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Can Franken preserve his legacy? He made his first try Wednesday

U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota talks about health care on Jan. 11, 2013. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 2
Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith says on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017, she accepts the appointment to the U.S. Senate and will run for Senate next year. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 2

ST. PAUL – As his resignation nears, U.S. Sen. Al Franken on Wednesday, Dec. 20, embarked on a series of speeches on Capitol Hill that seek at once to embolden fellow Democrats and cast a noble legacy, as opposed to one of humiliation.

Franken delivered a pair of roughly half-hour speeches Wednesday on the floor of the Senate on two issues where he can point to policies and debates in which he was intimately involved: education and the powers of technology.

The topics are a far cry from the current banter about the comedian-turned-senator, who is at risk of seeing his nine years in Congress be reduced to a punchline of a career cut short by his alleged inability to keep his hands to himself.

Franken reluctantly announced his resignation after his colleagues -- most notable a wave of Democratic women -- turned their backs on him as he faced a steady drip of allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior ranging from two alleged forced kisses to a pattern of women accusing him of groping them during photo-ops at venues such as a Twin Cities Democratic fundraiser and the Minnesota State Fair.

Franken will officially resign Jan. 2, a spokesman said Wednesday. His successor, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith -- appointed by Gov. Mark Dayton to fill the vacancy -- will be sworn in the following day.

Franken's speech Wednesday morning was the first of three he planned to give in what his press office dubbed "Reflecting on Working to Improve Education for Minnesotans and All Americans."

Education speech

Franken focused on education in a sweeping lecture that traced his policy work from early education to college tuition and from Minnesota's Leech Lake Indian Reservation to the corridors of Congress -- claiming qualified victories, imploring his colleagues to continue their work and taking shots at the administration of President Donald Trump.

He began with his entry to the Senate in 2009 following the implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act passed under President George W. Bush with bipartisan support.

Franken sat on the Education Committee, and he recounted the unintended effects of the young law, and, sprinkling in his visits to schools in Minnesota, his own part in efforts to change it.

“There’s nothing ideological about the debate," he said. "It’s about working together.”

But, as he progressed through the widely agreed-upon merits of early-childhood education to the more controversial movement for civil-rights protections for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) students, Franken frequently thumped away at Trump and Betsy DeVos, Trump's secretary of education.

"Secretary DeVos is a serious threat to our public school system and a threat to the quality of education in this country overall," Franken said.

However, he made no swipes against Republican lawmakers, and reserved his most poignant passages for moments of bipartisanship, such as a provision he wrote that aims to reduce the likelihood that foster children switching foster homes would also be forced to switch schools.

"I like to think that somewhere, there is a foster child running cross country, or developing a passion for history because of a great teacher, or doing homework with a good friend, because of legislation I worked on -- legislation that passed with a strong bipartisan majority."

Net Neutrality, tech speech

Later in the day, Franken delivered a second speech, this one focusing on net neutrality, privacy and media consolidation, in which he drew on his view from inside "Saturday Night Live" amid NBC's transformation by new corporate owners, such as General Electric and Comcast.

Striving for a statesmanlike ring, Franken hurled no rhetoric at Trump, but rather spoke in cautionary tones about the power of large media and tech companies.

“How did big tech come to control so many aspects of our lives?” he asked in a series of questions contrasted against the tech void that existed when the Constitution was written.

"I will not be here to ask those questions. … It is my colleagues in the Senate who must prioritize them going forward."

Franken is expected to give his third and final speech Thursday.

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