Alan Stuart Franken (born May 21, 1951) is an American comedian, writer, producer, author, and politician who served as a United States Senator from Minnesota from 2009 to 2018. He became well known in the 1970s and 1980s as a performer on the television comedy show Saturday Night Live (SNL). After decades as a comedic actor and writer, he became a prominent liberal political activist, hosting The Al Franken Show on Air America Radio.
Franken was first elected to the United States Senate in 2008 as the nominee of the Minnesota Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party (DFL, an affiliate of the Democratic Party), defeating incumbent Republican Senator Norm Coleman by 312 votes out of nearly three million cast. He won reelection in 2014 with 53.2% of the vote over Republican challenger Mike McFadden. Franken resigned on January 2, 2018, after several allegations of sexual misconduct were made against him.
Early life and education
Franken was born on May 21, 1951, in New York City, to Joseph Franken, a printing salesman, and Phoebe Franken (born Kunst), a real estate agent. His paternal grandparents emigrated from Germany; his maternal grandfather came from Grodno, Russian Empire; and his maternal grandmother's parents were also from the Russian Empire. Both of his parents were Jews, and Franken was raised in a Reform Jewish home. The Frankens moved to Albert Lea, Minnesota, when he was four years old. His father opened a quilting factory, but it failed after just two years. The family then moved to St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. Franken graduated from The Blake School in 1969, where he was a member of the wrestling team. He attended Harvard College, where he majored in political science, graduating cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in 1973. His older brother Owen is a photojournalist, and his cousin Bob is a journalist for MSNBC.
Franken began performing in high school, where he and his longtime friend and writing partner Tom Davis were known for their comedy. The duo first performed on stage at Minneapolis's Brave New Workshop theater, specializing in political satire. They soon found themselves in what was described as "a life of near-total failure on the fringes of show business in Los Angeles."
Saturday Night Live
Franken and Tom Davis were recruited as two of the original writers and occasional performers on Saturday Night Live (SNL) (1975–1980, 1985–1995). In SNL's first season, the two apprentice writers shared a salary of $350 per week. Franken received seven Emmy nominations and three awards for his television writing and producing while creating such characters as self-help guru Stuart Smalley. Another routine proclaimed the 1980s the Al Franken Decade. Franken and Davis wrote the script of the 1986 comedy film One More Saturday Night, appearing in it as rock singers in a band called Bad Mouth. They also had minor roles in All You Need Is Cash and the film Trading Places, starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd .
On Weekend Update near the end of Season 5, Franken delivered a commentary called "A Limo for a Lame-O". He mocked controversial NBC president Fred Silverman as "a total unequivocal failure" and displayed a chart showing the poor ratings of NBC programs. As a result of this sketch, Silverman declined Lorne Michaels's recommendation that Franken succeed him as producer, and Franken left the show when Michaels did, at the end of the 1979–80 season. Franken returned to the show in 1985 as a writer and occasional performer. He has acknowledged using cocaine and other illegal drugs while working in television, and stated that he stopped after John Belushi died of an overdose. In 1995, Franken left the show in protest over losing the role of Weekend Update anchor to Norm Macdonald.
Main articles: Fox v. Franken and The Al Franken Show
In 1995, Franken wrote and starred in the film Stuart Saves His Family, which was based on his SNL character Stuart Smalley. The film was a critical and commercial failure, and Franken later became depressed as a result. Despite its aggregate rating of 30% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film received favorable reviews from The Washington Post and Gene Siskel.
Franken is the author of four books that made The New York Times Best Seller list. In 2003, Penguin Books published his Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, a satirical book on American politics and conservatism. The book's title incorporated the Fox News slogan "Fair and Balanced", and had a cover photo of Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly; that August, Fox News sued, claiming infringement of its registered trademark phrase. A federal judge found the lawsuit "wholly without merit." The incident focused media attention on Franken's book and, according to him, greatly increased its sales. The publicity resulting from the lawsuit propelled Franken's yet-to-be-released book to number 1 on Amazon.com.
Franken signed a one-year contract in early 2004 to host a talk show for Air America Radio's flagship program with co-host Katherine Lanpher, who remained with the show until October 2005. The network was launched on March 31, 2004. Originally named The O'Franken Factor but renamed The Al Franken Show on July 12, 2004, the show aired three hours a day, five days a week for three years. Its stated goal was to put more progressive views on the public airwaves to counter what Franken perceived as the dominance of conservative syndicated commentary on the radio: "I'm doing this because I want to use my energies to get Bush unelected," he told a New York Times reporter in 2004. Franken's last radio show on Air America Radio was on February 14, 2007, at the end of which he announced his candidacy for the United States Senate.
