Franken roundtable focuses on economy

By Matthew Stolle

The seven Rochester-area residents gathered around DFL Senatorial candidate Al Franken all had a tale of economic distress to tell.

One was temporarily unemployed. Another had $18,000 in credit card debt. All expressed a sense of growing economic unease as the basic necessities of life — food, utilities and fuel — grow more expensive.

"I’m terrified of a crisis hitting," Christine Perno, a Mayo Clinic employee, told Franken, while sitting next to her husband, Anthony. "We’ve never had to struggle like this before."


As they took turns talking about their economic fears, the former comedian and liberal talk show host would scribble notes on a spiral notepad or prod them with questions.

When Demian Smith, an unemployed plumber with two children, told Franken that he would be receiving a $1,200 stimulus check from the federal government, the former comedian asked what he planned to spend it on.

"I’m probably going to buy groceries," Smith said.

Tuesday’s campaign event in Rochester was the third economic roundtable held by Franken since he started his "On Your Side" tour earlier this week.

The roundtables are billed as casual conversations with middle-class Minnesotans who are feeling the squeeze from what Franken calls the Bush-Coleman economy. Other roundtables are planned for St. Cloud and the Twin Cities.

As Franken seeks the DFL endorsement to run against GOP Sen. Norm Coleman, a common theme of his campaign has been how federal programs that helped build the middle class — such as the G.I. bill, Pell grants and Social Security survivor benefits — have been allowed to unravel.

"The gap in income and wealth is the greatest it’s been since the 1920s or maybe the gilded age. And it doesn’t seem that Washington is particularly paying attention to the needs of working families and is paying attention to the needs of the special interests," Franken told the group.

It was hard to find any disagreement among those gathered in Lloyd Carter’s modest home on Crown Point road in southwest Rochester, where "For Sale" signs sprout from several neighborhood lawns.


Christine Perno related how, until recently, her family had been able to put some money aside every month. But as costs have risen, that same amount of money "is not making it. It’s just not making it," she said. Where once the family spent $200 on groceries every two weeks, it now spends $325.

"We don’t eat caviar," said her husband, Anthony. "It’s basic meals."

When Marni Krohse, a state employee, began talking about what she hoped to provide for her young children, her voice broke and she paused.

"You know, I don’t really worry about losing my house, right now. It’s really not a worry," she said. But she said she was less certain about being able to provide those things — like bikes and vacations — that are normally associated with a middle-class lifestyle.

Afterwards, Franken said that shoring up the middle class will mean, for one, providing universal health care insurance. Entrepreneurial spirits are being stifled, he said, because people who want to start a small business can’t for fear of losing their health insurance.

"We pay twice as much per person (in health care) as any other industrialized country," Franken said. "They all have universal health care. We’re last in the world in preventative care, and that’s partly because of the waste of not having universal health care."

Franken is also calling for a 120-day moratorium on home foreclosures to stem the downward spiral of the housing market.

Tom Erickson, a spokesman for Coleman, called Coleman a friend of the middle class. He noted that Coleman supported a higher minimum wage, as well as bipartisan efforts to provide relief for homeowners and veterans facing foreclosure. Coleman also fought to keep Bush’s 2003 tax cut permanent, Erickson said, and eliminate the marriage penalty and increase the child tax credit.

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