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July 9. 2007

Rumble in Minnesota: Al Franken vs. Norm Coleman for U.S. Senate


Sixteen months 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 the milieu.


Forget the 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.


Franken's top 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.


The drawbacks? 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 possible.


2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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