Franken also co-wrote the film When a Man Loves a Woman, co-created and starred in the NBC sitcom LateLine, and appeared in the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate.
In 2003, Franken served as a Fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Since 2005, he has been a contributor to The Huffington Post.
Franken toured Iraq several times with the United Service Organizations (USO). On March 25, 2009, he was presented with the USO Metro Merit Award for his 10 years of involvement with the organization.
Political activism prior to election
According to an article by Richard Corliss published in Time magazine, "In a way, Franken has been running for office since the late '70s." Corliss also hinted at Franken's "possibly ironic role as a relentless self-promoter" in proclaiming the 1980s "The Al Franken Decade" and saying, "Vote for me, Al Franken. You'll be glad you did!" In 1999, Franken released a parody book, Why Not Me?, detailing his hypothetical campaign for president in 2000. He had been a strong supporter of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone and was deeply affected by Wellstone's death in a plane crash shortly before the 2002 election. Wellstone was a mentor and political and personal role model for Franken, who stated his hopes of following in Wellstone's footsteps.
Franken said he learned that 21% of Americans received most of their news from talk radio, an almost exclusively conservative medium. "I didn't want to sit on the sidelines, and I believed Air America could make a difference", he said. In November 2003, Franken talked about moving back to his home state of Minnesota to run for the Senate. At the time the seat once held by Wellstone was occupied by Republican Norm Coleman. At a 2004 Democratic presidential campaign event, Franken tackled a man who was allegedly threatening other attendees and heckling Governor Howard Dean. In 2005, Franken announced his move to Minnesota: "I can tell you honestly, I don't know if I'm going to run, but I'm doing the stuff I need to do in order to do it." In late 2005, he started his own political action committee, Midwest Values PAC. By early 2007, the PAC had raised more than $1 million.
Franken was the subject of the 2006 documentary film Al Franken: God Spoke, which The New York Times called "an investigation of the phenomenon of ideological celebrity."
Franken initially supported the Iraq War but opposed the 2007 troop surge. In an interview with MSNBC's Joe Scarborough, he said that he "believed Colin Powell", whose presentation at the United Nations convinced him that the war was necessary, but that he had since come to believe that "we were misled into the war" and urged the Democratic-controlled Congress to refuse to pass appropriations bills to fund the war if they did not include timetables for leaving Iraq. In an interview with Josh Marshall, Franken said of the Democrats, "I think we've gotta make PresidentGeorge W. Bush say, 'OK, I'm cutting off funding because I won't agree to a timetable.'"
Franken favors transitioning to a universal health care system, with the provision that every child in America should receive health care coverage immediately. He objects to efforts to privatize Social Security or cut benefits, and favors raising the cap on wages to which Social Security taxes apply. On his 2008 campaign website, he voiced support for cutting subsidies for oil companies, increasing money available for college students, and cutting interest rates on student loans.
During the 2008 election, New York state officials asserted that Al Franken Inc. had failed to carry required workers compensationinsurance for employees who assisted him with his comedy and public speaking from 2002 to 2005. Franken paid a $25,000 fine to the state of New York upon being advised his corporation was out of compliance with the state's workers compensation laws. At the same time, the California Franchise Tax Board reported that the same corporation owed more than $4,743 in taxes, fines, and associated penalties in the state of California for 2003 through 2007, because the corporation did not file tax returns in the state for those years. A Franken representative said that it followed the advice of an accountant who believed when the corporation stopped doing business in California that no further filing was required. Subsequently, Franken paid $70,000 in back income taxes in 17 states dating back to 2003, mostly from his speeches and other paid appearances. Franken said he paid the income tax in his state of residence, and he would seek retroactive credit for paying the taxes in the wrong state.
Main article: United States Senate election in Minnesota, 2008
On January 29, 2007, Franken announced his departure from Air America Radio, and on the day of his final show, February 14, he formally announced his candidacy for the United States Senate from Minnesota in 2008. Challenging him for the Democratic–Farmer–Labor Party endorsement was Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, a professor, author, and activist; trial lawyer Mike Ciresi; and attorney and human rights activist Jim Cohen, who dropped out of the race early. Franken won the nomination with 65% of the vote.
