Election 2008

Jim Mone/AP
Sen. Norm Coleman

Coleman-Franken Senate Race Still a War of Words, Legal Battles

November 10, 2008 10:55 AM
by Anne Szustek
The legally mandated recount in the race between Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and Democratic challenger Al Franken is growing as acrimonious as the campaign itself.

Coleman and Franken Spar over Recount, Absentee Ballots

Nearly a week after Election Day, the race for the U.S. Senate seat among Republican incumbent Norm Coleman, Democratic candidate Al Franken and Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley is still without an official winner.

Sen. Coleman maintains a thread of an unofficial winning margin over Franken as ballots continue to be counted. As of midnight on Sunday, Coleman’s lead has narrowed to 221 votes, down from more than 700 the morning after the election.

On Saturday a court in Ramsey County, where St. Paul is located, blocked an injunction filed by Coleman’s camp to halt the tallying of 32 absentee ballots from voters with Minneapolis addresses. According to Coleman’s legal team, the ballots were left in an election official’s car. But Ramsey County Chief District Court Judge Kathleen Gearin rejected the request because it was out of her jurisdiction. Minneapolis, which historically votes heavily Democrat, is in Hennepin County.

Franken’s campaign called the Coleman move a “Saturday morning sneak attack.” But the Coleman camp alleged possible vote tampering, saying in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune that the veracity of ballots “is in serious doubt.”

“We did what we had to do,” Coleman attorney Fritz Knaak told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “There was a real concern that what was going on here was wrong and unfair.”

Minneapolis Elections Director Cindy Reichert said the ballots were not delivered because some polling places had closed, and were being sent to be tallied Saturday afternoon.

But as a recount looms, more legal jockeying is likely to be just the latest chapter of a campaign that has gone down as the Star Tribune puts it, one of the ugliest Minnesotans have ever witnessed.” The candidates pulled in nearly $50 million in cash from across the country, making it one of the highest funded races in the nation.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting and nearly 3 million votes cast in Minnesota on Tuesday, Coleman has a lead of about 0.03 percent. In Minnesota any race in which the margin of victory is less than 0.5 percent is subject to a mandatory recount, a privilege that Franken is exercising amid allegations of voting irregularities in Democratic-leaning Minneapolis.

“Let me be clear: Our goal is to ensure that every vote is properly counted,” Franken told reporters Wednesday morning. Franken’s camp has enlisted former U.S. Attorney David Lillehaug as legal counsel during the recount process.

Background: Bitter Senate race too close to call

Early Wednesday morning Associated Press named Coleman the winner in the Minnesota race for U.S. Senate, but later uncalled the race, saying, “The AP called the race prematurely.”

But Coleman declared victory nonetheless. Cullen Sheehan, Coleman’s campaign manager, said in a Wednesday statement, “The senator is thrilled and humbled to be given the opportunity to serve the people of Minnesota for another six years.”

Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said that any recount would not get underway until at least the middle of November and likely would not be finished until sometime in December. The Secretary of State’s office wrapped up a recount in three days after a tight primary race for a state Supreme Court seat, however given the scope of the Franken-Coleman Senate campaign, “Having a ton of lawyers and other partisans injected into the process, that will change the dynamics of it,” Ritchie was quoted as saying by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune.

Practically from the moment Al Franken won the endorsement of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL), the Minnesota branch of the Democratic Party, the race for Minnesota’s open U.S. Senate seat was characterized by attack ads, suits—both legal and designer—and a spotlight on the main party candidates’ wives.

Al Franken’s wife, Franni, publicly revealed her struggle with alcoholism and touted her husband’s support and his work on behalf of people struggling with chemical dependency.

Another round of Franken ads that said ethics group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) called incumbent Norm Coleman “the fourth most corrupt senator in Washington” led to a legal complaint from the Coleman camp.

Coleman’s team argued that the Franken ad was misleading. The CREW list named the “20 most corrupt members of members of Congress,” including three senators, but not Coleman, who was the only senator on a “dishonorable mention.”

Coleman and his supporters countered Franken’s attack ads by citing past articles the satirist has written for Playboy, as well as Franken’s lack of experience in political office.

During their last debate on Sunday night, Coleman asked his Democratic challenger, “Jokes about rape, is that a line? Writing pornography for Playboy, is that a line? Calling a Supreme Court justice sexist, is that a line?”

But what kicked off Sunday night’s debate were barbs between the two candidates over a series of ads, funded by Franken supporters, that alleged that Coleman friend and backer Nasser Kazeminy channeled $75,000 through a business that sells the Blo and Go, a hands-free hair-drying tool marketed by Norm Coleman’s wife, Laurie.

Minority shareholders in Houston-based Deep Marine Technology filed a lawsuit on Friday against Kazeminy, alleging that he used a Minneapolis insurance company as a conduit to get the $75,000 of the funds in question to Laurie Coleman.

Franken countered Coleman’s insinuations that Franken’s camp was attacking Coleman’s wife, saying during the Sunday debate, “This is not about Norm Coleman’s wife. This is about Sen. Coleman’s political sugar daddy.”

