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'Mad Men' star makes college debt focus of Franken rally in Duluth

DULUTH – In a season of political rallies, “the one with Don Draper” might be the one that attendees remember most.

A rally Monday at the University of Minnesota Duluth for U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., prompted “Mad Men” star Jon Hamm – with a hint of his famous five o’clock shadow – to share stories about his difficulties with paying for college.

“I went to three universities in four years, and I had financial aid at all,” Hamm told a crowd of about 200 that trended college-age and upper 20s.

The actor graduated in 1993 from the University of Missouri and wasn’t able to pay off his debt until 2004 when he started getting acting jobs.

“It shouldn’t be that way; it really shouldn’t,” he said. “It should be easier.”

Franken – first elected in 2008 – has co-sponsored a bill that that would allow borrowers to refinance old student loans.

Hamm was visiting Duluth for the first time as part of a group speaking in support of Franken. The senator recruited the actor last winter for help in his bid for re-election. Franken’s opponent in the Nov. 4 election is Republican Mike McFadden.

Tina Smith, who is Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton’s running mate, also spoke, along with fellow Democrat U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, and Duluth Mayor Don Ness. There was a push for the student vote – often lower in non-presidential election years – from all speakers.

Franken focused on several issues: student debt, gay and reproductive rights, a living wage and equal pay for women. He asked students how many worked 20 or more hours a week while attending school full time, and many hands were raised.

“Minnesota is fourth in the country in terms of the level of student debt when you graduate,” said Franken, adding that such debt is slowing the economy. He spoke about his work toward changing that, drawing applause.

But Hamm got the cellphones in the air when he climbed onstage and began charming the crowd, making fun of his own hair.

The city is “stunning,” he said, and he referenced views of Lake Superior and coffee he enjoyed at Dunn Bros. But he grew serious, noting he also worked 20 hours a week at a day care while going to college full-time.

“It wasn’t that long ago I was dealing with the stuff you guys are dealing with,” Hamm said, imploring the group to “show up” on Election Day, and ending with “go Bulldogs.”

University of Wisconsin-Superior student Miranda Lillo is a fan of Hamm and a fan of his AMC show. She said she “pushed to the front” to shake his hand.

“It’s really awesome to have a public figure or an actor to come out having been in the same situation as everyday people,” said the 30-year-old, who has gone back to school after having a family. “All of us have so much debt. I have 10 years of debt.”

Duluthian Kelsey Keegan graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield last spring. She’s a supporter of Franken and his work –especially the loan refinancing bill – and seeing Hamm was a bonus, she said.

“Seeing him was inspirational,” she said. “Talking about politics, you get down. His message was powerful.”

As for Samiha Dib, a part-time UMD student who was there to hear Franken speak about women’s issues and college finance, Hamm’s identity was a mystery.

“But he was a joy to listen to,” she said.

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