Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Bemidji Pioneer: At long last Minnesota has senator

Minnesota finally has a second U.S. senator. Shortly after 11:15 a.m. Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden gave the oath of office to Al Franken, with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former Vice President Walter Mondale at his elbows.

It was a long trip to that moment, which included a recount and court challenges by the prior occupant, former Sen. Norm Coleman. The seat has been empty since Jan. 3, and Sen. Klobuchar’s office has had to perform double duty to pick up the slack in constituent services which run the gamut from Social Security and veterans benefits issues to expediting passports to helping with foreign adoptions.

Sen. Franken will need to hit the ground running — but he’s had eight months to study, observe and prepare for the most serious role of his life, that of representing Minnesota in the U.S. Senate. He becomes the 60th member of those who caucus Democratic, giving the Democrats a filibuster-proof majority. But it was encouraging Monday to hear Sen. Franken say that he doesn’t consider himself the 60th senator, but rather the No. 2 senator for Minnesota.

It is a downfall that Sen. Franken won’t assume his seat on the Senate panel considering health care reform until after the bill is marked up, but no doubt he can have some input as the bill reaches the floor. He will, however, be part of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s probing of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Key to our area will be Sen. Franken’s membership on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Sen. Franken campaigned heavily on all three area reservations, and was in constant contact with tribal leaders on all three reservations, and so should know the concerns and issues of American Indian populations.

That was a weakness of Sen. Coleman, as he infrequently visited local reservations and did not seek a seat on the Indian Affairs Committee, having been appointed to the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.

Serving on the Indian Affairs Committee is an important seat for a Minnesota senator, as is a seat on the Agriculture Committee, which both Coleman and Klobuchar were on. The last Minnesota senator to hold a seat on the Indian Affairs Committee was the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, who took that position seriously and was an able spokesman for area American Indian issues. Hopefully, Sen. Franken can do the same.

Now as the state of affairs settles down in Minnesota, in the aftermath of a long trial, former Sen. Coleman must be thanked for his public service to Minnesota. As a staunch supporter of renewal energy standards, he fought to position Minnesota in the new green economy, and in the use of alternative energy, be it cellulostic ethanol from sugar beets to clean-coal technology for an Iron Range power plant. Those efforts will keep Minnesota on the forefront of emerging green technologies.