Mesabi Daily News, Nov. 27

With spotlight on, Minnesotans realize their 2008 Franken fears

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., on Thursday issued an apology to the citizens of Minnesota over allegations of his sexual misconduct with four women.

A rising political star in January, Franken was among a handful of progressive Democrats routinely mentioned as a viable presidential candidate in 2020. He had it what took, they said: Name recognition, solid Democratic credentials, experience in the Senate and the wit to hold his own the debate stage and public light.

Fast forward to November and the senator is reeling from a scandal that he allegedly groped four women — one as comedian and three as a first-term senator or during his first campaign for Senate. Instead of building on his rising political profile, Franken is left defending his decision to stay in office three years out of his next re-election cycle.

The decision to resign or expel him is a complicated one, and unfortunately heavy in political partisanship. Franken has vowed not to resign and to regain the trust of Minnesotans. But this is a longer road for Franken in particular.

A scandal of this sort was the worst nightmare for Minnesotans — supporters and detractors alike — after the comedian-turned-politician first ran for the U.S. Senate in 2008. He was quickly on the defensive over parodies, old jokes and raunchy comedic writings. He faced questions then on whether he could embarrass the state, the party and the voters.

Franken has proved those fears wrong over the past eight years with a solid work ethic in the Senate, and cruised to re-election in 2016. But his recent misconduct allegations threaten to undo the trust gained in Minnesota voters, and prove that his supporters and opponents were right to question if he would be a sideshow.

Much of Minnesota is left shaking their heads by these accusations, some are embarrassed and others are saying "I told you so" about Franken.

(It is fair to point out, however, that harassment and misconduct is an issue not contained to the rich, famous and political — and anyone in public office could face the same allegations).

If Franken does in fact keep his seat through this firestorm and the Senate Ethics Committee, it will be a long road to 2020, where if he decides to seek another term, the primary and general election will be fraught with competition.

It would be wise for the senator to go back to 2008, fly well-below the radar and work in the background for his beleaguered Minnesota constituents.

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Minneapolis Star Tribune, Nov. 20

Seek balance on polling place speech

The U.S. Supreme Court, of the many choices it could make on the contested legal questions of the day, has reached down and plucked for consideration a Minnesota law that attempts to keep the polling place a neutral space in which voters can contemplate their choices, relatively free of political noise.

The statute, similar to those in nine other states, says that "a person may not display campaign material, post signs, ask, solicit or in any manner try to induce a voter" within 100 feet of a polling place. It prohibits anyone from distributing "political badges, political buttons or other political insignia to be worn at or about the polling place on the day of the primary or election." The ubiquitous "I Voted" stickers are explicitly exempted.

Andy Cilek, of the Minnesota Voters Alliance, set out to test the ban in 2010 when he wore a "Don't Tread on Me" T-shirt that bore the logo of the tea party and a button that said "Please I.D. Me," showing the group's website and phone number. The alliance, claiming to combat alleged voter fraud, has employed a number of tactics over the years that seem far more likely to suppress certain voter turnout, including a rejected demand for individual voter histories, "bounties" offered for information leading to what they consider fraudulent voters and sending self-appointed poll-watchers to certain election places. Last year, the alliance urged election judges to break the law by refusing to follow election procedure on how to handle possibly ineligible voters and it previously took out billboards proclaiming — without evidence — that Minnesota led the nation in voter fraud.

This latest effort feels like another attempt at voter suppression. Were the court to strike down the law in its entirety, it might pave the way for polling places filled with political messages — some of which could be perceived as voter intimidation.

And yet, there is value in examining the language of Minnesota's law, which is undoubtedly broad and invites subjective decisions as to what constitutes a political message. Supporters of the law argue that the ban does not discriminate based on political views. It does not apply outside the narrow boundaries of Election Day polling places. Earlier court decisions have ruled that government has a right to maintain a small zone in which voters can be momentarily free of attempts to influence their decisions. The Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion, which upheld a lower-court ruling on the validity of Minnesota's ban, said that "even if Tea Party apparel is not election-related, it is not unreasonable to prohibit it in a polling place." Such a ban, it said, is "wholly consistent with the (state)'s legitimate interest in preserving polling place decorum and neutrality."

