Franken is fighting Trump, urging others to join him
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., sounded tired on his cellphone when we spoke last Friday shortly after noon as he rode the train from Washington to New York.
He had been through a long but rewarding night.
“I think I got to bed at about 3:30,” he said.
Franken and the rest of the members of the U.S. Senate had been up late debating the Republicans’ latest scheme to derail the Affordable Care Act. The plan collapsed in a dramatic moment at 1:30 a.m. when Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., walked into the chamber and gave the thumbs down sign.
Because of McCain’s decision and the equally defiant “no” votes earlier by two other Republicans, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine, the proposal failed by the narrowest margin, 51-49.
That’s why Franken was happy last Friday, even if he wasn’t energetic and joking around, as he did for 37 years in his previous life as a comedian.
“People often ask me: ‘Is being a senator as much fun as doing comedy on “Saturday Night Live”?’” he said. “The answer, of course, is no! Why would it be? But it’s the best job I’ve ever had. And last night is one of the reasons. We stopped something terrible from happening, by one vote.”
Franken brought up Norm Coleman, his opponent when he ran for the Senate seat in 2008 (and whom he beat by 312 votes). “If I hadn’t been there last night and Norm Coleman was, it would’ve gone the other way. I was happy to be part of the process.”
Franken added, “I look forward to turning the page and working with those Republicans who I think will be good partners for trying to craft a bipartisan approach to addressing the problems of the ACA. It was a good night last night but I know we have a lot of work to do.”
Meet the serious Al Franken. Forget about Stuart Smalley (“I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it, people like me!”) and his other characters. Anticipating going beyond his second term, he told me, “I hope to stay in the Senate and keep working for the people of Minnesota and Connecticut and the rest of the country.”
Franken wrote about this mission in his new book, “Al Franken, Giant of the Senate” (the title is a joke). He came to New Haven last Sunday afternoon to promote it and sign copies for his local admirers.
First, he had an on-stage conversation with Colin McEnroe of WNPR Connecticut Public Radio. Amidst the talk about health care and other important topics, McEnroe asked Franken if our Sen. Chris Murphy and Sen. Richard Blumenthal are funny.
“Chris is very funny,” Franken replied. “Dick is very smart. Dick and I have an ongoing joke, which is: ‘You’re not funny.’ And he plays into it very well.”
Because Franken is an appealing, funny guy, as well as a dedicated senator, he is also getting asked a lot about whether he might consider running for president. McEnroe asked him that question, to sustained applause, but Franken said he doesn’t want the job and its high pressures. I asked him too; that’s when he told me how focused he is on staying in the Senate and working for people in every state, especially Minnesota.
What about in the more distant future? He didn’t like that concept either. “I’m too old!” (He is 66.)
As for our current president, in Franken’s book he referred to “jaw-droppingly terrible Trump tweets” and wrote that watching Donald Trump take the oath of office “was perhaps the most depressing moment I’ve had since I entered politics, although that record has been repeatedly surpassed since Jan. 20.”
But he added: “As unpleasant as my job is going to be in the coming months and years, I’m still glad to have the chance to be part of the fight.”
In his book, he encourages Americans to join in that fight: “Keep showing up and keep speaking out. Become an advocate. Pick an issue that means a lot to you and look for an organization that’s doing work on that issue. Join. Become a foot soldier.”
Over the phone Franken told me he realizes that the many millions of people who voted for Trump are “legitimately angry” about the economic decline they’re experiencing and their kids are experiencing.
Speaking for the Democrats, Franken said, “We have to reach out to those people, listen and make our argument. We need to communicate what our values are.”
He knows the middle class is in trouble and he contrasts today’s opportunities with what he had as a kid growing up in the 1950s and ’60s. “My dad didn’t graduate from high school but I had a nice middle-class upbringing. I felt I could do anything I wanted.” (His father, Joe Franken, owned a quilting factory in a small town in Minnesota and became a printing salesman when the factory failed.)
Joe Franken was a liberal Republican until 1964, when the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater for president. Because Goldwater had voted against the Civil Rights Act, Franken — and his son — became Democrats.
Franken told me his wife, Franni, grew up poor but was aided by government programs. She went to college under Pell Grant funding; she and her siblings and widowed mother survived thanks to Social Security, the G.I. Bill, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and those Pell Grants.
“They tell you in this country you have to ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps,’” Franken noted. “But first you have to have the boots. And it’s our government that gives people the boots.”
Franken is worried that Trump wants to take away those boots. That’s why Franken is working so hard in resistance.
Last week, I wrote about the problems facing Connecticut and the many complaints about living here. I invited readers to contact me and say what they like about this state. So far, I have received some interesting responses, which I expect to highlight next week, one week later than originally planned. But that gives you guys an extra week, until my deadline next Thursday, to tell me what’s good about this place.
Contact Randall Beach at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-680-9345.