Franken worries ripple through DFLby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
A week before state DFLers meet to endorse a challenger to Senator Norm Coleman, DFLers in Congress and at the statehouse are expressing concern that candidate Al Franken's past comments could harm the DFL ticket. They say there's increasing worry that Franken's failure to pay taxes in several states and a Playboy satire he wrote in 2000 could distract voters from the core issues this election.
St. Paul, Minn. — The concerns over Franken were raised during a Wednesday meeting of Democrats in Minnesota's congressional delegation. Afterwards, 4th District Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., went public with her worries that an article Franken penned for Playboy eight years ago could harm the DFL ticket in November. The article was titled "Porn-O-Rama" and contained several sexual references and fantasies.
McCollum isn't the only DFLer with concerns.
"I'm in a swing district," said state Rep. Sandy Wollschlager, DFL-Cannon Falls. "I ran three times to win. I don't really need to be on a controversial ticket with other candidates."
Wollschlager is in her first term in the Minnesota House and is running for reelection. She said Franken's Playboy article, along with the admission that he failed to pay taxes in 17 states, worries her.
"When I go door to door I want to be focusing on my campaign," she said. "Once I say who I am and what I'm running for, the temptation to ask 'What do you think about Al Franken' is going to be out there and that's not what I want to spend my time on."
Wollschlager said she hasn't backed anyone in the Senate race and would even be open to another DFLer entering the race.
McCollum, who backed trial attorney Mike Ciresi before he dropped out of the race, was unavailable to comment today. Democratic Congressmen Keith Ellison, Tim Walz and Jim Oberstar were also unavailable to comment, but also reportedly expressed concern about the article.
The Playboy article, along with the tax issue, was first raised by the Republican Party of Minnesota.
Franken's campaign spokesman Andy Barr said he wasn't sure if Franken was paid for the Playboy article. He said the campaign has been in contact with DFL candidates for a variety of offices and is open to discussing the campaign. He said voters understand the differences between Franken's past job as a comedian and his attempt to become a senator.
"We've been talking for a while now about the concern that Republicans would try to take something Al had said or written out of context and use it as a wedge to distract from the real issues, " Barr said. "Al knows the difference between what a satirist said and what a senator does. And Minnesotans know that what Norm Coleman has done as a senator is to put the special interests ahead of working families."
Barr said he's confident that Franken will win the DFL endorsement at next week's state party convention. He's competing against University of St. Thomas professor Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, who could not be reached for this report.
The stakes are high for this year's Senate race. Republican Senator Norm Coleman is considered one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents this year and one political science professor says some DFLers are unsure whether Franken can beat him.
"I think there's some serious buyer's remorse or near buyer's remorse setting in," said Joe Kunkel, a political science professor at Minnesota State University Mankato.
Kunkel said many Democrats are worried that a senate race between Norm Coleman and Al Franken will be more about Al Franken and less about the issues. He said McCollum and others see Franken as a weak candidate against Coleman.
"It looks like increasingly like there's a group within the DFL Party and elected officials in particular who are looking for an alternative candidate," he said. "I would think it's pretty likely that somebody would come forward."
But one DFL delegate at this year's convention said he thinks Franken will mount a strong challenge against Coleman. Tim Hunt of Fergus Falls said he doesn't think the article will damage Franken in the general election.
"The guy was a professional writer and a satirist," Hunt said. "I read the article after the brouhaha and it's got some explicit stuff in there but the guy is a professional writer and it was written as a satire. A spoof."
But several DFL politicians and the staffers who work for them say they're already devising strategies to "inoculate" themselves from Franken's comments when they're on the campaign trail. They say their biggest concern is what the Republican Party and its party surrogates are waiting to release in October.
- All Things Considered, 05/30/2008, 5:24 p.m.