By ROB HOTAKAINEN
McClatchy News Service
A new Democratic powerhouse is emerging in Minnesota this campaign season: comedian Al Franken.
His political action committee, Midwest Values, has raised more than $800,000, which he’s giving to Democratic candidates in Minnesota and across the country.
"He’s potentially a huge player," said David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., who studies money in politics.
Schultz said that if Franken spent all the political money he was raising his group would be one of the "top two or three PACs expending money in the state of Minnesota."
Franken, a best-selling author and radio-talk-show host who grew up in St. Louis Park, Minn., could himself benefit from his fund-raising for other Democrats if he runs for the Senate in 2008 against Republican Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman.
Franken, who moved from New York to Minneapolis this year, said he might form an exploratory committee for that race early next year. He wouldn’t be allowed to use his PAC money to finance his own Senate campaign, but other Democrats could decide to return his generosity.
He’s raising campaign money from the entertainment industry on both coasts, his stand-up comedy shows and elsewhere.
"If I do run against Norm Coleman in ’08, I’ll be the only New York Jew in the race who actually grew up in Minnesota," Franken quipped recently to about 200 activists for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, the state’s chapter of the national Democratic Party, at a picnic in Fridley, Minn.
Big-name contributors to his PAC include Barbra Streisand, Phil Donahue, Larry Hagman and Norman Lear.
That list prompted Coleman to say that Franken "obviously has a sense of humor" by calling his PAC Midwest Values.
"Hollywood values aren’t Midwest," Coleman said, "and the money isn’t Midwest."
Coleman, who’s raised nearly $4 million for his re-election bid, said he expected Franken to be "a very strong voice for the far left" and a strong fund-raiser.
"There’s a lot of Hollywood money out there, a lot of ultra-liberal money out there," Coleman said. "I have no doubt that Al Franken will be very, very formidable. … He can probably self-fund."
Franken, 55, said he chose the name Midwest Values for his group because he was tired of Republicans claiming those values as their own. He said Hollywood contributors had provided only $60,000 to his PAC and that Minnesotans had given much more.
In addition to sending $10,000 each to a number of Minnesota congressional candidates, Franken gave $5,000 each to Democrats in tight Senate races: Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Jon Tester in Montana. He gave $20,000 to the Minnesota DFL Party and $500 each to more than 30 legislative candidates.
He’s been doing a lot of politicking around Minnesota since January, when he moved his show on the Air America radio network from Manhattan to Minneapolis.
His political rounds in the state aren’t going unnoticed by opponents.
Last week, state Republican Chairman Ron Carey described Franken as "an angry liberal."
Franken said he was ready for attacks. "I admit, I’ve been angry at times. … I don’t know how you don’t get angry at what’s going on," he said.
As he travels throughout Minnesota, Franken is staying true to his trade, often relying on humor at political events. He calls the No Child Left Behind law for schools "the most ironically named piece of legislation since the 1942 Japanese Family Leave Act." He says Republicans are "stealing God," adding that the Bible is filled with references to helping the poor. If you cut out all those references, he says, "you’d have the perfect box to smuggle Rush Limbaugh’s drugs in."
At the Fridley picnic, Franken got a big laugh when he read from the Republican Party’s "Contract with America" in 1994, recalling how Republicans promised to end a cycle of political scandal.
"On September 27th, 1994, on the steps of the Capitol, they said this: ‘If we break the contract, throw us out,’ " he said.
After the crowd’s hooting ended, Franken yelled: "Sounds like a plan to me!"