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The Al Franken Month

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January 26, 2009

At the end of 1979, Al Franken appeared on the “Weekend Update News” during Saturday Night Live to announce that the 1980s would be “The Al Franken Decade”.  For those of us old enough to remember, it’s scary to realize that “The Al Franken Decade” ended almost twenty years ago.  In 1999, Franken released a book entitled:  Why Not Me? concerning his fictitious run for the Presidency in 2000.  The cover of the book featured a photograph of Franken being sworn in as President.  Although many news publications restrict their discussions of Franken’s background to the subject of his years with Saturday Night Live, they overlook the elements on his resume qualifying him to serve as a United States Senator.  For one thing, he graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1973.  In 1996, he wrote a book entitled: Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations, wherein he dared to challenge the most outspoken pundit of conservative talk radio.  The book found its way to the number one spot on the New York Times best seller list.  He subsequently took on the Fox News organization with his book:  Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.  The book sported a picture of Bill O’Reilly on the cover and included a chapter criticizing O’Reilly’s on-air statements.  From 2004 through 2007, Franken hosted his own talk show on Air America Radio.  His program was primarily focused on political issues.

Franken’s Minnesota campaign against Norm Coleman for the United States Senate has found its way into the court system, with the trial scheduled to begin today.  By the time votes had been counted (on November 18) Coleman was ahead by only 215 votes.  Because the candidates were separated by less than 0.5 percent of the vote, Minnesota law required an automatic recount.  On January 5, 2009, the Minnesota State Canvassing Board certified the recounted vote totals, with Franken leading by 225 votes.  The next day, Coleman filed suit, contesting the recount result.  The trial of this case is taking place before a three-judge panel of “trial-level” judges.  As you can imagine, there will likely be an appeal from whatever result is reached in that case.  In the mean time, Franken has filed a motion before the Minnesota Supreme Court to compel Secretary of State Mark Ritchie and Governor Tim Pawlenty to sign the election certificate, designating Franken as the winner.  That hearing is set for February 5.

A good source for understanding the court battle over this Senate seat is MinnPost.com.  There, you will find Jay Weiner’s guide to the trial as a handy reference.  Mr. Weiner has spelled out the issues raised by Coleman’s suit in the following manner:

Were the more than 2.9 million votes cast on Nov. 4, 2008, for Democratic challenger Al Franken and Republican incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman counted accurately, fairly and uniformly statewide?

Were about 11,000 of the 288,000 absentee ballots cast rejected properly and with consistent measures in all 87 counties?

Were any votes counted twice? Just because a precinct registry says 20 people voted and 22 votes exist, does that mean votes were double counted?  Are there other reasons such discrepancies could exist?

Should votes cast on Election Day that have since gone missing be counted?

Should votes that were found after Election Day that weren’t originally counted by included in the final tally?

Jay Weiner’s article also included his take on the ultimate outcome of this suit:

For all the talk of alleged double-counted votes or missing votes or newly found votes after Election Day, it seems unlikely that Coleman can scrounge up enough votes in those categories to net him the 226 new votes he needs.

Meanwhile, Michael O’Brien of The Hill website, has disclosed that Coleman has taken a job with the Republican Jewish Coalition while this battle continues:

In what could be seen as a sign that Coleman thinks his bid to return to the Senate may be lost, he has signed on to do consulting work for the group, which is comprised of a number GOP leaders.

“The senator needs to earn a living while the contest is going on,” said Coleman spokesman Mark Drake, who said the job does not at all affect Coleman’s bid to win reelection.

With the Democratic Party poised to capture yet another Senate seat, we can expect a lot of excitement to surround this trial.  The Al Franken Decade may be long gone but, like it or not, the current decade has brought us The Al Franken Month.  Beyond that, if this trial ends up the way most commentators expect, the United States Senate will experience at least one Al Franken Term.  Six years may not be another decade … but it should be fun.

