WASHINGTON - In mid-November, four months into his new job as a U.S. senator, Al Franken faced a testy spat between his chief of staff, Drew Littman, and his top legislative aide on farm issues, Mark Wilson.
The dispute ended with Capitol police ushering Wilson out of Franken's office and has led Wilson to charge that Minnesotans like him are being shortchanged in the makeup of Franken's fledgling Capitol Hill staff -- a rare insider accusation that has fueled questions about the legislative priorities of a celebrity politician now six months into public office.
"If he's representing Minnesotans," Wilson said, "why aren't there Minnesotans there?"
In fact, Franken's 19-member Washington staff includes 13 people with significant Minnesota ties, a ratio similar to that of the state's senior U.S. senator, Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar.
The Wilson incident does, however, highlight a newly minted politician's reliance on an inner circle of seasoned Washington hands led by Littman, a former Hillary Rodham Clinton aide who helped Franken set up a working Senate office in the madcap days following last year's recount saga.
"Al wanted to make sure Minnesotans weren't shortchanged because he wasn't a career politician," Littman said. "He needed senior aides with substantial Senate experience to ensure that he could be an effective legislator right off the bat."
Franken's senior management team includes legislative director Ben Olinsky, a former aide to the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, and communications director Casey Aden-Wansbury, a former staffer for Sen. Joe Lieberman.
Democrat Franken's top Hill aides also reflect his unconventional path to public office, coming from outside the normal feeder system of Minnesota political and business leaders who have populated the senior ranks for other U.S. senators from Minnesota.
"This is not a guy who has worked his way up from being on the city council to the state house, to running for Senate," said University of Minnesota political scientist Larry Jacobs. "This is a guy who basically left the state for decades, came back, and ran as a national figure."
Franken's unique biography as a comedian, actor, and author presented another challenge: convincing skeptics that he was a credible first-time public office holder. For that, he turned to a small group of seasoned Hill veterans who oversee a staff with deep home-state connections.
"It's a balancing act," said Beverly Bell, executive director of the Congressional Management Foundation, which studies Capitol Hill offices. "We recommend a mix between in-state and Washington people."
The unusual nature of the Wilson affair -- Capitol Hill staffers rarely put their differences on-the-record to the media -- comes as Franken has had to downplay several highly publicized brushes with Senate Republicans, further challenging a carefully scripted narrative of a head-down senator focused on nonpartisan, bread-and-butter Minnesota issues.
Franken staffers note that six of his 12 bills boast Republican co-sponsors and that Franken's first hire was district director Alana Petersen, a Minnesota native who once worked for Rep. Jim Oberstar, the dean of the Minnesota delegation.
But given the frequent GOP critiques of Franken as a liberal attack dog for the Hollywood set, some analysts wonder why he has surrounded himself with a cadre of Capitol Hill veterans who have little connection to the state he represents.
"He has to be more Minnesotan than Paul Bunyan," said Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier. "This just invites partisan attack."
Bell, a national expert on congressional offices, said the perennial tension between home-state staffers and those who know the arcane customs of the Senate often is resolved in favor of home-grown talent -- but not always.
"It's not that cut and dried," Bell said. "We all like to be surrounded by people we know, trust, and feel comfortable with."
The highwater mark of Franken's first six months in office has been a pair of notable bills that became law with bipartisan support -- no mean feat for a rookie senator who went to Washington as a lightning rod for Republicans.
One bill, a service dog program for veterans, was inspired by a disabled Army captain from Brooklyn. Another, protecting the legal rights of women in the defense industry, was inspired by a Texas woman who alleged she was raped by fellow KBR/Halliburton employees in Iraq.
The lack of a distinct Minnesota connection in either bill has exposed Franken to questions about his legislative priorities, and not just from Republicans.
"They're motherhood initiatives," Schier said. "But they're not Minnesota motherhood initiatives."
Wilson, who once worked for Klobuchar, compared Franken's bills to swimming pool and lead toy regulations that Klobuchar championed early in her term as a response to tragedies involving Minnesota children.
Franken staffers say both of his bills had support from Minnesota interest groups and they produced a seven-page summary of legislative initiatives to help Minnesota. Some, like expanding school meals, are also national in scope; others are based on existing Minnesota practices, such as a health reform amendment limiting insurance company profits.
"Many of these initiatives were inspired by Minnesotans, and all of them were crafted in consultation with and designed to improve the lives of the folks who elected him," Littman said.
There is perhaps no better illustration of the delicate balancing act confronting Franken than Wilson's departure -- so far Franken's only staff defection in a Capitol Hill environment marked by burnout and high turnover.
Wilson, who has worked closely with the Minnesota agriculture community, was upset to learn that a Franken speech on rural issues would be farmed out to Jeff Nussbaum, a Washington speechwriter for former Vice President Al Gore.
By some accounts, there was a heated exchange among Wilson, Olinsky and Aden-Wansbury. It led to Wilson's resignation, a decision he came to regret and tried to rescind.
"It would have been legislative malpractice to not voice my concerns over the lack of a Minnesota perspective," Wilson wrote Littman in a Nov. 15 e-mail.
Franken staffers say the concern was one Wilson had never voiced before. Final speech drafts, though based on the input of regional policy aides, often are crafted by professional writers.
By all accounts, Franken called Wilson to soothe his nerves and wish him well. But the next morning, with feelings raw, Wilson was escorted out the door.
Kevin Diaz • 202-408-2753