Al Franken: Career success, just not in politics

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 19, 2008 - 11:38 PM

Al Franken has had to play catch-up as he has moved away from comedy.

When Al Franken and his Blake School pal Tom Davis were hired as writers for "Saturday Night Live" in 1975, the political junkies gleefully satirized Democrats and Republicans alike.

"We didn't really have a political ax to grind," Franken said. "We thought it was actually improper to. There were cast members who didn't share our political views, and we didn't share each other's political views."

It was only when Franken left "SNL" for good, in 1995, that he finally felt free to express his own political ideas. His inspiration was a movement of congressional Republicans led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich that promised to reverse years of liberal policies.

The result was a book-length stew of research, analysis and cutting satire titled "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot." It was the first of Franken's four political books, three of which have topped the New York Times bestseller list.

Now in his first race, as the DFL-endorsed U.S. Senate candidate, Franken doesn't have a traditional political track record. The question facing voters is whether Franken can translate his smarts and performing savvy into success in a dramatically different arena. What kind of senator would he be?

"I think that I'll be an odd combo of a bit of a policy wonk and a plow horse," Franken said in a recent interview. "I'm not sure I'm going to be a dealmaker, but I'll be working across party lines.

"I think I'm an affable guy, unless I think something is being done wrong."

Franken's career shows he has made a success of nearly everything he has tried, usually without direct experience.

He was a math nerd who became a popular comedian, a sketch writer who authored bestselling books of political satire, a TV personality who anchored a national radio talk show.

His name has become a national brand for razor-edged liberal wit, so much so that Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and his allies say his sometimes profane humor and harsh jabs hardly add up to the dignified, conciliatory style that gets things done in Washington.

Franken is never going to be a typically glib or smooth politician, DFL activist Nancy Larson said.

"I see his passion coming through," she said. "He's really honest about what he cares about, what the issues are. I've known him for a long time, and the issues he cared about 10 years ago, he cares about today."

Liberal in the Wellstone mold?

Franken's issue positions include proposals for several good-size spending programs, strong opposition to the war in Iraq and fierce resistance to any so-called privatization in Social Security.

But whether Franken by instinct is a Wellstonian liberal is unclear.

Compared with some of his high school classmates, Franken "was a real Clean for Gene [McCarthy] guy, kind of your more mainstream DFL kind of guy," said Bob Danielsen of Minnetrista, a close friend from Blake days who became a conservative lawyer and now calls himself Franken's "favorite Republican whipping boy."

At Harvard, when a group of campus radicals protesting the Vietnam War proposed shutting down the campus libraries, Franken argued it was silly. One student told him they had to counter the military-industrial complex.

"And I go, like, what does that have to do with kids going to the library?" Franken said.

Franken opposed the Vietnam War, which he avoided courtesy of a student deferment (Coleman didn't serve either). But unlike Wellstone, Franken backed the war in Iraq at the outset, persuaded by Secretary of State Colin Powell that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction.

Franken has long since concluded that the war was a mistake and the process of withdrawing U.S. troops should begin immediately, a major difference between him and Coleman.

In the early days of the Bush administration, Franken came across a Gallup Poll that said 22 percent of Americans got their news from largely conservative talk radio. That was the genesis of "The Al Franken Show" on Air America in 2004.

The show's ratings were OK, but the new progressive network was plagued by shaky financing, including a questionable loan from a New York Boys & Girls Club. Franken said he was not an investor in the network and was unaware of the loan.

In October 2006, a few months before Franken left the network, Air America filed for bankruptcy. The network was sold to a New York real estate magnate about the time Franken ended his show in February 2007 to run for the Senate.

Business slip-ups

For years Franken had returned to Minnesota to campaign for DFL politicians, but his real entree to the party came with his Midwest Values PAC, formed when he and his wife, Franni, moved to Minneapolis in late 2005.

The PAC contributed more than $1 million to Democratic candidates in Minnesota and around the country, while giving Franken the chance to meet DFLers around the state.

But it was his business dealings, not his political fundraising, that raised eyebrows.

In March, a Republican blogger found that New York had fined Alan Franken Inc., his entertainment company, $25,000 for failing to pay workers' compensation insurance for employees from 2002 to 2005.

Franken said he was unaware of the fine and couldn't explain why he hadn't received several notices mailed by the state.

After a report that the corporation owed $5,800 to California in back taxes over four years, Franken determined that he actually owed $70,000 in back taxes to 17 states.

Franken said his accountant overpaid two states where he lived and underpaid others but declined to release tax records, providing a summary of the taxes he calculated were owed and paid from 2003 to 2007.

There was a brief flurry about Franken's racier satire, but mostly the campaign has steered clear of rough patches and slowly gained ground on Coleman. Eager to assure voters that his candidacy is a serious endeavor -- and hoping as well to avoid a headline-size gaffe -- Franken, for the most part, has reined in his often irrepressible humor on the campaign trail.

Politics is personal

Franken said that his politics can be summed up in three words -- return on investment.

"There is a place for government to help people's lives, but I'm a pragmatist in that I think it's up to government to do ... research and development, infrastructure, education, preventative medicine," he said.

For Franken, much of politics is personal. Social Security, for example, shouldn't be privatized, he said; those benefits helped his wife's family after her mother was widowed.

Franken supports single-payer universal health care but doesn't think it's politically feasible yet, so he would provide federal funding to the states to develop universal coverage plans of their own. He would also require states to cover children with a single-payer program like Medicare.

Coleman says Franken's health plan would bankrupt taxpayers, prevent them from choosing doctors and compromise the quality of health care.

Both candidates agree on a comprehensive approach to energy independence. Franken favors "an Apollo-style program" to fund development of renewable energy, including ethanol and biofuels, and solar and wind power. He doesn't oppose off-shore drilling in principle, but thinks it should be done first at sites that oil companies lease but aren't using.

His "Ticket to Success" college tuition plan would offer families an annual $5,000 tax credit per student. To pay for the $9.6 billion annual cost of the program, he would let the Bush tax cuts lapse for millionaires.

The Republican charge most often heard of late against Franken is that he would raise taxes. He says that he would pay for many of his program proposals by ending some tax breaks.

Franken flirted with the idea of raising the federal gas tax to pay for infrastructure repairs, but came out against it last summer when gas prices spiked. He opposes repeal of the so-called "death tax," but wants to raise its threshold to hurt fewer family farmers and business owners.

The money for his "Kitchen Table Tax Relief" plan -- a range of tax credits to help families caring for children and seniors -- would come from narrowing tax shelters and closing what Franken calls offshore tax loopholes.

Caregivers would be eligible for a $2,000 credit, and businesses could get a credit of up to $1,200 per employee to help with child care needs, perhaps by telecommuting.

To help workers save for retirement, Franken is calling for so-called 401(U) accounts to build invested savings through automatic payroll deductions. To encourage participation, tax deductions would be replaced with a 30 percent federal match on contributions; that shift would make the program practically revenue-neutral, he says.

Danielsen, Franken's high school chum, said that they oppose each other on nearly every issue. Nevertheless, he said with a laugh, he may have to "hold my nose" and vote for his old friend on Nov. 4.

"He's a very intelligent and well-intentioned person," Danielsen said, "and how many intelligent and well-intentioned persons wind up in political office?"

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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