Home Improvement With Norm And Ted

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December 15, 2008

The battle for Norm Coleman’s Senate seat, representing Minnesota, continues to drag on toward the new year.  Democratic candidate Al Franken inched closer to victory when the state Canvassing Board ruled that more than 1,600 absentee ballots were improperly rejected by local officials.  As Curt Brown reported in the December 14 Minneapolis Star Tribune:

The recount has revealed numerous missteps, some involving enough ballots to tip the balance.

There are a couple of similarities between the Senatorial election in Minnesota and the Senatorial election in Alaska.  When Alaska Senator Ted Stevens lost his bid for re-election in the 2008 Senate race, it was the count of absentee and questioned ballots that determined the outcome of that event, as reported in the November 20 Seattle Times.  More importantly, the crucial factor motivating voters in the Alaska election was also discussed in that article:

A week before the election, a jury convicted Stevens of seven felonies for lying on his financial-disclosure forms about more than $250,000 in gifts, including renovations of his Girdwood, Alaska, home.

Prior to the resolution of that race, there was a good deal of discussion concerning the likelihood that the Senate would not tolerate the membership of a convicted felon in their exclusive organization.

Meanwhile, Senator Norm Coleman is facing questions from reporters over his own home improvement scandal.  Although he is not presently facing criminal charges for any wrongdoing in this matter, the FBI has begun an investigation into the money trail left by $75,000 in campaign contributions.  On Thursday, December 11, Fox 9 of St. Paul provided this:

The FBI is now reportedly investigating the allegations that Nasser Kazeminy tried to funnel $75,000 in campaign contributions through the Senator’s wife.

*      *     *

Norm Coleman’s home in St. Paul’s Crocus Hill neighborhood is not lavish — but it’s a lot nicer than it used to be, thanks in part to contractor Jim Taylors, who helped remodel the home two years ago.

“Put in a second floor master bedroom/bathroom, the bedroom was there, we just added a bathroom and closet and a kitchen remodel, actually turned into half the house remodel by the time we painted and refinished floors and did some landscape work,” says Taylors.

The remodeled kitchen was the backdrop for some of the Senator’s campaign commercials.  FOX 9 learned the woman in charge of the project was Shari Wilsey, an interior designer.  Wilsey, along with her husband Roger, are longtime friends of the Coleman’s and financial contributors to the Senator’s campaigns.

*     *     *

Two lawsuits allege that in spring of 2007, Edina businessman Nasser Kazeminy began a series of $25,000 payments to Coleman from Deep Marine Technology, a company he controlled in Texas, to Hays Companies, the Minnesota Insurance company where Laurie Coleman works.

*     *     *

While Coleman didn’t agree to sit down for a interview, his campaign did agree to share billing records of the remodeling project.  Original projections in 2006 estimated a cost of $328,000, but four months later, the construction cost was estimated at $414,000, over-budget by $86,000.

During that time is when, the lawsuit alleges, Kazeminy was trying to get money to Coleman.

According to the lawsuits, in March of 2007, Kazeminy said that “U.S. Senators don’t make s—” and he was going to try to find a way to get money to Coleman.

“On the one level it could just be a coincidence, on the other level this could be one of the reasons he’s getting that money from elsewhere, to try to make up for his, to be able to pay off a loan, pay off a line of credit,” says Schultz.

Records provided by the campaign show that Coleman paid Wilsey in full for the renovation — $414,000.  In part, by refinancing his home in March 2007, for $775,000.

The Senator acknowledges, that like a lot of people in America, he now owes more on his home than it’s actually worth.

What we know is this: the Senator had costly and over-budget renovations to his home at the same time a contributor was allegedly trying to funnel him money.  But he’s still criticized for walking away from reporters, while the questions aren’t going away.

