Franken's Victory Bolsters Dem Grip in Senate

By Davey & Hulse, New York Times - July 1, 2009

After nearly eight months of waiting, almost 20,000 pages of legal briefs, and millions of dollars in election costs, Al Franken emerged Tuesday as the next United States senator from Minnesota, ending one of the most protracted election recount battles in recent memory.

Al Franken and his wife, Franni, greeting supporters in Minneapolis on Tuesday. He could take his Senate seat on Monday.

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Norm Coleman, who ran as the incumbent, conceding the long race to Mr. Franken on Tuesday.

Mr. Franken, 58, a former comedian and author, could be seated in the Senate as early as Monday, leaders there said, providing Democrats with something they had long hoped for: 60 votes, and thus at least the symbolic ability to overcome filibusters.

Norm Coleman, a Republican who had held the seat for a term, conceded on Tuesday afternoon, hours after the Minnesota Supreme Court issued a ruling in Mr. Franken’s favor, the latest in a series of findings that had left Mr. Franken ahead in the count. In weeks past, some Republican leaders had urged Mr. Coleman to press on to the federal courts if need be, but those calls faded Tuesday.

“Ours is a government of laws, not men and women,” Mr. Coleman, 59, said in a statement he read before reporters outside his home in St. Paul. “The Supreme Court of Minnesota has spoken, and I respect its decision and will abide by the result. It’s time for Minnesota to come together under the leaders it has chosen and move forward. I join all Minnesotans in congratulating our newest United States senator — Al Franken.”

It was an oddly abrupt ending to an election contest that had left Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, handling the state’s business alone and had left many ordinary Minnesotans weary of the fight.

All along, the candidates had been separated by the slightest of margins. With 2.9 million Minnesotans casting ballots last November, one early count showed Mr. Coleman ahead by 206 votes. Then, in a statewide hand recount set into motion by the close vote, the numbers fluctuated in the estimations of the campaigns and others trying to track them. Ultimately, a three-judge panel announced that Mr. Franken had won by 312 votes.

In issuing its 5-to-0 opinion, the Supreme Court found that Mr. Coleman, who had argued, in part, that thousands of absentee ballots had been wrongly excluded from the count, had failed to prove that “the trial court’s findings of fact are clearly erroneous or that the court committed an error of law or abused its discretion.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, outside his town house in downtown Minneapolis, Mr. Franken appeared jubilant at a news conference that at times looked more like an election-night rally. Passersby stopped, and one called out: “We have a senator! We have a senator!”

“When you win an election this close, you know that not one bit of effort went to waste,” said Mr. Franken, who has already hired senior staff to prepare for his transition to the Senate. His wife, Franni, had for months kept a packed suitcase at the ready like an expectant mother, Ms. Klobuchar said, should the family be called to Washington for a swearing-in.

President Obama called Mr. Franken to congratulate him on Tuesday, aides said, and he issued a statement saying he looked forward to working with the senator-elect “to build a new foundation for growth and prosperity by lowering health care costs and investing in the kind of clean energy jobs and industries that will help America lead in the 21st century.”

Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, signed Mr. Franken’s election certificate early Tuesday evening. Senate Democrats said they would like to seat Mr. Franken as quickly as next week, giving the party a crucial vote as it moves to difficult debates over topics like climate change and health care.

Democrats had held some committee posts for Mr. Franken, potentially including the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that is in the middle of drafting a health care overhaul.

With 60 votes (including those of two independents) now most likely aligned with the Democrats, the party could avoid filibusters.

But Mr. Franken swiftly made it clear that he did not view himself as the Democrats’ No. 60. “That’s not how I see it,” he said, adding that he was “going to be the second senator from the state of Minnesota, and that’s how I’m going to do this job.”

Though Republicans expressed disappointment at the outcome, they had in recent weeks become increasingly resigned to Mr. Franken joining the Senate.

On Tuesday, they joined Mr. Coleman in acknowledging defeat and immediately sought to raise expectations for Democrats.

“With their supermajority, the era of excuses and finger-pointing is now over,” said Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Mr. Cornyn said it was “troubling to think about what they might now accomplish with 60 votes.”

But whether Democrats can consistently rely on 60 senators being present is in question. Two veteran Democrats, Senators Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, are ailing and have regularly been absent from the Senate. In addition, a handful of moderate to conservative Democrats have shown a willingness to break from the party, and even liberals will do so on some issues.

In the Twin Cities, there was widespread relief on Tuesday. Minnesotans are viewed as among the nation’s most politically engaged and involved voters, but even there, patience had grown thin. “It went on forever,” Paul Mathey, 70, of St. Paul, complained.

The race was not the only long standoff in Senate history, nor was it the longest. Among others, the 1974 race between John A. Durkin and Louis C. Wyman left the Senate seat from New Hampshire in doubt for 10 months. The election was finally resolved when the seat was declared vacant and a special election was held, declaring Mr. Durkin, a Democrat, the winner in September 1975.

This time, the battle ended with a phone call between two men who had appeared to talk only through their opposing lawyers and spokesmen for months.

On Tuesday afternoon, Mr. Coleman called Mr. Franken to tell him he was giving up. Mr. Coleman, who some in Minnesota were already speculating might run for governor in 2010 (for now, he would not comment) described the call as “a very personal discussion, a very positive discussion.”

Mr. Franken said that the two had talked about the difficulty of the long fight on their families, and that Mr. Coleman had told him, “This is going to be the best job you’ll ever have.”

After so much turmoil, the phone call was warm and gracious, Mr. Franken said, adding later that he had recalled thinking in the midst of it: “This is nice. This is a nice way to end it.”

Christina Capecchi and Karen Ann Cullotta contributed reporting.

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