In October, Barb Olsen drove from her Duluth home to Augsburg College in order to watch Al Franken speak at a forum. She was extremely excited about the radio host and satirist’s then-fledgling senatorial campaign.
“I listened to Al Franken for all the years that he was on Air America,” says Olsen, a veteran Democratic Party activist. “I was an incredible fan and think he’s done wonderful things for progressive politics.”
Before heading south to the Twin Cities, Olsen stopped off at Northern Waters Smokehaus to purchase some smoked whitefish for Franken, a delicacy that she knew he craved. She packed it on ice and made the 150-mile drive to Augsburg.
Olsen parked herself in the front row of the forum, which featured all four candidates who were then seeking the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) endorsement. With the pungent smell of smoked whitefish emanating from beneath her chair, she fully expected to be wowed by Franken.
But Olsen quickly found herself gravitating to another candidate on the “Progressive Promise” panel. “I was just completely taken aback by this gentleman,” she recalls. “I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I really didn’t know anything about him. Whenever Al stood up I really wanted to feel the same about his answers, but I didn’t.”
At the close of the forum, Olsen found herself with a dilemma. “I kept thinking ‘Oh now what am I going to do with this fish?'” she recalls.
Ultimately Olsen handed over the gift to Franken as originally intended, but her political allegiance went to the other candidate on the panel who had captivated her that day, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. The University of St. Thomas professor and liberal activist is now Franken’s last remaining contender for the DFL endorsement.
Since attorney Mike Ciresi dropped out of the race in March, the conventional wisdom has been that Franken is the de facto DFL nominee to face off against incumbent Norm Coleman in one of the most anticipated 2008 Senate races in the country. With a staggering $10 million raised and nearly across-the-board support from organized labor and other party kingmakers, Franken’s campaign has generally been regarded as an unstoppable political force. National pundits like the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza and the Atlantic Monthly’s Mark Ambinder typically don’t deem Nelson-Pallmeyer’s modestly funded, grassroots candidacy worth a mention. He has been dismissed as an afterthought, a liberal gadfly with zero hope of actually securing party backing.
But as Franken’s campaign has been repeatedly tripped up by controversies — his failure to properly pay $70,000 in income taxes and penalties in 17 states, a 2000 sex fantasy article he wrote for Playboy and a proposed 1995 Saturday Night Live skit that joked about rape — Nelson-Pallmeyer’s upstart campaign has won the allegiance of many DFL delegates. With the DFL state convention taking place in Rochester this weekend, it’s an open question which candidate will ultimately emerge with the party’s endorsement. The recent indications that Ciresi is seriously weighing a revival of his candidacy and may run against the DFL nominee in the primary election only further undermines the once-seeming inevitability of Franken’s campaign.
Nelson-Pallmeyer’s supporters, while studiously avoiding any mention of Franken’s troubles, are optimistic that they can pull off a stunning upset at Saturday’s endorsement vote. “We’re feeling very, very excited about walking into the convention this weekend in Rochester,” says Chris McNellis, Nelson-Pallmeyer’s campaign manager. “It’s getting more and more competitive every day. We continue to pick up new delegates.”
While such pie-in-the-sky optimism is a hallmark of longshot political contenders, there are indications that Nelson-Pallmeyer will be more than an afterthought at the convention. Earlier this week Franken picked up the endorsement of former Vice President Al Gore, but Nelson-Pallmeyer countered with a much-lower profile vow of support that could ultimately prove more persuasive to the party’s 1,400 delegates.
Ben Goldfarb, a respected political strategist who served as campaign manager for Amy Klobuchar’s successful 2006 Senate run, sent out a letter to delegates laying out why he believes Nelson-Pallmeyer has a legitimate shot at unseating Coleman. Goldfarb argued that the challenger presents a stark contrast to the incumbent that will be easy to convey to voters, that Minnesotans have a long history of backing unorthodox candidates, and that as the DFL-endorsee, Nelson-Pallmeyer will ultimately be able to raise sufficient funds to run a viable campaign. “But as you make your decision on Saturday, I hope you think first about which candidate you believe in most, which candidate speaks to your hopes,” Goldfarb concluded. “And with confidence that he can indeed win this fall, I hope you cast your ballot for Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer for Senate.”
To spring such an upset, Nelson-Pallmeyer will need to win over more voters like Terry Gydesen. A veteran photographer, Gydesen cut her teeth covering the insurgent senate run of Paul Wellstone in 1990. She initially met Franken at a Weisman Art Museum party in 2003 to celebrate the release of her book, Twelve Years and Thirteen Days: Remembering Paul and Sheila Wellstone. The comedian was in town to hawk a book and agreed to make an appearance. “It threw the event into the stratosphere,” Gydesen recalls. “Every square inch of that museum was packed.”
This connection with Franken led the photographer to initially believe that she’d support his campaign when she decided to become a DFL delegate for the first time. Gydesen placed a Franken bumper sticker on her car. She caucused uncommitted at her local party convention, however, hoping to stay on good terms with both candidates and document the campaign.
Watching the two candidates over a course of months, she grew increasingly uneasy with the direction of the Franken campaign, particularly the lack of a campaign manager guiding the effort. “I was horrified by that,” she says.
The breaking point for Gydesen came at the 4th Congressional District convention in April. She was baffled by the Franken camp’s decision to fight a proposed question-and-answer session with the two candidates. In talking with Franken, Gydesen was also distressed by how unenthusiastic the candidate seemed. “Oh my god, he looks exhausted,” she recalls thinking. “I just looked at him and thought, ‘If you’re this tired now and we’re not even in the general election yet, what’s it going to be like when Norm Coleman’s hammering on him?’ “
In the meantime Gydesen was becoming a Nelson-Pallmeyer believer. His stark liberalism and chaotic campaign headquarters reminded her of Wellstone in 1990. “The media and really the party has told us that it’s going to be a race between Al Franken and Norm Coleman,” she says. “But I have to go with my heart. Who is the person that’s most aligned with my values and I think has the best chance of beating Norm because of those values?”
Gydesen acknowledges that she may have drank way too much Kool-Aid, but she fully believes that Nelson-Pallmeyer will walk away from the convention as the DFL endorsee. “I’m quite certain it’s going to be Jack,” she says. “I’ve talked to a lot of people. I think people are rightfully concerned about whether Al can win.”
Betty Tisel is another convert. She backed Keith Ellison over Nelson-Pallmeyer in his previous run for Congress two years ago. But she’s now devoting countless hours to his Senate run, charged with keeping tabs on the allegiances of the 1,400 DFL delegates.
“I have watched the positions shift from strong Franken to leaning Franken to undecided to Jack,” Tisel says. She’s confident that Nelson-Pallmeyer will at the very least force Franken to a second ballot before he can secure support from the 60 percent of delegates needed for endorsement. “I have a giant sombrero that I’m going to have to eat if there’s not two ballots,” she laughs.
At Nelson-Pallmeyer’s campaign headquarters in Minneapolis, there is, in Tisel’s words, a “little dorky brass bell” that campaign workers ring each time the candidate has secured the commitment of another delegate. “That bell has been ringing more and more,” she says. “It’s like slugging down a can of one of those power drinks. It just really makes us feel confident.”