Located on a hellish strip of University Avenue in St. Paul, the utilitarian structure sports the name of the candidate – a name which sparks equal amounts of love, hatred and a lot of stuff in between. The drab walls within, like those for any campaign headquarters, are sprinkled here and there with images of the contender, whose mug, for over thirty years, has graced TV screens, movie screens, book covers, placards, post cards, and, yes, perhaps, even mugs. This was as close as I would come to meeting Al Franken, during the several weeks I spent phoning Minnesota residents and raising support for his bid for the U.S. Senate. Thanks to the hours he spends each day traversing the state and meeting the people who really count – the undecided voters – he is seldom in the office that bears his name. I was, however, able to grill two key members of the corps known as TeamFranken, and Press Secretary Jess Macintosh forwarded some questions to Al that he answered via e-mail.
Aware that his time was limited, I refrained from asking the former comedian and pundit about his show business past. This is a shame in one small way, because I always wished to have him elaborate on a memorably hilarious anecdote he related to Fresh Air host Terry Gross, about a brawl he once had with KISS bassist and vocalist Gene Simmons. Instead, I focused on more relevant issues, particularly the battle he is now waging to unseat incumbent Senator Norm Coleman. I figured that Coleman’s years as a shameless opportunist in the Republican party (after many years as a shameless opportunist in the Democratic party), and an eager licker of the boots of Bush and Cheney, was the impetus for Franken’s run.
“No.” Al writes back, ”My impetus for running is my desire to change the disastrous direction we’ve been going in the last seven and a half years. It’s nice that Bush is going, but for us to make real progress, we’ve got to get rid of his enablers too. And Norm Coleman is either at or near the top of that list. But every day I have a new impetus, with every conversation I have around the state.”
The conversations I, myself, had over the phone with the same independent voters he is courting varied from enthusiastically supportive to disturbingly hostile. One woman, who initially sounded interested in the pitch for Al that I read from a script TeamFranken provided, waited for me to get to the part where I discussed Coleman’s record of voting 90% alongside the Bush Administration, before snarling, “Well, Franken’s got his problems, too!” She then hung up.
“Look, Al was a comedian for thirty-five years,” says Andy Barr, Communications Director for the campaign, “He wrote a lot of jokes, not all of them were funny, not all of them were appropriate, some of them were downright offensive and people can legitimately be offended. But this campaign’s going to really be about the issues that are affecting people’s lives.”
This certainly applied to the delegates I rang up the first few weeks I wielded the cell phones the Team provided. All of the persons on my call lists were slated to attend the nominating convention on June 8, where Al eventually received the Democratic party’s endorsement. Though none of these folks exhibited the vitriol expressed by some of the indies, many did say they were thinking of supporting the contender’s then-remaining rival, Jack Nelson-Palmeyer. Nelson-Palmeyer, an Assistant Professor of Justice and Peace Studies at the University of St. Thomas, and author of numerous books on politics and theology, may one day be a strong candidate for the Senate. But, as the convention approached, his name recognition was still far too small to compete effectively against Norm Coleman, and his fundraising was no match for that orchestrated by TeamFranken, which exceeded levels predicted by even their most optimistic supporters.
This is thanks to the large and diverse group of volunteers I often saw in that sun-baked building near I-94, who were led for eight months by former volunteer coordinator (now coordinator for the second district), Elizabeth Newman: “We’ve had people as young as four – not on the phones, of course – helping us, in addition to phone banking by people in high school, people who are unemployed, people who have left their jobs or who are retired.” Though direct mail and door knocking are pursued, phone canvassing is the key to the voter-outreach kingdom. “Door-knocking is persuasive,” continues Elizabeth, “But, especially in the Minnesota winters, it can take a long time for people to go from house to house, while you can immediately dial one number after another. We try to reach voters on a variety of levels, but on the phone is when we can really talk to people about why Al is such a great candidate.”
One house I’m glad I did not knock on the door of – not because of chilliness but because I’d probably still be standing on the front stoop listening to its owner – belonged to one delegate I called who was actually leaning towards our man. His support, though, did not allay his concerns about the upcoming nominating convention. Y’see, at the last one he went to, the food was lousy, the service was bad, he couldn’t find a decent place to park, nobody told him that wives could attend, and when Hillary and Barack were in town there were too darn many people, and then there was the time when Hubert Humphrey stopped by in ‘72 and …
Many of the delegates, though, even if they were considering pledging for Jack, recognized Al’s desire to continue the liberal tradition of the late Senator Paul Wellstone. “To tell you the truth, I think Paul was right on some things I’ve been wrong on, ” Franken writes in response to another e-query, “I thought NAFTA would help Mexican workers so they wouldn’t have to come to the United States, and that a North American trade agreement would be good for everybody. Paul was against it and he was right. In the lead-up to the war in Iraq, I was torn. I didn’t have to vote on it, Paul did. I thought then that his vote (against the war) was courageous – and now I know it wasn’t just courageous, it was right.“
While Franken did not cut his teeth in the callings Wellstone and most other politicians traditionally pursue, he has been an invaluable public servant as an author of several classic books (with overly long titles) of political observation and satire, and commentator for radio and television. His biggest success has been the awareness he’s raised about the myth of the so-called “liberal media”, and other disinformation spread by right-wing talk radio, network and cable TV news and, most of all, that monstrosity known as Fox News.
