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

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

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.

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.

“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.

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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by chuck holtman on 12/21/2017 - 10:35 am.

    The railroading of Franken

    was a moral disgrace from start to finish – and will continue to be a pragmatic disgrace as well, until the Democrats articulate and implement a proper way to consider allegations against elected officials. And Franken is to be faulted for his own inadequacy in handling it. But that’s water over the dam now.

    What I would like to know is, did Franken designate his resignation for a fixed time, or to take effect at the moment that Ms. Smith is sworn in? If the former, as it seems from the article, that seems like an egregiously unconsidered and risky action. One must assume it more likely than not that Mr. McConnell and his caucus, who as we know are unbound by any morality, ethics or law, will find a reason to delay Ms. Smith’s swearing in, perhaps indefinitely.

  2. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 12/21/2017 - 10:36 am.


    Chuck Schumer, et al., had never heard of MN State Senator Karin Housely, a photogenic blond haired, blue eyed daughter of working class parents from that most working class of working class suburbs, South St Paul MN. Or her high school sweetheart and husband, hockey hero Phil Housely. She will absolutely present a challenge to Tina Smith and no doubt paint a campaign picture of herself far different from her current right wing tendencies. If the Ds come up one short in the Senate in 2018 and the person that causes that is Karin Housely, Schumer has only himself to blame for his short-sighted, knee jerk removal of Al Franken.

  3. Submitted by jim hughes on 12/21/2017 - 10:54 am.


    Among fellow Democrats I’ve talked too, it’s unanimous: the party didn’t shoot itself in the foot on this one, it blew off its kneecaps. And gained absolutely nothing. They could have 20 of Trump’s accusers lined up in front of the cameras, testifying one by one, and it wouldn’t matter: they have no leverage that could possibly force him to resign, and his supporters simply don’t care.

    The Democrats in Congress lack effective leadership and as a result, tunes are being called by extreme ‘progressives’ – frustrated politicians looking for a battle they can win in a week, regardless of the long term cost.

  4. Submitted by Howard Salute on 12/21/2017 - 11:49 am.

    Franken is no Milquetoast

    Franken is liked and admired because he is a strong person and truly capable of standing up for himself. So, is it not somewhat of a stretch to think Franken just “bent over” to the party leadership and resigned. Innocent people do not resign from the Senate. Me thinks there are more skeletons in Franken’s closet.

  5. Submitted by Pat Berg on 12/21/2017 - 12:11 pm.

    I really think he could have toughed it out

    Yes, his effectiveness with his fellow Senators would have taken a pretty good hit, and he would have had to return to his early low profile days for quite a while to allow the heat to die down as the notoriously short attention span of the American public moved on to other things. But it would have allowed the voters the ultimate chance to decide whether or not they still wanted him as their Senator, and now we’ll never know. (Keep in mind that Trump defenders, and even recently-elected Doug Jones of Alabama, have all made the argument that Trump voters knew about the accusations against him and elected him anyway.)

    I haven’t yet decided, though, if I think that “toughing it out” would have been the right thing for him to do. Yes, there are the potential political costs as enumerated by Eric in his article. And then there is the simple fact that there is photographic evidence of the fact that – at least at one point in his past – he had it in him to engage in a level of behavior most decidedly unbecoming of a Senator and disrespectful to women. But did it rise to the level of a “fireable offense”, or could he have simply been placed on “probation”?

    Again, we’ll never know.

  6. Submitted by Dan Mackerman on 12/21/2017 - 12:20 pm.

    Lacking Legal Recourse is Besides the Point

    The fact that Franken lacked legal recourse is besides the point. Gillibrand and her ilk threw Franken under the bus for appearance purposes. They did themselves (and the rest of us) harm by choosing to appear as the party of mob rule and disproportionality instead of due diligence and fairness. Denying Franken an ethics hearing tarnishes whatever he chooses to do in the future, places a cloud over his successor, and sour’s many would-be supporters of the #MeToo movement.

  7. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 12/21/2017 - 02:11 pm.

    Even impeachment

    Does not lead to a trial in the legal sense, even though it is often referred to in those terms. As you point out, the Senate’s judgement does not lead to either incarceration or financial penalty. Simply to removal from office, at which point criminal or civil actions become possible.
    I’d recommend Cass Sunstein’s new book on impeachment for a good introduction.

  8. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/21/2017 - 04:09 pm.


