understand the skepticism. If it weren’t for the grueling, much-publicized Minnesota recount, most Americans would still know the Democrat as Stuart Smalley of SNL fame, or as the prankster who antagonized the right with books like Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them. At that, they might be inclined to view Franken as a dubious celebrity politician in the tradition of Jesse Ventura, the pro-wrestler who became governor after promising Minnesotans he’d “body slam” their tax rates.
I expected Franken to be written off by conservatives. The O’Reillys, Limbaughs, and Coulters have already plunged in to accuse Franken of defrauding Minnesota voters and “stealing” the election (which, as Salon’s Joe Conason points out, is essentially accusing him of a felony on the basis of nil evidence). But dismissal hasn’t just come from the right. A wide swath of voters, including plenty of loyal Democrats, responded to his campaign announcement with confusion. Was Franken a “serious” candidate? Could a comedian really be expected to know anything about the economic crisis or the war in Iraq?
Those surprised that a funnyman would vie for office clearly hadn’t been following his evolution since his all-out brawl with the Fox and Friends crowd. Franken’s The Truth (with Jokes), published in 2005, presented meticulously footnoted arguments about the solvency of Social Security, the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, and the below-the-belt electoral tactics that allowed Bush to carry the 2004 election. The arguments were thoroughly partisan in their research and presentation, but the same could be said of The Audacity of Hope. Even before the 2004 election, Franken had returned to Minnesota to promote his political views via Air America Radio.
Before he had even entertained the notion of a senate bid, though, Franken was a participant in one of the proudest traditions in Minnesota politics. The state’s progressive movement has a long history, one that bears much in common with the pragmatic brand of Midwestern progressivism that produced figures of national stature such as Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, and Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold. The Land of 10,000 Lakes has the highest voter turnout rate in the country, one of the nation’s best public school systems, a thriving bipartisan conservationist movement, and the best healthcare coverage rates in America. Despite being overwhelmingly white, Minnesotans elected the nation’s first Muslim Congressman in Representative Keith Ellison. But no part of Minnesota’s progressive political history commands more respect than the story of Senator Paul Wellstone.
Wellstone came to prominence not as a politician, but as an organizer of poor rural workers. While a Political Science professor at Carleton College, he galvanized his students to get involved in their communities and, eventually, in his senate campaign. He took on Republican Rudy Boschwitz in 1990 and won, despite being outspent by a 7-to-1 margin. His decidedly leftwing politics were tempered by a pragmatic outlook and a sense of humor that came through in his quirky television ads. Eventually, Wellstone came to be known as “the Conscience of the Senate.” He lived up to that title in 2002, when he was the only senator up for reelection to vote against the authorization of the invasion of Iraq. He died in a plane crash 11 days prior to the election, clearing the way for Norm Coleman’s victory.
Franken had been a loyal friend and advisor of Wellstone throughout his political career. He was a fixture at Wellstone fundraisers and frequently stumped for the campaign. He played a major role in convincing the progressive establishment that Wellstone’s brand of populist, insurgent politics had a place in the Democratic Party. And after Wellstone’s death, Franken became an avid supporter of Wellstone Action, an organization which trained community organizers in the techniques of political empowerment innovated by Wellstone’s campaigns.
This connection was not lost on Minnesotan voters during the 2008 race. Even as moderate Democrats scratched their heads, those who had been a part of Wellstone’s progressive wing understood what Franken’s candidacy stood for. A common rallying cry from Franken supporters was to “take back Paul’s seat”—expressing their faith in Franken and their dismay that the seat was now occupied by an unimaginative Bush Republican. Franken’s connection to the Wellstone legacy goes beyond the symbolic too: Voters who paid attention to his positions discovered a candidate with a passionate commitment to reforming a corrupt government and making life easier for middle-class families. Franken has been a tireless advocate for universal healthcare and a more progressive tax system.
In a year when Americans rallied around the Democratic Party in record numbers, the urgency of renewing Minnesota’s progressive commitments was widely felt. The state’s progressives failed to unseat Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty in a close 2006 race. Under his administration, social services have faltered and Minnesota’s tax system has increasingly burdened the poor and middle class. Just as Barack Obama’s victory demonstrated the promise of reform at a national level, Franken’s upset—not to mention the now veto-proof majority that Democrats won in the state legislature—signals a resurgence for Minnesota’s brand of practical progressivism.
None of this should imply, though, that Franken does not have his work cut out for him in Minnesota. The campaign was noted for the ugly attack ads run on both sides, despite occurring in one of the most bitterly partisan campaign cycles in recent history. Dean Barkley, an Independent candidate, received nearly 15% of the vote as many in the electorate became desperate for a candidate who had stayed out of the increasingly nasty fray. After the exhausting campaign season, followed by the even more exhausting recount, either candidate would have come into office with many voters unconvinced.
Franken will probably begin his term with one of the lowest approval ratings in the Senate. During the campaign season, he convinced voters that he was a serious candidate, with all of the positives and negatives that entails. Next, Franken will need to convince Minnesotans that he is a serious leader, one who is willing to stand up for the progressive principles which have guided his participation in the state’s public life for over a decade. Most important, he has the potential to continue the legacy of Paul Wellstone and remake his reputation as an energetic champion for progressive policy.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.