Editor’s Note: The Saturday fundraiser hosted by the DFL party was closed to the media. In order to provide the most accurate reporting from the event, the writer paid the admission fee for access. Attendance and admission does not represent a campaign donation to the DFL, or Adams Publishing Group’s support of any party or candidate.
HIBBING — It was the first snowy night on the Iron Range when a few dozen supporters of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer Labor Party and former U.S. Sen. Al Franken gathered in the Crown Ballroom, off Howard Street in downtown Hibbing.
State Sen. David Tomassoni and State Rep. Julie Sandstede extended their Democratic welcomes to Quinn Nystrom, who just announced her campaign against incumbent Republican Congressman Pete Stauber for the Eighth Congressional District seat in 2020. State DFL Rep. Dave Lislegard was absent, as he attended the Catalyst Content Festival in Duluth, where he was trying to convince movie and TV folk from Los Angeles and New York to film in the Northland. The former and current politicians here mingled with local commissioners and city leaders who sat in a packed room where the tables were decorated with American flags, all sharing in dinner, drinks and conversation about keeping the region blue.
It was about 7 p.m. when Franken ascended to the microphone. He was salt-and-peppered and clean-shaven, sporting black-frammed glasses and a “Minnesota Nice” brand of wit first cultivated in his youth in Albert Lea and St. Louis Park and later during his stretch at Saturday Night Live. But after acknowledging his local ties to the late Tom Rukavina, a legislator beloved on the Range, and his remembrance of garnering his first endorsement here from the steelworkers at Hibbing Taconite, he moved quickly to discuss how illegal money was allegedly spent in federal campaigns for Republican Congressman Pete Stauber and other GOP politicians in Minnesota during the 2018 midterms.
“Now, this is an independent expenditure, so Stauber can easily say, ‘Well, I’m not supposed to know about this. I don’t know about this,’” Franken said. “OK, he can say that, but he hasn’t said that, and he hasn’t said it because he has said nothing — nothing!”
On Monday afternoon, Troy Young, a spokesperson for the Stauber campaign, told the HDT via a phone conversation that the congressman would not comment on anything mentioned at the DFL fundraiser.
In the ballroom, Franken made references to Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two associates of Rudy Guiliani, who have been connected to alleged efforts to dig up dirt in Ukraine on Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and recently arrested on criminal charges for allegedly funneling foreign money into U.S. elections. Franken noted that the supposed actions of the Soviet-born emigres being linked to the current impeachment inquiry of Trump has statewide implications, with money allegedly being moved through the American First Action Super-PAC into Minnesota politics.
Stauber did not receive any money from Parnas or Fruman, according to various media reports. Yet Franken pointed out that the duo last year created Global Energy Producers, which contributed $325,000 to the American First Action. The Super-PAC spent about $3.3 million in ads against Radinovich in 2018.
“[Stauber] hasn’t condemned this at all,” Franken continued. “What the hell? Is he so afraid of Trump? Is he so afraid of [Rep. Tom] Emmer that he won’t condemn money from Russian-Ukrainians coming in to do — to finance — ads on American politicians? Shame on Stauber.”
The DFLers in the ballroom interrupted Franken’s riff by applauding and shouting “Yes” to his rhetorical questions on whether Stauber has kept mum on Trump, who recognized the congressman during his contentious campaign rally last week at the Target Center in Minneapolis. “A man who you don’t want to fight him and you don’t want to play him in hockey,” Trump told the crowd when introducing the congressman representing the Range and Duluth. “He is tough.” The president added that Stauber won an “easy race because everyone loves him and respects him.”
Throughout his freshman year in office, Stauber has consistently backed Trump and responded to the Democratic-led impeachment inquiries by labeling them, “irresponsible.” Franken attempted to package the two politicians as a team of sorts, before saying that he “we don’t know for sure whether [Trump] will be impeached, but he should be.” He later added, “He is at the core the most corrupt president we’ve ever had.”
