Senator Al Franken: Goodbye to the Class Clown

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ and PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: July 4, 2009 - 8:49 PM

By all accounts, Sen.-elect Al Franken will downplay humor and focus on policy when he takes his seat.

After Al Franken is sworn in to the U.S. Senate this week, the nation will be watching to see how the former entertainer performs in a theater where cooperation trumps controversy and wise politicians survive wiseguys.

Preparing for his new role, one of the first people Franken sought out was Tamara Luzzatto, chief of staff for Hillary Clinton when she was in the Senate.

"A number of people have told me to study the Hillary model of being a senator," Franken said after they met last February. "Put your head down and do the work."

Franken appears determined to establish credibility as a serious lawmaker. No acerbic wit. No bombastic attacks on conservatives.

Goodbye Stuart Smalley, the goofy, mincing self-help guru from "Saturday Night Live." Hello, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

"We're going to see a new Al Franken," said analyst Steven Schier, who teaches politics at Carleton College. "Or at least the same Al Franken we've seen in recent months, an Al Franken on Valium, so to speak -- very low-key."

Franken's attempts at a muted tone will likely be tested by the news media horde that will greet his arrival in the Capitol, along with a jam-packed legislative agenda.

"It's going to be about as crazy as one can imagine," said longtime Franken friend and Congress observer Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. Without a chance to catch his breath and ease into the job, Ornstein said, Franken's arrival will be "like being dropped into the middle of a tsunami."

He will also have to contend with an emerging Republican strategy to treat him as a symbol of the filibuster-proof super-majority that his victory could deliver to the Senate's Democratic caucus.

"What each party needs is a piñata from the other side," Schier said. "Clearly the Republicans are looking for a flamboyant, inviting target for their fundraising and media strategy, and Franken probably suits that role better than anybody on the Senate side."

Republicans will get plenty of help from conservative pundits outside Congress who want to keep a target on Franken's back.

"They're going to have some eager allies," Ornstein said, "Because [conservative talk show hosts] Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly have all felt his barbs."

Franken first made a splash as a political satirist with his 1996 book "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot (And Other Observations)." He initially dubbed his liberal talk radio show on Air America "The O'Franken Factor," just to goad O'Reilly. Fox News sued over the name and Franken won.

Franken's temperament also could be tested inside the Senate, which still places a premium on an old-school collegiality. One of his assignments is the Judiciary Committee, where some of the Senate's biggest egos delight in taking on judicial nominees and, occasionally, one another.

"If Franken can turn his edginess into a sort of frank authenticity, I think he can do well," said St. Olaf College political science Prof. Dan Hofrenning. "Some people might say that on the campaign trail he wasn't funny enough, wasn't edgy enough."

But on one occasion, he might have been a bit too edgy.

A former leader of Carleton College Democrats recalls Franken crossing the line in exchanges with a conservative student, Peter Fritz, over economic issues during a 2008 appearance in Northfield.

"Franken was aggressively challenging Peter on why he supported tax cuts," recalled Pablo Kenney, 22, who was president of Carleton Democrats. "He was ... dismissing his arguments in a very, in a light way, in a mocking way. I thought it was inappropriate ... the tone that he took with him."

Franken was "playing to the crowd," when he "probably should have just walked away from that conversation," said Kenney, who voted for Franken.

After Franken's appearance, spokesman Andy Barr was quoted in an e-mail saying that Franken recalled having a "spirited" conversation with a "College GOPer" at the urging of some of the student's Democratic friends. "Seemed like everyone was having a good time, or as good a time as you can have debating Reaganomics," Barr wrote.

Constituent work first

In Franken's first months in the Senate, battles over weighty national issues may take a back seat to the more parochial matters of constituent service.

Advisers such as Drew Littman, who organized Clinton's Senate office, have counseled Franken to focus on Minnesota issues and the details of policy.

"It's tempting in the Senate to see it as a place where you can work on any national issue," said Littman, Franken's new chief of staff. "He's going to dig in on the local stuff."

Clinton, who played down her celebrity as former First Lady, answered many of her early critics by working hard in the Senate and doing well for her adopted state of New York.

"With her, it was about whether she'd be a work horse or a show horse," Franken said, adding that he wants to copy Clinton's no-nonsense style, even at the risk of being boring.

"She came to her committee meetings well-prepared, she worked across party lines, and found areas of agreement. She impressed her colleagues as someone who was going to work, not take the spotlight."

Will he also copy her run for the White House?

"Not that part," Franken said.

To Littman, it's all about building relationships in the Senate. "Despite what they say on the campaign trail or in their fundraising letters, they don't care how ideological you are, as long as you're a reasonable person they can work with and you won't embarrass them."

Stance on health care

Franken has, at times, been decidedly left-of-center on health care, and once said he wanted to be a senator "so we can go to universal health care." During the campaign he said he supported a hybrid system where states cover their residents using federal funds and all minors fall under a single-payer system like Medicare, although he stopped short of an all-out endorsement of universal single-payer health care.

In an interview last week, Franken said he supports universal care that is "accessible and affordable."

Franken wrote in 2008 that he supports a cap-and-trade system for regulating carbon emissions, and he criticized the Bush administration for rejecting the Kyoto Protocol -- an international commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

He would also like the country to launch an Apollo-style effort to fund research of renewable fuels -- especially corn and cellulosic ethanol, which have become a major business in Minnesota.

Franken's Judiciary Committee assignment will put him at the center of the looming confirmation debate over Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

Though it will not likely be an issue in that confirmation, Franken told Minnesota Public Radio in 2007 that he would "most likely vote against" a nominee opposed to Roe vs. Wade, the landmark abortion rights decision.

However Franken positions himself on the issues, his advisers say he will generally leave humor aside -- a prospect, they say, that might ultimately cause the national media to lose interest.

"It's basically about countering a set of expectations," Ornstein said. "I don't think he's going to have enormous difficulty overcoming that, because he is basically a policy wonk."

kdiaz@startribune.com • 202-408-2753 pdoyle@startribune.com • 651-222-1210

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