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Sen. Al Franken will resign, leaving behind a complicated legacy

Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday, Franken said: “…[T]his decision is not about me. It’s about the people of Minnesota. It’s become clear that I can’t pursue the Ethics Committee process and at the same time remain an effective senator for them.”

Sen. Al Franken
REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

A month ago, Sen. Al Franken was at the pinnacle of his career in politics: his sharp questioning of Donald Trump’s cabinet appointments made him a viral star and the darling of the progressive left. He was raising piles of cash for Democratic candidates. He had a best-selling book, “Giant of the Senate,” and had just come off a glowing publicity tour. Liberals were clamoring for him to make a run for the White House in 2020 — and pundits were seriously considering it.

Today, Franken announced he intends to resign from the U.S. Senate, beset by eight allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct spanning from the early 2000s to a few years ago. The first allegation, which came on November 16 from radio host Leeann Tweeden, prompted an outpouring of women sharing stories of Franken groping them, attempting to forcibly kiss them, or saying suggestive or lewd things to them.

Franken appeared determined to stay on and cooperate with a Senate Ethics Committee investigation into his conduct. But he found himself in an increasingly untenable situation after dozens of his Senate colleagues called for his resignation on Wednesday.

Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday morning, Franken announced that he will resign as a U.S. Senator in “the coming weeks.” Surrounded by about two-dozen of his Senate colleagues, his staff, and family and friends sitting in the Senate gallery, an emotional Franken spoke for about 10 minutes, announcing his resignation while denying some of the claims against him, and calling out the irony that Republicans accused of sexual misconduct are not facing the scrutiny he is.

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“I know in my heart that nothing I have done as a senator,” Franken said forcefully, “nothing, has brought dishonor on this institution… But this decision is not about me. It’s about the people of Minnesota. It’s become clear that I can’t pursue the Ethics Committee process and at the same time remain an effective senator for them.”

The national reckoning over sexual harassment and assault — which began with revelations in October about film mogul Harvey Weinstein — reached Congress in November, and multiple lawmakers stand accused of sexual misconduct. Franken becomes the first senator to leave his job in disgrace in the wake of the “Me Too” movement.

Franken’s swift fall from grace has left Democrats in Minnesota and around the country stunned and saddened. Even before he was a senator, Franken loomed large in the world of Democratic politics: as a liberal polemicist and talk show host, he cultivated relationships with lawmakers and activists in many states. After eight years in the Senate, Franken’s popularity had grown in Minnesota, and he had become beloved among the state’s progressive base.

In the wake of his resignation, Democrats are struggling to come to terms with Franken’s political demise, what it means for his legacy, and more pressingly, its implications for Democrats in a political climate where the Republican president of the United States is accused of sexual assault, and an alleged child molester is a preferred Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama.

A spiraling scandal

Franken’s resignation caps a three-week period that saw the senator and his team attempt to manage a scandal that, with each fresh allegation, grew increasingly unmanageable.

Tweeden’s allegation — that Franken forcibly kissed her while “rehearsing” a skit during a USO tour to Iraq in 2003 — was accompanied by a photo in which a helmeted Franken is shown grinning, his hands lingering over the sleeping Tweeden’s chest.

That allegation was followed, over the course of the next 17 days, by stories from six more women: Lindsay Menz, who said Franken groped her during a photo at the state fair. Stephanie Kemplin, an Army veteran, came forward to say that Franken groped her in a photo during a USO tour, while she was serving in the War in Iraq.

There were allegations from back home in Minnesota, including from one woman who said Franken groped her and suggested they go to the bathroom together at a fundraiser in Minneapolis.

Through it, Franken struggled to craft a satisfactory response. After Tweeden’s allegation surfaced, Franken first said that he’d intended the whole thing in jest — and then issued a lengthier, more apologetic statement when backlash quickly mounted. (Notably, Tweeden accepted Franken’s apology, and did not call for his resignation.)

