Franken's rising national profile is no joke
GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. — Al Franken was famous before this year.
Thanks to a past career he is undoubtedly one of the most recognizable members of the U.S. Senate. Which says a lot, considering the chamber boasts former presidential hopefuls like John McCain, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, made famous themselves by duking out debates with future presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump.
But until this year, Franken, 65, the Democratic junior senator from Minnesota, was always more famous for his past life of roasting Capitol Hill in his own right as a comedian on Saturday Night Live.
That changed when the Trump administration took power. And as much as politics pulls at the sleeve of Al Franken, the comedian, lately it's Al Franken, the senator, who shows up for work.
Earlier this year, as President Trump's cabinet appointees paraded through Senate committees, a national audience saw more of Franken, where he proved to be a well-researched, sharp critic. It was side of him that colleagues and supporters weren't surprised to see, even as the national narrative around the senator changed.
"The Al Franken I see today is the Al Franken I started serving with," said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., who was elected four years after Franken, in 2012. "He's very well-known and respected for the crafts that he's honed so well, the work he's done as a comedian and satirist, but also as a legislator."
With his national profile on the rise in recent months, Franken's path to office — which draws distinct parallels to the one of President Trump — is more relevant now than before in contrast to the billionaire real estate mogul and reality TV host.
Franken's opponents in the 2008 campaign were quick to cast him as a careless celebrity who wouldn't take the job seriously, citing early on a satirical article Franken penned for Playboy in 2000, before running for office, calling it "demeaning and degrading" to women.
Minnesota Republicans and Franken's opponent, Norm Coleman, also criticized his focus when he reportedly helped SNL creator Lorne Michaels in sketches that tweaked McCain, who was running for president against Obama that year. They called it another example that Franken wasn't suited to hold federal office.
Sound familiar? It should.
"I knew what I was doing," Franken said of the campaign effort. "When I decided to run and was considering it, I went all over the state and let DFLers get to know me. I think they said, 'OK, he's like a normal guy. He's not a show biz guy. He's a guy with a family.'"
When the ballots finished in 2008, Franken lost by about 215 votes, a margin that fell within the 0.5 percent automatic recount guidelines. DFL Secretary of State Mark Ritchie called one, and in January 2009, Franken was declared the winner by 225 votes.
A challenge by Coleman later pushed the total margin to 312 votes, and after results were taken all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, the state had its second senator certified in June 2009.
For the second time in a decade, Minnesota took a celebrity to its highest levels of office. In 1998, the state elected former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura as its governor — beating who else but Coleman — from the Independence Party. But Ventura's one and only term was marred by more press about his behavior, controversial remarks and personal clashes than his policies.
If the state feared another celebrity mishap, it may have been well-placed. Franken admits Ventura's run hurt his campaign "a little bit," tying him to the controversial former governor's show business star status.
"I'm not knocking him at all, but you couldn't find two people more different than me and Jesse Ventura," Franken said. "People were skeptical of the entertaining business, but pro wrestling and political satire are two completely different things."
If anything, his colleagues say a career in show business and comedy set him up for the political gauntlet, where criticisms, party-line politics and partisan accusations can run the gamut.
Take 2010 for an example, when a Republican watchdog group claimed to have found more than 2,000 potentially illegal ballots from the 2008 election in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. After investigations were narrowed down, only 71 people were charged, including illegally voting felons.
It's an issue that — after President Trump claimed more than 3 million people voted illegally in the 2016 election, costing him the popular vote — resurfaced on occasion as talking points for Franken's harshest critics.
When Franken was up for re-election in 2014, a midterm year that was particularly disastrous for Democrats nationally, he easily won 54 percent of the vote to ease into his second term, riding a high approval rating.
"He went through a rough and tumble career rising up in comedy. You can't be thin-skinned working with John Belushi and Chevy Chase," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. "He is someone that is a true competitor. A bad review here and there doesn't hurt him — he's able to be resilient."
Adapting to Washington
Walking the halls of Congress, Franken understood quickly he'd be met with skepticism by colleagues who watched him poke fun at their careers. He was never a Congressman, a governor or held a seat in the state Legislature.
He was the funnyman, who just happened to hold a Harvard degree in government.
"He showed how he could work hard and not live off his celebrity, which he could totally do if he wanted," Klobuchar said of Franken's freshman year in the Senate. "Other senators would come up to him and tell him a joke, and he'd laugh — even though some of them were really bad — but he wouldn't match them. He would start to talk about legislation and gain their respect that way."
For his first years in office, Franken gained a reputation as someone who avoided unnecessary media attention, turning down offers to appear on Sunday morning talk shows and other engagements. It was part of showing the other members of Congress that he wasn't out to steal their limelight and damage egos.
He describes his initial efforts at letting colleagues to get know him as the "normal guy" with a family. He showed up to meetings, asked questions and did his homework with very little incident.
One notable slip up came in 2010, when Franken was caught rolling his eyes and acting up while then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., spoke on the Senate floor about Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. McConnell, midspeech, said "This is not Saturday Night Live, Al," prompting the Minnesota senator to write a letter of apology to McConnell.
Overall, his colleagues say Franken beat the expectation of the satirical senator. When Heitkamp, the senator from North Dakota, entered office in 2012, she described Franken as well-established on the Senate floor. Klobuchar said his work ethic quickly erased the storyline that his seat was a "joking matter," earning him much-deserved respect in Washington.
