Almost 200 Macalester students filed into the John B. Davis (JBD) Lecture Hall in the basement of the Campus Center on Monday night, as Minnesota Senator Al Franken visited Macalester for the first time since 2014. Franken came to stump for Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton and take questions from Macalester students. The event, which had been in the works since the beginning of the school year, was hosted by Mac Dems. Franken, who is two years into his second term in the Senate, was introduced by Minnesota State Representative Erin Murphy, whose district, 64A, encompasses the Macalester campus.
Franken spoke for about 15 minutes before taking questions from the assembled crowd. In a typically deadpan and outspoken performance — Franken at one point noted that he “used to be in comedy” — the Senator touched on Donald Trump, climate change and the Supreme Court.
He began by launching into the importance of electing Hillary Clinton, saying of her opponent, “All this stuff about women is going to make it hard for Trump to focus on his message: not knowing anything about public policy.” Franken, who attended the climate summit in Paris last summer and sits on the Senate Energy Committee, made the environment a central part of his speech. “Everyone in the world knows there is climate change except Republicans in the United States. There’s no one else.”
“I’ve got three grandchildren. In 50 years, I don’t want them to be saying, ‘Grandpa, you were a Senator. You knew there was climate change. Why didn’t you do anything? Also, why are you still alive?’”
Franken, who also sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee, went on to praise President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland. A vote to confirm Garland as Antonin Scalia’s replacement is currently being held up by Republicans, leaving the Supreme Court with only eight justices.
“If Merrick Garland had hearings — and I think they [Republicans] might take him up in the lame-duck if Hillary wins — after three days, the American people would say, ‘I want nine of those.’ He is spectacular,” Franken said. “You know who was the first Republican to agree to meet with him? Jim Inhofe. Now why Jim Inhofe? Because Merrick Garland was the prosecutor for Oklahoma City. And he’s kept in touch with those families, and he’s beloved in Oklahoma,” he continued.
Inhofe, who is in fifth term in the Senate, is currently rated by GovTrack as the chamber’s most conservative member. In February 2015, he brought a snowball onto the Senate floor to prove that global warming is a hoax. The question-and-answer section of the event was lively—and included an attempt by Franken to explain the jurisdiction of the Ethics Committee to a man brandishing a number of papers who was demanding some sort of a hearing on alleged misconduct by the Clintons.
When asked about police misconduct and racial tension around the country, Franken said, “My grandfather was a refugee from Russia. And when he came, he saw Emma Lazarus’ poem—‘bring me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.’ That’s who we’re supposed to be. In this country, you become a citizen, and you’re an American. They don’t really do that in other countries. That’s who we are, and that’s a strength. An enormous strength.”
“It’s so important that you get out and vote. To send the message that we’re not buying this stuff. We’re not buying this hate and divisiveness. That’s not us. That is not us,” Franken said.
Franken also described watching footage of civil rights activists being beaten in the South with his family as a child, and his dad — a Republican at the time — saying, “No Jew could be for this.”
One student asked about the motivation in public service of some Republicans which drew a light chiding from Franken and the comment, “I had a Republican colleague — who is just awful in many ways — say to me once, ‘the easiest person to fool is yourself.’”
Franken, who isn’t up for reelection until 2020, has been especially active in traveling around the country in support of Clinton and Democratic Senatorial candidates in the last year.
Minnesota’s senior Senator Amy Klobachar — who was at Macalester on Tuesday for an event headlined by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — has been similarly engaged. Franken said the Democrats have a chance to end up with 52 Senate seats after November 8.
Murphy, who is weighing a run for Governor in 2018 and has been a frequent presence on campus this fall, said of the event, “the students at Macalester are deeply engaged in the events of America, and I could see that in their questions.”
“I love their commitment to climate and climate justice, but also that everybody has a shot at opportunity in this country. That came through very clearly,” she said. Mac Dems co-chair Mari Adams ’18 said: “I thought it went really well. I thought we had an amazing turnout, which we were really happy about.”
The other Mac Dems co-chair, Darwin Forsyth ’18, agreed that the event was a success. “I spent much of the semester feeling frustrated — worrying whether people were going to get involved, and being honestly angry that some people weren’t getting more involved.”
“But seeing the number of people show up, and the number of people sad that they couldn’t show up because of night class, was really huge for me,” he said.
In his remarks at the beginning of the night, Forsyth spelled out clearly why engagement matters. “What some of you might not remember is that the Democrats needed 60 votes in the Senate to pass Obamacare. They only had 59 until Senator Franken was seated,” Forsyth said.
“Senator Franken won his race [over Republican incumbent Senator Norm Coleman] in 2008 by 312 votes. More than 312 Macalester students voted that year. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, without you, Senator Franken would still be Al Franken — and we wouldn’t have laws like Obamacare,” he continued.
“Don’t ever say that your vote doesn’t matter. As the man you’re about to hear from will tell you, sometimes it’s the only thing that matters.”
Katie Jolly contributed to the reporting of this story.