How Senate Women Turned the Tide Against Al Franken

After weeks of uncertainty about his fate, the Senate's Democratic women forced the issue Wednesday.

Sens. Mazie Hirono, Kirsten Gillibrand, Heidi Heitkamp, and Debbie Stabenow called on Sen. Al Franken to resign Wednesday.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Dec. 6, 2017, 8 p.m.

After the seventh allegation of Sen. Al Franken’s sexual misconduct, the Senate’s Democratic women had heard enough. By around noon Wednesday, seven senators—Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Marie Hirono of Hawaii, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Kamala Harris of California, Patty Murray of Washington, and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin—called on Franken to resign.

The condemnation seemed to come all at once. Less than a month ago, broadcaster and model Leeann Tweeden said Franken “forcibly kissed” and groped her during a USO tour in 2006. Despite Franken’s apologies and acceptance of a Senate Ethics Committee investigation, the pattern of groping and unwanted kissing became clear after further allegations, including an eighth woman whose account was published Wednesday afternoon.

It took less than three hours for those seven senators to call for Franken’s resignation. More than 20 other Democratic senators, including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, joined them. The members said their message was a part of a larger cultural change in America in how the country deals with sexual harassment.

“I think history and culture is changing dramatically,” Murray said. “I think it started the day after the inauguration with the Women’s March and feeling empowered to speak out. I think it’s part of the #MeToo campaign right now. I think there’s a young generation of people who are saying, 'We’re not going to take it anymore,' and we have to be a part of that cultural change.”

Some of the senators said that they decided to act Wednesday morning after Politico reported that a former Democratic congressional aide alleged that Franken tried to forcibly kiss her after a taping of his radio show in 2006, before he became senator. On Thursday, Franken will make an announcement regarding the allegations; Democratic senators expect him to resign.

“I think it’s just been building,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. “I think having another woman come forward just emphasizes how serious this is.”

The quick calls for Franken’s resignation represented a sharp break from how the Senate has treated previous ethics allegations. In 1995, the Senate Ethics Committee ended its nearly three-year inquiry into GOP Sen. Bob Packwood’s actions, finding at least 18 “unwanted and unwelcome sexual advances” stretching over decades. Packwood resigned rather than face expulsion, and a Democrat, Ron Wyden, won his seat.

Wyden said that the largest changes in the 22 years since then have come over the past several months.

“It cannot really even be measured how dramatic the wave has been since the original disclosure about Harvey Weinstein—and it just continues,” Wyden said. “You can probably run a line from the '90s to this period, but nothing resembles the velocity of the changes made in the last several months.”

When Packwood resigned, there were eight women senators. Murray, who served with Packwood and was reportedly groped by Sen. Strom Thurmond in the 1990s, said the increase in women senators—there are now 21—contributed to the swift call for Franken’s resignation.

“I felt that it was really important that we stand up and be part of the voices that we are no longer going to accept this kind of behavior—and that government officials, elected officials at all levels have to be held accountable,” said Murray, a member of the Democratic leadership. “They cannot be held apart.”

In recent weeks, Reps. John Conyers of Michigan, Blake Farenthold of Texas, and Ruben Kihuen of Nevada have fought off sexual-harassment allegations. Conyers decided to step down, Farenthold has vowed to repay taxpayers for a $84,000 settlement related to his charges, and Kihuen has dodged questions about his political future as he faced calls to resign from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and others.

Republican and Democratic members of Congress have introduced legislation to boost sexual-harassment training and strengthen the complaint process for the victims. On Wednesday, members announced a bill to void forced-arbitration agreements that prevent employees from discussing their cases of abuse or take them to trial.

But Democrats charged that some Republicans are not doing their part, pointing to President Trump and the Republican National Committee’s support of Roy Moore, the Senate candidate who is alleged to have preyed on teenagers. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said Moore will face an ethics investigation if elected.

“I think the White House and Republicans should take this as seriously as Democrats do,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

In an interview with reporters, Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, an Iraq War veteran, said she’s been friends with Franken since she met him as a Wounded Warrior at Walter Reed hospital years ago, and that she was “devastated” to ask for his resignation.

“Frankly, I believe the women at the end of the day,” she said. “And so that means that no matter who the person is, whether they’re my friend or not—they should suffer the consequences.”

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