Commentary: Time to get to work, Al!

MINNEAPOLIS - (Workday Minnesota) During the campaign, Minnesota’s newest U.S. Senator, Al Franken, said he would be an elected official in the tradition of the man who once held his seat, the late Paul Wellstone. It’s a commitment that American’s wage earners need him to keep.

The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Franken won last November’s election, concluding an extended election process – the longest in state history – and ending any hope that Republican Norm Coleman had of keeping the seat he won in 2002 after Wellstone’s death in a plane crash.

Last year, Franken contrasted his positions and goals with those of Coleman, who was closely tied to the Bush administration. Franken pledged to uphold Wellstone’s values of “standing up for the little fella, not the Rockefellers.”

As a Democrat, he’ll give the Democratic Party 60 votes in the Senate – enough to stop any filibuster. In November, the Democrats – heavily backed by unions and other progressive organizations – won large majorities in both houses of Congress as well as the White House.

But for working people, it’s sometimes been hard to tell that the party many of them supported won the election. President Obama’s mammoth economic recovery package – designed to address the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression – clearly will stand as a major accomplishment early in his administration.

But on other critical issues, Americans are still waiting for leadership. Witness the tepid response by a number of Democrats to President Obama’s health care proposals and the unwillingness of the administration to demand real accountability from Wall Street after handing out billions of dollars in bailouts.

For organized labor, the backpedaling by some Democrats on the Employee Free Choice Act – legislation to make it easier for workers to join unions and improve their standard of living – has been particularly frustrating.

Franken took pains at a news conference Tuesday to make clear that he doesn’t view his role as that of the 60th Democratic senator, but rather as “Minnesota’s second senator.” He also noted that he will be 100th in seniority among the chamber’s 100 members.

But if he follows in the tradition of Wellstone, those numbers won’t matter. Each senator wields an enormous amount of power if she or he chooses to use it, as Wellstone demonstrated dramatically over the course of his two terms. He challenged not only Republican President George H.W. Bush, but also Democratic President Bill Clinton on issues of war, globalization and the safety net for American workers.

Wellstone was the lone voice that unsuccessfully sought to stop the government from undermining bankruptcy protections for workers forced into poverty by medical bills and unemployment. And that was years before today’s economic crisis. One can only imagine how he would respond to federal officials of all stripes who seem intent on continued catering to Wall Street.

America’s wage earners hope that Al Franken will.