Politico is reporting that actress Ashley Judd is seriously considering a run for the U.S. Senate in her native Kentucky. If Judd runs and wins the Democratic nomination, she’d be squaring off against Senate Minority Leader and possible human-turtle hybrid Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Judd is not the first celebrity to seek higher office. In just the past twenty years, wrestler and actor Jesse Ventura won the governorship in Minnesota, and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger won in California. Both men won under odd circumstances, though. Ventura won as a third-party candidate who didn’t take the lead until election day, while Schwarzenegger first took office thanks to the chaos of a recall election. If Judd wants an example of Democratic celebrity who ran for statewide office and won, she should look to the North Star State, but not to Gov. Ventura. Instead, she should look at the current Junior Senator from Minnesota, Al Franken.
Franken’s 2008 run against then-Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., was not without its drama, most notably the seemingly interminable recount. But his narrow victory has lessons for Judd, not just in how to run and win office, but what to do once you get there.
1. Run for the Right Reasons
In 2007, I had the opportunity to sit down with Franken at a Drinking Liberally event in Minneapolis. I was skeptical of his candidacy; he was a comedian and talk show host who had spent years sparring with the right. I was a DFLer, and I agreed with Franken’s politics, but I was concerned that he’d be a celebrity politician who was more interested in pushing the agenda of a narrow slice of the electorate than representing all the people of his state.
I was still skeptical about Franken’s ability to win in 2008 after I talked with him, but I was impressed with the reasons he gave for running. Franken didn’t talk about going on MSNBC, or showing up George W. Bush, or pushing a liberal agenda. He talked about service. He talked about going on USO tours and supporting the military. He talked about loving his country and wanting to give back to it, and respecting the legacy of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, DFL-Minn.
Politicians all have egos, of course, but the ones that are most successful aren’t running just for an ego trip. The best ones are running because they feel like their service can benefit their country. If Ashley Judd is running because she thinks a campaign would be fun, and she’d get a lot of positive attention and would become a media darling after she wins, then she really shouldn’t run. If she’s running because she believes in issues and wants to make a difference, that’s the kind of foundation that can lead to victory.
2. Run An Issue-Based Campaign
Franken didn’t run as a comedian, and he didn’t run as a talk show host. He ran as a politician, one who was willing to get into the weeds on issues, and discuss them in a calm and at times wonky way. Franken was willing to take shots at Coleman, but he did so not by mocking or ridiculing him, but by discussing Coleman’s record.
Certainly, Republicans attacked Franken for things he’d said and done in the past; that was inevitable. Franken’s tone throughout the campaign, however, was serious. He looked like a man who understood the difference between his past job as a comedian and the job he aspired to.
Judd has the intelligence and history to emulate Franken’s 2008 campaign. She earned a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard in 2010, and she’s been involved internationally in the fight against AIDS and the push for equal rights for women. Judd traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2010 as part of the Enough Project, which works to end genocide. Judd can point to these activities, as Franken did with his USO work, as an example of her willingness to work.
Judd will, of course, be tarred as a Hollywood elitist no matter what she does, just as Franken was bludgeoned for some of the more off-color jokes he’d written over the years. If Judd runs like a Donald Trump — full of sound and fury, signifying nothing — then these attacks will stick. If she focuses on what she wants to do as senator, they won’t.
3. If Elected, Serve
Nowhere is Franken a better example for Judd to follow than in what to do once elected. Franken went through a grueling recount, and wasn’t seated in the Senate until July of 2009. After the bitter fight, Franken could have chosen to use his win to bolster his personal reputation. He could have gone on television constantly, puffing up himself, yelling about how awful Republicans were. It wouldn’t be a recipe for long-term political success, and it definitely wouldn’t have helped the people of his state, but it would have set him up nicely for a book deal, speaking fees, even a vanity presidential run.
Franken didn’t do that. Instead, he went to the Senate and got down to work. He took on the menial duties of presiding over the Senate — a task generally given to senators with little seniority — with relish, presiding over the confirmations of Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. His first bill was not one that was designed to advance progressive causes, damn its chances of passing. Instead, Franken teamed with Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., on a bill that helped pair disabled veterans with service dogs.
That’s not to say that Franken didn’t take on liberal causes; Franken authored an amendment to the 2010 Defense Appropriations Act that withheld funding from contractors who made it difficult for victims of sexual assault to sue their employers. The amendment — a response to the awful Jamie Leigh Jones case — passed the Senate 68-30.
Franken also has been willing to address the concerns of his political opponents. In 2009, as the Tea Party was ramping up its activity, Franken was confronted by conservatives at the Minnesota State Fair. Rather than dismiss them, or run away from them, or attack them, Franken engaged with them, acknowledging their concerns, talking with them about his positions in a calm and reasoned manner. Franken didn’t apologize for his positions, and neither did the people who challenged him — but both sides came out of the event the better for it, and Franken demonstrated that he understood that he represented even those who opposed him.
In short, Franken’s three years in office have been pretty much like any other junior senator’s first three years in office. He’s worked diligently on issues, but quietly. He hasn’t blustered, or promoted himself. He’s simply served his state. He’s listened to his constituents, even those who strongly disagree with him. Generally, he’s kept a low profile, and done his job.
The result? Franken’s approval rating is +8, and he leads a generic opponent by 6. That doesn’t mean he’s unbeatable in 2014, but given the closeness of the 2008 race, it’s clear that Franken has won over many voters who rejected him before.
If Judd is serious about wanting to be senator, this is the model to follow. It isn’t flashy, and it doesn’t get you on all the talk shows. It doesn’t put you on the short list for president in 2016. What it does is demonstrate that you understand that being a celebrity doesn’t make you more important than any other senator, or indeed, any other citizen.
Franken has earned a great deal of respect in the past three years by demonstrating respect for his constituents and the institution he serves. Ashley Judd would do well to follow his example. Indeed, I can’t think of a politician who wouldn’t.
Image Credits: Photoillustration by Jeff Fecke, Images from Wikipedia