Al Franken's career as an entertainer made him famous and rich and positioned him to run for the U.S. Senate.
But now, just as he appears on the verge of securing the DFL endorsement to take on Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, Franken could be tripped up by missteps in the way his show business enterprise was run.
Republicans, who for more than a year have eagerly unearthed controversial tidbits from Franken's comedy routines and books, have in recent weeks discovered several slip-ups in the celebrity's business life. On Thursday, they claimed to have found another possible irregularity, a charge that has yet to be resolved.
On Friday, Franken's campaign manager, Andy Barr, declined to say whether Franken had paid taxes on earnings in California between 2003 and 2007.
He said Franken's accountant is working with California officials to sort things out.
The latest Republican charge that Franken's taxes there have gone unpaid comes in the wake of earlier disclosures that Franken failed to pay workers' compensation and disability premiums in New York and botched the dissolution of his California corporation.
Since then, Franken has paid more than $25,000 in fines to New York and still owes more than $4,700 in corporate taxes and fines to California.
Franken supporters on Friday downplayed their candidate's corporate scrapes.
"I could be wrong, but anybody who has a little problem dealing with taxes has someone's sympathy," said former Gov. Wendell Anderson, who has endorsed Franken. "It's not a very sexy issue."
But state Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey said the issue will matter greatly to the millions of Minnesotans who follow the rules.
"I don't think Minnesotans want a U.S. Senator who doesn't pay his taxes," Carey said. "Why do Hollywood celebrities think there is one set of rules for them and one set of rules for everyone else when it comes to paying taxes?"
Shoes will drop
Jennifer Duffy, of the Cook Political Report in Washington, D.C., said that while the celebrity-turned-candidate has done a good job of raising money and support, his campaign "may not have done a thorough enough job researching their candidate."
So far, she said, the missteps are "fairly typical of first-time challengers who sometimes don't understand that in a U.S. Senate race, if there are any shoes to drop, they will in fact drop. They won't just hover in the sky."
National Democrats who are counting on Franken to take the Minnesota Senate seat from Coleman will be watching, she said, "to see if this is an isolated case or the beginning of a trend."
Political analyst Larry Jacobs, director of the Humphrey Institute's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, said the incidents by themselves "are small potatoes," but may speak to deeper problems.
"It's the drip-drip quality that is not helpful," Jacobs said. Failing to make full disclosures, he added, prolongs the stories "and really points to a much broader, more significant weakness -- their ability to do good damage control."
But Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said voters are tired of distractions from real issues.
"It appears to me that this is some carelessness in his personal business," he said. "Nothing criminal, nothing malicious, nothing nasty. I'm guessing most people have something [similar] in their life, where they forgot to pay their property taxes or workers' comp."
Franken's campaign said he relies on his accountant for his business and tax dealings. The accountant, Allen Chanzis, is a partner in Wlodinguer Erk & Chanzis, a New York City firm that specializes in the music, film and TV industries.
According to its website, the firm represents musicians, actors, singers, producers, writers, artists and "other high profile personalities." Among other services, it offers "tour accounting" for bands and musicians who go on the road.
No political novice
Franken may be a first-time candidate, but he's no novice to the political process. For years he has earned his keep as a political commentator and author, offering biting observations on conservatives. He spent two years fundraising for state DFL candidates before undertaking his own challenge to Coleman in one of the nation's highest-profile, most expensive Senate races.
Coleman, in a statement released Friday, said he had been meeting with small-business owners across the state, "people that know how to follow the law, file their taxes and pay their workers compensation insurance. These are also people that, when asked tough questions about their business, they answer them. It's about time that Al Franken finally comes out and answers these questions."
Franken's campaign has put off media requests for interviews with the candidate. Barr said in an e-mail on Friday that "an interview with Al would be premature."
DFL State Party Chairman Brian Melendez said that Republicans were attempting to divert attention from Coleman's record. "Coleman and the Republicans desperately want Minnesotans to forget about their disastrous record -- a failed war in Iraq and a struggling economy that is failing middle-class Americans."
While Franken is the frontrunner in the DFL race, he still faces a challenge from University of St. Thomas Prof. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. Lawyer Mike Ciresi dropped out in March.
Nelson-Pallmeyer would not comment on Franken's woes, but a supporter, Rep. Bill Hilty, DFL-Finlayson, said he is worried about his party's chance at the Senate seat.
"Al's a good person, well-intended," Hilty said. "But there's some real risk here. This is certainly stuff that will come up in the campaign, and it seems to be ignored by the people supporting Franken. That should be a big worry to us."
Judi Dutcher, who ran for lieutenant governor candidate on the DFL ticket in 2006, knows a little something about stumbles. The former state auditor triggered a campaign meltdown over a gaffe made late in the race.
Her advice? Address it and move on. "It's early enough in this very vigorous and contentious campaign that he'll address these issues," she said.
Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288 Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455