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Franken’s Goal: I’m Serious Enough

Senator Strives to Be Policy Wonk

Sen. Al Franken has been cautious in granting interviews so his fame doesn’t outshine his policy positions.

After a scant eight months in office, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) is breaking out of his shell and positioning himself as an aggressive liberal presence in the Senate — particularly when it comes to one of the most controversial topics in Washington, D.C.: health care reform.

“The first thing I wanted people to know was that I was there to be serious, that I would keep my head down and do my work,” Franken said in his first extended national interview since he was seated in July. “Part of keeping my head down and doing my work was, as a Senator from a state that does this pretty well ... to study that and report back.”

But in reporting back to his colleagues, Franken has taken on both a public and private role of liberal agitator. Though he is better known for his comedic turns on “Saturday Night Live” and has made extra efforts to stay out of the national spotlight since he was sworn in, Franken has proved himself well-versed in the policy ins and outs of health care reform and recently decided to become an outspoken voice pushing for a public insurance option.

Franken’s liberal inspirations are undeniable: He considers his friend the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D), whose seat he now holds, to be his inspiration, and he hangs photos of Wellstone and President John F. Kennedy in his office.

“People did not expect him to be a policy heavyweight, and he’s worked hard to show that he knows as much or more than the next Senator,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide, who likened Franken to Wellstone, who also carved out a reputation as a liberal firebrand.

Franken has repeatedly stood up in closed caucus lunches to be a “persistent reminder of core progressive principles” regardless of whether his position is supported by a majority of Democrats, the aide said. The aide added that like Wellstone, “He doesn’t mind being a thorn in leadership’s side” in that respect.

Indeed, Franken took an opportunity recently to challenge White House adviser David Axelrod on the White House’s strategy regarding health care.

“It got out that I expressed my concern that the president [needed to] lead on this,” Franken said of press accounts of the closed-door meeting. He added that the reports “were actually a little inaccurate, but not in a way that really matters that much. ... It didn’t seem like I was standing up and yelling.”

But he pronounced himself “very happy” with last week’s White House health care summit, and he said he believes he has been a constructive voice in the debate.

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