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After hunkering down for the Thanksgiving holiday, Franken settled on a media strategy that walked a fine line: appearing contrite and talking about respecting women’s experiences while not admitting any wrongdoing, and apologizing for making women feel uncomfortable, not for any specific action he took.

Nevertheless, calls for Franken to resign came early, including from prominent Minnesota Democrats, like State Auditor Rebecca Otto and State Rep. Erin Murphy, both candidates for governor. Those calls persisted, and grew more prevalent, with each allegation against him.

But there were factors beyond Franken’s control that hastened his ouster. In particular, two people: Roy Moore and John Conyers.

Moore, the GOP nominee to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, is accused by multiple women of pursuing them or sexually assaulting them while they were minors — one as young as 14. Some Democrats grew to believe that their credibility in attacking Moore for his treatment of women was compromised as long as Franken remained in the Senate, no matter how different the allegations against them.

In Alabama, as the Washington Post reported, Moore supporters used Franken as a weapon, countering any question about Moore’s misconduct with a “what about Franken?”

After the initial allegations against Franken hit, it was revealed that Conyers, the long-serving Michigan Democratic congressman and civil rights icon, had been accused by multiple former staffers of sexual harassment. Allegations continued to surface, painting the picture of a serial harasser, and the 88 year-old Conyers resigned, bowing to sustained pressure from Democratic leadership for him to do so.

A situation where Conyers — one of the most prominent black politicians in U.S. history — left Congress but Franken remained in office, sent a poor message in the eyes of some Democrats, no matter how different the allegations against them. In the wake of Conyers’ resignation on Tuesday, black lawmakers publicly fumed at what they saw as a “double standard” at play.

‘It’s tragic’

Before Wednesday, most Democrats in Congress were reluctant to explicitly call for Franken’s ouster. Franken had insisted he would cooperate with an investigation by the Senate Ethics Committee into his conduct, and that appeared to satisfy most of his colleagues.

When a seventh allegation against Franken was reported in Politico on Wednesday, the patience of congressional Democrats — particularly women — ran out.

Politico’s story detailed the account of a woman, a former aide to a Democratic congressman, who said Franken tried to forcibly kiss her after a taping of Franken’s radio show in 2006. The woman, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Franken claimed it was his “right as an entertainer.”

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In the 11 o’clock hour Wednesday morning, a cascade of Senate Democratic women, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, called for Franken to step down. Hours later, 28 Senate Democrats, the chair of the Democratic Party, and two members of Minnesota’s U.S. House delegation had statements out calling for Franken’s resignation. One more allegation of groping also surfaced, from writer Tina Dupuy in The Atlantic.

The Washington Post reported that, for weeks, female Democratic senators had been privately discussing Franken’s allegations and informally agreed that Wednesday’s story was the “tipping point.”

Calling on Franken to resign was not an easy move for many of his colleagues. Franken had been a popular, gregarious presence in the Senate, a sought-after co-sponsor, and a man who had donated tens of thousands of dollars to his colleagues’ campaigns through his political action committee.

By early Wednesday afternoon, the writing was on the wall: Franken’s office announced he’d be making a statement on Thursday.

On the House side of the Capitol later Wednesday, some Minnesota Democrats balanced sadness and relief at what looked to be an impending Franken departure.

First District DFL Rep. Tim Walz said “it’s a sad thing. It’s tragic for the people involved. Sen. Franken has done great work for Minnesota.”

But the Mankato Democrat, a candidate for governor, expressed frustration that the Franken story was overshadowing the work of himself and others in the Capitol. “We want to move on,” he said.

Not everyone was ready to move on, however. On Wednesday night, former Franken staffers and current political allies — not to mention supporters, speaking out on social media — reiterated their support of the embattled senator.

Alexandra Fetissoff, a former Franken aide, circulated a document detailing Franken’s accomplishments “on behalf of women” during his time in the Senate.

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Reckoning with a legacy

In the wake of Franken’s resignation, Democrats grappled with the legacy the senator leaves behind as he prepares to exit political life. Allies and supporters want to remember him as a progressive champion, and in particular, a champion for women and issues that affect them. That view, however accurate, will have to be reconciled with the allegations that forced him from the Senate.