But it is possible for such a vaguely worded law to be interpreted too broadly. Does it protect against arbitrary decisions restricting voters who wear, say, an AARP T-shirt or a button promoting Ducks Unlimited? What about an NRA shirt in a year when there is no gun initiative on the ballot or a Black Lives Matter hat? Volunteer election judges might welcome more guidance on such matters.

A middle ground would be to preserve the law but narrow its prohibitions to issues and candidates on the ballot or messages that could be perceived as intimidating to voters. Free speech is a sacred right in this country, but so too is the right to vote. Both must be protected and the courts must be vigilant in finding a balance.

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Mankato Free Press, Nov. 22

Gun crime: Push to fully enforce gun laws

The Hennepin County Attorney's office is getting tougher on prosecuting gun crime and the spirit of that strategy should be seriously considered by county attorneys across the state.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman no longer allows his prosecutors to plea bargain by dropping gun charges against defendants, and it has resulted in more convictions and more guns that are taken off the streets and out of the hands of dangerous people.

Freeman's office seems ready and willing to lock up the drug dealers carrying guns illegally, and so-called "petty thieves" who in reality are felons in possession of firearms. They will lock up the domestic abusers and the thugs who carry guns illegally.

Plea-bargains have long been standard practice in gun charges. We now have a more violent society with mass shootings occurring at horrific rates. Plea deals are reached too easily with defendants with weapons offenses. Those weapons charges are usually the first charges to be dropped.

We can no longer afford such leniency. Until people know they will do time for carrying guns illegally or carrying illegal guns will they get the message they will pay for their crimes.

Freeman has said enough is enough. He instituted a policy in the Hennepin County Attorney's office to ban his attorneys from making plea deals in regard to gun crimes.

"It's absolutely prohibited to use a gun as a negotiation lever" Freeman told the Star Tribune. "Anyone who does that has got their ass in a sling here," he said.

We back Freeman's stance unequivocally. It's time all prosecutors got tougher on gun crimes. Hennepin County prosecuted every gun charge brought to it by police last year, a total of 464 cases, according to a report by the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission.

Prosecutors across the state appear to be getting tougher on gun crimes as well. Statewide, police brought 1,200 gun cases before prosecutors and prosecutors charged 1,085 of them, 400 more than a decade ago, according to the Sentencing Commission report.

Some 758 resulted in convictions and mandatory sentences were handed out in 430 cases.

Public defenders say Freeman's policy is "troubling" because gun charges are brought against suspects just having guns and not using them. They argue these people haven't committed violent crimes. Those pleas are rightly rejected by prosecutors whose job it is to protect society against the wave on gun violence that is becoming a daily occurrence.

Freeman is also working with the U.S. Attorney's Office to coordinate prosecution of gun crimes. In some cases, federal charges are also warranted and should be vigorously pursued.

While Blue Earth County does not see anywhere near the gun violence of Hennepin County, Blue Earth County Attorney Pat McDermott says his office takes gun crime seriously. Suspects with previous violent history will be prosecuted for even secondary gun crimes, he said.

While McDermott does not agree with a "one-size-fits-all" with regard to guns, he said he doesn't believe gun charges are always the first to be dropped in Blue Earth County plea deals. While he doesn't adhere to what Hennepin County is doing, he says Blue Earth County is "not too far" from that kind of approach.

He says as a rule his office considers gun crime cases very serious.

Random gun violence is exploding in Minneapolis and Freeman is taking action. We'd like to see more prosecutors around the state take the same attitude before gun violence takes hold everywhere in big ways. Felons in possession of guns are breaking the law. They should be prosecuted.