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Resignation or not, what should Democrats do with Franken campaign money?

Sen. Al Franken
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley
Sen. Al Franken speaking to attendees of the 2016 Election Night DFL gathering in Minneapolis.

As the country processes the news that Leeann Tweeden accused Sen. Al Franken of forcibly kissing her in 2006 — and posted a photo in which the senator appears to grope her while she is asleep — politicians from both parties are carefully considering their responses.

The big question they are grappling with has been whether or not to call on Franken to resign his seat. But beyond that, there’s another important question, and one that more directly affects dozens of Democratic politicians around the country: what do you do with Franken’s money?

Franken, both as a U.S. Senator and political commentator, has been a prolific fundraiser for the Democratic Party: since 2006, he has distributed $2.4 million to candidates for federal and state office, as well as the Democratic Party and associated committees, through his personal political action committee, dubbed Midwest Values PAC.

All of the Democratic members of the Minnesota congressional delegation, along with all of Franken’s Democratic Senate colleagues, have received significant campaign contributions from Midwest Values PAC.

Since the news broke on Thursday, at least one Minnesota Democrat, Angie Craig, a candidate for U.S. House in Minnesota’s 2nd District, announced she would be donating $15,000 in contributions from Franken. So far, she’s the only Minnesotan to do so, though politicians from other states have also pledged to donate the funds to charitable causes.

‘We must have zero tolerance’

The breadth and depth of Franken’s campaign cash largesse presents an unprecedented challenge for those who have benefited from it. Franken’s PAC has doled out contributions since before he was a U.S. Senator, and as his own political standing in Minnesota improved, he had become a leading fundraiser in the Democratic Party.

By the end of the 2016 election cycle, Franken’s Midwest Values PAC ranked in the top 25 of the hundreds of leadership PACs in Congress, in terms of contributions to candidates. He contributed more than his party’s leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, and dished out more than his party’s most visible star in the Senate, Elizabeth Warren.

In terms of funds raised, no current Democratic member of Congress outraised Franken in 2016: his PAC pulled in $3.3 million in donations.

Each Democratic member of the Minnesota delegation has received donations from Franken’s PAC. First District Rep. Tim Walz has netted the most — $50,000 from Midwest Values PAC since his first run for Congress in 2006.

Since 2006, Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison has received $32,500, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has received $30,000, 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan has received $28,000, 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson has received $15,000, and 4th District Rep. Betty McCollum has received $14,000.

MinnPost has reached out to all of these lawmakers’ offices to ask what they intend to do with contributions from Franken. As of press time, none have responded. (This post will be updated with their responses, if any are received.)

Though Franken has donated to the campaigns of many Democratic hopefuls over the years, the only current non-office-holding candidate who has received money from him is Craig, who is running a second time for the 2nd Congressional District seat. She lost by less than two points in 2016 to Rep. Jason Lewis.

In a statement on Thursday, Craig said “These allegations against Sen. Franken are serious and I condemn his actions… We must have zero tolerance regardless of political party.” She said she will donate $15,000 to 360 Communities, a Burnsville nonprofit that assists survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.

Beyond Minnesota, Franken has proven a reliable donor to his Democratic Senate colleagues, and to Democratic candidates seeking Senate seats. This election cycle alone — one in which 10 Democrats are up for reelection in states won by Donald Trump — Franken has given $115,000 to date to Democrats.

Several vulnerable Democrats up for re-election next year have already moved to donate contributions from Franken. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill will give $30,000 to a food bank, Montana Sen. Jon Tester will give $25,000 to a domestic violence nonprofit in his state, and Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin will give $20,000 to a nonprofit for female veterans.

Several Senate Democrats mentioned as potential 2020 presidential candidates have Franken contributions in their coffers, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and, of course, Klobuchar. Of those five, Brown has pledged to return Franken donations.

A growing trend

In recent years, the call for politicians to relinquish the money they received from powerful men accused or convicted of sexual misconduct has become a regular part of these news cycles.

In 2016, when former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, was sentenced to a year in jail for sexually abusing boys, Democrats called on Republicans who received support from Hastert to give back any donations.

Some did: 3rd District GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen donated $1,000 in contributions from Hastert’s PAC to charity, shortly after Hastert was sentenced to jail time. Former GOP Sen. Mark Kirk, of Illinois, donated $10,000 in money he received from Hastert’s PAC to charity.