On July 8, 2007, Franken's campaign stated that it expected to announce that he had raised more money than his Republican opponent, Norm Coleman, during the second quarter of the year, taking in $1.9 million to Coleman's $1.6 million, although in early July 2007, Coleman's $3.8 million cash on hand exceeded Franken's $2 million.
In late May 2008, the Minnesota Republican Party released a letter about an article Franken had written for Playboy magazine in 2000 titled "Porn-O-Rama!" The letter, signed by six prominent GOP women, including a state senator and state representative, called on Franken to apologize for what they called a "demeaning and degrading" article. His campaign spokesman responded, "Al had a long career as a satirist. But he understands the difference between what you say as a satirist and what you do as a senator. And as a Senator, Norm Coleman has disrespected the people of Minnesota by putting the Exxons and Halliburtons ahead of working families. And there's nothing funny about that."
On June 7, 2008, Franken was endorsed by the DFL. In a July 2008 interview with CNN, he was endorsed by Ben Stein, a noted entertainer, speechwriter, lawyer and author known for his conservative views, who generally supported Republican candidates. Stein said of Franken, "He is my pal, and he is a really, really capable smart guy. I don't agree with all of his positions, but he is a very impressive guy, and I think he should be in the Senate."
During his campaign, Franken was criticized for advising SNL creator Lorne Michaels on a political sketch ridiculing Senator John McCain's ads attacking Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. Coleman's campaign reacted, saying, "Once again, he proves he's more interested in entertainment than service, and ridiculing those with whom he disagrees."
Preliminary reports on election night, November 4, were that Coleman was leading by over 700 votes, but the official results, certified on November 18, 2008, had Coleman leading by only 215 votes. As the two candidates were separated by less than 0.5 percent of the votes cast, the Minnesota Secretary of State, Mark Ritchie, authorized the automatic recount provided for in Minnesota election law. In the recount, ballots and certifying materials were examined by hand, and candidates could file challenges to the legality of ballots or materials for inclusion or exclusion. On January 5, 2009, the Minnesota State Canvassing Board certified the recounted vote totals, with Franken ahead by 225 votes.
On January 6, 2009, Coleman's campaign filed an election contest, which led to a trial before a three-judge panel. The trial ended on April 7, when the panel ruled that 351 of 387 disputed absentee ballots were incorrectly rejected and ordered them counted. Counting those ballots raised Franken's lead to 312 votes. Coleman appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court on April 20. On April 24, the Minnesota Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. Oral arguments were conducted on June 1.
On June 30, 2009, the Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously rejected Coleman's appeal and said that Franken was entitled to be certified as the winner. Shortly after the court's decision, Coleman conceded. Governor Tim Pawlenty signed Franken's election certificate that same evening.
Main article: United States Senate election in Minnesota, 2014
Franken was reelected to a second term in 2014. He won the August 12 primary election, in which he was challenged by Sandra Henningsgard, with 94.5% of the vote. He won the general election against the Republican candidate, Mike McFadden, with 53.2% of the vote.
Franken was sworn into the Senate on July 7, 2009, 246 days after the election. He took the oath of office with the Bible of late Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone, whose old seat was set aside for Franken by Senate leaders.
On August 6, 2009, Franken presided over the confirmation vote of Sonia Sotomayor to be an Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court. On August 5, 2010, Franken presided over the confirmation vote of Elena Kagan. His first piece of legislation, the Service Dogs for Veterans Act, which he wrote jointly with Republican Senator Johnny Isakson, passed the Senate by unanimous consent, establishing a program with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs to pair disabledveterans with service dogs.
A video of Franken at the Minnesota State Fair on September 2, 2009, engaging in a discussion with a group of Tea Party protesters on health care reform, began circulating on the Internet and soon went viral. The discussion was noted for its civility, in contrast to the explosive character of several other discussions between members of the 111th Congress and their constituents that had occurred over the summer.
During the debate on health care reform, Franken was one of the strongest supporters of a single-payer system. He authored an amendment to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act called the Medical Loss Ratio, which required that insurance companies spend at least 80% of premiums on actual health care costs, rising to 85% for large group plans. On September 30, 2013, Franken voted to remove a provision that would repeal the medical device tax in Obamacare from a government funding bill, saying that though he supported the provision, he disagreed with its being used as a condition for preventing the 2013 federal government shutdown.
Citing the case of Jamie Leigh Jones, Franken introduced a limit to the arbitration policy of the 2010 Defense Appropriations bill that withheld defense contracts from companies that restrict their employees from taking workplace sexual assault, battery, and discrimination cases to court. It passed the Senate in November 2010, 68 to 30, in a roll-call vote.
