Since 2009, Al Franken has been working hard for Minnesota families in the U.S. Senate. The son of middle-class parents who raised him in St. Louis Park, Al would go on to graduate from Harvard, become a successful entertainer and progressive advocate, and – most importantly – marry his college sweetheart, Franni, with whom he’s raised two decidedly above-average kids.
Al and Franni: Two very different childhoods
The Franken family moved to Albert Lea, Minnesota, when Al was just four years old. His father had high hopes of opening a quilting factory – but after just two years, the factory failed, and the family moved to St. Louis Park.
Years later, I asked my dad, “Why Albert Lea?” And he said, “Well, your grandfather wanted to open a factory in the Midwest, and the railroad went through Albert Lea.”
So, I asked him, “Why did the factory fail?”
And he said, “Well, it went through Albert Lea, but it wouldn’t stop.”
Al lived with his parents and his brother Owen in a two-bedroom, one-bath house in St. Louis Park. The family wasn’t rich – his dad, who had never graduated high school, ended up finding work as a printing salesman while his mom worked as a real estate agent – but growing up middle-class in Minnesota, Al felt like the luckiest kid in the world.
Meanwhile, halfway across the country in Portland, Maine, a young girl named Franni Bryson wasn’t quite so lucky.
Her father – a decorated World War II veteran – had died in a car accident when Franni was just seventeen months old. Her mother was widowed with five kids.
Franni’s mother worked in the produce department of a grocery store, but it was Social Security survivor benefits that helped the family survive. Franni remembers nights when there wasn’t enough food on the table and Maine winters where the heat had to be turned off – but they made it through.
Indeed, every single one of the four girls in the family went on to college, thanks to Pell Grants and other scholarships, and Franni’s brother Neil went into the Coast Guard and became an electrical engineer. Even Franni’s mom – thanks to a $300 GI loan – went to college, and because she became a teacher working with Title One kids, her loan was forgiven.
My mother-in-law and every single one of those five kids became a productive member of society. Conservatives like to say that people need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps – and that’s a great idea. But first, you’ve got to have the boots. And the government gave my wife’s family the boots.
Al starts a career – and a family
Thanks to his parents’ focus on education, Al earned admission to Harvard. And during his freshman year, he met Franni at a mixer at Simmons College. He bought her a ginger ale, asked her to dance, and today they’ve been married for more than 37 years – “many of them happy,” as Al likes to joke.
But while Al’s good grades got him into Harvard – and ultimately gave him the chance to meet Franni – it was his father’s love of old comedians and his friendship with fellow Minnesotan Tom Davis that led him to his career in entertainment.
Even in high school, Al and Tom loved to perform – both at school and at Dudley Riggs’s Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis. And after college, they caught on with a brand new show called “Saturday Night,” splitting a weekly paycheck of $350 as “apprentice writers.”
The show (later renamed “Saturday Night Live”) would go on to become legendary, and Al would go on to win five Emmy Awards for his work. He also wrote for the big screen, most notably “When A Man Loves A Woman” – a serious take on the family disease of addiction.
From entertainer to advocate to candidate
Politics had always been part of Al’s life, dating back to when he’d watch the news with his parents at home in St. Louis Park. And when he left “Saturday Night Live” in 1995, he became more politically active, using the wit he’d honed as an entertainer to advocate for progressive values – and against the bullies and extremists who had come to dominate American politics.
He wrote three #1 New York Times best-sellers, and found that as rewarding as it was to entertain, political advocacy was in his blood.
Making people laugh is the best thing in the world. But when I wrote the. . . book, people would come up to me and say, “Thank you. Thank you for saying what needed to be said.” And that was really something.
In 2004, Al was the first star for the very first progressive talk radio network, Air America Radio. Broadcasting live – three hours a day, five days a week – Al brought on experts in domestic and foreign policy, interviewed national and world leaders, and discussed issues ranging from the cost of prescription drugs to the war in Iraq (with his own famous wit and passion mixed in).
