WASHINGTON – A political star on the rise, Sen. Al Franken had emerged in recent months as a leading voice in opposition to President Donald Trump, a progressive powerhouse raising millions of dollars for Democrats across the country and frequently appearing on lists of potential 2020 presidential contenders.
Now, with one photograph, his political clout has come crashing down.
A Los Angeles radio personality’s story of being kissed and groped by Franken in 2006 — complete with a picture of him leering as his hands suggestively hovered over her chest as she slept — has added the Minnesota Democrat to a rapidly growing list of powerful, famous men accused of sexual misconduct.
Suddenly a senator whose statewide approval rating stood at 58 percent in the last Star Tribune Minnesota Poll is facing calls to resign — even from prominent Minnesota DFLers and deeply disappointed supporters.
As he faces an ethics investigation in the U.S. Senate, Franken’s future is up in the air in a seat that’s next on the ballot in 2020.
“I thought about the woman in the photo, and what I would feel like if that was me,” said Melissa Davenport, a Minneapolis woman who came to the State Capitol on Friday for a rally against sexual harassment. Davenport said she was a fan of Franken but now believes he should resign.
Asked Saturday whether Franken would resign, a spokesperson for the senator responded: “No.”
“He is spending time with his family in Washington, D.C., and will be through the Thanksgiving holiday,” the staffer said by text, “and he’s doing a lot of reflecting.”
The woman in the photo, broadcaster Leeann Tweeden, wrote a detailed account of her 2006 USO holiday tour with Franken, the former “Saturday Night Live” comedian and political satirist who at that time was still months away from launching his Minnesota Senate bid. Franken, she said, pressured her into performing a comedy skit with him, then wrote a kiss into the act, then forced a kiss on her backstage in what he called a “rehearsal.”
The senator, who is 66 and has been married to wife Franni Bryson since 1975, put out two public apologies and wrote a personal one to Tweeden, who said she accepted it.
But some of Franken’s political allies are finding it tough to forgive.
“It’s hard. He’s a friend, he’s an ally and he’s very effective. But we cannot have a double standard when it comes to having safe places that do not allow for sexual harassment,” said State Auditor Rebecca Otto, one of two DFL candidates for governor in 2018 to call for Franken to resign. The other was state Rep. Erin Murphy.
Amid the national uproar, Franken skipped Thursday’s votes in the Senate and canceled several public appearances.
In a rapid sign of Franken’s diminished influence, Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa announced just hours after Tweeden went public that he would hold a confirmation hearing for Minnesota Supreme Court Justice David Stras, who Trump has nominated to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Franken, who was trying to block that hearing, did not publicly object.
Demands for Franken’s resignation have not been universal. In Op-Ed columns and online postings, some prominent progressive women said Franken’s behavior toward Tweeden, while gross and not funny, should be viewed with the perspective that he was not yet a U.S. senator and was on the USO tour as a comedian. A group of women who worked for Franken in recent years said in a public letter that he always treated them with respect.
Franken has weathered other political storms stirred by his comedic past.
Minnesotans knew who they were electing to the Senate. All of the raunchy, off-color jokes Franken wrote during his long comedy career got a thorough re-airing during the 2008 campaign.
There was his satirical “Porn-O-Rama” Playboy essay that the entire Democratic delegation stepped up to criticize. There was the time he pitched the “Saturday Night Live” writers room on a skit about the rape of journalist Leslie Stahl — an incident Trump referenced again in a tweet Thursday night.
“And to think that just last week he was lecturing anyone who would listen about sexual harassment and respect for women. Lesley Stahl tape?” the president tweeted, prompting a furious backlash from Democrats who quickly pointed out that a dozen women have accused the president himself of sexual harassment.
Were Franken to resign in the next few months, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton would appoint a temporary replacement, and the seat would be up for special election in November 2018. The winner of that race would again face voters in November 2020.
Franken’s allies, and Franken himself, have pitched an alternative to resignation that would confront his behavior without costing him his career — the Senate Ethics Committee.
Franken said he would “gladly cooperate” with a Senate ethics investigation into his behavior. But it’s unclear whether the bipartisan six-member committee, which fields dozens of questions each year about senators’ financial dealings and use of the power and privilege of their office, would look into behavior that predates a senator’s election.
The small, secretive Senate Ethics Committee has tackled sexual harassment cases in the past. There was the notorious case of Sen. Bob Packwood, an Oregon Republican charged with harassing or sexually assaulting at least 19 women during his Senate tenure. Packwood resigned his seat in 1995 after a three-year ethics investigation, rather than face an expulsion vote.
Heading into the weekend, the committee was focused on a different target: Sen. Robert Menendez. The New Jersey Democrat’s bribery trial ended Thursday with a deadlocked jury. The committee launched an inquiry into his alleged misconduct the same day.
The Senate has not expelled one of its members in more than 150 years and it has not censured a senator since 1990, when Minnesota Republican Sen. Dave Durenberger was denounced for bringing “dishonor and disrepute” to the Senate over improper financial dealings involving public funds. Durenberger served out his term but did not run for re-election in 1994.
Sen. Al Franken has called for the Senate Ethics Committee to look into his harassment of a fellow performer during a 2006 USO tour. What does an ethics investigation involve? Depends on the case.
Three Republicans and three Democrats serve on the ethics committee. They field complaints about senators and staff, usually about perceived misuse of the power of their office. No modern ethics complaint has involved a senator’s conduct before they were elected — although if Alabama Republican Roy Moore wins in December, he will likely face an ethics probe into his behavior toward teenage girls.
The ethics committee has not said whether it would look into Franken’s case. It operates behind closed doors and has the power to issue subpoenas or bring in outside counsel. Its investigations can take years.
Many ethics complaints are dismissed or settled with a private letter of warning. Serious cases may be reported to the Senate for disciplinary action.
Senate censure is rare and attempts to remove senators from office are rarer still. The last senator to be censured was Sen. Dave Durenberger of Minnesota, in 1990. The last senators expelled were a group of Democrats who supported the Southern cause during the Civil War. Staff reports