Politics & Policy

Norm Coleman Goes Positive

Unilateral disarmament in Minnesota.

It’s been a long time since incumbent Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman ran in an easy campaign, maybe since he ran for reelection as the mayor of St. Paul in 1997. If the Chinese curse were “May you run in interesting campaigns,” it would apply in spades to Coleman.

Coleman served two successful terms as the Democrat-turned-Republican mayor of St. Paul. Among his accomplishments was the exceedingly difficult task of returning a National Hockey League team to Minnesota. After his mayoral service Coleman narrowly lost to Jesse “The Body” Ventura in the wild 1998 three-way race for governor, though he outpolled the formidable incumbent state attorney general Hubert H. “Skip” Humphrey III in the process.

In 2002, Coleman was running a competitive race against then-incumbent Senator Paul Wellstone when Wellstone died in a tragic plane crash ten days before the election. In the aftermath of the over-the-top Wellstone memorial ceremony televised on C-SPAN, Coleman narrowly defeated former Vice President (and Minnesota institution) Walter Mondale.

Coleman’s current campaign did not figure to be quite as competitive as it has turned out to be. He is a serious senator with strong connections all over Minnesota. Coleman’s opponent is former humorist and failed left-wing radio talk show host Al Franken. Franken hasn’t lived in Minnesota for a long time. He only returned to Minnesota from New York last year to take Coleman on.

Franken’s slight connection to Minnesota should have made the race a challenge for Franken to begin with, but Franken has proved an opposition researcher’s dream as well. Although Franken holds himself out as a tribune of the people, his corporation failed to procure worker’s compensation coverage for his employees coverage from 2002-2005. Franken denied knowledge of any of the numerous notices sent him by New York authorities for the failure and was assessed a $25,000 fine. The state turned to a collection agency to reach Franken, without success. The state sent penalty statements in August and December 2006 and March 2007. The penalty judgment was finally entered against Franken in May 2007 and another notice sent by certified mail to his Manhattan apartment. Three more statements were sent without response before news stories on the subject attracted Franken’s attention. He agreed to pay the fine in March of this year after it was publicly reported.

The worker’s compensation issue was only the beginning of the fun. It also turned out that Franken owed at least $70,000 in taxes and penalties to 17 states. According to Franken, he never intended to avoid paying taxes. He was only relying on the advice of his accountant when he paid only taxes to the city and state where he lived rather than the states in which he had earned the income. After essentially imputing malpractice to his accountant Franken refused to release his tax returns or authorize his accountant to answer questions. Both the worker’s compensation and tax stories, incidentally, were originally reported by Minnesota blogger Michael Brodkorb.

And that’s not all a diligent opposition researcher would dig up on Franken. In the oral history of Saturday Night Live assembled by James Miller and Tom Shales, Franken talks (pages 119-120) about using cocaine while pulling all-nighters writing for the show: “I only did cocaine to stay awake to make sure nobody else did too much cocaine. That was the only reason I ever did it. Heh heh.” Franken was discussing his cocaine use during his first stint writing for the show from 1976-1980, a relatively long time ago. The jocular attitude he expressed toward his drug use would have occurred in his comments for the book published in 2002, considerably more recently. Has any serious Senate candidate ever before joked about his past cocaine use?

The Coleman campaign and the Republican National Senatorial Committee have raised Franken’s worker’s compensation and tax compliance issues as well as Franken’s erratic temperament in ads attacking Franken. The Franken campaign has taken something of a kitchen-sink approach to attacking Coleman, implying, for example, that Coleman is guilty of corruption by association with Alaska senator Ted Stevens. Indeed, unlike the Coleman campaign, the Franken campaign has run virtually no positive ads speaking in Franken’s own voice. Franken has also benefited from the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which has run an ad all but accusing Coleman of killing our troops in Iraq as a result of his support for the war. It is an outrageous, utterly disgusting ad.

The financial crisis has obviously had an adverse impact on Republican candidates across the country. It has leached support from Coleman, who is now locked in a tight race with Franken, while third-party candidate Dean Barkley plays a wild-card role. Franken’s popularity does not appear to have increased as a result of the crisis. Rather, Barkley appears to have been the beneficiary of whatever support has eroded from Coleman over the past few weeks.

The two most recent public polls, released within a day or two of each other, differ by nearly 20 points. The October 2 SurveyUSA poll showed Coleman leading by 10; the October 3 Princeton Survey Research Associates poll conducted for the Minneapolis Star Tribune showed Franken leading by 9. They can’t both be right, and may well both be wrong. My guess is that Coleman and Franken are essentially tied.

I saw Sen. Coleman on Wednesday evening at Yom Kippur services in St. Paul and chatted with him briefly. He was reflective and guardedly optimistic about the race. I asked him if he had anything in reserve against Franken. He said he would be taking his case directly to the people of Minnesota.

I didn’t know exactly what he meant, but it became clear on Friday when Coleman announced that he was suspending all negative campaign ads and called on those who support him to do the same. He issued a press release explaining that he did not want to contribute to the negativity felt by Minnesotans in the current crisis. He added that he didn’t want to be reelected as the lesser of three evils, deciding “that I was not all that interested in returning to Washington for six years based on the judgment of voters that I was not as bad as the other two guys. I want folks to vote for me, not against the other guys.”

Some observers have suggested that Coleman’s announcement suggested deep calculation if not cynicism. Yesterday I met with Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan and asked him about that accusation. He rejected the charge with a smile, stating that Sen. Coleman’s decision took place against the considered judgment of his political consultants.

According to Sheehan, the decision derived solely from Sen. Coleman’s belief that it was the right thing to do. Against the backdrop of Franken’s record as well as the pounding Coleman is taking from the Franken campaign and its allies, one might well question the wisdom of Coleman’s unilateral disarmament and ask who is being cynical under the circumstances.

Franken’s campaign responded bitterly to Coleman’s announcement on Friday. Franken’s spokesman asserted that Coleman’s directive was “a cynical ploy designed to change the subject and avoid scrutiny of his own record. It’s like an arsonist burning down every house in the village and then asking to be named fire chief.” By my reckoning, that’s as close to funny as Al Franken has gotten since the expiration of the Al Franken Decade in 1990.

Scott W. Johnson is a Minneapolis attorney and contributor to the blog Power Line.


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