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One year after taking office, Norm Coleman is a political lightning rod
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Sen Norm Coleman, R-Minn., hosted a holiday reception at his St. Paul office for foreign children who've been recently adopted by Minnesota families. (MPRPhoto/Mark Zdechlik)
Norm Coleman is approaching the one year anniversary of his arrival in Washington. Coleman says he's living up to his campaign promise to "get the job done." He says his first year has been a success; particularly for a freshman. Minnesota DFL Party leaders say there's no question Coleman's been busy, but they say he has focused on building up his own public profile, not on helping Minnesotans.

St. Paul, Minn. — Norm Coleman arrived in Washington already well known among the political power structure. After all, President Bush had personally chosen the former St. Paul mayor to run for the Senate. And the nation had watched him successfully campaign against Walter Mondale after Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash less than two weeks before the election.

"It's mind boggling," said Coleman smiling. "It's hard to believe a year has been gone. At times it seems like forever a year, but now I look back and it does seem like a blink of the eye."

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Image Erlandson says Coleman is out of touch

It's been a busy 12 months for Minnesota's freshman senator. Coleman has traveled to Africa, Columbia, Cuba and to Mexico. He's augmented that official Senate business with dozens of fundraising and party-building appearances throughout the country.

As chairman of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Coleman has held hearings on the music industry's battle with computer downloading, on defense department travel spending, and on U.S. companies setting up sham offshore tax shelters.

Coleman says he's living up to his campaign promise to be a player in Washington. One year into the job, he admits serving in the Senate is much more all encompassing than he thought it would be.

"The scope of information that I have to deal with is a little numbing," Coleman said. "I will go from a meeting on sugar policy and the next minute you're dealing with health care and medical device technology and then you're dealing with veterans issues and then you're talking to folks back home about calling the State Department to get a little baby out of an orphanage in the middle of a war in Liberia and then you're meeting with Alan Greenspan to have a cup of coffee to talk about tax policy, and on and on and on."

As a member of the majority Republican caucus, Coleman points to several GOP legislative victories, among them tax cuts and prescription drug coverage for seniors.

Coleman says no legislation is perfect and that compromising and getting something is preferable to digging in and failing to pass bills. "I am one of those who would rather get 50 percent of something than 100 percent of nothing. When I first got in I pushed real hard to get disaster assistance for Minnesota farmers; again that was another thing that was hung up. Some folks said $6 billion or nothing. And I said no. Let's say $3 billion, which ended up meeting the needs of about 90 percent of Minnesota farmers. But I thought: let's find some common ground."

He's among the young senators who are now mentioned as among those to watch.
- Steven Smith, Director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis

Coleman takes credit for getting $5.5 million appropriated for the North Star Commuter Rail train line. He was instrumental in lining up $800 million in loan guarantees for a proposed coal gasification plant in northeastern Minnesota. Those loan guarantees are in the energy bill that remains held up in the Senate.

Coleman also worked with Minnesota's senior senator, Democrat Mark Dayton, on provisions of the energy bill that would double the use of ethanol and other renewable fuels.

Minnesota's two senators also successfully sponsored legislation requiring the military to pay for travel all the way home for soldiers on temporary leave from overseas missions. Prior to the law change, the Department of Defense took care of GIs travel costs only to the United States, not to their ultimate destination.

Coleman says he has worked hard to be effective, "I have been, I think, pretty successful for a freshman."

While Coleman gives himself high marks for his first year in the Senate, Minnesota Democratic leaders have a different take. They're still furious that Coleman told a reporter he was "a 99-percent improvement" over former Sen. Paul Wellstone, even though Coleman quickly apologized for the comment. He said it was a reference to his relatively good relations with the Republican White House.

Some Democrats say Coleman talks too much to reporters and not enough to ordinary Minnesotans.

"Perhaps President Bush would say something like this is the guy that's all hat and no cattle," says Minnesota DFL Chairman Mike Erlandson. Erlandson contends Coleman's success in Washington has been with public relations, not public policy.

"His priorities are, I think, a little bit off," says Erlandson. "I think they should be Minnesota-based. I think that you hunker down, learn the rules of the Senate, learn how to deliver for the state of Minnesota and I think he's spent more time instead scurrying in front of a camera or traveling around the country, really at the request of Karl Rove and the Republican White House, who is all about raising money."

Coleman says raising his profile through official Senate business and political work increases his ability to get things done in Washington.

"I help my colleagues. I am very active with helping my colleagues, because when you help your colleagues, if you need something from the Finance Committee chairman or the Transportation Committee chairman, I've got a better chance of getting it because I've worked with them and I have stood with them," Coleman says.

Steven Smith, the director of the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government, and Public Policy at Washington University in St. Louis, says he thinks Coleman is trying to develop a national constituency. Smith says Coleman's efforts on behalf of his colleagues and appearances around the country could have policy and political benefits.

"It might be in part for his legislative causes, but it probably reflects at least the long-term hope that he might be a viable candidate for higher office," according to Smith.

The only higher office for a U.S. senator is the White House. Smith says Coleman has chosen a mix of policy and non-policy, domestic and foreign relations activities, which have netted him a lot of positive media coverage.

"He's already developed a reputation as an ambitious politician," Smith says. "We know that in Minnesota, but this reputation has now extended to Washington. He's among the young senators who are now mentioned as among those to watch."

Coleman downplays speculation that his long-term plans include running for national office.

"I'm humbled to be a United States senator," Coleman says. "I've served a year in office. It's a six-year term. There's a lot to be done. I think I have had a good start -- and I say that with humility -- a really good start. I've been able to produce for Minnesota, but there's more work to be done and that really is where my focus is."

Coleman says he's optimistic Congress will finally pass an energy bill early next year. But he suspects it will be difficult to accomplish much in 2004 amid the politics of the race for the White House.

Still Coleman says he'll continue to push for his "Rural Renaissance" initiative, which would pump $50 billion of borrowed money into rural infrastructure. Coleman also says he'll continue traveling around the country to campaign for President Bush and other Republicans.

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