In the wake of allegations that Sen. Al Franken groped two women and kissed one of them without her consent, Democrats in Minnesota and around the country are grappling with a question unthinkable just weeks ago: Should Franken resign his seat in the U.S. Senate?
It’s a thorny question for Democrats, and for a multitude of reasons. For one, Franken is no congressional backbencher: He had emerged as one of the party’s brightest stars and most prolific fundraisers, a sharp inquisitor of President Donald Trump’s Cabinet members and a buzzed-about possibility for the White House himself.
Democrats are also wary of taking a concrete stand on Franken, as allegations and stories of sexual harassment and misconduct roil Congress and statehouses around the country. Calling on Franken to resign could compromise a Democrat in the future, whenever the next story inevitably reveals a colleague or political ally as a harasser, or worse.
Progressives are also thinking about their moral and political standing in all this. As Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, and President Trump himself, deny allegations of sexual assault and harassment — with the approval of many Republicans — Democrats are thinking about how their stance, or silence, on Franken affects the party’s image as a political force that defends women.
Among Democrats, tough conversations about Franken are playing out in public and in private. Few Democrats were willing to speak on the record with MinnPost about Franken, a man many of them count as a friend and political ally.
In the midst of a difficult moment for Franken and for the party, there does not appear to be a consensus, either in Minnesota or nationally, about what the senator should do. What are the arguments for and against his resignation — and who’s doing the arguing?
Setting an example
The case for Franken’s resignation revolves around protecting Democrats from accusations of hypocrisy over sexual harassment and misconduct — establishing an ethical consistency on the issue, which Democrats argue has eluded Republicans.
Two prominent Democratic women in Minnesota — State Auditor Rebecca Otto and state Rep. Erin Murphy, both candidates for governor — called on Franken to resign. “We can’t have a double standard,” Otto said in a statement. “I believe it’s in the best interest of Minnesotans and of women everywhere for Sen. Franken to resign, and to set an example to powerful men across America that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.”
Since the first allegation against Franken was published last week, a few national progressive groups have called on Franken to resign, echoing the reasons Otto put forth. The most prominent is Indivisible, the anti-Trump activist movement with chapters around the country. (The Indivisible chapter in Minnesota’s 3rd Congressional District, which has been very active, issued a statement that did not call for “any specific course of action” regarding Franken.)
CREDO Action, a progressive organizing network, said it is “committed to standing with women who speak out, holding perpetrators accountable and working to change the systemic and institutionalized misogyny that lets these behaviors continue without consequence.”
It said Franken should “immediately resign from the U.S. Senate, and that Gov. Mark Dayton should appoint a progressive woman to replace him.”
The bulk of enthusiasm and energy in pushing Franken to resign, some Minnesota Democrats say, is largely coming from younger, progressive activists.
These progressives have buzzed on social media about replacing Franken with a progressive woman: An online petition to draft DFL State Rep. Ilhan Omar for Franken’s Senate seat, for example, has circulated. “All over the country, men are being outed for their mistreatment of women. Now, that problem has come home,” the petition reads.
“Franken should resign, and make room for a woman that has inspired people around the globe to fight patriarchy and run for office. And that woman is Representative Ilhan Omar.” (The petition currently has 285 signatures.)
Justice Democrats, a progressive political action committee founded by prominent left-wing activists like Cenk Uygur, released a petition calling for Franken’s resignation last week. The PAC called on Dayton to replace Franken with 5th District Rep. Keith Ellison. (The petition has more than 7,000 signatures.)
“It would be profoundly hypocritical for Democrats to stand by Franken in this moment,” Justice Democrats said. “We can’t tolerate harassment or assault.”
Regardless of who might fill a Senate vacancy in Minnesota, some Democrats harbor serious concerns about Franken’s ability to hold on to this seat, should he run for re-election in 2020 — even if no more allegations surface about his conduct toward women.
According to Steven Schier, a professor of politics at Carleton College, Franken’s political future is in real doubt. The political argument for his resignation, Schier says, goes something like this: “He can help his own party by resigning, and allowing a younger, untainted person to carry the party banner. … He’s unlikely to get re-nominated.”
Franken could also see reduced political clout in the short term. Some Democrats argue that, for the near future, no Democrat or Republican will want to work closely with him on legislation or be seen supporting his initiatives.
