He's got the lead, but all he can do is study issues, talk policy and raise money to pay his recount bills.
Six months after Election Day, Al Franken is a man in limbo, preparing for an office he's not entirely sure he's going to get, chained to a fundraising treadmill for a legal battle that goes on and on, and champing to get to work while precious committee assignments and pitched policy battles pass him by.
He has hired a Minnesota state director -- Alana Peterson -- but she's working for free because he can't draw on any money budgeted for a Senate seat that has no winner. His office? Most days it's his Minneapolis townhouse. On Friday, it was the back corner of the Egg and I, a venerable breakfast and lunch joint on University Avenue near the line between Minneapolis and St. Paul.
The restaurant is a few dozen feet away from a darkened office with a forlorn "For Lease" sign in the window and slightly peeling red letters that announce "United States Senate Office, 100 N" -- the former digs of Norm Coleman, who occupies a similar nether state as both sides prepare for oral arguments before the state Supreme Court in June.
Two years, at least $24 million, one recount and several court challenges after he first declared his candidacy, Franken is on the precipice of everything he's wanted and more. Thanks to the recent party switch by Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Franken would be the crucial 60th vote Democrats need to block filibusters, heightening his influence before he even walks onto the Senate floor.
And yet, it all remains tantalizingly just out of reach.
"A lot of people ask me and Franni [his wife], 'Are you OK?'" Franken said, his face crumpling into a caricature of someone inquiring after one's health. "As life's challenges go, this is pretty low on the totem pole. Our kids are OK, we're not in danger of losing our home to foreclosure. We're fine."
But, he said, it can be frustrating. "Obviously, we have no budget to hire staff," he said. Not only does Peterson work for free, but so does his recently hired chief of staff. When he travels to Washington, Franken either pays his own way or taps his legal fund -- which he spends hours every day replenishing.
"It's very expensive," he said, shaking his head. "I'm spending a lot more time on fundraising than I'd like to right now."
And he's aware, always, that of the 58 percent of Minnesotans who did not vote for him, some will think his actions presumptuous.
"I'm not doing this to be presumptuous, just responsible," he said. "I felt, especially once we won the recount, it was my responsibility to be ready as soon as I became senator." Then he added quickly, "If that were to pass."
Coaching from Hillary
Quietly, Franken has been consulting with another high-profile name who faced a rough transition to life as one of 100 -- former First Lady and now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"Hillary came in to a certain amount of skepticism," Franken said. "They wondered 'Is she going to be a prima donna? Use her celebrity? Is she going to be grabbing the microphone all the time.' What she did was put her head down and work."
Franken said he intends to do the same. So does that mean he'll still the rapier-sharp tongue that stung Republicans for years when he served as a proud attack dog for the left?
"I'm someone who has been very outspoken," Franken acknowledged. "But when I go in there, I think I'll be most for Minnesota if I let my colleagues know that I respect them and the institution and will put my head down and do the work."
But when he's got something to say, Franken says he won't hesitate. "I will speak out and speak my mind," he said. "Absolutely."
One challenge will be maintaining at least cordial relations with a congressional delegation that spans the political rainbow from Rep. Keith Ellison, recently arrested while protesting Darfur, to Rep. Michele Bachmann, whose controversial pronouncements have earned her a near-permanent berth on the talk show circuit.
"I'm going to work with all of them," Franken said. "I think my actions will speak louder than my words."
Specter won't be a sure vote
When Franken first heard the news about Specter's defection, "I was very excited about it," he said. "Then I thought about it for a second. It's Arlen Specter. He's pretty independent. So if you're counting on him as the 60th vote on everything, you're a fool."
Franken has already started meeting with interest groups. On Friday he tucked into a short-stack of dinner-plate sized blueberry pancakes as he listened to a pair of crisp-suited lobbyists make their case against cap and trade. For nearly an hour, Mark Glaess, general manager of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association and David Saggau, president of Great River Energy, blitzed Franken with maps, data, PowerPoint, warnings of industries that might pull out and electric rates that might rise, if a particular version of the bill passes.
Three years on the road to the Senate have taught Franken a little about forbearance. As Glaess and Saggau pressed their point, Franken noted soothingly that "You certainly have an important point of view," but also put them on notice that he considers climate change a problem that needs immediate attention.
"We want to solve the [carbon emissions] problem," Glaess interjected, "but if we can do that and solve the rate shock, that's the trifecta."
As Glaess and Saggau got up to leave, Glaess told Franken, "I have a lot of admiration for your persistence." Franken offered a slight smile. "I had no choice," he said.
Moments after Glaess and Saggau departed, they were replaced by Michael Noble and Linda Taylor of Fresh Energy, an environmental advocacy group. Noble immediately launched into a dizzying, detailed counterpoint, telling Franken that if coal-based energy is allowed to maintain a lower rate, motivation to adopt energy alternatives like wind and solar will drop, just as the clamor for hybrid cars fell with the price of gas.
Later, Franken reflected on what may be his new life. "Anyone who comes in is going to have a good case," he said. "It isn't a situation where people come in and give you a whole bunch of hogwash." The viewpoints he'd just heard "were so radically different that it was something I'm going to have to continue to think about, read about, talk to colleagues. I'm going to weigh everything and make the best judgment I can."
That's different from his previous life as an author and radio show host.
"Here you don't get to pick and choose things you're sure of," he said. "You're going to be making decisions in gray areas. A lot of them."
Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288