Al Franken's road to the U.S. Senate

Al Franken
Al Franken talks to reporters on Feb. 14, 2007, the day he announced he will run for the Senate seat held by Sen. Norm Coleman.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

Al Franken, 57, was born in New York and grew up in St. Louis Park, Minn. He attended Harvard and built an entertainment career in New York City before moving back to Minnesota in late 2005.

Following the 2002 death of Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone's in a plane crash, Franken began talking about running for the Senate seat his friend, Wellstone, once held.

Welcome to the race
Minnesota Republican Party Chair Ron Carey welcomed Al Franken to the Senate race with a gift basket that includes a map of Minnesota. Carey said Franken has lived in Minnesota for only one out of the last 30 years.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

Nearly two years ago, when Franken launched his campaign, many people in Minnesota and around the country may well have wondered exactly what the former Saturday Night Live star was up to.

Franken announced plans to go after the Senate seat held by Republican Norm Coleman on Valentine's Day 2007, during the final moments of his final radio show on the nationwide radio network, Air America.

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"So this is it. I've decided to move on to another challenge," he said at the time.

Known for his comedy, satire and biting political commentary, Franken made it clear his candidacy was no joke.

Getting an autograph
Al Franken at a local DFL party picnic in late summer 2007.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

"I take this deadly serious."

Democratic insiders locally and nationally knew Franken well beyond his entertainment background. He had been an active Democratic fundraiser, and made numerous campaign appearances for other candidates in the previous election cycle.

For his own run, Franken focused on a core set of issues, and sought to draw sharp distinctions between himself and Norm Coleman.

"I want to go to Washington to lead on things like universal health care, and an Apollo program for renewable energy," said Franken. "And if I do get in a position to do oversight on a war, I will do it."

DFL candidates
Three DFL candidates for U.S. Senate held a debate in early 2008. From left, Mike Ciresi, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, and Al Franken.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

Franken tried hard to keep his campaign message on the issues -- from green energy and green jobs, to expanded health care and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. In setting out to become a senator, Franken predicted it would be his most difficult undertaking. He seemed to know from the outset that the road would be bumpy.

"I'm not a professional politician. I know I'm going to make some mistakes," he said at one point.

But Franken did not stumble on the campaign trail. Instead, he spoke with policy-wonk expertise on the issues, carefully mixing in humor as he made his case from audience to audience.

It was what Franken had done and written in the past that would threaten his political future. There were tax problems. Franken blamed his accountant for thousands of dollars of unpaid taxes and workers compensation premiums.

Al Franken
Al Franken received the DFL's endorsement for U.S. Senate at the party's annual convention in June 2008. Franken won the nomination over Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer.
MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire

"Franni and I paid state and federal taxes on every dime of income that we earned, and the only issue is what states we were supposed to pay it in," he said.

There were also off-color jokes and sketches from Franken's past. And perhaps most damaging, a sexually explicit article he wrote for Playboy magazine nearly a decade ago. Franken apologized from the stage of the DFL State Convention in June, 2008.

"The things I said and wrote sent a message to some of my friends in this room, and the people in this state, that they can't count on me to be a champion for women and for all people of Minnesota in this campaign and in the Senate. I'm sorry for that," he said at the time.

But Franken had spent more than a year laying the groundwork for his campaign with DFL activists. He won the party endorsement on the first ballot.

Priscilla Lord Faris
Priscilla Lord Faris briefly challenged Franken for the DFL nomination in the U.S. Senate campaign, saying she didn't think he could win against Coleman.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

But his apology was not enough for a Minnesota DFL Party leader, U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum. She expressed concern that Franken's past could not only harm his candidacy, but also could spill over to hurt other Democrats.

"I think that this has the potential of being a very large distraction," she said at the time.

McCallum would later campaign alongside Franken.

From the beginning, Republicans sought to make Al Franken the main issue of the campaign.

Independence party candidate Dean Barkley
Independence party candidate Dean Barkley entered the race for Senate at the last minute, in July 2008. He finished a distant third in the Senate election.
MPR Photo/Mark Zdechlik

The GOP held news conference after news conference to rip him for his past writings and comedy. Republican Sen. Norm Coleman tried to paint Franken as a wealthy, partisan carpet-bagger without a record of public service.

"I am running on my record, because unlike my likely opponent, I actually have one," Coleman said as he formally launched his re-election campaign in the spring of 2008.

"What a concept .... that before you serve in the Senate, maybe you should have done something to show that you can actually do the job," said Coleman.

As the election drew near, economic issues and the plight of the middle class dominated the campaign. Franken took advantage of every opportunity to make the case that he was on the side of working Americans, and that Coleman was in the pocket of the Bush White House and big business.

Franken greets supporters
Al Franken shaking hands with supporters at the DFL Party election night gathering in St. Paul. He and most others left the party early the next morning when it was clear the outcome was too close to call.
MPR Photo/Bill Alkofer

"If you like the way things have been going in Washington for the past six years, and you think George Bush is right 90 percent of the time, then I'm not your guy," said Franken during the final Senate debate, sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio News, just two days before the election.

"But if you want change in Washington, if you believe the middle class is the engine of our prosperity, not the rich and the oil companies, then I ask for your vote," he concluded.

Franken, according to the State Canvassing Board, got 225 more votes than Republican Norm Coleman in the Nov. 4 election.

However, it's still not clear when -- or even if -- Franken will take a seat in the U.S. Senate chambers. The Coleman campaign has said it will file a court challenge to the recount results by the end of the day Tuesday.