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With Al Franken’s Resignation, Democrats Strive Toward a New Standard of Conduct

In a speech on the Senate floor Thursday, the Minnesota lawmaker announced that he would leave his seat, becoming the second high-profile Democrat to resign in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The conversation about Senator Al Franken has agonized Democratic voters and liberal columnists for three weeks. On Thursday, the Minnesota Democrat announced he would resign “in the coming weeks,” making him the second Democratic legislator to step down recently because of sexual misconduct allegations, coming after the senior Michigan representative John Conyers. Franken’s departure marks congressional Democrats’ attempt to purge abusers and harassers from its ranks, and to crucially distinguish their party from the Republicans, who have rallied around President Donald Trump, a confessed harasser and alleged abuser, and Roy Moore, the Alabama Senate candidate whom multiple women have accused of sexual abuse.

Franken’s resignation follows a series of unsettling revelations about his history of alleged sexual misconduct. Los Angeles radio host Leeann Tweeden came forward first on November 16, when she published an account that included a photo of Franken grabbing at her chest as she slept on a plane after a USO tour stop in 2006. She recalled Franken forcibly kissing her and then mocking her after she rejected his sexual advances. Since then, seven other women have shared similar stories about Franken grabbing them while posing together for photographs and citing his celebrity as a source of sexual entitlement. On Wednesday, Politico broke the news of the seventh accuser: a former Democratic congressional staffer who recounted Franken’s forcible attempt to kiss her at a radio studio in 2006.

“It’s my right as an entertainer,” the woman recalls Franken saying after she physically thwarted his advance, echoing the earlier accusations. This particular account motivated several Democratic senators to call for Franken’s resignation, beginning with New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand, followed by California’s Kamala Harris and Claire McCaskill of Missouri. “While Senator Franken is entitled to have the Ethics Committee conclude its review, I believe it would be better for our country if he sent a clear message that any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn’t acceptable by stepping aside to let someone else serve,” Gillibrand wrote Wednesday in a Facebook post. By the end of Wednesday, a majority of Senate Democrats had called for Franken’s resignation. A party assembling such a unified front against a popular colleague is unprecedented in the history of the Senate, and its effectiveness suggests that powerful men in the Democratic Party now face heightened scrutiny for their personal conduct. After Franken, sexual harassment might end careers.

In his resignation speech, Franken rang a few unpleasant notes of defiance. “Some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others, I remember very differently,” Franken said. He has contested the accounts of his misbehavior in similar terms since they came to light, despite having apologized to Tweeden at the onset of his downfall. Ultimately, Franken conceded, the allegations against him have irreparably damaged his credibility, even as he publicly embraced the broader reckoning that inspired Tweeden’s disclosure. “We were finally beginning to listen to women about the ways in which men’s actions affect them. The moment was long overdue. I was excited for that conversation and hopeful that it would result in real change that made life better for women all across the country and in every part of our society,” Franken said. “Then the conversation turned to me.” Throughout his speech, Franken’s defiance illuminated a broader ambivalence that has wracked the Democratic Party in recent weeks: Democrats are eager to align themselves with women’s equality and safety, but they also hesitate to do anything that would yield seats to the overwhelming GOP majority.

As congressional majorities hang in the balance next year, Democratic loyalists expressed great frustration with demands for Franken to resign while the Republicans refused to hold Trump and Moore accountable for alleged sexual misconduct, which includes child molestation and rape. Ideally, Franken’s departure suggests that Democrats will hold themselves to a higher standard than the GOP holds Trump, Moore, and other Republicans, even as the Democrats struggle to regain control of Congress in 2018. Perversely, some high-profile Republicans have rallied to Franken’s defense in the hours before and after he announced his resignation. On Thursday, former House speaker Newt Gingrich argued that Franken should have left his fate to the voters of Minnesota — an echo of the cynical GOP consensus that Republican voters in Alabama have every right to elect an alleged child molester, Moore, to the Senate next week if they so desire.

Franken’s departure sets a stunning and unprecedented example for his peers — well, at least his Democratic peers. The hope is that it will spell a zero-tolerance policy that will punish and alienate dangerous men while necessarily recruiting a greater share of women to all levels of power on Capitol Hill. This week, Franken’s and Conyers’s exits mark an auspicious start.