Heading to the Senate, Franken must find his place

Franken holds a press conference outside his home
Senator-elect Al Franken holds a press conference outside his home after it was announced by the Minnesota Supreme Court that he won the contest for Minnesota's remaining U.S. Senate seat.
MPR Photo/Steve Mullis

With the legal battle surrounding Minnesota's Senate race finally over, Democrat Al Franken is headed to Washington to take his place in the US Senate.

Franken carries the baggage of his previous career as a comedian to his new post. He'll have the balance that, as well as the national attention his Senate race with Republican Norm Coleman received, with the expectations of serving in the U.S. Senate.

Throughout his campaign Al Franken routinely mixed humor with discussion of serious issues from foreign policy to green energy. But Franken hardly played the role of funnyman on the campaign trail; instead he usually came across as more of a policy wonk than a class clown.

As the election contest trial dragged on, Franken told Minnesota Public Radio News he had been consulting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's former Senate chief of staff about Senate business.

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Franken said he saw similarities between his entrance to the Senate and Clinton's.

"People are expecting him to be a showman."

"There's something in Hillary as a model for me, because Hillary, well she came in with a different kind of celebrity obviously," Franken said. "But there was a kind of skepticism where she had to prove herself a certain way and also prove not to be a kind of a show horse, but to be a work horse. And so I want to you know put my head down and get to work when I get there."

"The notion of being a work horse is exactly what he ought be."

Former Minnesota GOP Congressman Vin Weber is now one of the nation's top Republican strategists and Washington lobbyists.

Weber said Franken will arrive in the Senate in much the same way he swooped in on Minnesota.

"People are expecting him to be a showman, people are expecting him, frankly to probably say some pretty outrageous things because of his background as a comedian," Weber said. "I think it's important that he not play to that image."

Weber supported Coleman in the campaign.

But he says he expects Franken will win over many skeptics and quickly ally concerns he's not serious.

"In a strange way he has the advantage of low or charactered expectations as he comes to the Senate," Weber said. "And when people find out he's a smart guy who is serious about issues and a hard worker, they will be very pleasantly surprised."

"If I were him, I would do a lot of listening at first."

Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report said there's considerable curiosity about Franken in Washington, but added that Franken would be well advised to stay out of the lime light.

"He would probably be wise to take come cues from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama," Duffy said. "They didn't go on national shows, they didn't do a whole lot of national cable and that really worked to their advantage and it would probably work to Franken's advantage as well."

Franken often invoked former Sen. Paul Wellstone's name as he campaigned and some supporters liken his populist brand of politics to that of Wellstone's. When Wellstone arrived in Washington he made some initial misteps; he broke protocol and, by many standards, was too aggressive.

"I think that Franken won't have that problem," Duffy said.

Former Vice President Walter Mondale noted that Franken has had a lot of time to prepare for the Senate. Mondale, a Democrat, said with the battle now over, Franken will have an opportunity to widen his slim base of support in Minnesota.

Nearly six out of ten voters did not not cast a ballot for Franken in last year's election.

"This gives Franken a chance to turn the page and be looked at again," Mondale said. "He can come home a lot and if I were him, I would do a lot of listening at first and let people take a look at Franken in a way that in the campaign they never did."

Mondale said he would also caution Franken not to go overboard in playing the role of listener and observer. He said Franken should not wait too long to speak out on important issues.

For much of his career, Franken has played the role of a loud outside critic. He's been calling his own shots for a long time to the enthusiastic encouragement of like-minded supporters.

Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, said he'll be watching to see whether Franken will be able to collaborate and play by the rules in the Senate.

"Good Senators cut compromises that involve them sacrificing some of what they want in order to push the legislation along," Jacobs said. "How will Al Franken handle that?"

Keeping his head down might prove easier said than done for Franken; he's likely to get a hero's welcome from Democrats in Washington.

Franken's addition to the Senate will give the Democratic caucus the 60 vote, filibuster-proof majority they've been dreaming about since the 2006 election when they won the majority in the Senate from Republicans.