Republicans hope that by disseminating jokes made by Al Franken, the comedian turned Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, they can undermine his campaign to unseat Republican Norm Coleman. Michael Brodkorb, a Republican operative and sole writer of the blog Minnesota Democrats Exposed, has been delving into Franken's past to find instances where Franken has made light of the struggles of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The few instances he has found have been heavily promoted -- even included in a video for Coleman's campaign.
The jokes have also put off a few GLBT members of the DFL.
At a recent forum held for the GLBT community by attorney Mike Ciresi, one of Franken's opponents for the DFL nomination, it was clear that some found Franken's humor objectionable. Former DFL state Sen. Allan Spear, who made headlines in the early 1970s as one of the nation's first openly gay elected officials, introduced Ciresi. Spear said that unlike comedian Franken, Ciresi takes GLBT issues seriously. Spear cited the attacks on Franken by Republicans using Franken's past jokes against him as a real problem -- and a reason for the community to support Ciresi and defeat Franken for the chance to replace Coleman.
I asked Jeremy Hanson, an openly gay longtime activist who co-hosted the Ciresi forum if the jokes influenced his decision to support Ciresi. He said he agreed with Spear. "Part of the reason I'm supporting Mike Ciresi for U.S. Senate is because I know he takes seriously the challenges that GLBT people face and I know that as our senator he will take seriously the fight for GLBT equality and justice," he said in an interview. "It's unfortunate when GLBT people are needlessly used as fodder for political satire or humor."
With a choice of DFL senatorial candidates, including Franken, who overwhelmingly support the issues important to gays and lesbians, voters have to ask themselves: Is this a real issue or a distraction? Are the jokes irrelevant to the campaign? Or do they tell us something about the man who would be senator?
Some notable jokes being spread by the Republicans include a 1976 appearance at Harvard in which he joked that a campus club was dominated by homosexuals and said he was glad a gay member of the club had been murdered. The Harvard Crimson newspaper reported that after Franken spoke, his smile " became so broad it pushed his eyes shut. He couldn't stand it any longer. 'Put that in, put that in,' Franken laughed, leaning over the desk. I'd love to see that in The Crimson." In other words, he was trying to be outrageous.
Republican operatives are also citing an off-color remark that Franken made about Elton John and a comment after watching presidential candidate Pat Buchanan rail against GLBT people: "No one likes a gay bashing joke better than me, but this was serious." The editing of the clip obscures the fact that Franken was responding to Buchanan's tirade with sarcasm.
Franken faced questions about his sense of humor in late January when he appealed for support of the Stonewall DFL, the party's GLBT caucus. Held at the Hennepin County Government Center, in front of the Stonewall screeners and several audience attendees, Franken retold his Elton John joke. The original joke goes like this:
"Actually, and this is totally true, for the first six months after 9/11, I put three baseballs in my carry-on bag. I am blessed with an unusually accurate throwing arm and wanted more than anything to thwart a hijacking by beaning a terrorist. How American is that?! I imagined The New York Post headline: 'Franken Beans Hijacker: Terrorist Hit In Face With More Balls Than Elton John.'"
Andy points out later in the article that Republicans are being "disingenuous".
The stances of the three DFLers differ considerably from those of Coleman. The Republican broke with the party line to vote for the Matthew Shepard Hate Crimes Act, which was strongly supported by the Democratic candidates and GLBT groups. But Coleman supported the Defense of Marriage Act, which seeks to block gays from marrying. As mayor of St. Paul in the 1990s, Coleman refused to acknowledge Twin Cities Pride, the most important GLBT community event each year. Franken happily marched in the parade that Coleman refused to recognize.
That a Republican operative and the Republican Party of Minnesota are circulating these jokes -- as well as demanding GLBT community members respond to them -- is disingenuous. The Republican Party of Minnesota has an abysmal record when it comes to GLBT equality, and the statements made and policies pushed by the party damage the community. The hypocrisy makes it that much harder to have a discussion of the jokes themselves -- and adds nothing to the debate over the policy issues at stake in the election.
The omission of context further discredits the Republicans strategy against Franken. For example, Franken's jokes in support of the community are omitted. He once joked during a discussion of marriage equality that being gay was much harder than being black. "It's harder being gay -- because you don't have to tell your parents you're black," he quipped.
He also took on former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich over the issue of marriage equality and Gingrich's own admitted infidelity, asking: "Newt, don't you want for a gay couple what you had with your first wife? Don't you want what comes with that -- that bond of fidelity that you had with your second wife?"
I think it was a good step that Al Franken responded directly to this question on camera.