Al Franken (D-MN) waited over eight months to take his seat. When he was sworn-in, he used the Bible of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died on a campaign flight in the frigid north. Wellstone was a champion of the people, nationally, but stayed close to constituents. He also co-sponsored legislation to afford health benefits to those stricken by mental illness including drug addiction. For that, and tireless advocacy, Paul Wellstone was a people's politician.
Too bad Sen. Al Franken is being held-up by Senate Leadership before he gets to join the health care debate. Since the health care bill is already in mark-up, Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) and others on the committee were unable to seat him "until after the bill emerges from conference." This tactical move to prevent the super-majority guy from engaging in policy debate was hailed by one CNN commentator at the Franken Swearing-in party as "political posturing."
I was told in no uncertain terms -- "no national media" -- by no less than three Franken staffers at the swearing-in program. So, I wanted a week to write this piece.
Al Franken is no joke. He is a Harvard graduate with a degree in political science. He has prepared well with friends including policy wonk Norm Ornstein. The reception following his swearing-in at the Hart building was a mix of Hollywood and New York entertainment elite, wealthy Minnesotans and high net worth donors, Senate staffers hoping to represent their bosses, and "those who are just going along for the ride," as the senator labeled some of us.
Still, it was an intimate affair of just under 100 people. I met the guy who does the TV Fun House cartoons on SNL whom Franken discovered 30 years ago. Talked with a young guy seeking a job named Drew Sandquist who helped Franken on the campaign by overseeing recounts. And met plenty of donors. Full disclosure -- I provided Al Franken $500 in Denver to attend a cool fundraiser at a law firm along with DNC delegates and wanted to meet his family. His wife Franni was indeed a campaign powerhouse. I also wrote an earlier column about him.
"I am Fritz Mondale, and I campaigned for Al Franken," intoned Vice President Mondale, the real star of this show, who introduced the new freshman senator. Mondale looked great and ready to go back to Congress. He likened Franken to Humphrey and other politically astute Minnesotans. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) has also been a new star to the Senate -- seated on Senate Science Commerce and Transportation where she drives hard questions and delights Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), the chairman. Sen. Klobuchar has advanced Sen. Franken at perfunctory Senate Caucus Lunches, etc. Klobuchar also got her media chops at the annual National Press Club Foundation dinner and roast I attended. She drew headlines next day for her sarcastic punches.
Franken's committee assignments were awaited with baited breath -- Senate Judiciary, Senate Health, Education, Labor Committee, and Senate Indian Affairs. Pretty cool for a freshman, thought the assembled supporters by their applause. Franken has been a key advocate of Indian Affairs in his home state. Now he can direct funding through Interior or help in other meaningful ways.
Sen. Franken was brought to tears as he introduced his immediate family including wife Franni and kids Joe and Thomasin. "If you followed me on the campaign trail at all," said the new Senator who an hour prior had just been administered the oath of office, "you know that I tend to choke-up a lot."
Franken only riffed a little bit to get his composure. He has decided to keep the jokes to a minimum these first weeks in office. His team already in place, and the office set-up underway, Franken was "ready to go."
"He will be somber in the beginning," said Bernie Lunzer, president of the Newspaper Guild (a union for reporters) and VP of the Communications Workers of America union. "I was very impressed that he is ready to go on the first day!"
Lunzer also lamented a story in the Washington Post that ran a day before the swearing-in by Dana Milbank that continued to question Franken's leadership. "Give him a chance," said Lunzer. "Editors and columnists can be so harsh!"