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Don Davis, Published July 05 2009

Candidates not your typical Minnesotans

ST. PAUL – Al Franken and Norm Coleman are not exactly typical Minnesota politicians.

Both are New York natives and Jewish, not the demographics of most Minnesotans. Neither sounds Minnesotan to this day, although that did not prevent party loyalists from giving them enthusiastic support.

They spent a record amount on their 2008 campaign, one of the hottest in state history, and continued to spend through their election recount and court case. The total since the beginning of their campaigns is about

$50 million.

That kind of money is a long ways from what Franken’s family knew when he was young.

Franken, named the winner last week in the Senate race between the two men, was born May 21, 1951, in New York City. His family moved to south-central Minnesota’s Albert Lea when he was 4, and his father started a quilt factory there.

It failed after two years, and the Frankens moved to the Twin Cities.

After the failure, the family lived in the Jewish enclave of St. Louis Park, where Franken, his parents and brother shared a two-bedroom, one-bath house. His father was a printing salesman, and his mother sold real estate.

Franken’s good grades landed him a spot at Harvard University, after which he decided to work in comedy.

Franken and his friend, fellow Minnesotan Tom Davis, managed to land work at the upstart “Saturday Night” show, sharing the weekly $350 paycheck.

The show, whose name soon became “Saturday Night Live,” rocketed Franken to fame. While he started as a writer – and kept writing for most of his career – he began to appear on camera as well, especially making name for himself as self-help guru Stuart Smalley. He also was involved in political satire while on the popular NBC television show.

After Franken left the show in 1995, he created short-lived “Lateline,” a television comedy inspired by ABC News’ “Nightline.” He also wrote the serious screenplay “When a Man Loves a Woman,” among others.

Franken’s political satire blossomed when Republicans took over Congress in the mid-1990s, beginning with his best-seller book “Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot (and other observations).” With George W. Bush as president, Franken added “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right,” which included reflections on U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone’s 2002 death.

After a third book, talk began to surface that Franken might return to Minnesota to challenge Coleman, the man who Wellstone fought until his death. Franken fueled those rumors by launching a liberal radio show on the new Air America Radio Network.

Franken became more visible across the country, even visiting troops overseas, but much of his time was spent talking to Democratic groups back in Minnesota. He and his wife, Franni, moved to Minneapolis in 2005, sending a clear signal that he planned to build his political base.

The comedian-turned-political pundit announced in February of 2007 that he would challenge Coleman.

After taking a few shots at Bush and invoking Wellstone’s memory, Franken declared that he was on the hunt to reclaim “Paul’s seat” from Coleman.

“I take this deadly seriously,” Franken said. “When people hear me, they’ll know I take this very seriously.”

Republicans found an easy target. Franken’s “vitriolic personal attacks” against national Republicans and Coleman would prove a tough sell to Minnesotans, said state Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey. “Is that the kind of demeanor and tone that’s going to make him a successful United States senator?”

Franken denied claims painting him as an angry person, though he did voice frustration over the war in Iraq: “I get angry about things like this war.”

Woodstock to St. Paul

Coleman became one of Minnesota’s best-known politicians, but he was born Aug. 17, 1949, to a large Brooklyn family.

After high school, he attended Hofstra University on Long Island, where he was a long-haired anti-establishment student who celebrated his 20th birthday at the infamous Woodstock music festival.

He later obtained his law degree from the University of Iowa, then moved to Minnesota to work for the attorney general, eventually becoming the state’s chief prosecutor.

Coleman was active in the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and in 1989 ran for St. Paul mayor, but bowed out when the party did not endorse him.

However, he returned to the campaign trail in 1993 and was elected to the first of two terms as mayor. Two years into his first four-year term, Coleman became a Republican and went on to beat a popular DFL state senator in his second race in a heavily Democratic city.

He is best known for helping bring professional hockey back to Minnesota after the Minnesota North Stars left the state. He negotiated a deal to build a new hockey arena – now known as the Xcel Energy Center – and convinced the National Hockey League to bring an expansion club to the capital city. That team today is the Minnesota Wild.

St. Paul also built the Science Museum during his time as mayor.

Coleman jumped into what would become a nationally famous governor’s race in 1998 against Democrat Hubert “Skip” Humphrey and Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura. Coleman finished second to Ventura, returning to his mayor’s desk at 8 a.m. the morning after Ventura “shocked the world” by winning the three-way race.

He entered another race destined to become nationally known when he challenged then-U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone in 2002. He received helped from President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, who asked then-state Rep. Tim Pawlenty to set aside his plans to enter the Republican Senate race.

Wellstone and Coleman engaged in a heated campaign; during one debate, the two candidates refused to let the other answer questions, both talking for several minutes. In late October, Wellstone died in an airplane crash and former Vice President Walter Mondale took his place.

Coleman beat Mondale in what had become a national news story after the rainy-morning plane crash.

He liked to play off his two terms as St. Paul’s chief executive, calling himself “Minnesota’s mayor.”

In the Senate, he was rising in power, becoming a committee chairman while Republicans controlled the Senate. Before last November’s election, he had hopes of running a Republican campaign committee.


Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns The Forum. He can be reached at (651) 290-0707 or ddavis@forumcomm.com