Franken On Anti-Semitism, Health Care & Higher Office

This is an interesting time — to put it mildly — to be a politician. With a massive uptick of anti-Semitism across the country to a very vocal group of voters rising up to face their elected official, Minnesota’s own Sen. Al Franken, has been in the middle of a lot of what’s going on in Washington. We were lucky enough to get a little time to talk with the senator about rising anti-Semitism, presidential ambitions, and pickled tongue. Really.

Where, in your opinion, is the rising tide of anti-Semitism coming from?

It’s hard to say definitively. There has been an uptake in the last number of months. We’ve seen, in addition to Minnesota, we’ve seen more than 100 incidents, including cemetery desecrations, people tipping over tombstones. Really awful stuff. Really disturbing things. And we’ve also seen mosques and other cultural centers, the same kind of thing. There has been an uptick.

It’s unknowable exactly what the cause is. Probably there is some relation to the kind of alt-right propaganda that has come out. It’s a little disturbing that the former chairman of Breitbart is so prominent in the administration, but I don’t want to necessarily point a finger. I think it was helpful that he mentioned it at the SOTU address. I thought that was a good change in the rhetoric coming out of the administration. It had been absent on International Holocaust Memorial Day. They released a statement that was very incomprehensible that they left any mention of the Jewish people out of that. That was slightly disturbing. But I was encouraged by the president’s words during the State of the Union.

The flip side is it took a really long time for that. The Sabes JCC happened the Wednesday before he was sworn in as president. Was it disheartening to you that it took so long for the president to speak out and denounce the threats against the JCCs and vandalism of cemeteries around the country?

I agree with that. I was discouraged that he had not been speaking out against this forcefully, which is something that a president normally would do. Especially when the uptick is coming with your having won the election and taking office. Yeah, it was discouraging and disappointing not to hear the president say the kind of things he normally would say.

You and Sen. Klobuchar were among the 100 senators that signed a letter to the attorney general, secretary of homeland security and FBI director urging action against the threats. Symbolically it’s great, but what, in real practical terms does it mean?

I know there were a number of us who signed on to a letter to the secretary of Homeland Security, John Kelly. It’s good that it was bi-partisan, but it was not, unfortunately, 100 of us. It was a lot fewer. This was asking for more funding to keep non-profits secure across the United States, especially those who seem to be targeted – the Jewish organizations, synagogues, cultural centers, we’ve seen mosques as well. We’re asking for more funding. There is funding for this, but we’re just asking for more in the presidents’ next budget. So we wrote this letter.

At the U of M, there’ve been a few notable instances of anti-Semitism. Have you spoken to president Kaler at the U about the anti-Semitism issues on campus?

I have not. But I know he’s aware of them, though.

What issues are you hearing from your constituents about the most?

We’ve been hearing about everything from interference in our election by Russia and any possible connection that the people in the Trump campaign or associates may have. That’s obviously the focus of a number of investigations right now. We’re hearing a lot on the Affordable Care Act, on the repeal and especially the replacement. We’re hearing just a tremendous amount on that, which is people are very unhappy with what they’re seeing. They kind of see what it is, which will mean less coverage, higher costs for most people, and then huge tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. And the freezing and eliminating of Medicaid expansion, which has helped 30-some states in the country cover more people. We’re hearing from hospitals, health care providers, just so many different individuals that are so concerned about this. That has become the number one thing. I think. I ask the interns here who answer the phones what they’re hearing. It’s not scientific.

Speaking of not scientific, we also get a lot on the nominees – now cabinet secretaries – including the EPA, [Secretary Scott] Pruitt, on his latest thing that he doesn’t know if CO2 has any connection to climate change. But there’s no shortage on what we’re hearing about.

You mention the health care providers, and Minnesota is home to tremendous medical care with Mayo, but we also have insurance companies and medical device companies here, making us a hub for medical.

Obviously, Mayo is world-class, but Minnesota provides the highest value health care in the country and has been rated that by [Health and Human Services]. It almost always is. We’ve been the leader in health care delivery in the United States. There’s a lot of health care delivery that has been pioneered and adopted in Minnesota. If the rest of the country did health care as well as we did, we’d save an amazing amount of money and people would have a lot better outcomes. We had Dr. [Edward] Ehlinger, the commissioner of health in Minnesota, who is also expressing a lot of concern about public health and what it would mean to defund public health. They are basically gutting our prevention innovations. I’m very concerned about that. There is other funding for public health that will be cut if this goes through.

You mentioned the interns getting hammered with phone calls; is the level of activism you’re seeing as we look at the midterms encouraging?

To me, the thing right in front of my face is the ACA repeal-and-replacement. Those are the things I’m thinking about. I’m not thinking about 2018 all that much. I was very encouraged about the march the day after the inaugural, which was historic. Not just in Washington but all over the country and the world. There is no question there are millions and millions of Americans who are saying ‘what can I do?’ Part of what I tell them is to stay active and keep that energy going. But also to be an advocate. People might be surprised how effective advocacy groups are whether it be on things like mental health, or housing, or climate. Those are very important. And being a foot soldier in any advocacy group, you’ll be surprised how quickly you’ll be an officer and a general you are in these things, and how important they are to making a difference in Congress. When I say this, I see people connecting with it. There are many things that people care about, and I go around Minnesota and some of it isn’t at all partisan. Alzheimer’s isn’t. But, if you’re cutting funding to the NIH, it is. But things like workforce development, making sure that we are going to have a trained workforce and education. All these things make an enormous difference. Some can be partisan, and some can just be about an issue that’s really important that your congressman or your senator should know about and should have somebody meeting with them, having a group meeting with them and explaining to them what you don’t understand.

If you’re not looking to 2018, you’re probably not going to like this question at all; your seat is up in 2020 and in Minnesota, can you run for both Senate and president at the same time?

First of all, I’m not running for president. I think that normally what senators do is to enter the presidential race, then lose very quickly and run for the senate. That seems to be how it works.

But that’s not going to be you?


I had to ask.

I know. That was your last question, though. You blew it on that one.

That’s OK. You covered three questions with your first answer so it evened out.

Someday we’re going to do a story on my love of pickled tongue.

When you come to Minnesota, we’ll find a place. I don’t like it, but we’ll go have that when you’re in town.