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Interview With Al Franken

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Al Franken is running for the United States Senate from the great state of Minnesota, in case you haven't heard already. And before you ask, no, he's not kidding around. He is running to reclaim the seat of the beloved Paul Wellstone, which was taken (after Wellstone's tragic death in a plane crash) by Republican Norm Coleman.

Minnesota's progressive -- or, more properly, "populist" -- roots are evident in the name of the we're-not-the-Republicans party there: the "Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party" (known to Minnesotans as the DFL). And Franken is about to secure his party's nomination tomorrow, at the state party's convention.

I was able to squeeze in an interview with Franken this week, even though he is busy preparing for today's convention events. I must admit that I forgot to ask him how he converted Arianna Huffington over to progressive politics, but that will just have to wait until I catch up with him again out on the campaign trail.

Franken has run an impressive campaign so far, defeating one well-funded Democratic opponent, and surviving another who positioned himself far to the left of Franken. His campaign was not without its stumbles, though, the most prominent of which was a messy tax problem (due to Franken's company operating in more than one state, and getting some bad accounting advice).

But Al Franken has survived the primary season and is now looking forward to running against Coleman in the fall. In the latest Rasmussen poll (taken a few weeks ago), Franken was running only two points behind the incumbent Coleman. And Franken seems confident he can make up this difference by November.

Although the (as he puts it) "Is He Serious?" headlines have mostly come and gone, Al Franken is still Al Franken, and his humorous style is evident throughout the interview. But for all the people who scoffed at the idea of a former comedian running for such a high public office, it can now be strongly stated that Al Franken's campaign is definitely no joke.

 

Al Franken

Photo by: Bill Weaver

 

If you are sworn into office as Senator Franken, what Senate committees would be your top priorities to get seated on, and why?

Obviously, I've done a lot of thinking about this. First, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. We have a broken health care system and it cuts through every aspect of our lives. We need to prepare our kids for a 21st Century economy and we're not doing it with our schools. Labor created the middle class in this country and we're losing that. And I promised a steelworker on the Iron Range in Minnesota that I would protect his pension. So that's one. And Minnesota has a proud tradition of having two Senators on the Ag committee -- a tradition I'd like very much to continue.

I'd like to be on either Energy and Natural Resources or Environment and Public Works. Or Transportation. We need to create a green economy in this country. Next, Foreign Affairs. We need to restore our standing in the world, starting with crafting a way out of Iraq and putting an end to the cowboy foreign policy we've had the last 7-plus years. I'd also like to sit on the Veterans Committee. I never served, but having done USO tours, I've developed an emotional attachment to our men and women in uniform. This congress had been stepping up finally for our Iraq and Afghanistan vets. I want to make sure that keeps happening. And I'd like to be on Indian Affairs. A Minnesotan should be on that committee. We owe an historic debt to American Indians. They have a unique set of concerns that haven't been addressed and I'd like to stand with them. Also, I'd like to get their views on immigration.

 

If a Democrat wins the presidency in 2009, what would Senator Franken talk about when first meeting the new President in the White House? What would you counsel him or her to try to achieve in their first 100 days, with your help in the Senate?

You know, I wish I could say, "The first thing we need to do is tackle campaign finance reform and get public financing of federal elections." Because in a way, that is the meta-problem. We're not going to solve health care, energy, the recession, until we break the stranglehold of big money on politics. There are so many things we need to do together, but to make progress on those important issues, I think we need a new political culture in Washington. We need our leaders to stand up for working families -- and we need to make it clear to the special interests that they're not so special anymore.

 

Incredibly, your campaign is seen within Minnesota as being a "big name" establishment candidate rather than as an underdog. You are also seen as an "outsider" by the national Democratic establishment, since you're a rookie as a politician. Given the contradictory view Washington politicians and Minnesota voters seem to have of your candidacy, which do you see yourself as -- underdog or establishment candidate? Or something else entirely?

I'll leave the punditry to you, but I will say that no campaign becomes "established" without a tremendous amount of hard work. I'm so proud of the grassroots, people-powered machine we've built here -- all the organizers, volunteers, donors, and other supporters -- and incredibly excited about how well we stack up to Norm Coleman and his special interest backers.

