The luster may be beginning to come off Al Franken's Senate campaign in Minnesota.
The comedian-turned-Democratic politician announced on Tuesday that he will be paying $70,000 in back taxes and penalties in 17 states after several weeks in which the campaign downplayed the amount of money that his company owed and changed the reasons for why the taxes (and workers' compensation insurance) had not been paid. During this period of time, Franken has also been avoiding publicly commenting about the controversy, instead relying on his surrogates to offer explanations.
Initially, it appeared that the back taxes were limited to one state (California) and as a result of a minor clerical error. Now, with Franken's decision to pay back taxes in 17 states, it appears it is more widespread.
Franken told the Associated Press Tuesday that the unpaid taxes are a result of his accountant's error, and all of the back taxes "are a repercussion of the same mistake."
While the actual infraction may be far from a campaign killer, the campaign's slow handling of the growing controversy suggests that the normally free-spoken Franken may not be fully prepared for the scrutiny that a statewide Senate campaign entails.
As Josh Green recounts in his recent profile of Franken in the Atlantic magazine:
"To project a more senatorial air, Franken is trying hard to watch what he says, and his staff has placed him in a kind of protective custody: journalists are not allowed to ride along, as is standard campaign practice, lest they overhear and report an undignified remark."
And in an election cycle where the slowing economy is a major part of the Democratic message, it never is good to have a candidate who didn't pay back taxes -- even if it was an accidental oversight. There's little doubt that this will be a major part of the Republican messaging when the race starts heating up.
Franken is running against Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) in what will be one of the most closely-watched Senate races in the country. An automated Rasmussen poll showed Coleman expanding his lead against Franken to seven points earlier this month - his highest margin in the poll to date. But Coleman faces the challenge of running in a Democratic-leaning state where President Bush and the Republican brand remain highly unpopular.
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