He will sit at desk No. 94 -- the one left by his political hero, Paul Wellstone.

Senate leaders have told Al Franken that they have kept the desk open for him. Its significance will not be lost.

Franken shares Wellstone's politics and passion. It was Wellstone's death in a plane crash in October 2002 that spurred Franken to run.

"Paul looked at his job as improving people's lives and that's what I want to do," Franken said Tuesday, one day after winning an epic battle against the man who had replaced Wellstone in the Senate, Norm Coleman. "I'm not Paul," Franken said. "I'm not going to be able to fill his shoes. But I'm going to work as hard as I can to fulfill that goal, which is improving people's lives."

He hinted there may be more homages to Wellstone as he gets closer to Tuesday's swearing-in.

Franken talked about his old friend Wednesday at a rally in front of the State Capitol, where several hundred people had gathered to savor the long-delayed victory.

"It is technically true that this is Paul's U.S. Senate seat, but I don't think Paul saw it that way," Franken told the crowd. "This seat belongs to the people of Minnesota and so did Paul Wellstone -- and so will I. Paul and Sheila [Wellstone] left us too soon, but they left us with legacies that will endure for generations."

Franken teared up when he talked about people's concerns that the protracted Senate race was taking an emotional toil on him and his family.

"What we've been through is just nothing, especially when compared to what so many Minnesota families have been going through during this same period. When you win an election, what you really win is a chance to go to work for working families who need a voice in Minnesota," he said.

As he heads for Washington, the former "Saturday Night Live" writer, satirist, progressive radio talk show host and newly-minted Democratic senator is confident that he can break into the clubby environs of the Senate without ruffling too many feathers.

Serious work ahead

Franken said his new colleagues will be "pleasantly surprised" once they get to know him. He already counts former presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., as friends.

Although he still enjoys cracking a good line now and then, Franken said he wants to convey a "seriousness of purpose" to Minnesotans in his initial days as a senator. "There's plenty of room for humor in politics, God knows, but it's a serious business," Franken said. During the campaign, he added, "I don't know that I suppressed that humorous side of me so much as I let out the wonky, serious side of me."

Appointments to Judiciary and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees should satisfy his wonky side and will put him in the thick of Washington's hottest summer battles: health care reform and the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Franken said he would reserve judgment on the intricacies of any health care bill, but he supported a concept of universal care that is "accessible and affordable."

Franken, who is not a lawyer, said he did not seek the Judiciary Committee assignment. But he said that Sotomayor should have little trouble being confirmed, despite suggestions from some critics that she exercised excessive judicial authority as an appellate judge.

"I think she's very much in the mainstream of American jurisprudence," Franken said. He said he has not talked to Sotomayor but intends to soon after arriving in Washington.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said that Franken discussed his committee assignments with Reid during a Washington visit this year and that Reid -- anticipating that Franken would eventually be seated -- held spots open for him. Two other senators now hold temporary assignments on those committees and are likely to move aside for Franken, Manley said.

Manley acknowledged that the assignments were good ones for a freshman, but said they were in step with Franken's interests. Judiciary, Manley noted, is filled with strong personalities and can be one of the Hill's liveliest committees.

"It's the Washington equivalent of hand-to-hand combat," he said.

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636