Sen. Al Franken (D)
Elected: 2008, term expires 2014, 1st term.
Born: May 21, 1951, New York City, NY .
Education: Harvard U., B.A.1973.
Family: Married (Franni); 2 children.
Professional Career: Writer, network comedy show; Radio talk show host
Democrat Al Franken prevailed in his extremely close contest with Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, and was declared the winner of the November 2008 election after eight months of ballot recounts and court challenges. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled 5-0 in the former comedian’s favor on June 30, 2009, and Coleman immediately announced he would not appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The same day, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed the certificate of election declaring Franken the winner by 312 votes. Franken became the 60th Democrat in the Senate, giving the party a filibuster-proof majority.
|Al Franken (D)||1,212,629||(42%)||($21,066,834)|
|Norm Coleman (R)||1,212,317||(42%)||($19,011,108)|
|Dean Barkley (I)||437,505||(15%)||($162,387)|
|Al Franken (D)||164,136||(65%)|
|Priscilla Faris (D)||74,655||(30%)|
Franken was born in New York City and moved at age 4 to Minnesota, where the family settled in the heavily Jewish suburb of St. Louis Park just west of Minneapolis. Franken’s father was a printing salesman and his mother was a real estate agent. From a young age, Franken reconciled his competing political and comedic impulses by combining them. As a seventh grader, he ran for class president as “Honest Al” and hung posters in the hallways picturing him with a fake beard and a stovepipe hat. Franken graduated from Harvard University and took a writing job in New York for the then-new Saturday Night Live television show. For most of the next 20 years, Franken helped to define the program’s sense of humor as it evolved from a fledgling variety show into a pop-culture mainstay. Franken also frequently appeared on the program, most memorably as Stuart Smalley, an obnoxious self-help guru.
Franken left Saturday Night Live in 1995 and began working as a political commentator. After the Republicans swept to victory in Congress in 1994, he authored four books, including Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. In 2004, he joined the new liberal Air America Radio network with a daily, three-hour show opposite Limbaugh’s influential conservative program. Franken spent the next three years excoriating conservatives of every stripe, from Bush administration officials to Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly. Franken began thinking about returning to Minnesota to run for the Senate after Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash in October 2002 while running for re-election against former St. Paul Mayor Coleman. Democrats chose former Vice President Walter Mondale to replace Wellstone on the ballot, and despite Mondale’s prominence and long political history in the state, Coleman won by 2 percentage points.
In 2006, Franken moved his radio talk show from New York to Minneapolis, and in February 2007, he announced he would run for the Senate. Republicans immediately drew attention to Franken’s ultra liberal on-air commentary. But his defenders noted that his program often featured in-depth interviews with policy experts. He appeared to have a clear shot at Coleman when trial lawyer Mike Ciresi dropped out of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party primary in March 2008. But damaging revelations on the eve of the DFL endorsement convention in June threatened his nomination. A sexually explicit satirical article that Franken wrote for Playboy magazine in 2000 about a virtual sex institute diminished enthusiasm for him among women’s groups. He apologized for the article and secured the party’s endorsement. But polling showed him looking increasingly weak against Coleman.
Franken slowly climbed back into contention, winning over skeptical Democrats and keeping pace with Coleman in fundraising. The dynamics of the race shifted considerably in July, when former Sen. Dean Barkley, who served the last two months of Wellstone’s term in 2002, entered the race and secured the Independence Party line on the ballot. Throughout October, Barkley consistently drew about 20% in most polls. Franken attacked Coleman for reportedly receiving free suits and below-market rent in Washington from political benefactors. But Franken was embarrassed by disclosures that he owed $70,000 in back taxes, and he paid a $25,000 fine to New York state for failing to carry workers’ compensation insurance for his employees. This was an expensive contest; the candidates each spent more than $19 million. As the returns came in on election night, they showed the race to be exceedingly tight, with 42% for both Coleman and Franken and 15% for Barkley. In a state that Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama carried 54%-44%, Franken ran 362,000 votes behind Obama. Coleman ran 64,000 votes behind Republican presidential nominee John McCain.
On November 18, the State Canvassing Board showed Coleman with a 206-vote lead. A recount began the next day. On January 5, 2009, the board certified a recount that had Franken 225 votes ahead. Coleman contended that 133 ballots were missing in the recount and contested the results. In Washington, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he was ready to seat Franken, but Republicans protested that no one could be seated without a certificate of election; Senate Democrats had made the same argument when they questioned the validity of the certificate of election of Illinois Democrat Roland Burris earlier in the month. On January 26, a three-judge court began reviewing the ballots. On March 31, the court issued an order designating 400 absentee ballots for review; 351 of them were opened and counted. On April 13, the three judges issued an opinion that Franken had “received the highest number of votes legally cast” by a margin of 312. Coleman appealed to the state Supreme Court, and his attorneys suggested that he might appeal an adverse ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court on the grounds that different counties had used different standards in determining the validity of absentee ballots.
But after the state’s high court ruled, Coleman called Franken to congratulate him and said he had decided against further court challenges. Coleman told the St. Paul Pioneer Press: “I just had a conversation with Al Franken congratulating him on his victory. I told him it’s the best job he’ll ever have, representing the people of Minnesota. The Supreme Court of Minnesota has spoken. I respect its decision and I will abide by its result.”
Franken was sworn in on July 7, and took seats on the Judiciary Committee, the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and also the Senate committees on Indian affairs and aging. The outcome of the Franken-Coleman battle topped a spectacular election season for the Democrats in 2008, which left them with control of the White House and both houses of Congress. With Franken’s arrival in the Senate, Democrats secured the 60 votes they needed to stop Republicans from using the most powerful weapon at their disposal, the filibuster, to thwart the majority’s proposals. Although Democrats went into the election in a strong position with voters, they were thought to have only a slim chance of achieving a 60-seat majority in the Senate.