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Minnesota lawmakers push back on Norway ambassador pick

Ambassador to Norway isn't a crucial American diplomatic post. Most nominees skate through Senate approval on their way to Oslo.

And then there is George Tsunis.

A wealthy New York businessman and one of the top donors to President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012, Tsunis stumbled through his Senate hearing in January, bungling questions on Norwegian politics like a student not quite ready for the big test. Tsunis also admitted he'd never stepped foot in Norway.

His nomination has turned into a minor embarrassment for the Obama Administration. Several prominent Democrats say they won't vote for Tsunis on the grounds he's not qualified. Minnesota's Norwegian-American community, the largest in the country, has rallied against Tsunis' nomination, as have Swedish-American groups.

Last week, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who's up for re-election this fall, announced his opposition. "We want diplomats to be pretty good under pressure anyway," Franken said. "He seemed not to be and he displayed a tremendous amount of ignorance about Norway."

It's not unusual for big political donors to be rewarded with easy diplomatic assignments. Tsunis, though, was unusually ignorant of the country where he would be the chief U.S. diplomat.

At his confirmation hearing, Tsunis said Norway has a president. It doesn't. The country has a king and a prime minister.

Tsunis described one of Norway's major political parties, part of the current government, as a "fringe element" that "spewed hatred." U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona was unimpressed.

"The government has denounced them? They're part of the coalition of the government," McCain told Tsunis.

"You know what? I stand corrected," Tsunis replied.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar also opposes the nomination, as do U.S. Reps. Betty McCollum and Erik Paulsen, who co-chair the House Norway Caucus.

Paulsen said sending Tsunis to Norway would be disrespectful of the two countries' long partnership.

"It's just difficult to foster a productive relationship with one of our best allies and friends in Norway when we pick an ambassador who's the punch line for late-night comedy shows," Paulsen said.

The arguments Minnesota's Norwegians make against Tsunis aren't about national identity. Like Paulsen, they think Tsunis will embarrass the United States.

Ivar Sorensen, a former head of the Norwegian-American Chamber of Commerce, said he's not against sending wealthy donors abroad as ambassadors but they must have some minimal qualifications. "Mr. Tsunis, unfortunately, failed the test in public view," he said.

Sorensen, who emigrated from Norway to the United States as an adult, spoke from Oslo where he was vacationing. News of Tsunis' remarks made for some pretty unflattering headlines in Norway.

"If he shows up here, he will simply not be taken seriously by the Norwegian government," he added.

The nomination of someone who appears unfit for the job also sends a terrible message to the public, said St. Paul lawyer Mike Davis, who helped orchestrate the campaign to stop Tsunis.

"We should not have individuals who are fully unqualified for the position and being paid a salary that most Americans can never dream of," Davis said.

No other senators have yet announced their opposition to Tsunis, but Davis and his allies are lobbying other members, too.

Tsunis's fate is ultimately up to the Obama administration and to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has the power to bring the nomination up for a vote. The White House and Reid have remained silent on the matter.