In October, as stories of entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual abuse and assault spread, pressure mounted on Democrats — primarily from Republicans and their associated campaign organizations — to return his donations. Weinstein was one of the Democratic Party’s most generous donors, having contributed over $1 million to Democratic candidates and committees since 2000.

Franken himself received $20,000 in Weinstein money over the years, and in October, he donated that sum to the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center.

Calls for politicians to return “dirty money” have often served a transparently political purpose, as operatives in both parties’ House and Senate campaign organizations usually lead the charge with these efforts.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP’s House campaign arm, has called on all Democrats to return campaign money from Franken.

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Comments (16)

A tough issue to parse

The problem with accepting donations is the appearance of a quid pro quo -- in this case a hall pass for bad behavior. I don't see a way to eliminate the appearance of a quid pro quo other than resigning now, and then, if interested, facing voters again when they can make an informed choice. What to do with donated money? If it is donated AFTER a resignation, it is less tainted -- because it comes with disclosure and maybe even a commitment to serve as a fundraiser, and/or promoter of awareness on sexual abuse. No worse than accepting money from oil magnates who are committed to destroying the earth. If it is donated BEFORE a resignation -- put it in an interest-bearing escrow account, with proceeds going to sex abuse hotlines. If/when the resignation happens, then make a second choice based on behavior subsequent to this discovery.

Generous Donors

and.......Midwest Values PAC. Ironic!

Let's get real here.

This sounds flip, but I would tell the National Republican Congressional Committee that candidates might be willing to consider other ways to use the money when Congress agrees to hold hearings on the nomination of Merrick Garland.

People in politics need to be judged for who they are and what they say ALL of the time, not only in mistaken moments. Who among us has never made a mistake? It's true that the photo is disgusting and the kiss was, in my opinion, worse, but Al Franken has demonstrated in days and weeks and months and years of hard work that he is a senator who represents his constituents extremely well, including by raising money to help support other good candidates.

For the Committee to jump at an opportunity to weaken a broad range of Democratic candidates shows its real motive, which surely has nothing whatsoever to do with respect for, and the advancement of, women.

The probable demise of Al

The probable demise of Al Franken's Midwest Values PAC (I am a small, four-figure donor to that PAC) is one of the saddest consequences of his unfortunate 2006 behavior.

I'm wondering: if all these Democrats are now donating the Franken PAC's money they got to charities, can I take a charitable deduction for my contributions (once political, but now charitable)?

I know Donald Trump would do that.

Its good to have a mentor and

Its good to have a mentor and guide, but Donald Trump likely has better tax lawyers than you.

Al Franken

I don't think Al Franken should resign and I don't really see the necessity for returning the money. Al Franken has been a good congressman and has promoted an excellent agenda. He is a disappointment in his sexual harassment, but he has admitted it, apologized profusely, especially to the woman who accepted it, and even called for an investigation (although I have trouble understanding what more that would do besides eat up money). He has been accountable. So has the Minnesota DFL legislator. In contrast to Moore, trump, cornish, and a bunch of other guys who have denied the claims, called it fake news, and the like. Let's give him another chance. I believe in redemption. Second chances.

There is photographic

There is photographic evidence condemning Franken.

The only piece of evidence in Moore's case is a yearbook that the accusor says he signed. Moore denies it is his signature. The accusors lawyer has said she cannot guarantee it is genuine, and refuses to hand it over to a neutral 3rd party for analysis.

It seems to me the accusor would jump at the opportunity to have her story verified. If it is genuine, it would certainly be the end of Moore's political career.

Her refusal has put Moore back on top of the race.

Al Franken

As a donor to Al's Midwest Values Pac, I donated the money to the purposes of the Pac, not necessarily to Al directly or exclusively. The money should continue to be used to support the purposes of the Pac. I still trust Al's direction of the Pac to the kinds of persons who represent it's values.

I see significant differences in Al Franken's case than most of the other politicians' situations. 1. He was not in any elective office at the time of the incident. 2. There has so far not been a continuing pattern of such reprehensible behavior. 3. Al acknowledged the incident, immediately apologized for it publicly and to the individual; who accepted his apology and stated he should not resign.

Moore's case involved a continuing pattern of illegal incidents involving minors; he denies it all and attacks all those who have come forward with their stories. The other powerful men who are being called out on their behavior, mostly denied it ever occurred, as well.

