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Al Franken on the run

The Forward reports that comedian Al Franken is making headway in his effort to unseat U.S. Sen. Norm Colemen, noting a recent poll putting him ahead 49% to 46%. Surveys also put him ahead of his rivals for the Democratic nomination, and he also holds a commanding lead in the money race over his top primary rival, Mike Ciresi.

Franken has led the Democratic field in recent polling — he held a wide margin over Ciresi, 32% to 17%, in a survey conducted in early February by Minnesota Public Radio and the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs — but the race could prove unpredictable, because of Minnesota’s arcane primary process. While the official primary for the Democrats, known as the Minnesota Democrat-Farmer-Labor Party, will be held in September, 1,400 party delegates will issue an official endorsement at a state convention held in June. By tradition, the endorsement is seen as binding, and both Franken and Ciresi have vowed to withdraw from the race without it.

The American Jewish World, Minnesota’s Jewish paper, recently ran an article profiling Franken and looking at the race. The Democratic candidate said that if elected he would work with the new administration to actively seek peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“I think Bush missed a huge opportunity when [Yasser] Arafat died,” Franken said. “We had [Mahmoud] Abbas in and Hamas was not there… We’re sort of the indispensable power in the Middle East, and in the world, and we have to play a much more active role than we’ve been playing. We kind of know what a two-state solution would look like, we just got to get there… We need patient diplomacy and that requires two things: patience and diplomacy. The bottom line is Israel deserves to exist with neighbors that recognize its right to exist and who have renounced terrorism as a way of achieving political objectives. With Hamas in Gaza, that’s very, very hard right now.”

Franken encourages continued talks with Abbas as well as talks with the leaders of Syria and Iran.

“As Yitzhak Rabin said, ‘You don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies,'” Franken said. “And I liked Yitzhak Rabin a lot.”

Here’s the full story:

By ERIN ELLIOTT
American Jewish World
Minneapolis, Minn. — His recent television spots have sought to remind Minnesotans that he is serious about becoming their next U.S. Senator. And, should he ultimately win the seat currently held by Sen. Norm Coleman, Al Franken would be the fourth consecutive Jewish senator to hold the seat since 1978.

A Franken-Coleman race would also be the fourth time two Jewish candidates ran against each other, with one of them as the incumbent.

The late Sen. Paul Wellstone first unseated Republican incumbent Rudy Boschwitz in 1990. In 1996, Boschwitz sought to take his seat back, but Wellstone held on. Wellstone was again challenged in 2002, by Norm Coleman, with Coleman winning the seat after Wellstone’s death in a small-plane crash. (Former Vice President Walter F. Mondale stepped in as the DFL candidate following Wellstone’s death on Oct. 25.)

Dr. Hyman Berman, a history professor at the University of Minnesota, cited the remarkable succession of Jew-versus-Jew Senate races, “in a state like Minnesota where the Jewish population is less than one percent of the total population of the state.”

In the quest to prove his seriousness as a candidate, Franken has earned a great deal of support from the Minnesota Jewish community, including high-profile Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) activists Sam and Sylvia Kaplan. The Kaplans first met Franken through Wellstone, and later worked with him as the Minnesota chairs of the John Kerry campaign in 2004.

Although they admired Franken’s commitment to the DFL, the Kaplans were reluctant to lend their support to Franken’s Senate campaign.
“It was his ideas, but also his electability that convinced us to support him,” Sylvia Kaplan said. “Now, we’re working really hard; we think he’s going to get the nomination, and we think he would be a great senator. Campaigns are tough, but the first thing you have to do is get people’s attention and he’s certainly able to do that.”

Franken has garnered a lot of attention for his vociferous criticisms of Coleman and the Bush administration. But he makes no apologies.

“They deserve sharp criticism,” Franken told the AJW this week. “I feel that it’s totally legitimate to have been criticizing. I wouldn’t have been doing my responsibility as a citizen if I hadn’t been criticizing Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld. Norm never called for Rumsfeld’s resignation and didn’t do his job. Of course, that was his job — not to do his job. Coleman has said how can I work with people in Washington when I’ve been so critical of them, but I would point out that everyone I’ve been critical of is either gone, will be gone or is in prison.”

Republican Norm Coleman is still around, however, and Franken has been preparing for several years to take on the incumbent senator.
“Norm Coleman has sort of aligned himself with the neo-cons who I think have actually been very destructive, and have been the worst friends of Israel and putting Israel in a much more precarious place,” Franken said. “But Jews are also not just one-issue voters. Also on separation of church and state, Norm, I know, has a 100 percent rating with the Christian Coalition, and that includes things like school prayer. I’m against organized prayer in school, unless it’s the Shema… I think that Jews should be uncomfortable with that stance, which Norm evidently has, which is that we should have school prayer.”

The Republicans clearly are giving serious attention to Franken’s candidacy.

As the AJW went to press this week, prominently placed on the homepage of Coleman’s Web site, www.colemanforsenate.com, was an article accusing Franken of distorting Coleman’s voting record on funding for veterans. The story took issue with Franken’s comments last week on Minnesota Public Radio’s Midday.

