Franken’s tenure in Senate nears its end: He’s likely Minnesota’s biggest political celebrity, but legislative legacy is less clear


Sure, the North Star State has produced other high-profile elected officials. Vice presidents and presidential nominees Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale rose to higher political heights than Franken. And former pro wrestler Jesse Ventura “shocked the world” by getting elected governor.

But after a three-decade career as a comedian and best-selling author, Franken was better known than all of them even before he was elected to the Senate in 2008.

He may even be more famous now after announcing his resignation amid allegations of sexual misconduct by several women that eroded his support among his fellow Democratic lawmakers.

Minnesota’s junior senator has become a poster boy representing powerful men brought down by the national #MeToo campaign to combat sexual harassment.

He is giving up his Senate seat even though a poll last week showed that about half of Minnesotans don’t think he should resign, and that he remains popular in the state, particularly among women.

Franken the policy wonk

Franken, 66, made his name as a writer and actor on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” but when he got to Washington, he worked hard to distance himself from his reputation as a comic and fire-breathing liberal. During his first six-year term in the Senate, he declined interviews with the national media (although he was highly visible back home in Minnesota), instead opting to impress his colleagues as a serious policy wonk who, despite strong political views, could build relationships with senators of all stripes.

Norm Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and Franken friend, said the senator wisely chose to become a work horse, not a show horse. He compared Franken to previous celebrity Sens. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and Hillary Clinton of New York who “built reputations for not playing superstar all the time. Al did that.”

Franken was a quick study in the Capitol. After just a few weeks in office, he managed to pass with broad, bipartisan support a bill that provided service dogs to disabled veterans. He put his stamp on several other significant pieces of legislation, including a measure that required insurance companies to spend at least 80 percent of their premiums on health care costs and another that expanded a federal diabetes-prevention program.

But his successes often were followed by headlines like “Franken passes bill, no joke,” or “Franken’s national standing rising, no joke.”

Franken’s political path

In his latest book “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate,” published earlier this year, the senator wrote that even though Washington has been “awash in nincompoopery” for a decade, representing Minnesota in the Senate is “the best job I’ve ever had.”

Here’s how he described his political journey:

“It’s the story of a Midwestern Jewish boy of humble roots (the first in his family to own a pasta maker) who, after a thirty-five-year career in comedy, moved back home to challenge an incumbent senator. It’s the story of how a satirist who had spent a good part of his career heaping scorn and ridicule upon conservative Republican officeholders developed a solid working relationship with (many of) his Republican colleagues. It’s the story of how a novice politician learned not just how to win an election, but how to be good at serving in office: how to find common ground when possible, but also stand his ground when powerful interests come after the middle class. It’s the story of how, after spending a lifetime learning to be funny, I learned how not to be funny.”

After winning his first election over Republican Norm Coleman by a razor-thin margin, Franken seemed liberated by comfortably winning a second term in 2014. While he continued his serious policy work, he started speaking out more in the national media with his edgy humor back on full display. He became a big draw on the political speaking circuit, appearing on TV talk shows and raising millions of dollars for Democrats across the country.

After President Donald Trump’s election, he emerged as a tough inquisitor of presidential appointees including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch.

“There was no more effective cross-examiner in the U.S. Senate than non-lawyer Al Franken,” Ornstein said.

His seventh book, the funny-but-serious memoir quickly became a best-seller. Franken even was mentioned as a potential 2020 presidential candidate.

Allegations begin to pile up

But his rising Senate career came crashing to an end this fall after Los Angeles radio host Leeann Tweeden blog-posted a photo of Franken apparently grasping at her clothed breasts while she slept aboard a plane following a 2006 USO tour to entertain American soldiers overseas. Within days, several more women accused him of touching them inappropriately.

The senator issued a series of apologies and called for a Senate ethics investigation into the allegations. But on Dec. 6, as more accusations piled up, more than two dozen Senate Democrats called for him to step aside. He announced his resignation the following day.

In a speech on the Senate floor, he insisted he had done nothing to dishonor the institution but acknowledged he could no longer serve effectively.

“Serving in the United States Senate has been the great honor of my life,” he said. (Franken denied a request for an interview for this story.)

Franken’s legislative record

It’s hard to get a clear read on Franken’s legislative record. If you simply look at the number of bills he proposed and amendments he offered, his output is relatively modest: 277 pieces of legislation — 162 bills and 115 amendments in nine years, according to Congress.gov. His staff said just a “handful” of his bills became law.

That shouldn’t surprise anyone, said Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College. “He would not pass a lot of laws because he’s in the minority party in the Senate, and the minority does not pass laws.”

But Franken’s fingerprints are scattered over dozens of larger bills assembled in committees. He tacked several public health and insurance provisions onto the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

More recently, he joined Republicans in rewriting the No Child Left Behind education bill. He also crafted provisions in bills designed to combat domestic violence, expand mental health and rural health care, promote renewable energy sources and protect Native American interests.

Voting studies ranked him among the most partisan senators, siding with Democratic leaders more than 90 percent of the time.

A look at Franken’s legacy

Part of Franken’s legacy is that he effectively called attention to important issues that others often overlooked. For example, he was an early and forceful proponent for net neutrality rules, arguing to keep the Web free and open so major internet providers could not manipulate what consumers can see and do online.

He also was a leading voice warning of the dangers of media consolidation, contending that consumers would have less choice, hear fewer voices and pay higher prices if big media conglomerates, such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable, were allowed to merge.

As for his political legacy, Franken was a “tireless campaigner” for Democrats, Ornstein said. He raised hefty sums of money for the party’s candidates and energized its base with passionate speeches and provocative-yet-humorous books, including “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot.”

He inspired progressives to fight for their values — and also aroused angry conservatives to battle back.

“He’s a polarizing figure,” Schier said. “As a public spokesman, he was fiercely partisan, much more so than is usual for a member of the Minnesota delegation, where they still play nice — Minnesota nice.”

Franken’s unintended legacy might be that he helped spark Washington to do something about sexual misconduct. It’s been going on for years, but after Franken and at least six other lawmakers resigned or decided not to seek re-election after being accused by women of behaving badly, it appears Congress will finally attempt to address the issues the #MeToo movement has raised.

What’s ahead

Franken’s resignation opened the door to another female in the U.S. Senate, Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, whom Gov. Mark Dayton appointed to Franken’s soon-to-be vacant seat. She will be sworn in on Wednesday.

Franken isn’t going away. “I may be resigning my seat, but I am not giving up my voice,” he said in his Dec. 7 speech. He pledged to remain politically active.

Nobody knows how effective Franken can be outside elected office, but given a public backlash against the way his colleagues pushed him out, he — unlike some of his disgraced colleagues — appears to be leaving Washington with much of his reputation intact.

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