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Five years in, Franken’s style wins over skeptical Senate

Washington -- At first, Al Franken couldn't stop talking about the porridge. "I loved it. I can't eat it anymore. I OD'd on it," Franken quipped as visitors noshed recently on Mahnomin porridge, made with Minnesota wild rice, during one of his we...

Sen. Al Franken holds a “Minnesota Breakfast” that Franken holds each week the Senate is in session, where tourists and visitors can have breakfast and listen to Franken, like this group did Wed., May 14, 2014 outside his office. Credit: Brett Neely/MPR News

Washington -- At first, Al Franken couldn't stop talking about the porridge.

"I loved it. I can't eat it anymore. I OD'd on it," Franken quipped as visitors noshed recently on Mahnomin porridge, made with Minnesota wild rice, during one of his weekly Capitol Hill constituent breakfasts.

Franken's food commentary, though, quickly gave way to policy talk. He explained to the visiting Minnesotans what he was working on, took questions and then stood for photos with anybody who wanted one.

It was a picture of a perfectly ordinary senator, an image Franken has worked hard to maintain since he took office in 2009. It may also be an extended response to the charges in his first campaign that the former actor and comedian was not really serious about politics and lacked the qualifications for Congress.

Saturday, Democrats at their state convention in Duluth will endorse Franken for a second term in the U.S. Senate, a job he won by just 312 votes in 2008 after a six month recount and legal battle. Five years after taking office, Franken is confident his record will win him another term.


"I think the people of Minnesota have gotten to know me and know that I'm serious and know that I work hard," he said. "I think that's something they were skeptical about six years ago, and I guess had a reason to be. 'Comedian' was thrown around a lot. I think it's different this time."

It's not just Minnesotans Franken has had to convince.

Perhaps more than most new senators, Franken has had to prove himself to fellow lawmakers. But he's won over one of the Senate's most curmudgeonly members, Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley, with whom Franken serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"I know that he came to the Senate with the allegation of being a comedian," Grassley said. "I don't mean that to denigrate it as an allegation, but he was a comedian. But I can say that I think he's worked hard to show that he's a serious legislator."

One way he's won over lawmakers such as Grassley is by being prepared, said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

"He doesn't just read the testimony," said Ornstein. "He insists on looking at the footnotes and then going to the original sources."

Franken has developed close personal and working relationships with senators from both parties, and that's led to policy victories the past few years, said Ornstein, who's been friends with Franken for 25 years.

Among those victories: tougher rules on credit ratings agencies and a provision in the Affordable Care Act that ensures health insurance companies spend 85 percent of the premiums they receive on providing care.


It's not just lawmakers Franken has sought to win over.

He's aggressively courted representatives of many of Minnesota's major industries.

"He asked if he could come out and combine some corn in our corn field because he wanted to understand more, not only the technology with the machinery but also the things we're doing with biotechnology, the regulations, things like that," said Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau.

While the Farm Bureau doesn't endorse candidates for office, Franken did win a Friend of Farm Bureau award, a seal of approval from one of the state's most influential interest groups.

Franken has also courted the state's powerful medical device industry and fought for its priorities in Congress, such as the repeal of the medical device tax that's part of the Affordable Care Act. It's a tax that has the strong support of President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and is unlikely to be repealed any time soon.

Franken's stance gave him the opportunity to show he wasn't a puppet of the president. He's also tangled with the administration on biofuels and cable company regulation, though like almost every other Democratic senator, Franken has stuck with the party and the president on most votes.

Republicans remain unimpressed. They have taken aim at Franken for his support of the president's health care law and say that vote alone should be reason enough to deny him a second term.

Although he sits on the Senate Health Committee, Franken says he and fellow senators were blindsided by the rocky rollout of the Affordable Care Act.


"Yeah, hence the enormous frustration and anger and disappointment, but you know, should they have delayed it?" he asked. "I don't think so - well, maybe they should have. Should they have known before the rollout that this was going to roll out so badly? I guess so."

Some of the frustrations that people blame on the healthcare law, such as not being able to keep your doctor, aren't necessarily the law's fault, he added.

Republicans have been eager to tie Franken to Obama in every way possible.

While Franken believes he has plenty of constituent and consumer-focused legislative accomplishments to run on, Keith Downey, the chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, says Franken has played small ball in the Senate.

"If his re-election strategy is, 'Gee, I kept my head down and didn't really do anything,' well I think that's a strong message to the people of Minnesota that we need somebody different," said Downey.

He knows, though, that Republicans face an uphill battle to oust Franken.

"He has an incredible fundraising ability from Hollywood to New York to Wall Street," Downey said. "He's going to be a candidate with a lot of resources at his disposal."

So far, Franken has raised nearly $15 million for his re-election bid and had nearly $6 million in the bank as of March 30. A large group of Republicans are vying for the chance to take on Franken this fall and the state GOP will hold its nominating convention this weekend in Rochester although the party's ultimate candidate likely won't be decided until after an August primary.


Franken has been using some of the resources already to air ads aimed at showing voters that he's working for them. He's also betting that voters this fall will focus more on his efforts to solve problems than on his past or his ties to a president whose popularity has fallen.

And he doesn't plan to turn his back on Obama the way some Senate Democrats in close races are.

"There are plenty of places where I have differences with him," Franken added. "But I would certainly welcome him to the state and campaign with him."

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