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What Kind of Senator Will Al Franken Be?

The day after Al Franken won Minnesota’s junior Senate seat, Sen. James Inhofe called him a “clown.” Franken himself said “there’s plenty of room for humor in politics.” And here in the state, where I am for the Fourth of July holiday this week, those who didn’t vote for him already describe him in polarizing terms.

That’s why, when Al Franken goes to Washington, we’re unlikely to see he him igniting O’Reilly-level feuds, snapping one-liners at will and providing easy fodder for “Saturday Night Live” skits. Even as he lionizes late Sen. Paul Wellstone, a friend, they are two very different people. After his first speech on the Senate floor in 1991, Wellstone was paid the ultimate compliment (for a Democrat from Minnesota) by Sen. Fritz Hollings, who told him, “Young man, you remind me of Hubert Humphrey.” Then Hollings added, “You talk too much.”

The times that I have met Franken, the first thing that comes to mind is that he has neither the ebullience of Wellstone or Humphrey. Even if he tried, the results may be quite different. When Wellstone famously challenged President George H.W. Bush at a 1992 White House reception, Bush was reportedly overheard saying, “Who is that little chicken shit?” You can only imagine the cable-fueled blowback if Franken were to make similar waves in the seniority obsessed Senate.

Rather, there’s already been considerable speculation that he’ll take the Hillary Clinton approach when she joined the Senate from New York in 2001: hunker down, study up and respect tradition. By 2006, when she faced re-election, the stories about Clinton were all about how much she has surprised her colleagues, forming relationships even with the strident foes of her husband and high marks from the firebrands who were among her husband’s most vocal critics.

At a victory rally in St. Paul on Wednesday, Franken signalled as much when he predicted that his colleagues will be “pleasantly surprised” when they get to know him. He addressed the lack of humor in his campaign, a tactic that surely helped him establish credibility: “I don’t know that I suppressed that humorous side of me so much as I let out the wonky, serious side of me.”

He does have a tricky path ahead of him, perhaps no more so than the high-profile Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings for Sonia Sotomayor. He’ll be working to establish credibility with colleagues and, perhaps most importantly, with constituents. It’s important to remember that he won this race with the thinnest of margins, with a majority voting against him, and in a state that has in recent decades been all too willing to throw out the incumbents. The state already has seen its fair share of antics; what it is looking for now is a little bit of humility and a serious dose of good will.

Today, Franken responded to Inhofe by not taking the bait. “I don’t know how Sen. Inhofe regards clowns, but it might be an incredible compliment.”

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