In the conservative-dominated world of talk radio, Al still managed to reach more than 1.5 million unique listeners each week, and he was soon ranked among the most influential radio hosts in the country.
While Al was never afraid to stand up for his progressive values, he also devoted some of his time to an important – and completely apolitical – cause: visiting our troops overseas with the USO. He has made seven such trips – including four to Iraq. Visiting a war zone with the Sergeant Major of the Army was a chance to visit with members of the armed services – including Minnesotans serving abroad – give something back to those who have given us so much, and meet with generals to learn more about the situation overseas.
As the 2006 elections drew near, Al was in high demand as a speaker for progressive candidates and causes around the country – including back home in Minnesota, where he made dozens of appearance on behalf of DFL candidates. His Midwest Values PAC raised more than $1.1 million for progressive candidates in 2006, including Amy Klobuchar, who would one day be Al’s colleague (and one of his role models) in the Senate.
As he traveled the state, more and more DFLers asked him if he would consider running for the U.S. Senate seat once held by his hero, Paul Wellstone, whose famous quote Al often cited in his speeches: “The future belongs to those who are passionate and work hard.”
In 2007, Al accepted the challenge, announcing his candidacy in a video message to supporters.
Americans have never backed away from challenges. And Minnesotans have always led the way. Our state has sent strong, progressive leaders to Washington—from Hubert Humphrey to Walter Mondale to Paul Wellstone, and now to Amy Klobuchar. Minnesota’s public servants might not always look and sound like typical politicians, but they stand by their principles and lead by their values.
That’s the kind of leader I think we need more of these days, and that’s the kind of Senator I’ll be.
Mr. Franken goes to Washington
After a long and hard-fought campaign, Al was elected to the U.S. Senate by a close margin (one that was verified by a lengthy, careful recount).
Upon his arrival in the Senate, he was named to the powerful Judiciary Committee (he took part in the confirmation hearing for now-Justice Sonia Sotomayor on just his fifth day in the Senate), as well as the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and the Committee on Indian Affairs. Since then, he’s also joined the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and been named chairman of two subcommittees – one dealing with privacy and technology, and the other dealing with energy.
In his short time in the Senate, Al’s worked hard – and made a real difference – for Minnesotans. According to an analysis by Kaiser Family Foundation, He wrote the biggest cost-saving measure in Obamacare – and it’s already saved consumers and small businesses billions of dollars by forcing insurance companies to spend at least 80 percent of premium dollars on actual health care, not marketing or CEO salaries. He wrote the entire energy section of the new farm bill, which invests in Minnesota’s renewable energy potential and will help to create jobs and end our dependence on foreign oil. And he took on the Wall Street credit rating agencies, demanding that they end the dangerous conflicts of interest that helped to destroy our economy.
Today, Al continues to work for Minnesota’s middle class families – taking on corporate giants like Comcast and Google to protect our pocketbooks and our privacy, fighting against increases in the student loan rate, looking for ways to lower the cost of Medicare prescription drugs, and protecting Social Security benefits.
The Franken family
As proud as he is of his work in the Senate, Al is even more proud of his family.
Al and Franni’s daughter, Thomasin, graduated from Harvard. She has devoted her career to working with kids, serving as a public school teacher in the Bronx and running an after-school program in Washington, D.C.
Her younger brother, Joe (named after Al’s father), graduated from Princeton. He lives in Milwaukee, where he advises a variety of businesses – including car companies, which is pretty cool for a kid who grew up a car fanatic and got his degree in mechanical engineering.
Al and Franni thought nothing could be more exciting than seeing both of their kids grow up to be wonderful adults, get married, and launch careers of their own. They were wrong. In 2013, Thomasin gave birth to Al and Franni’s first grandchild: Joseph Bryson Greenwald.
Al reports that he and Franni have already managed to spoil the baby.