Andy Barr, who worked as producer on The Al Franken Show for part of the three years it was on Air America, explains, “Anytime you bring someone to the Senate who is not a creature of Washington, you bring a whole new perspective – unlike Norm Coleman, who’s been a politician his whole professional life.” When I ask him if Al will be observing the Republican National Convention at the Xcel Energy Center in September, much as he did the 2004 RNC in New York City, where he had duels of wits (at his end, at least) with right-wing belchers Sean Hannity and Michael Medved, Andy admits, “We’ll probably just let Norm Coleman hang out with the Republicans, and let him stand up and take credit for his part in that.”
Franken will probably be too busy anyway, continuing to make his case to the people of Minnesota that he shares ma
ny of the same values as his political heroes: “My political heroes are FDR, who inherited a horrible situation and saved the country (there are actually some parallels to today); Hubert Humphrey, who was a champion on so many fronts – civil rights, social justice, poverty, crime-fighting in Minneapolis, labor. As long as we’re talking Minnesotans, we’ve had such a legacy of progressive heroes, people like Gene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, Paul Wellstone.”
Words like these might have softened the hearts of the continually grouchy independents I rang up. Admittedly, one consistent problem was that I was calling when folks were either driving home, slipping into bed, or settling down to other important functions of daily life. “I’m in the middle of dinner!” snapped one woman before slamming down her end of the line. Noting my wince in reaction to this rejection, another volunteer, a bearded, academic gentleman in his sixties, said, “Well, you know, Casanova, one of the world’s great lovers, got a lot of ‘no’s’ before he got a ‘yes.’” This historical aside reminded me of that brawl the candidate had with another self-styled Casanova, which I had wanted to ask him about in my e-mail but refrained out of deference to his busy schedule. Besides, I have a pretty strong memory of what he related to Terry Gross, who had recently survived her most infamous interview, with one of my favorite rock-and-roll artists.
In 1982, during a five-year break between stints on Saturday Night Live, but still residing in New York, Al Franken was waiting for another player at a racquetball court. In walked Gene Simmons, looking for trouble, whom the comedian didn’t recognize because Simmons was naturally not sporting the Kabuki-monster makeup that made him and KISS household names. Simmons – who claims to have bedded as many women as soldiers have been killed in the Iraq war he is an avid supporter of – challenged Al to a game. When Franken politely explained he was waiting for somebody else, the man who was the voice behind “Calling Dr. Love," “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” and many other Top 40 hits, growled, “I’ll kick your ass!”
Annoyed, but ready for a challenge, the comic agreed to a match. He then proceeded to beat the egomaniacal, and, in one respect, impotent rocker, in a matter of minutes. Furious, Simmons demanded another opportunity to “kick (Al Franken’s) ass!” By then, Franken’s racquetball partner had arrived and the SNL veteran said he would have to do without his adversary’s pleasant company. The heavy metal fire-breather then used his historically long tongue – which, in addition to being an important part of his stage act also has what he describes as a “spin-and-dry cycle” for interested ladies – to make chicken noises. Not believing his ears, Al grudgingly agreed to another round, but only for a $500 stake. This caused the multi-millionaire headbanger, whose appetite for female flesh is exceeded only by his lust for making and keeping money in as many ways as possible, to finally fly the coop.
The lesson of this incident is that where most mortals would either take a swing at this one-time grade school teacher (!) or be intimidated to the point of being beaten by him in a game he has no evident skill in, Al Franken found a way to disarm his opponent with humor and the ability to quickly spot his weak points. And this was before he found out who his opponent was, whom he thought was just some creep who liked to pick fights at racquetball courts, until his partner blurted out, “That was Gene Simmons!”
Brushes with greatness (?) like that aside, there is no doubt that Al Franken will withstand the Republican attack machine – not to mention a certain persistent local blogger – and lead his historic race for the Senate to a victorious finish. More importantly, he will be a responsible and dedicated member of that body, and is enthusiastic about working with everyone in it, Republicans and Democrats alike. “There are some great leaders in the chamber right now,” he writes in conclusion to our e-interview, “I think so many people on both sides of the aisle are pulling for Ted Kennedy, who’s been a real lion. Senator Durbin, Senator Clinton – I’ll have the honor of calling some of my role models colleagues. And although I disagree with him on many issues, I’m really looking forward to working with Senator McCain.” He then hastens to add about the presumptive Republican nominee for President, “As a colleague. In the Senate.”