A look at Franken’s first year

Published 2:02 pm Saturday, July 3, 2010

A year ago, Washington braced for an over-the-top new senator in Al Franken, a guy who made his name with “Saturday Night Live” sketches, liberal talk radio and a string of mouthy political books.

Washington is still waiting.

The senator from Minnesota turned out to be more under-the-radar than in-your-face. He quickly blended in to the clubby institution, bonding with a conservative Republican over country music and shepherding amendments to bills as they slogged through.

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Aside from a few minor scrapes — he confronted presidential adviser David Axelrod over health bill strategy during a private meeting and cut off a senior senator who spoke beyond his allotted floor time — Franken has been out of the focus. On purpose, he says.

“What I’ve tried to do is be effective,” Franken told The Associated Press in an interview. “I think that going in when you have a certain level of celebrity, it’s even more important to demonstrate to your constituents and to your colleagues that you’re there to do the work.”

He added: “I didn’t want my colleagues thinking that I was going to be stealing their limelight and suddenly come in and be on ‘Meet the Press.”’

Franken’s arrival was a big deal, and not just because his comedic past. To get there, he battled back from an Election Night deficit and defeated Republican incumbent Norm Coleman by 312 votes in a recount and court fight that spanned eight months. Added to that was Franken’s status as the filibuster-busting 60th vote for Democrats — a level of chamber control that proved short-lived when Republicans pulled an upset to fill the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s seat.

Republicans still cringe over the loss, and home state Gov. Tim Pawlenty derisively turned “Senator Franken” into a rallying cry in speeches to GOP audiences. Coleman, too, had hard words for his former rival, saying Franken has barely registered on the national political stage.

“Avoiding controversy and keeping your head down is a good thing perhaps in a campaign, but ultimately being a senator is more than that. I don’t see much of him. I can’t say that he stood out for staking a position on a major issue or anything,” Coleman said.

He added: “We’ve seen very little.”

Franken didn’t trade much on his new status as a senator. He turned down requests from national TV shows, choosing to focus on the arcane details of issues like health care and banks. He held meetings in Minnesota to hear experts and advocates outline views on everything from Wall Street to the Afghanistan war. At a round-table discussion on the housing crisis in St. Paul in late June, Franken spent most of the hour listening, nodding occasionally and throwing out a question or a mild joke to keep things moving.

His first bill, the Service Dogs for Disabled Veterans Act, became law in October as part of a larger defense bill. Franken also sponsored a provision in the health care overhaul that requires health insurers to spend at least 85 percent of premiums on medical costs, and his amendment to the financial regulation bill aims to stop financial institutions from choosing their own credit rating agencies.

Despite a party-line voting record, Franken has been friendly with Republican senators.

More than once, he has gotten together with Utah Republican Orrin Hatch, a fellow songwriter. Both have written country numbers, and Franken got Hatch’s help on his own tune, “We Stayed Together for the Kids.”

“The song he penned was a little edgy so I tried to clean it up a little for him,” Hatch said in an e-mail.

Democrats know Franken will be an enticing target for Republicans even if he continues in his workmanlike vein.

“Al Franken looks like a very serious politician to me,” said Democratic analyst Todd Rapp, a Twin Cities public relations executive. “Having said that there’s little doubt that in 2014 that this is going to be one of the top three Senate seats in the country. You watch how the national Republicans are handling this thing and they’re watching Franken very carefully.”

Cullen Sheehan, Coleman’s former campaign manager, said Republicans are eager to take Franken on in 2014.

“In a state like Minnesota, a guy like Franken who’s as liberal as he is and who’s as partisan as he is, is always going to be vulnerable,” Sheehan said.

Franken took the oath of office last July 7, a week after the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld a ruling that Franken got the most legally cast votes and Coleman conceded.

Franken said he has seen Coleman only once since then. They bumped into each other at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day breakfast in Minneapolis in January. Coleman confirmed the encounter.

“He said, ‘It’s a great job, isn’t it?”’ Franken said. “And I go, ‘Yeah, it really is.”’