In May 2010, Franken proposed a financial-reform amendment that created a board to select which credit rating agency would evaluate a given security. At the time, any company issuing a security could select the company that evaluated the security. The amendment was passed, but the financial industry lobbied to have it removed from the final bill. Negotiations between the Senate and House, whose version of financial reform did not include such a provision, resulted in the amendment's being watered down to require only a series of studies being done on the issue for two years. After the studies, if the Securities and Exchange Commission had not implemented another solution to the conflict-of-interest problem, Franken's solution would go into effect.
In August 2010, Franken made faces and hand gestures and rolled his eyes while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered a speech in opposition to the confirmation of Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court. Franken's actions prompted McConnell to remark, "This isn't Saturday Night Live, Al." After Kagan's confirmation, Franken delivered a handwritten apology to McConnell and issued a public statement saying that McConnell had a right "to give his speech with the presiding officer just listening respectfully."
The National Journal reported in 2013 that Franken supports the National Security Agency's data mining programs, believing they have saved lives, and that "I can assure you, this is not about spying on the American people."
When Franken declared his intention to seek reelection in 2014, his seat was thought to be a top target for the Republicans because of his very slim margin of victory in the previous election. But Politico reported that his high approval rating, his large campaign fund, and the Republicans' struggle to find a top-tier candidate meant he was a "heavy favorite" to win reelection, and Franken won the race comfortably.
The Associated Press has noted that contrary to expectations, Franken has not sought out the media spotlight: "He rarely talks to the Washington press corps, has shed his comedic persona and focused on policy, working to be taken seriously." In interviews he has expressed his desire to be known for a focus on constituency work, keeping his head down, and working hard.
Franken has been an effective fundraiser for the Democrats. By late 2015, his political action committee had raised more than $5 million in donations. In 2016, his PAC raised $3.3 million. According to The Star Tribune, Franken has been able to "draw crowds and donations across the country".
Sexual misconduct scandal
See also: 2017–18 United States political sexual scandals
On November 16, 2017, Leeann Tweeden alleged in a blog post and an interview with her radio station, 790 KABC, that Franken forcibly kissed her on a 2006 USO tour during a rehearsal for a skit. She wrote, "I said 'OK' so he would stop badgering me. We did the line leading up to the kiss and then he came at me, put his hand on the back of my head, mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth." She said she pushed him away, feeling "disgusted and violated". Franken was also photographed appearing to place his hands above or on her breasts while she was asleep on an aircraft wearing body armor and a helmet. In response, Franken said, "I certainly don't remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann ... As to the photo, it was clearly intended to be funny but wasn't. I shouldn't have done it." A few hours later, Franken issued a longer apology, which Tweeden accepted.
On November 20, 2017, a 33-year-old woman named Lindsay Menz accused Franken of touching her clothed buttocks while they posed for a photo at the Minnesota State Fair in 2010. In a statement responding to the allegation, Franken said, "I take thousands of photos at the state fair surrounded by hundreds of people, and I certainly don't remember taking this picture. I feel badly that Ms. Menz came away from our interaction feeling disrespected."
On November 22, 2017, Huffington Post reported that two additional women who insisted upon anonymity said that Franken had subjected them to very similar misconduct during political events in 2007 and 2008 (before he took office), incidents Franken also said he did not remember. Franken issued another apology on November 23, 2017, stating, "I've met tens of thousands of people and taken thousands of photographs, often in crowded and chaotic situations. I'm a warm person; I hug people. I've learned from recent stories that in some of those encounters, I crossed a line for some women — and I know that any number is too many."
On November 30, 2017, Jezebel reported that another anonymous woman said that after she was a guest on Franken's radio show in 2006, Franken leaned in toward her face during a handshake and gave her "a wet, open-mouthed kiss" on the cheek when she turned away. That same day, an army veteran named Stephanie Kemplin told CNN that Franken held the side of her breast for 5 to 10 seconds "and never moved his hand" while posing for a photograph with her during a 2003 USO tour in Iraq.
Senate Majority and Minority Leaders Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer sent Tweeden's accusations to the Senate Ethics Committee for review, a decision supported by members of both parties, including Franken himself. On November 30, the committee announced that it was investigating allegations against Franken. Some liberal groups and commentators, including the Indivisible movement and Sally Kohn, called on Franken to resign because of the allegations. On December 6, two more accusations surfaced, one from an anonymous congressional aide about an attempted kiss at his radio show studio, and one by congressional aide Tina Dupuy about Franken allegedly squeezing her waist at a party prior to Franken taking office. More than two dozen Democratic senators then called on Franken to resign from office.
