- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 5, 2009

When the Minnesota Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled comedian and satirist Al Franken the winner in the state’s eight-month legal battle to fill the U.S. Senate’s last vacancy, it was defeated challenger Norm Coleman who unexpectedly had the best zinger during the pair’s competing news conferences.

“For the media, this election has been a godsend,” said Republican Mr. Coleman amid a roar of laughs from a gaggle of reporters gathered to hear the one-term senator say he wasn’t going to challenge the court’s decision, paving the way for his Democratic challenger to assume office.

“At a time when the Fourth Estate is kind of worried about their economic future, this has been a full-employment act for the media,” Mr. Coleman cracked.

Meanwhile, the tenor of Mr. Franken’s victory speech was anything but comedic, as the longtime funnyman delivered the kind of sober, low-key remarks that had become a staple during his campaign. Throughout the long campaign and epic recount, the comedian played it straight.

“Even though [wife] Franni and I are thrilled and honored by the faith that Minnesotans have placed in me, I’m also humbled, not just by the closeness of this election, but by the enormity of the responsibility that comes with this office,” said the senator-elect Tuesday.

Those expecting the former “Saturday Night Live” regular to bring his laugh track to Capitol Hill may also be in for an indefinite wait. He is expected to be sworn in early this week as the 60th senator in the Democratic caucus, with potentially momentous consequences for the balance of power in Congress.

“His campaign dialed backed the humor a long way,” said Kevin Parsneau, a political science professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato. “Not that you didn’t see Al Franken joking and laughing, but it almost was less so, I thought, than an ordinary candidate might do.”

Many Minnesota political watchers, including Mr. Parsneau, say that Mr. Franken was so determined to prove his validity as a legitimate Senate candidate that he purposely shunned humor on the campaign trail.

“I won’t say he overcompensated in the sense that he was doing the wrong thing, but certainly he was compensating, recognizing that people know him as a comedian and that it’s going to be tough to be taken seriously,” Mr. Parsneau said.

Mr. Franken had little to laugh about during the 2008 race, which he officially won on Tuesday by 312 votes out of more than 2.9 million cast. Critics repeatedly dug up old video clips and sound bites from Mr. Franken’s past comedic routines, highlighting in particular the candidate’s history of raunchy, blue humor.

The Democrat also was dogged with questions about his personal finances, and eventually admitted last year that he owed about $70,000 in unpaid taxes in at least 17 states where he performed between 2003 and 2007. He blamed bad accounting and said he overpaid taxes by that much in Minnesota and New York.

“It was a rough campaign for both candidates, and maybe the closeness of the race didn’t really pave the way for a lot of humor,” said Garrick Percival, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, who closely followed the race. “The Coleman folks brought up a lot controversial things in his past.”

Mr. Franken kept a low profile during the recount battle and stayed away from the court proceedings dealing with the election recount — unlike Mr. Coleman, who regularly attended the hearings.

“A lot of people were surprised by that,” Mr. Percival said. “My guess is, that by showing up at the trial he would lend credibility to Coleman’s arguments that [the election] is still undecided.”

So with Mr. Coleman stuck in a Minnesota courtroom fighting for his political life, Mr. Franken instead spent his time quietly studying policy issues and flying to Washington for briefings with Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and others.

While the Gopher State has a history of electing populist entertainers, don’t expect Mr. Franken to mimic the noisy governing style of former Gov. Jesse Ventura, the former pro wrestler who often made headlines for flamboyant statements while in office, Mr. Percival said.

“The tradition of the Senate is such that you’re not going to go in and just start ordering people around and taking over committees. It’s going to take a long time to work up through the seniority system,” he said.

“As [governor], you certainly have a lot more media attention,” he added, “You’re one person, you can dictate the governing agenda to a greater extent, and so comparing those two is difficult.”

Mr. Franken’s public persona has evolved significantly since his days as a stand-up comedian in the 1970s and his career as a writer, actor and producer with “Saturday Night Live,” which ended in 1995. He has penned three books of political satire since 1996 that topped the New York Times best-seller list, including “Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot (and Other Observations),” and “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”

His public profile and role as a political figure increased during a three-year stint as the executive producer of “The Al Franken Show,” which debuted in 2004 on the liberal Air America Radio network. While the daily show featured some humor (the host initially called the program “The O’Franken Factor,” a satirical jab at conservative heavyweight Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show, “The O’Reilly Factor”), its focus was on more sober political commentary.

Mr. Franken’s expected arrival in Washington this week will push the Senate’s Democratic majority to 60 — the “magic number” of votes needed to end minority filibusters and push through legislation — and perhaps tempt him to loosen up a bit, Mr. Percival said.

And “with the six-year [Senate] term, as opposed to a two-year term like somebody in the House, he can afford to maybe lighten up a little bit,” the professor said.

But Mr. Franken has shown no indication he will use his time on the Senate floor to reprise his stand-up comedy routine.

“We have a lot of work to do in Washington, but that’s why I signed up for the job in the first place,” he said Tuesday.

He told reporters he will take assignments on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee, putting him immediately in the thick of the fight over health care reforms and the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor scheduled to start July 13.

The liberal senator-elect added that, while he is proud to be a Democrat, voters should not expect him to march in lock step with party leaders.

“I’m not going to Washington to be the 60th Democratic senator. I’m going to Washington to be the second senator from the state of Minnesota, and that’s how I’m going to do this job,” said Mr. Franken.

During his victory speech he even uttered the “C” word — “compromise” — an increasingly lost art in the current Senate’s highly charged partisan climate.

“I promise to do my best, to work hard, to stand on principle when I believe I must, and, yes, to compromise when I believe that is in the best interests of the people of Minnesota,” he said.

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