- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Al Franken appears to be that rarest of senators — one who doesn’t see himself as president.

Instead Mr. Franken, a comic-turned-politician, is angling to be a voice of the progressive movement and to ascend the halls of power on the other end of Pennsylvania Ave. at the Capitol.

“He isn’t running for president, but he is running to be one of the dominant progressive voices in D.C. — vying with [Sens. Elizabeth] Warren and Bernie [Sanders],” said Lawrence R. Jacobs, head of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance in the Hubert H. Humphrey School and the Department of Political Science at the University of Minnesota.

For a man who came to Congress with one of the more unique national profiles, Mr. Franken seemed destined for a big national run. His time as a comic on “Saturday Night Live” gave him liberal chops and an in to the New York-California fundraising corridors that would have served as ATMs for numerous national campaigns.

But Mr. Franken spent much of his first term playing it low-key, eschewing reporters’ attempts to get him to deploy his biting wit in made-for-TV sound bite slams against Republicans.

Instead, the Minnesota senator worked to build a reputation as a serious lawmaker who was on top of the issues important to liberal activists.

Now in his second term, he’s shooting down rumors he’s going to join what’s looking like a crowded 2020 Democratic field.

“I’ve seen the Presidency up close, closer as a senator than I did as a comedian, and it looks very hard,” he told The New Yorker in an interview last month.

For now Mr. Franken is making the most of his chance to thwart the current White House and President Trump.

During confirmation hearings, he took a hard line against several of Mr. Trump’s nominees, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who he has accused of misleading lawmakers about campaign-season contacts with Russian officials.

Mr. Franken has also been a vocal critic of Mr. Trump’s travel ban executive order and an opponent of efforts to repeal Obamacare.

His own legislative record is still slender.

He has had just one of his bills become law — a measure adding Zika virus studies to the list for speedy approval of vaccines. Mr. Franken’s mental health bill cleared the Senate in the last Congress but didn’t see action in the House.

Mr. Franken’s office, though, said he should not be judged by the number of standalone bills that pass through the Senate, and said a number of his legislative efforts were rolled into larger pieces of legislation that became law - including his mental health proposal, which bolstered services for people suffering from mental health conditions that get caught up in the criminal justice system and increased related training for law enforcement.

But he still stands out, particularly for liberal activists looking for a new slate of champions within the Democratic Party.

Franken’s experience winning on populist progressive values, and his willingness to stand up and fight for them, make him an exceptionally valuable voice in the Senate caucus,” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for Democracy for America.

“An expanded national presence for Senator Franken is an unmitigated positive for Democrats nationwide because his commitment to progressive values is good enough, the fights he chooses are smart enough and, gosh darn it, the American people like him,” he said, alluding to the Stuart Smalley catchphrase that made Mr. Franken a star on “Saturday Night Live.”

Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who was a senior Senate aide for years, including to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, said he has been waiting for Mr. Franken to emerge as more of a national political force.

“He kept his head down for the first term, stayed away from the national media, and now it is very clear that he is aiming to become a significant critic of the Trump administration,” Mr. Manley said. “I have been watching him closely since he first came to the senate, and I am convinced that he is making all the right moves to be a much more influential voice in the Senate for years to come.”

Mr. Manley said Mr. Franken has borrowed a page out of the playbook that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama stuck to when they entered the Senate — with the caveat being that the Minnesota Democrat isn’t eyeing the White House.

“He knows damn well the RNC has an opposition file on him a mile long, so I think he will be very comfortable continuing to build his portfolio in the Senate,” he said.

For one thing, Mr. Franken has begun to reprise his funnyman days, including making the rounds of television talk shows, where he mocked Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, describing him as “toxic” and likened him to a co-worker who microwaves fish at the office.

“I probably like him more than most of my other colleague like Ted, and I hate him,” he says.

John McLaughlin, GOP strategist, said that Mr. Franken could be a tougher opponent for Republicans than Ms. Warren or Mr. Sanders.

“He won a tough race to get elected in the first place, and anyone who thought [he] was just a comedian really underestimated him,” Mr. McLaughlin said. “Underneath Stuart Smally there is a ruthless liberal Democrat there. That is where he could be dangerous. He can come off as Stuart Smally, but he is really not. He is a hard-line liberal.”

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