"When I came to D.C., it was on top of a 312-vote victory, in a race where the Independent had something like 15 percent," Franken said. "I think I had a lot to prove. The campaign was vicious and difficult. A side of me that was portrayed misrepresented that I might not take this seriously."
Many of the same claims followed the Trump campaign in 2016, which placed a non-career politician in America's highest office. Trump and Franken are far from the first celebrities to make the leap to Washington, following former pop star Sonny Bono and a line of athletes-turned politicians.
Where Trump and Franken have succeeded, they've helped open the door for more so-called "Washington outsiders" to run for office.
Former pitcher Curt Schilling, who now writes for the right-wing website founded by Trump strategist Steve Bannon, Breitbart.com, is considering challenging Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in 2018.
Talk show host and media giant Oprah Winfrey has suggested she may run for president in 2020, and columns appearing the Washington Post and Vanity Fair have suggested Franken's outside appeal and insider experience make him an extremely viable candidate for Democrats in 2020.
He has declined to indulge in those talks, however, saying he likes his current job.
"People are looking for people who haven't fallen into the rut," Heitkamp said of the growing acceptance of non-career politicians.
Speaking on Franken, Klobuchar said his outsider status was appealing to some voters. It comes down to hearing and understanding different perspectives and points of view, they added, that give some of those "outsider" candidates a better look at the issues — something Heitkamp says Franken has the ability to do.
"He has a pretty good perspective on what happened last election," she said. "He's somebody who's not so far removed from the real world that he doesn't understand."
The serious satirist
Key in Franken's rising national profile in 2017 was his performance during cabinet nomination hearings, serving on the education and judicial committees that provided a big stage for his well-researched nature to go on display.
Franken grilled Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, revealing a lack of knowledge on a great debate in the field, which is whether proficiency or growth is the best method to measure student achievement.
He later said it was "one the most embarrassing performances by a nominee in the history of the United States Senate," and his line of questioning resonated. The Senate confirmed DeVos, but needed Vice President Mike Pence to use his tiebreaker vote.
"I didn't feel she'd be good for Minnesota kids, she's a bit of an ideologue," Franken said, referencing her support for private school vouchers. "These options don't exist in rural Minnesota. The last thing we need is to take money from public schools and give it to kids who are already going to a private and parochial school."
A question to Attorney General Jeff Sessions about how he would handle an investigation into the Trump administration's ties to Russia played out later. Sessions blindly offered up that he had no contact with Russian officials, a point later proven false, forcing Sessions to recuse himself from an investigation into Russian ties after calls to resign his post.
Franken continued his skeptical questioning with Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, who he prodded about his lone dissent in the "Frozen Trucker Case," calling his decision "absurd."
One nominee Franken is quick to point out that he voted for is Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. A former steel mill owner, Franken described Ross as having detailed knowledge of Minnesota's Iron Range, who will be an asset in fighting foreign steel dumping.
"He knew the Range in pretty granular detail and that was good," Franken said. "I didn't have to explain any of that to Ross, he knew stuff I didn't know about. It was really interesting to be talking to this commerce secretary, who I know will be fighting for American steel, versus the other secretary — who was a good one — but didn't have that knowledge. It was exciting."
Heitkamp praised the senator for his work on the Indian Affairs Committee they serve on together, and calls him one of the strongest advocates for the Native population. Colleagues also cite his work on rural health initiatives and mental illness.
Klobuchar said the legacy of former Minnesota U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, who died in office after his plane crashed outside Eveleth in 2002, is never far from Franken's mind. One of Wellstone's signature issues was rural and mental health care, where Franken says a shortage of providers is the biggest issue facing greater Minnesota.
Workforce training is a passion, he says, pointing to career pathways and workforce training events at community colleges and high schools. He sees those programs as a way to start training people for certain skill sets that are of need in their hometowns.
"People like to live and work near their parents and their brothers and sisters," Franken said. "They want their kids to know their grandparents and cousins, and be around each other. It's about getting together and working for their community. That's creating vibrant economic activity."
In March, the junior senator's career came full-circle in a sense. SNL cast member Alex Moffat played the role of Franken on the show's Weekend Update segment, which Franken used to host. During his second stint on SNL, Franken also played a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
And after turning down those national media opportunities for most of his first term, he shows up on CNN and other stations more regularly to talk politics.
He says he's more comfortable in his role. At the same time he's just starting to know it better, allowing him to loosen up and show his humor more when the less seriously conversations are happening.
Case-in-point was the viral nomination hearing for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who was up for confirmation as energy secretary.
"Governor, thank you so much for coming into my office. Did you enjoy meeting me?" Franken asked Perry.
"I hope you are as much fun on that dais as you were on your couch," Perry said. As laughter echoed in the committee room, Perry asked to rephrase his reply.
"Please," Franken said shaking his head. "Oh my lord."
While those "Saturday Night Live soundbite" moments are few and far between, laughter typically follows Franken wherever he goes in the Senate. Or, more accurately stated, the laughter allows his aides and other lawmakers to keep track of him in the chamber.
"You always knew where he was on the floor because he has the most distinctive and loudest laugh," Heitkamp said. "He's still funny, too. If you can survive that long in the Senate and still be funny, you haven't lost who you are."