A frank talk with Franken


Do not ask Al Franken where he dines in Minneapolis. He rarely does. His idea of eating out is grabbing hot dish and baked beans at Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party dinners or savoring “the best, best pulled barbeque sauce” at Fulda High School while campaigning.

Don’t ask him where he hangs out in Minneapolis, either. He’ll make fun of you.

“I have gobs of time to hang out. In fact, I think if you had to describe my life in and around Minneapolis, it’d be just hanging out,” he said. “What do you mean? I never hang out.”

But the man has to eat. If he has a stomping ground here, it’s Hell’s Kitchen, he said. He likes the grub, the clientele and the service. And when his friends are in town, it’s where he takes them.

“I like everything about the place,” he said. “It’s the only place I can kind of consider close to a hang-out because I can’t hang out.”

His scheduler occasionally pencils in leisure time. Franken got to ride his bike around Downtown on a recent fall day. He considers it “just a nice way to get your mind off everything because what your mind is on is not getting killed.”

You won’t find him leaving his town home in the Elliot Park neighborhood to take in the scene because he’s too busy stumping on the campaign trail. Franken announced his bid for the U.S. Senate Feb. 14.

“I hang out at union halls. I hang out at American Legions,” he said.

Franken moved back to Minnesota from New York City in December 2005 to prepare for a possible Senate run. He and his wife, Franni, bought their Grant Park town home in April 2005. He wanted to live in the western suburbs, but Franni “demanded” living Downtown. They’re empty nesters — both their children have graduated from college — so it made sense, he said. And when they first moved in, it was within walking distance of the Foshay Tower, where he recorded “The Al Franken Show” for Air America Radio for a while. Now, Franken can recite the history of the tower like nobody’s business.

He may be a new player when it comes to politics, but he’s no stranger to the game. He has written and talked about politics for years as a “Saturday Night Live” writer, a radio show host and an author. His New York Times bestseller “The Truth (with jokes)” is one of his latest books.

He’s well-known for creating self-help character Stuart Smalley on “Saturday Night Live.” But he said fame isn’t what’s foremost on voters’ minds when they talk to him about his bid for the DFL nomination.

“People really don’t care about the comedy thing,” he said.

They’re interested in it, he said, but he believes they care more about everyday issues.

If he’s elected, Franken said he’d first work on health care “reform” and the war in Iraq.

“My campaign is about making people’s lives better,” he said.

He would like the country move to universal health care, and he thinks the best way to do that is to establish a single-payer system. He understands that kind of overhaul takes time, so he’s proposing that each state create its own way of providing universal coverage to its citizens, with funding from the federal government. That said, he would require that every child under 18 be covered by a single-payer, Medicare-style system.

When it comes to Iraq, his “goal is not so different than the goal of most Americans,” he said, which is to get out of there as fast as possible but in a responsible way. He said the government needs to put more planning into the departure than it did when it invaded Iraq.

He said the United States also needs to start a conversation with stakeholders in the Mideast, including Iran, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The only way to gain any credibility with them is to start leaving, he said.

When Franken introduces himself to voters throughout the state, he usually gives a stump speech that involves the story of his wife’s upbringing. Her dad, a World War II veteran, died in a car accident while driving home from the paper mill when she was 17 months old, he said. The family survived on Social Security benefits.

Franni and her siblings used Pell grants to go to college, he said. And his mother-in-law got a $300 G.I. home loan to fix a hole in the roof and instead used it to go to college to become an elementary teacher. Her loan was forgiven because she taught Title I children.

Despite that early hardship, he said that every member of his wife’s family is a “productive member of society because of the government.”

“That’s what we Democrats are about — is making sure that everyone has opportunity,” he said.

Contributing writer Brady Averill lives in the East Harriet neighborhood. She covered the Minnesota Congressional delegation in Washington, D.C., for the Star Tribune from May 2006–May 2007.