WASHINGTON (JTA) — With its decision in favor of comedian Al Franken, the Minnesota Supreme Court has given the U.S. Senate its first veteran of “Saturday Night Live” — and left the chamber with no Jewish Republican members.
In a unanimous, unsigned decision — after eight months of recounts and legal challenges — the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Franken, a Jewish Democrat, "received the highest number of votes legally cast" and is entitled "to receive the certificate of election as United States senator from the state of Minnesota," according to media reports.
His Republican opponent, the incumbent Norm Coleman, then ended his legal battle, officially conceding the race. Coleman, who also is Jewish, said further litigation "would damage the unity of our state."
With Coleman’s defeat and the decision by Pennsylvania’s Arlen Specter to join the Democratic caucus, the Senate now has no Jewish Republican members. The House of Representatives has one Jewish GOPer, Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia.
More specifically, for the first time in decades, a moderate GOP Jewish voice — embodied over the years not only by Specter but also Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota, Warren Rudman of New Hampshire and the late Jacob Javits of New York — will be absent from the Senate.
During the court battle over the Minnesota vote, Coleman has been serving as a paid consultant to the Republican Jewish Coalition, an organization for which he often stumped during his years in the Senate. A former Democratic mayor of St. Paul who switched parties after two years in City Hall, Coleman served as a Republican poster child for efforts to recruit Jews to the GOP.
Matt Brooks, the RJC’s executive director, said his organization has an “open-ended agreement” with Coleman and “we’re going to continue together for the foreseeable future,” with Coleman serving either “as an ongoing consultant or as a leader involved in a volunteer capacity.”
“He has been extremely helpful to us and will continue to be going forward,” Brooks said. “Americans, and certainly those in the Jewish community, have lost a great friend and a great leader by not having Norm Coleman in the U.S. Senate.”
Brooks added that “we haven’t seen the end of Norm Coleman on the public stage.”
Others who know Coleman agreed that he was likely to re-enter the political fray.
United Jewish Communities director of public policy William Daroff, who also knew Coleman in his previous position with the RJC, suggested that the Republican might be interested in running for Minnesota governor next year, having enjoyed his eight years as an executive running the city of St. Paul.
Jewish GOP activist Fred Zeidman also noted the possibility of a run for the governorship or heading the Republican National Committee.
"There’s a lot of positions where his leadership could do the party well," Zeidman said. Coleman is a valuable strategist who "can focus the party on what’s most important to the Republican agenda and get us back on what’s important."
Ira Forman, the National Jewish Democratic Council’s CEO, called Tuesday “the end of an era” because for the first time in decades there is no Jewish Republican in the Senate. He said that’s partly a reflection of the poor “state of the national GOP.”
Daroff believed that having so few federal Republican officeholders in heavily Jewish areas like the Northeast was a key factor in the disappearance of Jewish Republicans from the Senate for the first time in more than 50 years.
Coleman’s decision to concede immediately was “wise” if he wants to run for future office in the state, Forman said, because polls showed “he was a dead man” in Minnesota if he had continued to fight in court.
The Jewish Democratic group, which had Franken as a featured speaker at its national conference last September, is “really excited” to have the Democrat in Washington, Forman said.
Daroff — who noted that Coleman had been "very helpful" to the Jewish federation system, including his work on securing homeland security grants for nonprofits — said he was anticipating a good relationship with Franken as well.
"We see eye to eye on a great deal of social service issues," he said, and "I look forward to him also being a champion of the priorities of the federation system going forward."
Israel was not an issue in the Franken-Coleman campaign, but both candidates appeared at a pro-Israel rally at a Minneapolis Jewish community center in January during the Gaza operation. Franken said then that the U.S. relationship with Israel is a “pillar of our foreign policy” and that he would continue to uphold that commitment “as a United States senator.”
“Let us stand together to send a clear message to the Israeli people,” he said. “In this complex and dangerous world, you do not stand alone.”
In a February 2008 interview with the American Jewish World newspaper, Franken talked of his hopes that the U.S. would get more involved in peace efforts in the region, which President Obama has already done in his first six months in office.
"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," said Franken. "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.”
Back then, Franken also encouraged continued talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud 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’s victory gives Democrats a 60-vote, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. Franken, a former writer and performer on "Saturday Night Live," is expected to be sworn in next week. He brings to 13 the number of Jewish Democrats in the Senate.
Franken said Tuesday that he was not going to Washington as the "60th Democratic senator" but as the "second senator from the state of Minnesota." He emphasized health care, education, renewable energy and renewing America’s "standing in the world" as issues he was looking forward to working on after he takes his seat.
Franken was ahead by 312 votes after a statewide recount, but Coleman had sued, arguing that the recount applied differing standards to ballots depending on the county.