Coleman’s campaign has cited Franken’s criticisms before.

Specifically, campaign staffers have brought up Franken’s career as an entertainer and satirist.

“Minnesotans are not going to be fooled by anyone, let alone a career comedian,” Coleman’s campaign manager, Cullen Sheehan, told ABC News earlier this year. “Al Franken’s record of reckless statements, crude jokes and attacks are no substitute for real positions on real issues, and Minnesota voters deserve to know where those who want to represent them stand.”

But local attorney Marshall Tanick said Franken has “really worked hard and done his homework” when it comes to the issues. Tanick and his wife, attorney Cathy Gorlin, hosted an event for Franken on Jan. 27 in advance of Minnesota’s Feb. 5 caucuses.

“The more I listened to him on his Air America radio show, I became impressed with how knowledgeable he is on issues and how insightful he was about issues,” Tanick said. “He’s very serious… He’s cloaked that in the garb of being a satirist, but I don’t think that’s disadvantageous. I think oftentimes, and he’s said this himself, that satire can illuminate issues.”

Minnesota Sen. Sandy Pappas, who is supporting Franken, also sees no problem with Franken’s career choice.

“I do think that people will understand that when you’re a satirist, that you do satire and you can get away with things that you say a lot more than a politician like me can,” Pappas said, laughing. “Or if you were an actor like Ronald Reagan. That was your career and that was what you did.”

Pappas first met Franken when he began supporting DFL candidates in Minnesota and referred to him as “a team player.”

Another Franken supporter, Minnesota Rep. Phyllis Kahn, was also impressed with his commitment to DFL candidates, particularly of State Sen.-elect Kevin Dahle, who defeated Ray Cox in a special election on Jan. 3 to represent Northfield, New Prague and Faribault.
“Everyone I had talked to had totally given up that there was any chance that the Democratic candidate would win that against the former Republican representative,” Kahn said. “Al Franken went down and did two rallies… They just got huge voter turnout from the student district and supplied the big part of the margin there. I was just very impressed by that.”

Ahead of a Franken-Coleman contest in the general election, the St. Louis Park native, who first came to national prominence as a writer and performer on Saturday Night Live, has to win the DFL endorsement. Also vying for that prize are Mike Ciresi, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, Jim Cohen and Dick Franson. Ciresi is Franken’s most formidable competitor — and one with significant backing in the Jewish community.

Elliot Kaplan, a partner with Ciresi in the Minneapolis law firm of Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi, goes back nearly 40 years with the lawyer who’s best known for his legal work on the landmark tobacco settlement.

Ciresi is a “proven leader” and a champion of the underdog, according to Kaplan, who added, “He has a record of accomplishments that, perhaps, cannot be equaled by anyone seeking political office.”
Ciresi also has been a good friend of the Jewish community, supporting the Jay Phillips Center for Jewish-Christian Learning and the Jewish Community Relations Council, in addition to his broader civic philanthropy, noted Kaplan.

“Mike is the best candidate that the Democrats could put up against Norm Coleman,” Kaplan said. “I certainly think Al is a good candidate; I think Mike is better.”

Minnesota Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, is one of several Jewish legislators supporting Ciresi. While he acknowledged that any of the candidates seeking the DFL endorsement “would be much better for Minnesota and much better for the United States” than Coleman, Paymar lauded Ciresi’s long history.

“He has a track record of being tough and working for consumers, and he’s bright, he’s courageous and he’d be a great addition to the United States Senate,” Paymar said. “I think we have a great opportunity to take this seat back.”

In the money department, Franken has emerged as an impressive fundraiser. Year-end totals list Franken as having raised $1.9 million to Coleman’s $1.7 million. According to the Star Tribune, Franken boasted 81,000 donors, 15,000 of which were Minnesotans.

Should he win the seat, Franken said he would work with the new administration to actively seek peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

“I think Bush missed a huge opportunity when [Yasser] Arafat died,” Franken said. “We had [Mahmoud] Abbas in and Hamas was not there… We’re sort of the indispensable power in the Middle East, and in the world, and we have to play a much more active role than we’ve been playing. We kind of know what a two-state solution would look like, we just got to get there… We need patient diplomacy and that requires two things: patience and diplomacy. The bottom line is Israel deserves to exist with neighbors that recognize its right to exist and who have renounced terrorism as a way of achieving political objectives. With Hamas in Gaza, that’s very, very hard right now.”

Franken encourages continued talks with Abbas as well as talks with the leaders of Syria and Iran.

“As Yitzhak Rabin said, ‘You don’t make peace with your friends, you make peace with your enemies,'” Franken said. “And I liked Yitzhak Rabin a lot.”

Franken has been compared with his good friend Wellstone, who served two terms in the seat Franken is seeking.

“He’s an inspiration,” Franken said. “But I’m not Paul Wellstone and those are awfully big shoes to fill. I’m going to be the best me I can be, and fight for the things he fought for and stand up to special interests. It’s something to aspire to.”

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