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Franken’s Senate exit: a policy wonk to the end

Sen. Al Franken made an interesting choice about how to spend his last Senate days, in keeping with his reputation as a very substantive senator.

Sen. Al Franken requested an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee, which presumably would have occurred, with who knows what result.
REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Notwithstanding public calls from a few interesting quarters (former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson, for one, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, for another) that he reconsider his announced intention to resign, Sen. Al Franken yesterday firmed up the date he would hand in his official resignation. It’s Jan. 2.

His designated replacement, Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, will be sworn in the next day to serve until a 2018 special election for the seat. Yesterday, the first Republican, state Sen. Karin Housley, announced she would seek her party’s nomination in that race.

The public announcement of the date of Franken’s resignation was made quietly by a spokesperson for Franken’s Senate office. Franken had already announced on the floor of the Senate that he would resign, but left the date open, presumably to arrange a smooth transition with no gap in Minnesota’s representation.

How he’s spending his last Senate days

Franken made an interesting choice about how to spend his last Senate days, in keeping with his reputation as a very substantive senator, to make a series of wonky statements from the Senate floor on public policy issues on which he has focused during his Senate career.

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Despite coming into the Senate from a show biz career and departing under the pressure of allegations of sexual misconduct, Franken has been a substance geek in the Senate, so I admire his decision to focus on policy as he finishes up.

If you are so inclined, you can view the first of his farewell floor statements, on education policy, here, or the second one, on net neutrality and some related issues of communications media, here.

It was a strange, but fitting choice for Franken, for which I salute him.

During the tumultuous days after the female accusers began emerging, I had a hard time figuring out what to say. Maybe I can offer a few thoughts (and links) today.

As you may know, there are those who believe the accusations against him were trumped up or orchestrated or perhaps just exaggerated by his political opponents. (One of the best pieces arguing that Franken was framed/railroaded is here.)

Franken’s own public strategy seemed strange, especially from a guy like Franken, who has demonstrated many times that he knows how to deploy facts and logic in an argument. He neither admitted nor denied most of the allegations of improper actions toward women (with the exception of the one for which there was photographic evidence). But he kept saying that even though he had a different recollection of some of the incidents, or no recollection of other incidents, that it was important that his accusers be listened to with respect. He requested an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee, which presumably would have occurred, with who knows what result.

Dem colleagues called for resignation

But as more accusers came forward, his own Democratic Senate colleagues, led by several women senators and eventually joined by their caucus leader, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, called for him to resign. Franken soon announced his intention to resign, while sticking with his nondenial denial.

My esteemed former Strib colleague Lori Sturdevant captured (I think) the correct political analysis with a column arguing that Franken was pushed out by his colleagues because:

“Democrats want to brand their party as a bastion of fairness and opportunity for women, particularly in the eyes of the huge millennial generation, now fully of voting age. Party leaders are keen to be the beneficiaries of the anger that erupted within that cohort when a man who bragged about groping women defeated the first major-party female nominee for president.

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“In the Senate, Democrats want to be able to stand on high ground as they call out Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, accused of hitting on teenagers half his age while serving as a county prosecutor. They want to keep reminding the nation that a dozen women accused then-candidate Donald Trump of misconduct, without having to fend off the rebuttal, “What about Al Franken?”

That struck me as right. And there’s some early evidence (as in the recent calls by Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand for President Trump to resign over his alleged sexual predations) to support that theory.

On the day Franken announced he would step down, I wrote that he had made Minnesota proud. I liked his Senate floor statement, and I liked his Senate career. I noted that, after enough of them had come forward, I believed his accusers, or at least enough of them to justify his decision.

Arguments following announcement

Several people have argued with me that, even if they were all true, compared with the alleged sexual predations of Donald Trump and Roy Moore, Franken’s actions were less serious. Point taken but not necessarily relevant to the question of whether Franken’s alleged actions, if true, were grounds to resign.

Lastly, and just to be annoying, I argued with several friends who took the position that Franken was punished for unproven allegations and therefore denied the “due process” to which he was entitled and which he would have received if he had been allowed to go through the Ethics Committee investigative process. I hear the “due process” one a lot.

My reply is (apparently, according to the reactions of those to whom I made my argument) annoyingly technical and legalistic.

Two points: “Due process” is what entitles an accused criminal to his day in court. Franken was not accused by police or prosecutors of a crime. The Constitution does not entitle a U.S. senator to a trial (except in cases of impeachment), nor is anyone threatening to lock Franken up. Taking his case to the Ethics Committee for an investigation and hearing is not Franken’s constitutional “right,” except in the sense of being an analogy, and an imperfect one.

Point two (and this one both more annoying and more unarguable) Franken was not literally “denied” his “right” to have his matter investigated by the Ethics Committee. Upon learning that the majority of his caucus said he should resign, he decided to do so.

I’m not happy to see his Senate career end. And you can argue, if you like, that he really had no choice after a majority of his Democratic colleagues, including his Senate mentor and caucus leader Schumer, called for his resignation. But in a matter that was more political than legal, the stampede of announcements that he should resign, followed by his “decision” to resign, turned out to be the amount of process that he was due.