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8 months on, Franken gets last laugh

Franni, left, and Al Franken were all smiles Tuesday following a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling that made Al Franken Minnesota's newest U.S. senator. The couple talked to reporters in front of their Minneapolis residence. Franken was declared the winner after eight months of recounts and court proceedings. Tribune photo by Don Davis

ST. PAUL -- Nearly 3 million Minnesotans voted for a U.S. Senate candidate eight months ago, but in the end only five votes counted, those state Supreme Court justices who Tuesday decided Al Franken will be the state's second U.S. senator.

The high court's unanimous decision gave Franken a 312-vote victory and convinced Norm Coleman to end his re-election battle, sending Franken to Washington and giving Democrats 60 Senate votes, the most dominate voting bloc in 30 years. Tuesday's court ruling ended Minnesota's longest election contest.

"Franni and I are so thrilled that we can finally celebrate this victory," Franken said, his wife at his side in front of their downtown Minneapolis townhouse.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Secretary of State Mark Ritchie signed Franken's election certificate Tuesday night. He could be sworn in early next week, although that has yet to be decided.

Franken is to attend a midday state Capitol victory rally today, then head to the Iron Range for holiday parades this weekend before flying to Washington early next week.

The election was watched across the country because with Franken's win, Democrats and their allies have 60 votes in the Senate. That allows Democrats to break Republican filibusters, giving them a better chance to pass their bills, as well as those of Democratic President Barack Obama. The president on Tuesday issued a statement congratulating Franken.

But the former "Saturday Night Live" star and author said that while he will be the 60th senator to vote Democratic, that is not why he ran. "I'm going to Washington to be the second Minnesota senator."

Coleman said he fought in court because he thought he won the Nov. 4 election, but on Tuesday he accepted the court's decision.

In a call Coleman made to Franken, the two agreed "it is time to bring this state together," Franken said.

"I congratulate Al Franken and his victory in this election," Coleman said from the lawn of his St. Paul home. "He now enjoys the advantage that our congressional delegation has over the other 525 people on Capitol Hill: He represents Minnesota. "

Coleman would not comment about his future, but said that information will come soon enough. Some speculate he will run for governor.

"I don't reach this point with any big regrets," said Coleman, who served one term in the Senate after working in the state attorney general's office and being St. Paul mayor. "I ran the campaign I wanted. I conducted the legal challenge I wanted. And I have always believed you do the best you can and leave the results up to a higher authority. I'm at peace with that."

Franken began his campaign in February of 2007, a campaign that landed him in hot water with some in his own party when they learned about comments many thought were offensive to women. But he survived and won the party's endorsement, only to fight Republican Coleman in one of the country's fiercest political battles.

It also was expensive, probably topping $50 million for the campaign and post-campaign court expenses between the two candidates.

Coleman led early the morning after election day, but by just 727 votes, 0.01 percent of the 2.9 million cast. As election officials checked their work, however, Franken soon gained a slim lead and expanded that lead in a statewide recount.

The lead held when a three-judge panel ruled against Coleman's challenge in April, a decision the Supreme Court affirmed Tuesday.

Soon after the Supreme Court decision, Franken sent a letter to supporters seeking more money for his court costs, but also talked about issues he will face in Washington.

He said he will serve on committees dealing with health, education, labor, pensions, courts, Indian affairs and aging.

Much of Franken's time in recent months has been spent getting ready to be senator, both at home and in Washington. He said he already has hired most of his Washington and Minnesota staff.

"I can hit the ground, if not running, trotting," he joked.

Franken will get to a late start in the Senate, and with such a small margin of victory, the Democrat said the job will not be easy He said he needs to earn the trust of those who did not vote for him.

In their Tuesday ruling, justices repeatedly wrote that Coleman failed to prove his claim that there were problems counting absentee ballots.

Coleman contended that absentee ballots accepted on election day and in the recount that followed did not meet standards the lower court established and there were differences in among counties in deciding what ballots should be counted.

However, the justices said state law is clear that decisions about what ballots should be counted need to be made before they are deposited in ballot boxes, not afterwards.

The law is "not violated every time public officials apply ... state laws differently," the five justices wrote.

Two justices did not take part in the decision because they were involved in the race's recount.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.