Al Franken has certainly proven his support for and respect for women as our Senator. While I abhor his actions previously I am proud of the work he does as my Senator and I am sure he is a different man now than he was then.

I'm especially interested to

I'm especially interested to hear what Betty McCollum has to say.

During Al's campaign, McCollum came out to condemn him after a parade of deplorable behavior was made public (I think it was the rape jokes...or maybe the Gloria Wise scandal), but after a talking to the DFL closed ranks, and she changed her tune.

This is another opportunity to make good on her earlier bad decision. We'll see how she makes use of her own second chance.

A bit of perspective

Senator Franken is not even in the same league with the serial sexual predators now holding office or running for one, like Trump and Moore. Expecting him to step aside only makes sense if they do so first.

Ill gotten gains?

If it can be determined what portion of Franken's PAC funds has been raised because of the behavior recently revealed, then definitely it shoud be returned or donated to...... charity or something? Otherwise, I guess the honorable thing must be for the Democratic Party to do that with whatever portion of the $ millions raised that hasn't already been given up by the individual beneficiaries.

Giving the money back

I am just not a fan of unilateral political disarmament.

From where I sit, a Democrat of the yellow dog variety, I am tired of my principles being used against me, by people who I perceive, have few if any principles at all. It turns out now, that our DFL house in one or two areas is made of glass. Among other things, this is a good reminder to all of us to tone down the self righteousness a bit. If this results in a little less moral hectoring, it's not such a bad thing. But let's step back a bit in an effort to take a look at a big picture. I guess, Al on occasion has been a bit of a jerk. But let's face the facts here, if our party or any party insists on total purity, refusing to run candidates, take money from, ask for the votes from people who have on occasion, been jerks, we will never win elections. It should be noticed that the other party doesn't seem to have scruples in this area. Al's issues have resulted in a lot of self examination, and some gnashing of teeth among my friends and DFL colleagues. There is no sign of this at all of this sort of thing on the other side.

Let's forgive Franken for making a mistake

In the case of Franken, a lot is being made of one case of bad judgment because he has been such an effective Senator and Democratic fundraiser. Come on folks, he gave an adult woman an unwanted kiss and mugged for the camera at a time when he was a comedian. It was a mistake for which he has apologized. This hardly compares to the cases of sexual harassment we've been hearing about that involve multiple women, are close to rape, and/or involve women as young as 14. In other cases, when one woman has come forward with a story, it has spurred other women to come forward with similar stories. In the case of Franken, after the one case of harassment was reported, many women have come forward to say he treated them with respect. We also have women legislators and lobbyists saying that sexual harassment in our legislatures is rampant, so lets find out who those perpetrators are before throwing Franken under the bus.

I gave for Al to distribute to other Democratics

I give plenty to charities. But I understood that the money I gave to Al's PAC was going to Democrats and the Democratic Party. Period. Any candidate who gives any of the PAC money to charity is disrespecting the wishes of those of us who gave to advance Democratic candidates. Candidates - show some backbone. Use the money as it was intended to be used. Don't pander those who would throw Al under the bus.

Going forward

On the merits of the case, and knowing what we know right now, including the state fair incident reported this morning, I don't think there is enough there for Franken to resign on the merits. But the problem is deeper than that. Can Al still be an effective senator? Al was a bit given to a bit more of the moralizing thing than I for one, was completely comfortable. Not even I am right or moral all the time, hard as it is for me to admit. That kind of thing is gone now, and Al will be condemned to the senate equivalent of the penalty box for a while now. When he comes back he won't be the same.

At that point, Minnesota DFLers will have to ask themselves, is the always problematic Al Franken really worth the trouble? That is with the awareness that no politician is more expendable than a senate from a state whose governor is of the same party.

yawn

This is something professional pundits enjoy getting in a tizzy over and hardcore partisans start frothing over, but at the end of the day voters very rarely care about campaign contribution stories. It requires you to have taken money from an especially abhorrent and notorious person or group and that donation also has to reveal something about your character in that you agree with their terrible, awful, no good position on something. Otherwise, voters simply don't care.

It's been tried and tested more times than i can count. I've freakin' poll-tested the ads myself. 9 times out of 10 it just doesn't move the needle.

Should people care more about money and campaign contributions like this? Different story, but right now they don't. Can't say anyone who is rushing to return PAC money is impressing me all that much.