On December 7, 2017, Franken announced his intention to resign his Senate seat. In his resignation speech, he made comparisons to Republican politicians, saying he was "aware of the irony" that President Donald Trump remained in office despite the comments Trump made in the Access Hollywood tape released a month before his election, and that the Republican Party supported Roy Moore's Senate campaign despite the many allegations of harassment and molestation against Moore. Franken resigned on January 2, 2018, and Minnesota governor Mark Dayton appointed the lieutenant governor, Tina Smith, to hold Franken’s seat until a special election in November 2018.
Franken met his wife, Franni Bryson, in his first year at Harvard. In 2005, they moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota. Together they have two children. Their daughter, Thomasin, has degrees from Harvard and the French Culinary Institute; she is the director of extended learning at DC Prep, an organization in Washington, D.C., that manages charter schools. Their son, Joseph, works in the finance industry. Franken is a second cousin of the actor Steve Franken, known for his appearances in the television series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. In 2013, Franken received the Stewart B. McKinney Award for his work fighting homelessness.
The following are works authored by Al Franken.
- Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations (Delacorte Press, 1996) ISBN 0-385-31474-4
- Why Not Me?: The Inside Story of the Making and Unmaking of the Franken Presidency (Delacorte Press, 1999) ISBN 0-385-31809-X
- Oh, the Things I Know!: A Guide to Success, or Failing That, Happiness (Plume Books, 2003) ISBN 0-452-28450-3
- Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right (Dutton Books, 2003) ISBN 0-525-94764-7
- The Truth (With Jokes) (Dutton Books, 2005) ISBN 0-525-94906-2
- Al Franken, Giant of the Senate (Grand Central Publishing, 2017) ISBN 1455540412
|2008 Minnesota U.S. Senate Democratic–Farmer–Labor primary election|
|DFL||Priscilla Lord Faris||74,655||29.72%|
|Republican||Norm Coleman (incumbent)||1,212,317||41.983%|
|Margin of victory||312||0.011%|
|2014 Minnesota U.S. Senate Democratic–Farmer–Labor primary election|
|DFL||Al Franken (incumbent)||1,053,205||53.15|
|Margin of victory||202,978||10.24%|
- ^"Ancestry of Al Franken". William Addams Reitwiesner. Archived from the original on March 8, 2015. Retrieved September 7, 2014.
- ^"Al Franken". Jewish Virtual Library. Archived from the original on February 10, 2017. Retrieved February 12, 2017.
- ^"Meet Al". Archived from the original on September 11, 2015.
- ^ abcColapinto, John. "Enter Laughing". The New Yorker. Archived from the original on October 19, 2012. Retrieved January 9, 2013.
- ^Liebovich, Mark (December 13, 2016). "Al Franken Faces Donald Trump and the Next Four Years". The New York Times. Archived from the original on December 13, 2016. Retrieved December 13, 2016.
- ^Franken was elected to the term beginning January 3, 2009, but did not take his seat until July 7, 2009, because of a recount and a subsequent election challenge. He then resigned on January 2, 2018.
Minnesota DFL U.S. Sen. Tina Smith will serve on four Senate committees, her office said Tuesday.
They are Indian Affairs, Agriculture, Energy, and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
The assignments will allow her to focus on problems important to Minnesotans, said Smith, who was sworn into office last Wednesday.
“I’m eager to fight for the nurse in greater Minnesota who’s worried about cuts to the rural health budget and the public school teacher who wants to give students a world-class education; for the retirees in Duluth who are concerned about their pensions getting cut, the farmer in Willmar concerned about slumping commodity prices, the tribal leader who demands a response to the opioid crisis in Indian Country, and the local business looking to cut its monthly energy bill,” she said.
DFL Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Smith to take fellow Democrat Al Franken’s place in the Senate.until a special election in November determines who will serve the remainder of the term.
Franken served on the Judiciary Committee and not the Agriculture Committee. Otherwise Smith’s committee assignments are the same.
Smith says she will run in the special election to serve through 2020. Republican State Sen. Karin Housley has announced she’s running too.
Franken stepped down last week after several women accused him of sexual misconduct.
About the blogger
Mark Zdechlik covers health care and politics for MPR News. He began his MPR career in 1986 while attending St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota where he earned a degree in Business Administration. Over the past three decades, Zdechlik has been involved in covering virtually every major news story in the region.