Terri Bonoff, a former Minnesota state senator who signed a letter of support for Franken last month along with dozens of other women, told MinnPost that the way Franken is leaving office will, to a large extent, shape how he will be remembered.

“For Al, personally, it casts a shadow on his legacy and for someone who has made such an impact and made a real mark on our state and on our nation, I feel badly he will be left with the sadness of the bitter end,” she said.

Bonoff said that her heart aches for Franken and his family, but that society cannot minimize the “sea change” that is happening now over sexual harassment and assault. She said she hopes that harassment is never tolerated but also that “we can still be compassionate and respect the service Al has given the state and the nation.”

Walz spoke on Wednesday about the impact of losing someone who had become an effective Senator. “There’s a gap there to fill for that progressive voice,” he said. “These things take a bit of time. They’re so sudden that, mixed in this with the horror of what was happening to the victims, [is] also understanding there was going to be a change.”

“There’s a lot of heartache,” he said.

Eighth District DFL Rep. Rick Nolan said Franken has been a “very good U.S. Senator… he’s been very effective.” He added “it’s a sad moment, both for Sen. Franken himself and for the people of Minnesota.”

In his speech on Thursday, Franken took time to define what he sees as his legacy in the Senate. “I am proud that during my time in the Senate, I have used my power to be a champion of women, and that I’ve earned a reputation as someone who respects the women I work alongside every day,” he said.

“I know there’s been a very different picture of me painted over the last few weeks, but I know who I really am. Serving in the United States Senate has been the great honor of my life.”

Franken also named issues he’s taken on while in the Senate: prescription drug prices, programs for Native Americans, the need to fight for working people. He repeated quotes by the man who once held his seat, Paul Wellstone, early and often.

What’s next

More practically speaking, with Franken’s departure, Democrats lose a fundraising machine for the party ahead of a critical 2018 election cycle where control of the House and Senate hang in the balance. They also lose one of their most effective messengers, and a potential candidate for the presidency in 2020.

Some observers said Franken’s departure could help the Democratic Party in the long run. Christina Ewig, a professor of gender policy at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School, said the party can now credibly take the high road on sexual misconduct issues, drawing a clear contrast with a Republican Party that has not called for its own members, including the president, to resign or step aside over harassment or assault allegations.

“Franken has worked hard on a number of different levels to fight violence against women,” Ewig said. “He loses credibility on the issue when he has a string of allegations. He takes a step for the broader good on that issue when he does step down.”

Steven Schier, a professor of politics at Carleton College, said that Franken’s position as the first Democratic senator to step down in the wake of the Me Too movement will be a significant part of his legacy, but he agreed the decision has utility for Democrats.

“It gives them the moral high ground to attack Roy Moore and Donald Trump,” he said. “I think they believe they can get a lasting political advantage out of this.”

Ewig said Franken’s legacy could be somewhat like the legacy of another complicated Democratic figure: President Bill Clinton.

“People still recall the economic growth that Clinton drove under his presidency, but at the same time, when issues like sexual harassment come up, his own problems are also brought to the fore. I’m sure it will be a mixed legacy.”

Franken promised to advocate for the issues he cares about as a private citizen and activist. But he will not resign immediately, and it is unclear when he will officially leave the Senate. An aide said he will continue to carry out his duties as a senator until a date for his departure is determined, though the senator did not vote on a resolution to fund the government on Thursday evening. DFL Gov. Mark Dayton will appoint a replacement for Franken; notably, in his speech, Franken referred to his unnamed successor as a “her.”

After giving his speech, Franken hugged nearly every Democratic Senate colleague who sat and listened to him, including many of the members who called on him to resign yesterday. As the packed Senate Press Gallery filed out, Franken hugged every member of his staff who sat on the floor to watch his speech, and then he came to the dais of the chamber to shake the hands of the Senate’s professional floor staff.

“I’ll be seeing you,” he said.