A striking example of that effect has already come: For months, Franken had worked with Abby Honold, a rape survivor, on legislation to help law enforcement better respond to sexual violence cases. After the Franken news broke, Honold wrote in the Washington Post that the senator could not lead on her bill; by Monday, Sen. Amy Klobuchar had become the sponsor of that bill, replacing Franken.
2020 ‘a long ways away’
It’s unclear the extent to which Minnesota Democrats — from the political class of operatives and staffers to the activist faithful — believe Franken should resign. One DFLer said they sensed two-thirds of progressives wanted a Franken resignation; another said it was a vocal minority.
Even staunch Franken backers and Democratic partisans, however, are disgusted and disappointed by the revelations of the senator’s past behavior. But many believe that he does not need to step down — at least not right now — for a few reasons.
For one, an investigation into Franken by the Senate Ethics Committee is a certainty. Though it’s unclear what it would reveal, the promise of such a probe gives the impression that Franken could face consequences for his actions — potentially as serious as a censure vote in the Senate.
Multiple members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation, from both sides, brought up the ethics probe in their statements, while dodging the question of whether Franken’s behavior might warrant his stepping down. None of Franken’s colleagues in the Senate have called for his resignation, either.
Franken defenders note the senator’s responses to the allegations against him: After his initial response to Tweeden’s story was roundly criticized, Franken issued a lengthier, more direct apology, which Tweeden accepted. (She also said Minnesota voters should decide Franken’s political future.)
Women who have worked with Franken in politics and entertainment have come to his defense in recent day — a fact cited by his supporters. Several former political staffers, and three dozen former Saturday Night Live crew members, have all released statements defending the senator.
“We feel compelled to stand up for Al Franken, whom we have all had the pleasure of working with over the years on Saturday Night Live (SNL). What Al did was stupid and foolish, and we think it was appropriate for him to apologize to Ms. Tweeden, and to the public,” the 36 SNL women wrote.
Other Democrats have disputed the notion that Franken is now sidelined in the Senate, and out of contention for re-election. Darin Broton, a DFL consultant, said “2020 is a long ways away … the only person who can determine if Al Franken is going to be effective for the next three years is Al Franken.”
Broton, and other Democrats, made the point that calling for Franken’s head at this point could set a standard that would force Democrats to react the same way as more stories about politicians’ behavior are set to be revealed in the coming weeks and months.
“People are thinking ahead to what happens if there is another member of Congress called out for harassment,” Broton said. “Is every member of Congress or politician expected to resign based on allegations, regardless of intent or circumstances?”
Some on the left have made a more controversial point in response to that question. Feminist author Kate Harding, in a widely talked about Washington Post op-ed, said that Democrats need to tread carefully, lest other harassers in their party be ousted and potentially replaced with Republicans.
“If we set this precedent in the interest of demonstrating our party’s solidarity with harassed and abused women,” she writes, “we’re only going to drain the swamp of people who, however flawed, still regularly vote to protect women’s rights and freedoms.”
For progressives, a particularly painful element of the Franken scandal is that he was seen as a top ally and advocate for women in Congress: One of his first achievements as a lawmaker was an amendment that withheld defense contracts from firms that didn’t have strong policies on workplace sexual harassment and assault. Just last month, Franken introduced legislation to assist Native women survivors of sexual violence. He had been working on the sexual assault legislation with Honold, too.
As Democrats continue to grapple with what to do about Franken, the senator himself appears to have hunkered down for the Thanksgiving holiday at his home in Washington. Staffers for the senator say he is not planning on resigning; one told the Star Tribune that Franken will be doing “a lot of reflecting” over the holiday.
A new poll from KSTP and SurveyUSA, released Thursday, gave some early indications of the political effect of the sexual misconduct news. It showed that only 22 percent of Minnesotans sampled believe Franken should stay in office, while 33 percent said he should resign. Thirty-six percent wanted to wait for the Senate Ethics Committee investigation to run its course.
Franken’s approval rating has cratered in the past week: It went from 53 percent this time last year, to 38 percent now — five points higher than Trump’s approval rating.
“I know I’ve let people down and disappointed a lot of people — many Minnesotans, my family, and my friends,” the senator said in a statement responding to the poll. “To all of them let me say I’m so sorry. And I hope you know I’m committed to regaining your trust.”
“Is he a dead man walking?” Schier asked. “I think, politically, he probably is. There is a good political argument for him to resign. I’m not sure there’s a good legal argument — we do need some sort of due process and standards of proof before you convict someone.”
“Politically, he’s very much damaged goods,” Schier went on. “I don’t know how he overcomes that damage and rescues his career.”