Volume 78 - Number 33 / January 14 - 20, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Hey, New York, please stop sending us your pols
By Mike Mosedale
The recent tsunami of bad news has left the American public with too many dismal matters to contemplate. The world hates us. The financial system has morphed into a giant Ponzi scheme that makes the Madoff operation look like a three-card monte hustle. And there is not enough canned tuna to see everyone through the Mad Max-esque meltdown that appears to be barreling our way.
In such troubled times, it is natural that smaller stories get overlooked. So I guess New Yorkers ought to be forgiven if they haven’t noticed that a couple of ex-New Yorkers have been making a laughing stock of Minnesota politics.
I refer here to the nasty, often farcical and seemingly endless contest for Minnesota’s U.S. Senate seat. The race, which continued two months beyond Election Day, has hinged on recounting and litigating a vote tally that separates the two leading candidates by a mere .05 percent. That’s a couple hundred votes out of 3 million cast, a statistically insignificant margin.
If nothing else, this has demonstrated that the Minnesota public simply doesn’t have a preference when it comes to two of New York’s native sons: the Brooklyn-born incumbent, Republican Norm Coleman, and the sketch comic turned pundit turned politician, Democrat Al Franken.
(Although Franken was born in New York and spent most of his adult life there, he was raised in the Twin Cities suburb of St. Louis Park. In 2005, he purchased a Minneapolis condo, which makes him sort of a reverse carpetbagger).
As a native New Yorker who lives in Minnesota, I am aware of the ways in which New York transplants are perceived by Minnesotans. New Yorkers, the thinking goes, come here for one of two reasons: a spin cycle at one of the state’s 10,000 treatment centers or a run for public office.
Indeed, over the years, plenty of New Yorkers have booked stays at Hazelden to take personal inventory. And plenty of other New Yorkers (including, no doubt, an overlapping subset) have prospered in the Minnesota political game, where they can use big-city skills to run roughshod over soft-bellied local talent.
Arne Carlson, a New Yorker with the good fortune to have a very Minnesota-sounding name, served as the state’s governor for eight years in the 1990s. A moderate Republican, Carlson was never much liked within his own party. He owed his first term in office to a Republican rival who withdrew at the last moment because of revelations he’d gone skinny-dipping with four teen girls at a Fourth of July barbeque.
While Carlson struggled to get along with his fellow Republicans, most Minnesotans regarded him as a common-sense governor. That sort of reputation remains a mighty valuable currency in a state where political sensibilities remain essentially vanilla (former Governor Jesse Ventura being the exception that proves the rule).
Minnesotans place inordinate value on being perceived as “a nice guy.” A Minnesota politician with nice-guy cred can defenestrate the poor and the sick with few, if any, repercussions. This feat was most recently performed by the state’s current governor, Tim Pawlenty, which is why he became a darling of the national Republican Party and a front-runner in the McCain V.P. sweepstakes. (Indeed, if Pawlenty were sexier, you might not recognize Sarah Palin today).
By contrast, Norm Coleman and Al Franken have shown a striking inability to win over the Minnesota public. That is because neither could frame their public images to fit the nice-guy mold. Norm comes off slippery, Al crude and divisive. On their best days, they are a pair of modern-day Willy Lomans — liked, but not well liked. In the most recent polls, neither candidate’s approval rating cracked 40 percent.
There are reasons for this, and some are even legitimate.
First with Coleman. In 1996, the then-Democratic mayor of sleepy St. Paul came down with a case of big-time ambition, took measure of the shifting political winds and switched political parties. After that, he was never able to fully rid himself of the stench of opportunism. This lingering perception of Coleman as a creature of ambition contributed to his loss to third-party candidate Ventura in the 1998 gubernatorial race.
And Coleman’s great political triumph — his 2002 election to the U.S. Senate — was only made possible by a plane crash that killed the incumbent senator, Paul Wellstone, 10 days before the election.
Al Franken, meanwhile, was a problematic candidate from the outset. His initial support for the Iraq War alienated progressive Democrats, an important constituency in the state. As a stump speaker and debater, he didn’t display the chops you might expect from a professional entertainer. (In fairness, Franken does a very credible “Start Me Up”-era Mick Jagger impression; you can check that on YouTube).
Franken’s past work in comedy and talk radio also made him an opposition researcher’s dream. He had a long paper — and video — trail. Coleman and his allies were quick to exploit an article Franken wrote for Playboy magazine (title: “Porn-O-Rama!”) and his raunchy stand-up routines in an effort to convince voters that Franken was, at heart, a hate-filled pornographer much amused by depraved behaviors like rape and child abuse.
For such a serious moment in our national history, Coleman’s tactics were both preposterous and unseemly. But strategically, he had little choice. He couldn’t win in Minnesota running as what he is — a Bush Republican — so he made the race a referendum on Franken’s supposedly low character.
In the end, television-viewing Minnesotans paid the price. Over the long campaign, they were subjected to a depressing, dumb and numbing blizzard of attack ads. The approximately $40 million spent by the two campaigns was a record for Minnesota, and the most in any U.S. Senate race in 2008.
The failure of Franken to ride Obama’s coattails — the president-elect won by a 12 percent margin in Minnesota — demonstrated that negative campaigning works well in Minnesota, just like everywhere else. For the Minnesotans who pride themselves on the state’s good-government culture (the idea that we do things better here, the idea of Minnesota exceptionalism), this was indeed a dispiriting blow.
The two-month recount has been another matter. The Wall Street Journal editorial page, FOX News and other purveyors of right-wing histrionics have tried to cast Minnesota as this year’s version of Florida. But the vast majority of observers have described the process as orderly and transparent.
The recount has been streamed live on the Web. The canvassing board — the entity involved in many of the critical decisions — included members of three political parties and still managed to arrive at its major decisions by unanimous consent. Consequently, all those full-throated cries of partisan bias and stolen election have failed to gain much traction outside the tinfoil-hat circle.
Now with the legal wrangling in the final throes, it appears that Franken will assume Coleman’s Senate seat. Instead of wrestling with issues such as double-counted ballots, write-in votes for Lizard People and the minutiae of election law, Senator Franken will need to turn his attention to far weightier matters. War. Economic collapse. Untold miseries.
Our long national nightmare may have just begun, but Minnesota’s long election night nightmare is drawing to a close. Still, I have one plea for my fellow New Yorkers: Please, don’t send any more politicians this way. Minnesota’s homegrown hacks are perfectly capable of mucking things up on their own.
Mosedale, who grew up in New York City and now lives in Minneapolis, has written for newspapers in Minnesota, Connecticut, Wisconsin and California. He has no plans to run for public office.