Looking back at Franken's first year as senator

Sen. Al Franken
One year since being sworn in as Minnesota's junior senator, Al Franken reflects in his office of the long recount and legal battle.
MPR Photos/ Mark Zdechlik

One year ago, Democrat Al Franken was finally sworn in as Minnesota's newest U.S. Senator after a nine-month long recount and legal battle. The Minnesota Supreme Court determined Franken defeated Republican Senator Norm Coleman by just 312 votes.

From entertainer to senator

At a public water park just east of St. Paul, all of the adults watching their kids play remember well Minnesota's 2008 Senate election.

"Yeah, it was never ending," said Melissa Starn of south Minneapolis, and who voted for Al Franken. "You know just a lot of going back and forth and it was good to see that it got done. So far, I think he's done a good job."

Starn can't point to anything specific Franken has done in Washington. Neither can Michele Jennings who lives in Hugo. Jennings did not vote for Franken largely because of concern over his entertainment background. Franken was a cast member on Saturday Night Live, an author and a biting political commentator before deciding to run for office for the first time.

"I am kind of surprised that he's doing as well as he is," Jennings said. "You kind of just waited for that moment for him to flop on his face and so far it hasn't come yet."

Elena Kagan, Al Franken
Senate Judiciary Committee member Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., left, listens to Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan, right, as she testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 30, 2010, before the committee'shearing on her nomination.
Susan Walsh/ASSOCIATED PRESS

In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio News at his St. Paul office, Franken confidently said he's proven his critics wrong and that he knew he wasn't going to flop.

"So to that extent, I'm exceeding some low expectations I guess that were created by the other side," Franken said.

The first test

Just a couple of weeks after becoming a senator on July 7, 2009, Al Franken found himself front and center in Washington as a member of the Judiciary committee questioning then Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.

"Thank you Mr. Chairman and thank you Judge Sotomayor for sitting here so patiently and for all your thoughtful answers throughout the hearing ...," Franken said at the hearing.

A year later, Franken sounded more at home questioning President Obama's second Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan.

Patrick Leahy, Al Franken, Lindsey Grham
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., right, huddles with committee members Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., left, and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, July 14, 2009, during a break in the committee's confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor.
AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

Franken's first legislative success was the creation of a pilot program that pairs service dogs with veterans.

Since taking office, he's introduced 23 pieces of legislation. Six have become law and most of them with Republican support. He also sponsored an amendment banning federal funding for defense contractors who force employees into arbitration in cases of rape and harassment allegations.

On health care reform, Franken won passage of a measure capping the percentage of health insurance premiums that can be spent on administrative costs and marketing.

The Senate also passed a Franken amendment that would establish an independent board to assign credit rating companies to evaluate securities to address conflict of interest issues between financial service companies and rating agencies.

Getting the job done

Sen. Al Franken
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., the newest member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, awaits the start of the committee's confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor, Monday, July 13, 2009, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

One year into his term, Franken said he's accomplishing what he set out to do.

"My whole goal has been to be an effective member of the Senate for the people of Minnesota," Franken said. "That's really been my goal, and to come up with commons sense solutions to problems and to fight for working people against corporate special interests and I have been successful in that."

When Franken left for Washington, he noted that a majority of Minnesotans did not vote for him. He received less than 42 percent of the vote, but he pledged to work on behalf of all Minnesotans. He also promised to maintain a low profile despite his celebrity. Franken has rarely granted interviews to media outside of Minnesota.

"I wanted my colleagues to know that I wasn't there to be a show horse," he said. "I was there to be a work horse and I wanted the people of Minnesota to know that I wasn't there to be on 'Meet the Press.'"

Franken's opponents often accuse him of being an angry partisan. News outlets have reported he has lost his temper in Washington, once when he chastised one of President Obama's top aides over how the White House was handling health care reform negotiations.

Franken takes the oath
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., left, with his wife, Franni, holding the Bible, takes his oath of office during a ceremonial swearing-in by Vice President Joe Biden on Capitol Hill Tuesday in Washington.
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Franken's office says several incidents have been blown out of proportion, but Franken acknowledges he's made some mistakes.

One time during Senate floor remarks early on, Franken broke decorum when he relayed part of a private conversation he'd had with Republican Sen. John Thune of South Dakota.

"And you don't do that, I learned that day. So I just went up, I apologized to him immediately," Franken said. "Now he and I have a good relationship. Whenever I vote against one of his bills, I always go up to him and I go, 'John I voted against you this time, but it's the last time.' And he laughs."

Being the new senator

"I think for any Senator new to the chamber there is definitely an adjustment period and I think Franken experienced that just like everyone else," said Jennifer Duffy, who follows the Senate for the Cook Political report. Duffy said Franken has somewhat of a mixed reputation in the Senate.

"On the one hand, he's really tried to work well with some Republicans," she said. "He's focused on legislation that frankly has got some broad popular appeal, you know like service dogs for veterans. But on the other hand, his sort of sarcastic sort of sense of humor has gotten him into a few tiffs with colleagues."

Duffy said Franken has probably accomplished more than most freshmen senators. Still, the official Republican line of attack on Franken in Minnesota has not changed since the campaign, and Minnesota Republicans can't wait until he's up for reelection.

"The only upside about his being a one-year anniversary is that we only have a limited amount of time to go until the end of his only term," said Minnesota GOP chairman Tony Sutton.

Sutton dismisses Franken's claims of bipartisanship.

"He's looking to try and build the case that he's some kind of bipartisan senator, but if you look at his day-to-day actions he's very liberal, from his rhetoric, for how he represents Minnesota," Sutton said.

According to Minnesota Public Radio News/ Humphrey Institute Polling in May, 48 percent of Minnesotans gave Franken a positive job performance rating.

Settling into the role

Senators often settle into a couple of areas of expertise. Franken said his time on the Judiciary committee has revealed to him that although he's not a lawyer, he's well suited to debate legal questions.

Take for example anti-trust issues surrounding the proposed Comcast/NBC merger.

"I was sitting next to Arlen Specter who's been there forever, I mean not forever but he's 82 years old and he goes, 'Well Al obviously knows more about this than any of us...' and that felt good," Franken said. "So I'm finding areas where I'm beginning to be the go to guy on something."

During his campaign, Franken talked a lot about so-called green energy. Looking ahead, Franken said he would like to get spots on the energy and veteran's affairs committees.

He said he plans to run for reelection in 2014.

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