Sen. Al Franken finds favor and distrust at north Minneapolis block party

U.S. Sen. Al Franken at the Broadway Day Block Party
U.S. Sen. Al Franken at the Broadway Day Block Party
Jesse Marx

Saturday's Broadway Day Block Party was an opportunity for north Minneapolis to celebrate the end of summer and bask in its cultural goodness. Community organizers enlisted new recruits, musicians wailed, and the hungry salivated over roasted cayenne-peppered corn.

It was, in some ways, a miniature version of the Minnesota State Fair with one notable constant: the presence of U.S. Sen. Al Franken.

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He's up for reelection in the fall. The National Journal wrote last week that, unlike other Democratic senators, "Franken is running an unusually low-key race, giving off the vibe that there's nothing to see here." But if the senator was looking for a quiet event Saturday, he did not find one.

It begins well enough. A trail of admirers follow Franken as he tours Bryant Avenue, listening to the activists he meets. Behind an ice cream truck, he shakes hands with a disabled vet and, after a lengthy chat, asks an aide  to take down the old soldier's contact information.

"North Minneapolis is very important," Franken tells us. "We unfortunately have, as a metropolitan area, some of the greatest disparities in terms of everything -- education, employment, and health care. All of this stuff is connected."

He expounds on the same point on stage, noting the need to fund early childhood education and the passage of the Affordable Care Act, both of which get applause. He moves then to drug policy, highlighting an ACLU study showing that blacks are way more likely to get arrested for pot possession than whites, though the two groups smoke at roughly the same rate.

"This policy and the way it's been administered is wrong and it's destructive," he says. "And we have to change that." More hand-clapping follows.

But as Franken prepares to go, the voice of Mysnikol Miller, a spa manager, rises above the speaker: "What can I do about that?"

"You can vote," the senator says.

Two voices -- one male, one female -- come flying at once: "For what?!"

"For me," Franken adds. "I'm going to help you by using my power as a United States senator to fight for the things I'm talking about. That is how I'm going to do it. And it isn't like a magic switch that I can pull." He goes on to assure the voices that he thinks about the repercussions of federal policy every day.

"But you don't live it every day," Miller says.

"Yes, I do," Franken insists.

Next he asks staff to gather up contacts, but it fails to stop the questions. What is the strategy? another woman asks. Franken responds, "One thing we can do is make it available for them to get loans for college," and comes the quick reply from a man: "Who is them?!"

Franken stops. He looks flustered.

"OK, listen," he says. "I'll do a specific question-answer period." He laughs, then backpedals: "I'm not sure I can, actually, because I have to go to the State Fair. But why don't you talk to my people? I think that's more productive."

"No," Miller counters. "I want you to talk."

A few seconds later, Franken is apologizing: "I feel like this is my fault that this has gotten out of control."

Anthony Newby, the organizer of the block party, hurries to the mic. He tells his neighbors that the senator is working on both transit issues and racial disparities at the federal level -- to which Franken agrees.

Two men from the crowd yell, "Shut up," and the senator asks that people look at his record, specifically where he voted to lower mandatory minimums on drug charges. Finally, he makes his exit, leaving Ron Brown, an illustrator, with tears dripping down his cheeks.

"Al Franken ain't here because he gives a fuck about the North Side," Brown says, turning to his friends. "It's the same old bullshit ... just as he told y'all to your fucking face: 'I got to go to the State Fair and talk to more important people.'"

Brown pauses and looks his interviewer in the eyes: "Shame on me, as a black American, to believe anything a white person says."

-- Send story tips to the author or follow him on Twitter @marxjesse

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