Franken mindful of 312-vote margin

  • Article by: MARK BRUNSWICK , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 30, 2009 - 9:51 PM
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Al Franken with his wife Franni

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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For Al Franken, it has been a long road from radio provocateur who nearly incited fisticuffs at the 2004 Republican convention to standing on the brink of assuming his place in Washington as a U.S. senator.

The former "Saturday Night Live" writer, left wing radio host and author stood outside his Minneapolis condo on Tuesday reflecting on the new role, made possible by the Minnesota Supreme Court that declared him the victor in his protracted race against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman.

"I'm committed to being a voice for all Minnesotans in the U.S. Senate," Franken said, acknowledging the closeness of the race in which he finished ahead by 312 votes. "I can hit the ground -- if not running -- trotting," he said.

Franken said he is likely to travel to Washington early next week, after attending holiday parades on the Iron Range as scheduled over the weekend.

So the improbable journey from entertainer to U.S. senator continues. A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the earliest Franken could be seated will be next week, when the Senate returns from its July 4th recess.

"I think the hardest part of any transition is the stuff you didn't know would be the hardest part,'' Franken joked, his wife, Franni, at his side.

Shortly after learning of the Supreme Court decision, Franken said he received a telephone call from Reid and was given his committee assignments: Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; Judiciary; Indian Affairs; and Aging.

Franken, who tempered his humor and invective during the campaign, has waited in subdued limbo since November, aware of the danger posed to his public image if he presumed victory. But in the meantime he has hired a Minnesota state director and has workers ready in Washington, including a chief of staff. He has also worked to erase an escalating campaign and legal bill that could top $24 million. Most days, his office was his condo, where he spent time going over briefing books and meeting potential constituents.

He said his focus will be on achieving quality health care, education for children that prepares them for a 21st-century economy, making the state a center of renewable energy, restoring U.S. standing in the world and putting people to work. As the least senior of 100 senators, Franken said he knows there will be no time to lose in getting to work.

"There is a real difference between getting briefed on what's going on in these committees and having been there for, say, the markup of the health bill. It really will be catching up."

After Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania recently switched parties, Franken would be the crucial 60th vote Democrats need to block filibusters, heightening his influence before he even walks onto the Senate floor. He is likely to play a pivotal role in votes on health care and on the confirmation vote on U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, particularly given his committee assignments. While acknowledging that he hopes to help pass President Obama's agenda, Franken downplayed the significance of becoming the potential 60th vote for the Democrats, saying it is "a magic number, but it isn't."

"I'm not going to Washington to be the 60th Democratic senator, I'm going to Washington to be the second senator from Minnesota," Franken said.

Franken announced his candidacy 2 1/2 years ago, but in many ways, his Senate quest began with the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone in October 2002, just days before the election in which Coleman challenged him. Franken moved from New York to his native Minnesota and continued his radio program here until February 2007, when he announced his candidacy on the final day of his radio show.

The Coleman-Franken campaign gained added intensity with the tenacious candidacy of third-party hopeful Dean Barkley. Franken said he would enter office mindful that 58 percent of Minnesotans did not vote for him.

"I won by 312 votes, so I really have to earn the trust of the people that didn't vote for me," Franken said. "I'm going to be working for every Minnesotan and I'm going to be thinking about that every day when I wake up.''

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636

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