A Franken Finds a Recipe for Success

Posted January 12, 2010 at 6:10pm

Franni Franken could be any empty-nester housewife, whipping up a batch of cookies in her flour-dusted apron. On a recent afternoon, she ignores her ringing cell phone as she measures sugar, chops pecans and sets out a baking tray.

But she’s no ordinary home cook. Her dark blue apron bears the seal of the U.S. Senate, where her husband, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), works. And the nut-studded sweets that she’s laboring over will feed staffers working on health care legislation, just a mile away on the Senate floor.

Cooking is a political exercise for Franni Franken.

There are the dinners that she makes for her husband’s staffers, always making sure to send them home with a Tupperware container full of leftovers. There are the trays of fruit, cheese and homemade nut bread that she sends over to his Capitol Hill offices during late-night sessions. And then there are the apple pies that helped win a Senate seat.

During her husband’s protracted Senate run, Franni Franken’s pies became hot items at small-town silent auctions across the state. The pies — and their affable cook — sweetened Minnesotans’ impressions of Al Franken, countering criticism that the former comedy writer was cranky, hot-tempered and out-of-touch.

Six months after her husband took his oath of office, Franni Franken is finding the right recipe for her new life as a Congressional spouse.

“I’m trying to use my time wisely, to be as effective as I can,— she says.

With her spiky mop of dark hair, whip-thin frame and wire-rimmed glasses, she has become a recognizable presence on Capitol Hill. She attends many of her husband’s hearings and weekly constituent breakfasts. She keeps a close eye on the Senate schedule and knows when and what votes are on. On her coffee table is a thick white binder, “The Quality Affordable Health Care for All Americans Act Titles IV-X.—

Success in the hybrid role of Senate wife — high-profile, but without a vote — often depends on finding a single issue and concentrating on it. Franken has chosen to make domestic violence her signature issue.

[IMGCAP(1)]Her connection to the issue doesn’t come from a firsthand experience, but it’s still personal. Sheila Wellstone, the late wife of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.), championed the cause. She was Franken’s friend, a woman whom Franken is trying to emulate.

“She was someone who was once, like me, new in town, but she became a voice,— Franken says. “She really understood people and how legislation affects them. She knew what worked and what could work better.—

Franken has turned her conversations with Minnesotans into reconnaissance missions. She poses questions to women who left homes where they were beaten, to workers who operate shelters and to police officers and emergency medical technicians: What can we do? What do you need?

She’s compiling their answers and plans to share them with her husband and his colleagues as they review the Violence Against Women Act, the landmark law up for reauthorization this year.

“I believe she’ll play a crucial role for us,— says Fawn Bernhardt-Norvell, the deputy executive director of Wellstone Action, the training organization founded to carry on the work of the Wellstones, who died in a 2002 plane crash. The nonprofit encompasses the Sheila Wellstone Institute, which is devoted to ending violence against women and children.

Franken’s work will encompass “not just communicating with Al, but with other Senators and lawmakers,— Bernhardt-Norvell says. “She has this amazing ability to bring people together.—

Franken’s role as an advocate isn’t new: Some of her earliest memories are of holding political signs. But usually, friends say, she has operated behind the scenes, while her husband stood in front of the cameras. When they lived in New York, he wrote and performed for “Saturday Night Live,— and she worked for NBC, too. But hers was an off-camera job — scouting locations and doing post-production — a role that suited her, she says.

Now she gives speeches and emcees events. At a recent constituent breakfast, Franken stands behind her husband, who introduces her as “my not-so-secret weapon.— Both Frankens often use the pronoun “we.— In their 34 years of marriage, they have formed a single political unit. His oft-repeated line rings true: The two of them ran for Senate together and decided that he would be the one to get sworn in.

Franni Franken attributes the political beliefs that they share to her upbringing. She grew up in Maine, where she and her four siblings were raised by their widowed mother. The family relied on Social Security survivor checks to get by, sometimes just barely, she recalls. The children went to public school and to college on scholarships, and her mother got a degree on a GI bill scholarship after her children were grown. “The way I grew up politicized me,— Franken says. “I am an example of how government can work for people.—

When she met Al Franken at a mixer for Simmons College, where she was a freshman, and Harvard University, where he was enrolled, it was love at first sight, she says. They married and had two children: Thomasin, a D.C. public school teacher, and Joe, who is heading to graduate engineering school. Al Franken’s career as a comic, author and political talk-show host soared.

But not everything in their marriage was a fairy tale. She battled alcoholism, a struggle that she revealed in an unusually personal campaign ad. “The Al Franken I know stood by me through thick and thin, so I know he’ll always come through for Minnesotans,— she said in the ad.

Franni Franken insists that the ad — which, like her pies, softened her husband’s image — was her own idea. “It was a story that needed to be told,— she says. Al Franken has told his fictionalized version of it, penning the screenplay to the 1994 Meg Ryan-Andy Garcia tearjerker “When a Man Loves a Woman— about a couple struggling to overcome the wife’s alcoholism.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Norman Ornstein, a friend of the couple and a Roll Call contributing writer, sees Al Franken through the eyes of both a hardened political observer and an unabashed admirer. “There are stereotypes of Al — there’s the ‘angry Al’ and the ‘uncaring celebrity,’ most of which are wild exaggerations,— Ornstein says. “But if you’re around Franni for any amount of time, you think there’s no way she would be with someone who fits those stereotypes.—

Although she might be the kinder, gentler Franken, she can be tough. During the campaign, Al Franken’s Republican opponent, incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman, and his supporters painted Al Franken as a hothead who lacked the temperament to be a U.S. Senator. Some of the attacks were personal, hinting that the former comedian was violent and unstable.

Franni Franken said that while the attacks stung her husband and their children, she shrugged it off. “The whole time that was happening, I was compartmentalizing,— she says. “I was the one in the family who could just put it in a box.—

Thick skin is a necessity in Washington, D.C., and so is the ability to multitask. Gwen Walz, a family friend and the wife of Minnesota Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, says Franni Franken has that down pat. She marvels about how Franken manages to do so much in and out of the kitchen.

“We go to so many of the same events, and I’ll manage to show up, and Franni’s there with seven pies that she’s baked,— she says, “and she’s coordinated the table arrangements.—