    Among the characteristics I liked about Al Franken as Senator were what appeared to be a strong personality. Many from show business are um… narcissists requiring attention, and Franken didn’t appear to have much of an ego compared to many of his Senate colleagues. I was happy to have him as a Senator precisely **because** of his policy-wonkishness. Would that we had 95 others in the Senate of similar mind and dedication.

    I do think he was railroaded, to some degree, and while those with better connections than me (I have none) might be aware of them, I came across no real challenges to the accusations made against him. I heartily agree that Franken’s alleged (as well as photographed) transgressions don’t come close to rising to the level of what the Current Occupant and several others have been similarly accused of.

    At the same time, given Franken’s many thousands of opportunities, I’m inclined to believe the accusers, or at least their perceptions, and it’s their perceptions that matter most in this instance. It may only have been a handful of times that he grabbed someone’s butt, or otherwise behaved inappropriately, and it may even have been done without thought, but that’s not really an excuse if you’re the one on the receiving end. I have several sisters, and grew up with them. It’s an issue I’ve heard about from the time I was a teenager, and they’re all smart, capable women as adults. It can’t be dismissed as trivial.

    From the time I first learned of the accusations against him, I pretty much thought along the same lines as Lori Sturdevant. Fair or not, like it or not, Franken had to resign, and he had to do so in order to make the Democrats credible in upcoming elections when the inevitable topic of sexual harassment and assault came up. It will come up inevitably because there’s ample evidence that the Current Occupant was and is a serial harasser and assaulter. To a degree — and I’m not a party insider, or even a party member, so I’ll likely never know — Franken is the sacrificial lamb, whose sacrifice will allow Democrats in 2018 and, especially, 2020, to credibly go after the Current Occupant and his supporters in Congress on this issue, where Republicans have, to use the colloquial, no leg to stand on.

    I liked Franken, and I’m sorry to see him go, but I think he had to go, at least from his current position. I don’t think his inappropriate behavior disqualifies him from public service forever, should he choose to get involved again at some point. GIven his intellectual style, my hope is that he will end up in a position where his policy-wonkishness can be put to good use for the benefit of the society. Many of those similarly accused have never apologized, but Franken has done so. We certainly have far less qualified and knowledgeable people in public service right now. Perhaps he’ll make a comeback in a different venue, and be more careful about his behavior should that come to pass.

  9. Submitted by Joe Musich on 12/22/2017 - 02:44 pm.

    Franken has been in…

    the public eye long before he was a Senator. He went into it knowing full well the dangers of the lying, liars from what ever their source they should arise. In the end the question and I hoping I am not miss charaterizing it seems to be who did he resign to benefit may not be the question to ask. No amount of spin could change the outcome for Mr Franken who I proudly voted for two times. However as things are unfolding I cannot help but feel I have been “cheated” out of second vote. This has been done by all parties involved. The resulting consequence s I fear is the loss of this Senate seat to a progressive people oriented agenda. For this I am sad.

  10. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 12/28/2017 - 09:40 pm.

    “a policy wonk to the end”

    I just can’t forget that unforgettable Al Franken TV interview. embarrassing…

  11. Submitted by John Evans on 12/31/2017 - 08:09 pm.

    My take is a little different.

    Franken from the beginning has refused to directly contradict his accusers because he wants all such accusations to be taken seriously and examined calmly and fully. He knows and admits that in some of these instances, he really did do wrong, and he seems to have wanted to pay his penance by subjecting his own behavior (and misbehavior) to a rigorous public examination by the ethics committee.

    This would have had two purposes; first, to apply the principles of evidence and proportionality to these accusations, to determine what Franken really is guilty (and not guilty) of, how serious it was, and what punishment or remedy is appropriate.

    The second and perhaps more important reason is that the process could have served the springboard for the dialogue we really need to have in this country about sexual assault and abuse. This was a great opportunity that Schumer, Gillibrand, et al. chose to forego as a pure electoral calculation.

    That’s a shame because we lose a good senator who could have wielded some real power when control of the senate next flips. It’s also a shame because we need a model for a process in which complaints of sexual misconduct are not just weapons, but steps in a process of change.

    Society doesn’t change unless people change. Some guys just need to be told to keep their hands to themselves. Some misbehavior needs a public acknowledgement, an apology and a credible promise to stop doing that, and to change the behavior.

    This is the process of change that I think Franken hoped to model for us all. It’s a process that we’d all like to see repeated in millions of workplaces, colleges, high schools and even grade schools.

    THAT’S how you make positive change in society. That’s the opportunity senate Democrats gave up when they decided to just let the Republicans take Franken’s scalp.

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