July 9. 2007
Rumble in Minnesota:
Al Franken vs. Norm Coleman for U.S. Senate
before voters go to the polls, the 2008 Minnesota U.S. Senate race
heated up last week when a local "marijuana activist" named Norm Kent
posted a letter on the Web in which he alleged that, when he and
Republican Sen. Norm Coleman were undergraduates at Hofstra University,
Kent had once seen Coleman light up a joint while standing atop a
building during an anti-war protest.
Was this damaging to
Coleman? Sort of. But then again, the Democrat-turned-Republican has
never made much of a secret of his hippie youth, and besides, his
potential opponent, Al Franken, was associated with "Saturday Night
Live" in the 1970s, when drugs were, let's just say, certainly part of
presidential race. After endless, boring debates, and daily analysis of
fundraising numbers, I'm as sick of it as anyone – and the first primary
isn't for six months. The Senate race, in my ancestral state of
Minnesota, is where the real action is.
The most fascinating
aspect of the race is the involvement of Franken, the longtime
actor/writer/comedian/author/radio host who has never previously sought
nor held public office. A good friend of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone,
one of Minnesota's most beloved political figures, Franken watched in
2002 as, days after Wellstone was killed in a plane crash, Coleman used
anger generated by the senator's over-the-top public memorial service to
sweep himself into office. The erstwhile Stuart Smalley is therefore out
for some payback.
primary opponent will likely be trial lawyer Michael Ciresi, who rose to
prominence as a leader in Minnesota's late-1990s tobacco settlement, but
came up short in a previous senatorial bid in 2000. The primary election
will likely mark the first and last time in Ciresi's political career in
which the phrase "trial lawyer" is not used as a pejorative against him.
No matter who the
Democratic nominee is, the race will go a long way towards establishing
which way Minnesota turns politically. The state has quite a liberal
tradition, and has gone for the Democrat in the last seven presidential
elections (yep, even Carter and Mondale.)
However, there has
always been a divide in the state between urban liberals and rural
conservatives, the latter of whom have had much success in recent years,
most notably in keeping the governorship out of Democrat Farm Labor
Party hands since 1990. And even though the Democrats successfully
retained their other Senate seat in the Democratic tsunami of 2006, GOP
Gov. Tim Pawlenty was re-elected. With the Republican National
Convention coming to Minneapolis-St. Paul in 2008, the state's political
identity is at stake as never before.
There will be much
else at stake in the Senate rate itself, as it is the rare election in
which the candidates truly, personally hate one another. But, strangely,
they do have much in common. Coleman is originally from New York.
Franken lived there for 25 years. Both are Jewish, but married to
non-Jewish women. (Franken has responded to the inevitable carpetbagger
charge by describing himself as "the only New York Jew in the race who
actually grew up in Minnesota.")
Also fascinating –
if Franken were to be elected, he would be the fourth consecutive Jew to
hold that particular Senate seat (after Rudy Boschwitz, Wellstone, and
Coleman) – an astonishing achievement for a community that makes up
about 2 percent of the state.
Is Franken's run a
good idea? It's hard to say as of now. Despite 25 years away from the
state, he never lost his Minnesota sensibility, but as evidenced by his
knockout win in his feud with Bill O'Reilly, debating Coleman should be
a breeze. He can raise money from his many famous friends, and even more
importantly, Franken is a fresh face for the DFL, especially for a party
that has had problems in recent years running the same candidates up to
defeat again and again. The DFL's last big political victory, Amy
Klobuchar's Senate win last year, was by someone who had never run for
Senate or governor before.
Franken has, of course, never been a politician before. He has a paper
trail of five books, thousands of hours of radio, and numerous speeches
that beg to be dug through by hungry opposition researchers, looking for
a scandal. And finally, political campaigns motivated chiefly by revenge
have very little precedent of being successful in the U.S.
All of this is
likely to play out in a fascinating way in the next year and a half. But
whatever the election ends up being about, I'd prefer the question of
the candidates' youthful drug use be as far on the periphery as
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