Jim Mone/AP
Al Franken

Franken Narrowly Wins Recount, But Lawsuits Loom

January 05, 2009 11:25 AM
by Anne Szustek
Democratic candidate Al Franken’s slim lead over incumbent Norm Coleman for Minnesota’s open Senate seat could be negated by lawsuits over rejected absentee ballots.

After Acrimonious Recount, Franken Preliminary Winner in Minn. Senate Race

The Minnesota state Canvassing Board is expected Monday to certify Al Franken, the Democratic contender for the Minnesota Senate seat held by Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, after a weeks-long recount that ended Sunday with Franken holding an unofficial lead of 225 votes.

However, final victory for either candidate could still be a long way off, with one lawsuit pending and others almost guaranteed to follow.

With 100 percent of precincts reporting and nearly 3 million votes cast in Minnesota on Election Day, Coleman had a lead of about 0.03 percent. In Minnesota any race with a margin of victory less than 0.5 percent is subject to a mandatory recount.

As of the beginning of the day Saturday, Franken was leading by an unofficial margin of 49. Remaining to count were 933 ballots that, both campaigns had agreed, had been wrongly rejected. Within an hour Saturday afternoon, those votes had been counted; Franken had apparently received 52 percent of that last batch, over Coleman’s 33 percent.

Should Franken be declared the official winner, Democrats would have a 58-member majority in the Senate. But still pending is a ruling by the state Supreme Court on a lawsuit from Coleman’s campaign asking that yet more rejected absentee ballots be counted. Additionally, Coleman’s legal team has strongly hinted that they would file another lawsuit, possibly as early as Tuesday, contesting Franken’s victory.

“We are prepared to go forward and take whatever legal action is necessary to … remedy this artificial lead that we believe is being shown now for the Franken campaign,” Coleman attorney Fritz Knaak was quoted by saying by the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune.

Among the legal arguments the Coleman camp may take: that 654 of the 933 un-rejected absentee ballots should have remained rejected; a possible lawsuit over 133 previously missing ballots that gave Franken 46 votes, as well as 171 ballots discovered in St. Paul suburb Maplewood that boosted Franken’s tally by 37; and finally, allegations that some 100 ballots cast in Minneapolis were double-counted.

Should the courts rule in Coleman’s favor on the latter issue, Franken may lose as many as 110 net votes.

Both campaigns have seven days following the election certification to file a lawsuit, which would go to a three-judge court named by Minn. Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, the incoming head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told members of the media that the GOP would strongly disapprove of Franken taking office when the new Congress is sworn in Tuesday, before all legalities are worked out. Minnesota may go for a time with one sitting senator. Yet the longer the case takes, the more public opinion of the candidate deemed to be throwing down more legal hurdles could erode.

“Does it look like they’re pursuing a serious case? Or does it look like sour grapes and cherry-picking of issues?” Joe Peschek, a professor of political science at St. Paul's Hamline University, rhetorically asked the Associated Press.

Background: After bitter campaign, Minn. Senate race was too close to call

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 was without an official winner.

The morning after the election, Coleman held an unofficial lead of 700 votes. But by the following Sunday, Coleman’s lead had narrowed to 221 votes.

On Nov. 8 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 that 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 the Saturday following the election.

Verbal jabs and electoral margins teeter-tottered in the weeks that followed. According to Minn. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, some 12,000 absentee ballots had been rejected. In a recount bearing parallels to the 2000 U.S. presidential election, Minnesota election officials examined marks and debated over the voter’s intended candidate.

Early Nov. 5, the 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.”

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 Nov. 2, 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 that 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 Oct. 31 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 the Nov. 2 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 had plied 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 the Boston area.

His break into comedy, for which he would gain fame, started in Minneapolis, however, when he began to write for locally famous 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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