Al Franken’s Independent Streak

The Minnesota senator takes on net neutrality, media consolidation and the need for an open flow of ideas

Why This Matters

Sen. Al Franken wants to rein in consolidation and is likely to have six more years to attempt to turn that talk into action.

But ultimately, it is the legislatures that vote on those laws. So ostensibly they are representing their constituents.

There has just been a big lobbying effort in state legislatures that has kind of been one-sided and I think that they may not be voting in the interests of these municipalities and the citizens of these municipalities. So, it is sometimes when these very big, deep-pocketed corporations exercise those resources you get results that don’t necessarily serve the people.

Protecting privacy online is one of your signature issues. What is the latest on that front?

I have been looking at location privacy. Smartphones have exploded over the last several years and these phones have apps, and sometimes the phones themselves, that can record where you are. And I feel that this location information is sensitive. It is where you live and work and take your children to school and go to church and where and when you go to the doctor. So, I think people should have the right to control that information, to give their approval if you want to take that information and share it.

Obviously, a lot of great things come out of there being this location data. If you want to go to the nearest Pizza Hut or bowling alley or whatever, you need to do that, and you are going to say, ‘yes, take my location.’ But there also have been abuses, and one of the worst abuses was from one of the first pieces of testimony that I got when I first did hearings, which was from the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women. It was about a woman in Northern Minnesota in an abusive relationship who went to a county building where there was a domestic violence center and, while she was there, got a text message asking why she was at the county building. The counselors there took her to a county courthouse to file a restraining order against the guy. Within a few minutes he texted her and asked why she was in the courthouse filing a restraining order against [him].

This cyberstalking has being going on for a long time, but the last statistics DOJ has on these was, I believe, from 2006, and it was 25,000 cases. Think of what the explosion has been since then in the use of smartphones. We have had hearings with law enforcement and domestic violence groups and this is very, very prevalent.

Part of what I am trying to do with my location bill is making the marketing and selling of these [stalking apps] illegal.

Do you think the industry could address this voluntarily or is legislation needed?

I have worked with the industry to address their concerns about [getting] permission for location, but for stalking apps, there is no working with these people.

We did a hearing in which we read off the Web page of one of these companies, and it was basically: “You think your boyfriend or girlfriend is cheating on you? Follow them wherever they go without them knowing it.” But then after we read that, they instantly changed that to: “Worried where your child is?”

What made you decide to get into politics and do you see it as a natural progression from your taking aim at the right wing, both on Air America and through your books, to actually being able to do something about it through the process?

Well, yeah. I had been very conscious of public policy throughout my entire life. Ever since I was 11 or 12 years old during the civil rights movement I got kind of involved and interested in public policy. My dad was a Republican, but during the civil rights debate he became a Democrat because of the Civil Rights [Act of 1964]. Senator [Barry] Goldwater had voted against and my dad said: “That’s it.”

That was very informative to me. This is something I have always been interested in.

When I started doing comedy in high school with Tom Davis, I started doing political satire. When we got to Saturday Night Live [as writers], we were doing a lot of the political satire with Jim Downey, who is conservative, but a very, very thoughtful conservative. We didn’t feel that the job of the show was to have a point of view, politically. There were too many people represented on the show, too many cast members, too many writers. We felt the job of the show was to be insightful in our satire but not to be liberal or conservative.

I think we did a really good job of that and I am very proud of the work I did with a lot of my other writers there. But when I left the show in 1995 finally, I saw what the Gingrich revolution was, and I wrote the book about Rush Limbaugh [Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations].

That was my sort of saying: OK, now I’m not writing for a bunch of other people, I’m writing for me.

I think your take is exactly right that it was a natural progression [to politics].

The Tragedy of Paul and Sheila and Martha and others all dying in that plane crash was also part of the road there [Paul Wellstone, former Democratic senator from Minnesota, was killed in a plane crash in 2002 along with his wife, Sheila, and daughter, Martha].

You are no fan of the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.

Citizen’s United was a very bad decision. We tried to get disclosure, which seemed a very simple thing to do—and the court’s opinion actually said that disclosure would be a really important part of this—and it went down completely party line, skins and shirts.

Do you consciously downplay your funny side so you will be taken more seriously or are you just a Harvard government major who got sidetracked by comedy?

People have written a lot about this and I think it is overplayed. I think my staff will say I’m funny around the office and my colleagues will say I’m funny. But I’m also very serious and I think you can be funny and serious at the same time. I think Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart are very serious and very funny at the same time. And I don’t think there is any contradiction there.

You Can Call Him Al

Beginning with his July 2009 swearing-in, the 63-year-old Franken hit the ground running by participating in the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in his first week on the job.

He is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and as such has been a prominent inquisitor in oversight hearings for media mergers. He chairs the privacy subcommittee and has been prominent in the push for more online privacy protections.

Franken, a Harvard graduate, five-time Emmy winner and best-selling author, was also a familiar TV face, and voice, to baby boomers for decades as one of the original writer/performers on Saturday Night Live. As character Stuart Smalley, Franken sought daily affirmation that could have served as a campaign slogan: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggonit, people like me.”

Even then, Franken held a Senate seat—albeit only in character, as the late, famously bow-tied Illinois progressive Paul Simon, whom he resembled, though not in the Tina Fey/Sarah Palin doppelganger way.

Franken says his SNL humor was not meant to be partisan, but that view changed when he exited the series in 1995. He took aim at the political right in general, and Rush Limbaugh in particular, in a series of popular books.

In 2004, he hosted a daily talk show on Air America, which was meant to be a progressive counterpoint to the conservative talk dominated by Limbaugh.

Franken isn’t afraid of getting into the serious policy weeds, though he says he remains a funny guy around the office.