MOOSE LAKE, MINN. – Greg Olson is disappointed in Sen. Al Franken and might not vote for him again. Cindy Geary says he can earn her confidence back. Dan Holte says he should resign. Barb Lindorff’s trust in him hasn’t wavered.
Sexual misconduct allegations surrounding the two-term Democratic senator from Minnesota have startled residents of this DFL-friendly area, and provoked an emotional stew of reactions in interviews with nearly two dozen of them, half of whom are women, this past week.
Most said they believe the women accusing Franken of touching them inappropriately, but even some who didn’t vote for him said they like the job he’s doing and don’t think he should step down.
Several people said they were shocked by the speed and ferocity of what Megan Stadin, 34, called a “frenzy” of sexual harassment claims that have ended the careers of high-profile business and entertainment figures. Some wondered why similar charges against President Donald Trump haven’t gotten renewed attention. And some said they hope this moment of reckoning will lead to permanent changes in workplace behavior.
“I still support him. Really, how serious was it?” said Ann-Marie Vossler, 47, as people gathered for a chili cook-off at the Moose Lake Brewing Co. on the edge of Moosehead Lake. She liked Franken’s incisive questioning of witnesses during Senate hearings, and she thinks he’s smart.
Vossler believes the accusations will “of course” make it harder for Franken to do his job, but she added, “We learn from our mistakes.”
State Rep. Mike Sundin, DFL-Esko, who represents Carlton County, said many of his constituents feel the same way. “If he’s not actually guilty of any assault or anything like that, I think people [will] understand what happened. He’s manning up and willing to face whatever happens” with a Senate Ethics Committee inquiry, Sundin said.
Moose Lake is at the southern edge of Carlton County, which Franken carried by a 19-point margin in the tight 2008 election. He won the county again in 2014 by even bigger numbers. He also carried neighboring Pine and St. Louis counties both times. Democrat Hillary Clinton beat Trump by a scant 300 votes in Carlton County last year, and by a bigger margin in St. Louis County, but Trump tallied a big win in Pine County.
Patty Murto, vice-chair of the Carlton County DFL, isn’t surprised by the ongoing support for Franken, and she thinks it will contribute to his political survival. “He’ll tuck his head back down and work hard,” she said. “By the time he runs again this will be gone.”
Interviews were conducted after harassment claims against him by four women, but before a fifth woman described similar conduct.
In mid-November, radio broadcaster Leeann Tweeden said Franken forcibly kissed her during a 2006 USO tour of the Middle East when he was a famous comedian. She released a photo of Franken, grinning, with his hands over her chest. Four other women then accused him of grabbing their buttocks or breasts while posing for pictures, before and after he was elected.
That adds up to a firing offense, said Holte, 80, as he waited for a haircut at Mel’s Cuts on Elm Avenue.
“We ought to fire him,” said Holte, who described himself as a libertarian and a conservative. He didn’t vote for Franken; he did vote for Trump. “I think he’s a terrible representative for our state,” he said of Franken. “He’s a comedian. He’s not a politician. … He said he was going back to work, but he never did work for us.”
Olson, 60, who voted for Franken, said at the brewery’s chili competition, “I have real reservations about whether he’ll get re-elected” in 2020. Would he back him again? “I’m on the fence,” he said.
More typical were the opinions of a trio of other waiting patrons at Mel’s Cuts. “I believe in him,” said Sandra Johnson, 71. “We weren’t there. We don’t know what happened. … Put yourself in his place: Would you want to be forgiven?”
Lois Latham, 70, said it’s “a good thing” that women are speaking up when powerful men have “stepped over the line.” She believes the accounts of Franken’s accusers, but she can see how actions can sometimes be misinterpreted.
“It’s tough to be in the limelight,” she said of Franken and others whose actions are under scrutiny — but stressed that she has no empathy for U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama, who’s been accused of harassing girls.
“That’s a different issue,” Latham said.
As for Franken’s future, “the man apologized and I believe him,” she said.
Two-time Franken voter John Johnson, 68, settled into a chair for a trim and called the charges against him “not relevant to him doing his job.”
He mused only half-jokingly about a drastic change in American government. “Make it all women in the Senate and the House. I wonder what this world would be like if the women were in charge.”
Dean Vitse, 61, was chatting about harassment allegations against Garrison Keillor with a bartender in the brewery’s taproom when the topic of Franken came up.
But Vitse, who said he generally votes Republican, had another politician on his mind. “We have a double standard here,” he said. “Here’s the president with all these accusations [of sexual misconduct]. Why aren’t we talking about that?” he asked.
Headlines about recent improprieties prompted a conversation with his daughter, Vitse said. “You get to just say no,” he told her.
As they waited to sample homemade chili, Cindy Geary, 57, and her husband Mick Geary, 59, discussed the Franken situation with Bob Jenkins, 75, and Linda Eckert, 64.
“I hope he survives,” Cindy Geary said. “The work that he does is meaningful and he puts his heart and soul into it.”
“The public humiliation,” she said, “has cost him a lot.”
Jenkins chimed in: “Some of it’s healthy.” Eckert noted, “It’s healthy, but it’s painful.”
Then Mick Geary added, “There’s plenty of room for enlightenment” on the issue of inappropriate behavior. “You’ve got to be more careful,” Jenkins said.
Across the room, Vossler and her friend Sherry Randa, 57, had a similar conversation. Both women believe Franken’s accusers; neither thinks he should pay for his mistakes with his political future.
“We don’t have to bury people,” Randa said. “We can just lift them up.”
That perspective was the topic of conversation between Stadin and her friend Sandy Lunde, 32. Neither woman voted for Franken.
“I do believe that sexual harassment is a real thing and needs to be addressed,” Lunde said. “It’s also a female responsibility to step up and say, ‘Don’t do that.’ ”
If all men who acted inappropriately had to forfeit their jobs, “every male out there would have to walk away,” she said. “I don’t think people’s careers should be crushed by a single incident.”
Stadin agreed. “He needs to take ownership [of his behavior] in his past and he did,” she said. “He has fought for women’s rights and that matters, too. I don’t distrust him.”
Judy Keen • 612-673-4234