On Monday morning, the Duluth News Tribune published an article on the DFL fundraiser, based on a video recording posted on the public Facebook page for “Minnesota 8th Congressional District Discussion.”
Several weeks ago, the Hibbing Daily Tribune received a press release from Minnesota’s Senate District 06 DFL, stating that Franken would be the keynote speaker at the Iron Range Fundraiser. “Making a rare, special appearance on Minnesota’s Iron Range, Al Franken will speak to an anticipated crowd of 600 at this fundraiser,” according to Senate District 06 DFL Chair Bill Marchand and Treasurer Cathy Daniels. “True to his career, Franken will bring laughter mixed with a meaningful message highlighting our country’s current state of affairs.” When the HDT asked whether press were allowed at the fundraiser, Daniels said over the phone that “the Franken campaign requested the DFL have no press at the event.”
It turned out that Daniels misspoke to the media, as a spokesperson for Franken — who resigned from political office in December 2017 after several women accused him of making sexual advances and has most recently been accused of sexually harassing a ninth woman — later told the Mesabi Daily News that he “has absolutely no plans to run for office.”
Tickets for the event were marked at $50 per person and $500 to reserve a table for eight people.
A blue wave in the Eighth Congressional District?
Inside the ballroom were white balloons and black signs with white lettering that read, “Quinn Nystrom For Congress.” Minnesota DFL Chairman Ken Martin stood at the podium, saying he was “worried about us being divided,” before explaining that 10 percent of the state’s DFL party voted Republican in the presidential election in 2016. It was then that Trump won the Eighth Congressional District by a 15.5 point margin, the largest overturn reported across the nation.
Martin described how he got his start in politics under the late DFL Sen. Paul Wellstone, of Eveleth, who passed down his rallying cry to him, “Vote blue no matter who.”
“There is deep frustration in our party,” Martin added. “There is deep frustration in our country right now. It’s that kind of thinking that got us Donald Trump.” He continued, “We are stronger together, despite the differences we have...We have a great opportunity in the Eighth District.”
That night, Martin noted there were 388 days left before the 2020 election, before promoting Nystrom, a 33-year-old former Baxter city councilwoman turned diabetes advocate. Last week, Hibbing-born Marjorie Holmstrom-Sabo returned to home from her St. Paul residence to announce her running as part of a group called the Iron Range Grassroots Progressives, with the hopes of garnering an endorsement from the DFL for the congressional seat. Over the weekend, the DNT reported that Bemidji-based Soren Sorensen, who finished fifth among five DFL candidates in the primary last year, planned to announce his own candidacy in the upcoming weeks.
“We’re going to stand up like Al did,” Martin said. “We’re going to stand up like Julie does. And we’re going to fight.”
The crowd cheered for Tomassoni, who walked up to the microphone and praised late DLFers Rukavina, U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, State Rep. Joe Begich and International Falls Mayor Bob Anderson. “They fought for the little guy,” Tomassoni said. His recognition of the late politicians was met with a standing ovation.
When introducing the keynote speaker, Tomassoni reviewed Franken’s resume of being a former cast member and writer of SNL and author turned Democratic senator who now hosts a weekly program on SiriusXM called, “The Al Franken Show.” The night’s fundraiser took place less than two weeks after a former Capitol Hill Staffer told New York magazine that Franken touched her inappropriately in 2006, two years before he won his first run for Senate.
“Some of us think he should not have resigned,” said Tomassoni, whose comments garnered applause and yet another standing ovation when Franken joined him front and center.
Franken gave a half hour speech, before suggesting that DFLers start knocking on local doors to earn votes needed to win federal and statewide seats to enable them to legislate “in the tradition of the DFL.” Ida Rukavina gifted Franken with a T-shirt, displaying one of her late father’s comments, “Hate helps no one. Love solves everything.”
The ballroom’s last call: 7:35 p.m. Sandstede closed the night by announcing raffle and auction winners for the fundraiser. “The work that we do is hard work,” she said. “The way we do it is with boots on the ground. There’s a lot of red in our district right now. It’s going to be a hard fight.”