Metro Views: A tale of rival Jewish senators in Minnesota

The ethical question is whether Coleman's refusal to concede harms Minnesota voters.

marilyn henry 88 (photo credit: )
marilyn henry 88
(photo credit: )
So there were these two Jewish guys from New York, Al and Norm. It sounds like the beginning of a bad Borscht Belt joke. Instead, it is the beginning of a high-stakes political farce. Al Franken went to Harvard University in Massachusetts, and later became popular as a writer and a comedian for the classic American TV show Saturday Night Live. A wickedly funny, liberal political commentator, Franken last year ran for the US Senate seat in Minnesota as the candidate of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. (This mouthful is how the Democratic Party is known in that state.) Norm Coleman went to New York's Hofstra University, then on to law school. He moved to Minnesota, was elected mayor of Saint Paul as a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. Then he switched to the Republican Party. Coleman ran for the US Senate in 2002 against the incumbent Paul Wellstone, a very liberal Jewish Democrat. That race was a toss-up heading toward the finish line. Tragedy struck 11 days before the election. On October 25, 2002, Wellstone was killed in a plane crash. Coleman defeated Wellstone's last-minute stand-in, former vice president Walter Mondale, by some 61,000 votes - out of more than 2 million cast. The contest between Coleman and Franken was nail-biting close. It was so close and so contentious that the US Senate seat from Minnesota remains unfilled seven months later because no winner has been certified. Biting their nails, as well, are the leaders of the US Senate from both political parties because the Minnesota race will determine whether the Democrats get a theoretical "filibuster-proof" majority. The early tally in Minnesota showed that Coleman was ahead by 215 votes - of more than 2.8 million cast. That triggered an automatic recount, in which Franken took the lead - barely. Coleman contested the recount results. On April 13, a panel of state judges ruled that Franken was the winner, by 312 votes. The next day, Coleman appealed to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which was scheduled to hear arguments in the case this week. The legal question before the court is whether uniform standards were applied to the way absentee ballots were treated, or whether standards varied from county to county, resulting in voter discrimination. The ethical question is whether Coleman's refusal to concede harms Minnesota voters, who are entitled to two senators, but now are underrepresented in the Senate because this election remains in limbo. THIS COULD simply be a weird tale about Americans' lust for power, or political battles taken to such extremes as to be worthy of Franken satires - if he weren't trying to take the seat the judicial panel said he won. Can we keep the Jews out of this? Sadly, no. As he keeps the contest alive, Coleman works as a part-time consultant for the Republican Jewish Coalition - and he has played his personal Jewish card. After running a nasty reelection campaign, Coleman called a press conference in October to say he was suspending his negative campaign ads. He gave credit to Yom Kippur, according to the American Jewish World, Minnesota's Jewish newspaper. "One of the many advantages of my Jewish faith is the ancient calendar we keep that calls for certain beneficial spiritual activities throughout the year," the newspaper quoted him as saying. "One such event is Yom Kippur, which just concluded last night at sundown, a time of fasting, soul-searching and refocusing of your life." So, he said, he contemplated and made a couple of campaign decisions. Last April, Coleman told The New York Times that he starts each day by putting on tefillin. "I bind myself to God every morning because it's in his hands," he said. But, with due respect, it was in the hands of state judges, and they ruled that Franken had won. In states like New York and Florida, with large Jewish communities, we are accustomed to candidates who pander to Jews. But why Coleman invokes his Jewishness in a state in which his opponent also is Jewish and in which Jews are less than 1 percent of the population makes no political sense. But it has the effect of making this an uncomfortably Jewish story in which Coleman seems to ridicule or sully the faith. This is bigger than the story of two Jewish guys. It's actually about three Jewish guys. The third is in Pennsylvania: Sen. Arlen Specter, a moderate who defected from the Republican Party in April. That boosts Coleman's stock in the Republican Party. The Republicans desperately need him in the Senate to prevent the Democrats from gaining a superior edge. And so, as desperate as are the Republicans for a Coleman win, the Democrats desperately want a Franken victory. Thanks to Specter's defection, if Franken is certified as the winner in Minnesota, Democrats would control 60 of the 100 votes in the Senate. It would be an important psychological victory. In theory (the theory that believes Democrats are robots who all vote the same way), this is enough to block (Republican) procedural maneuvering (based on the theory that Republicans are robots who all act the same way). The Minnesota Supreme Court has a momentous decision to make, with consequences extending far beyond the state's borders. I'd be happier, though, if this was simply about two guys from Minnesota - not two Jews, especially one who invokes Yom Kippur to discuss campaign strategy.