Third-party candidate Dean Barkley jumped on the chance to style the bickering as partisan fray during Sunday’s debate. “I ask people, do you think either Al or Norm will change the way Washington works?” Barkley said. “That’s a question you have to ask yourself.”

Allegations have also emerged that Kazeminy has also provided Coleman with below-market Washington, D.C., apartments, vacations in the Bahamas and designer suits.

Franken had his own share of financial woes. Franken was confronted with the discovery that he owed New York state a $25,000 fine for failing to pay workers’ compensation insurance for his employees," the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune writes, "and had been fined $5,800 for missing franchise fees in California."

Key Players: Al Franken, Sen. Norm Coleman, Dean Barkley

Al Franken (1951– )
Al Franken was born in New York City but was raised in the first-ring Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park. He attended public St. Louis Park High School, the alma mater of several accomplished Minnesotans, including film directors Joel and Ethan Coen and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Franken graduated from the private Blake School. From there he went on to Harvard University. He met his wife, Franni, while studying in Boston.

His break into comedy, for which he would gain fame, started in Minneapolis, however, when he began to write for local comedy club Dudley Riggs’ Brave New Workshop. He and his writing partner Tom Davis then got hired as apprentice writers at a new television sketch comedy show that would come to be known as “Saturday Night Live.” In addition to writing, Franken became a performer on the show; one of his more famous roles was self-help guru Stuart Smalley, whom Franken also played on the big screen.

After his stint on Saturday Night Live, Franken began his political writing career. His New York Times best-sellers “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot,” “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them,” and “The Truth (with Jokes)” admonished what Franken saw as right-wing media bias. From 2004 to 2007, Franken was a host on Air America, a radio network conceived as a counterweight to the largely conservative political talk radio format.
Norm Coleman (1949– )
A Brooklyn, N.Y., native Norm Coleman, like Franken, attended a high school with several notable alumni. He attended Brooklyn’s James Madison High School at the same time as Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.; Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also attended the school.

Coleman stayed in the New York area through college, studying at Long Island’s Hofstra University, where he was student body president and active in the anti-Vietnam war movement. Twin Cities weekly City Pages quotes Coleman as saying during a Hofstra campus election, “I know these conservative kids don’t [expletive] or get high like we do (purity, you know).” He then went to Brooklyn Law School and graduated from the law school at the University of Iowa, winning the student body presidency there as well.

After his studies, Norm Coleman moved to Minnesota, where he worked for 17 years in the state attorney general’s office. In 1993, he successfully ran as a Democrat for mayor of St. Paul, Minn., defeating the candidate who had received the official endorsement of the state party. In 1996 Coleman switched his party affiliation to Republican, a move considered to both be a step toward statewide office as well as a nod to his pro-life and fiscally conservative views, which did not sit well with many members of the DFL.

Not long after Coleman was re-elected as mayor in 1997, stickers, signs and billboards began to pop up around Minnesota bearing the slogan, “Bring the pride statewide,” echoing a similar phrase used during his mayoral campaign. Coleman ran on the Republican ticket for governor the following year. He came in second behind Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura and ahead of the Democratic contender, Minn. Attorney General Hubert H. “Skip” Humphrey III, the son of late Vice President Hubert Humphrey and the late Sen. Muriel Humphrey.

Four years later, Coleman ran in a tightly contested race for U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Sen. Paul Wellstone. On Oct. 25, 2002, a week and a half before Election Day, Wellstone—along with his wife Sheila and four of his staffers—were killed in a plane crash. Former Senator and Vice President Walter Mondale replaced Wellstone on the Democratic ticket but lost to Coleman by a 2.2 percent margin.

During his time in the Senate, Coleman has largely voted along Republican Party lines, namely on abortion and same-sex partnership issues. He has a 100 percent approval rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA). He has however, employed a transgendered person as his deputy mayor and later as the Minnesota state director of his senate office. He also voted in favor of CHIP, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and against President Bush’s call for an increase of U.S. troops in early 2007.
Dean Barkley (1950– )
Dean Barkley was born in 1950 in Annandale, Minn., a town that was rural then but is now considered a Twin Cities exurb. His family owned a local furniture store. Barkley earned both his bachelors and his juris doctorate degree from the University of Minnesota. During his undergraduate years, he worked on the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, but grew disillusioned with the Democratic Party while in law school, when he supported Independent Party candidate John Anderson.

After that campaign, Barkley was inactive politically until 1992, when the campaign of Reform Party presidential candidate Ross Perot inspired him to run for Congress. Barkley then founded the Independence Party of Minnesota. Prior to this year’s race, Barkley ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate on his party’s ticket twice, in 1994 and again in 1996.

Two years later, Reform Party gubernatorial candidate Jesse Ventura tapped Barkley as his campaign manager. After Ventura’s surprise victory, Barkley was named director of Minnesota’s Office of Strategic and Long Range Planning, as well as serving in several nongovernmental positions.

Ventura appointed Barkley to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated after Sen. Wellstone’s untimely October 2002 death until Norm Coleman took the post the following January.

In between his brief tenure in Senate and this race, Barkley worked as a lobbyist as well as a consultant for the campaigns of Arianna Huffington in the 2003 California gubernatorial recall and for Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman in 2006.

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