 

Do you think Minnesota's ex-governor Jesse Ventura will jump into the race, or do you think he's just trying to sell his new book? Do you think a three-way race with Ventura would help you or hurt you against incumbent Norm Coleman?

I think Jesse's selling a book.

 

One of your Democratic challengers is championing universal single-payer health care. How does your approach to reforming health care differ? Do you think single-payer is a worthy goal, but one for the future which realistically couldn't pass Congress right now; or do you disagree with the whole concept of single-payer health care?

I don't disagree with the concept at all -- in fact, if we were starting from scratch, it makes a ton of sense on paper. The problem is that we've been fighting for universal health care for decades and we're still not there. I think one of the reasons we aren't there yet is that we have yet to develop an American model for universal coverage. Every other industrialized country has its own model, Canada has single-payer, France has a combination public/private system. We need a system to put us on a glide path to an American model -- and I think the individual-state pilot programs proposed by Senators Feingold and Graham (yes, that's Russ Feingold and Lindsey Graham, which could tell you something about the political viability of the idea) show a lot of promise.

 

Do you think voters are going to care about your recent tax problems, or do you think other issues are going to be more important to them in the voting booth?

We're in two wars and a recession. The Minnesotans I talk to are really concerned about what the future holds for their families. They're trying to pay for health care and send their kids to college, they're worried about declining home values, they're scared for a loved one they have serving in Iraq. This election is going to be about who will be a voice for them -- who is going to go to Washington to stand up for working families and stand up to the special interests. Minnesotans need a Senator who's got their back -- and Norm Coleman hasn't even been on their side.

 

What has been the best part of running for office so far? The worst part?

The best part has been traveling. I spend days and days driving around Minnesota in the campaign hybrid, with my wife, Franni. We stop in towns all over the state and I get to hear people's stories. It's been an amazing experience -- and a lot of fun. The worst part is call-time. Call-time has renewed my faith in the need for public financing of elections. Call-time is where I as the candidate, sit in a room with my "call-time manager," and a phone. Then I call people and ask them for money. For hours. Apparently, I'm really good at it. But I'm also really good at crafting policy, talking to voters, debating, learning about a new issue -- and I'd much rather spend my time doing any one of those things.

 

Given your roots as a comedian, how hard has it been to get Minnesotans to take you seriously as a Senate candidate? What do you do, for instance, on the campaign trail when someone quotes a comedy bit from your past?

If it was a funny bit, I laugh. I can't not be me, so I'm going to be funny every now and then. But I think Minnesotans have had the last year to meet me, to hear me speak, to check out my website, and see how seriously I take this campaign. It hasn't been nearly as hard as the parade of "Is He Serious?" headlines in papers outside Minnesota would lead you to believe.

 

The Republicans have not been shy about digging up your comedy clips and trying to use them against you. You have chosen not to respond to these, saying that if you did, "that's all I'd do." Isn't there a danger of being seen as John Kerry-esque, refusing to respond to Swift Boat attacks? Or are you confident that Minnesota voters can tell the difference between your past as a professional comic, and what you would do for them as their Senator?

You got it absolutely right. Minnesotans know the difference between the job of satirist and the job of Senator. And so do I. If Norm Coleman were running for book critic, I might be more concerned that he doesn't like my work. But he's running for re-election to the United States Senate, and he'd better start running on his record -- or the issues -- soon, because up until now, I've pretty much had them to myself.

 

Democrats in general have never really mastered the political trick Ronald Reagan used so effectively -- laughing off a question with a self-depreciating quip in such a fashion that the question would never be asked again. Do you think you would be able to help Democrats effectively frame issues with humor -- to both get your point across, and also put issues to rest forever?

Yes.

 

Since you wrote a book on the subject, do you have any comment to Rush Limbaugh's recent statement that he is "dreaming" of riots in the streets in Denver during the Democratic National Convention?

I'm sure I've devoted enough thought to Rush Limbaugh for one lifetime.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com