It’s nice to know that we can count on a Fox news outlet for a good scandal, and if we’re lucky, it might even involve a Republican.  Although Coleman was not named as a defendant in either lawsuit, the FBI investigation into the campaign contributions could eventually give Coleman some more serious headaches.  At this point, it seems as though Coleman could document that he paid for the remodeling project by refinancing his home.  However, did the refinancing cover the entire $414,000 cost?  Even if Coleman is re-elected, could we eventually get to the point where the Senate, itself, has to consider giving him the boot?  Stay tuned.

Silver’s Streak

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November 24, 2008

One of the most interesting characters to emerge from the 2008 election cycle is a young man named Nate Silver.  Not to be upstaged by Sarah Palin, once he caught the interest of the mainstream media, Nate immediately picked up a new, snappy-looking pair of eyeglasses.

Nate is a 30-year-old math wizard who turned the world of political polling on its ear by introducing said ear to some new sounds that make nearly perfect mathematical and sonic sense.  He graduated cum laude from the University of Chicago in 1980 with a major in Economics.  He then took a job for a few years, working for a consulting firm.  During that time, he developed a statistical system to forecast the performance of professional baseball players.  In 2003, he went to work for a group producing an annual book on professional baseball player performance analysis and performance forecasts, called Baseball Prospectus.  He then sold his statistical analysis system to that company and joined their staff.

In November of 2007, Nate began using his skills and systems to make forecasts of the Presidential primaries, using the pseudonym:  “Poblano” on the Daily Kos website.  On February 11, 2008, neocon William Kristol wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times, wherein he made note of “an interesting regression analysis at the Daily Kos Web site” done by Mr. Silver.  The next month, Nate started his blog, FiveThirtyEight.com, where he utilized his new system for analyzing and forecasting Presidential primary results, as well as the ultimate outcome the 2008 Presidential election.  As a consequence of this endeavor, the studios at CNN and MSNBC quickly became familiar surroundings to him.  By November 14, 2008, The New York Observer had this to say about Nate:

Mr. Silver’s statistical skills were ratified when the outcome of the presidential race aligned almost exactly with his final predictions both for the popular vote and the Electoral College breakdown  …

Later that day, Leon Neyfakh reported on The Observer website that Nate had inked a book deal with Penguin Group, USA including a $700,000 advance.  Although this advance is only ten percent of the amount allegedly offered as an advance to Sarah Palin for “her” “book”, you need to keep in mind that Nate is only 30 years old and Sarah will be a grandmother soon.

As the recount for Minnesota’s Senatorial election moves along, Nate’s November 23 posting on his FiveThirtyEight.com website has received quite a bit of attention.  The title alone says it all:  “Projection:  Franken to Win Recount by 27 Votes”.  Will Mr. Silver’s “streak” continue?  A reader, identified as “Max” posted the following comment on that blog:  “If you are right about this you should put all others out of business.”

Nate provided us with another interesting take on the 2008 election, with a particular focus on the state of California.  I was surprised at how Maureen Dowd’s article in the November 23 New York Times exhibited either an unfamiliarity with Nate’s California analysis or (less likely) a refusal to agree with it.  To my disappointment, I detected Ms. Dowd’s apparent acceptance of the “conventional wisdom” concerning California’s controversial ballot initiative:

This month, gays who supported Barack Obama had the bittersweet experience of seeing some of the black and Latino voters who surged to the polls to vote Democratic also vote for Proposition 8, which turned gay “I dos” into “You can’ts.”

She should have known better.  I would expect a pundit of her stature to be familiar with Nate’s November 11 posting on FiveThirtyEight.com:  “Prop 8 Myths”.  Here is some of what he had to say:

But the notion that Prop 8 passed because of the Obama turnout surge is silly.

*  *  *

At the end of the day, Prop 8’s passage was more a generational matter than a racial one.  If nobody over the age of 65 had voted, Prop 8 would have failed by a point or two.  It appears that the generational splits may be larger within minority communities than among whites, although the data on this is sketchy.

Get with it, Maureen!  If Al Franken turns out to be Minnesota’s new junior Senator, you will no longer be justified in overlooking the observations of Nate Silver.