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Candidates were not typical Minnesotans

Both Senate candidates Al Franken and Norm Coleman made many campaign stops in Bemidji. Here, Franken woos a Democrat crowd at the Green Mill in Bemidji during a summer 2008 stop. Pioneer Photo/Brad Swenson

ST. PAUL - Al Franken and Norm Coleman are not exactly typical Minnesota politicians.

Both are New York natives and Jewish, not the demographics of most Minnesotans. Neither sounds Minnesotan to this day, although that did not prevent party loyalists from giving them enthusiastic support.

They spent a record amount on their 2008 campaign, one of the hottest in state history, and continued to spend though their election recount and court case. The total since the beginning of their campaigns is about $50 million.

That kind of money is a long ways from what Franken's family knew when he was young.

He was born May 21, 1951, in New York City. His family moved to south-central Minnesota's Albert Lea when he was 4, and his father started a quilt factory there. It failed after two years and the Frankens moved to the Twin Cities.

After the failure, the family lived in the Jewish enclave of St. Louis Park, where Franken, his parents and brother shared a two-bedroom, one-bath house. His father was a printing salesman and his mother sold real estate.

Franken's good grades landed him a spot at Harvard University, after which he decided to work in comedy.

Franken and his friend, fellow Minnesotan Tom Davis, managed to land work at the upstart "Saturday Night" show, sharing the weekly $350 paycheck.

The show, whose name soon became "Saturday Night Live," rocketed Franken to fame. While he started as a writer -- and kept writing for most of his career -- he began to appear on camera as well, especially making name for himself as self-help guru Stuart Smalley. He also was involved in political satire while on the popular NBC television show.

After Franken left the show in 1995, he created short-lived "Lateline," a television comedy inspired by ABC News' "Nightline." He also wrote the serious screenplay "When a Man Loves a Woman," among others.

Franken's political satire blossomed when Republicans took over Congress in the mid-1990s, beginning with his best-seller book "Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot (and other observations)." With George W. Bush as president, Franken added "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right," which included reflections on U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone's 2002 death.

After a third book, talk began to surface that Franken might return to Minnesota to challenge Coleman, the man who Wellstone fought until his death. Franken fueled those rumors by launching a liberal radio show on the new Air America Radio Network.

Franken became more visible across the country, even visiting troops overseas, but much of his time was spent talking to Democratic groups back in Minnesota. He and his wife, Franni, moved to Minneapolis in 2005, sending a clear signal that he planned to build his political base.

The comedian-turned-political pundit announced in February of 2007 that he would challenge Coleman.

After taking a few shots at Bush and invoking Wellstone's memory, Franken declared that was in the hunt to re-claim "Paul's seat" from Coleman.

"I take this deadly seriously," Franken said. "When people hear me they'll know I take this very seriously."

Republicans found an easy target. Franken's "vitriolic personal attacks" against national Republicans and Coleman would prove a tough sell to Minnesotans, said state Republican Party Chairman Ron Carey. "Is that the kind of demeanor and tone that's going to make him a successful United States senator?"

Franken denied claims painting him as an angry person, though he did voice frustration over the war in Iraq: "I get angry about things like this war."

Don Davis works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.