Al Franken weathered six women’s sexual misconduct allegations without hearing a single resignation call from his fellow Democratic senators. No. 7 broke the dam.
The Democratic women of the Senate had been talking among themselves about the Franken allegations for weeks, one Democratic aide said. None, however, went further than to call for a Senate Ethics Committee probe of the Minnesota senator, whom many had considered a close friend.
That stance became increasingly untenable as the accusations against Franken piled up. In calls and texts, the female senators eventually came to an unstated agreement, according to another aide familiar with their discussions: The next credible story of misconduct in a credible news outlet would prompt them to call for Franken’s resignation.
When POLITICO reported Wednesday that a former Democratic congressional aide said Franken tried to forcibly kiss her in 2006, the aide said, it “was the tipping point.”
The public resignation nudge came from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a champion for reform of Capitol Hill’s sexual harassment policy who one day earlier publicly declined to push Franken. Six more Senate Democratic women followed, with head-snapping speed.
“I think many people have been talking about this for some time. And we all responded with what we had been feeling today,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said after she said Franken should step aside. “It wasn’t coordinated; it just happened.”
By day’s end, it didn’t matter that Franken was well-liked by his colleagues and prized for his fundraising acumen. A majority of the caucus that had stuck by him, despite discomfort among some, had abandoned the Minnesota Democrat amid a national awakening to the pain of sexual harassment.
“It’s painful to do it,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said Wednesday after urging Franken to step down. “But here are these courageous women who have come [forward]. It’s a fact pattern that is pretty obvious.”
Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) sounded a similar note. “I hope that members of both political parties will be guided by sound principles and even when it’s painful,” Durbin said. “And this is painful. Al Franken is my friend.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was publicly silent about Franken most of Wednesday. But a person familiar with the matter said that after the POLITICO story appeared, but before Gillibrand’s public statement, the Democratic leader placed the first of several calls to Franken urging him to resign.
Schumer also met with Franken and his wife, Franni, later Wednesday at Schumer’s Washington apartment to keep making the case.
Only after that did Schumer publicly join the chorus urging resignation.
Franken is set to speak publicly Thursday on his future amid widespread expectations he will step down. His office tweeted late Wednesday that no “final decision has been made.”
When radio anchor Leeann Tweeden came forward last month to say that Franken forcibly kissed her in 2006, with a photo that appeared to show him groping her while she slept, he said that he did not recall the incident in the same way as Tweeden. Franken echoed that defense — acknowledging wrongdoing in general without admitting specifics — in a public apology days later.
Throughout the steady drip of new misconduct allegations, all but one of them from before Franken joined the Senate, none of his fellow Democrats tried to pushed him out the door. That position became more noticeable as the harassment scandal involving Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) — and accompanying demands from fellow Democrats that he resign — grew. Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus said a double-standard was at work, an argument that put added pressure on Senate Democrats to break with Franken.
The delayed spurning of Franken is largely a testament to his popularity among his colleagues. Some, like Murray, Durbin and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), did not speak with Franken directly before they issued their resignation call, they said. Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said she gave the Minnesota senator a courtesy heads-up that she would call for his resignation.
“It really wasn’t coordinated,” Stabenow said. “I think it was a reaction to the latest announcement in the paper and you know, it’s very difficult. It’s a real tragedy.”
Other senators privately spoke to Franken directly on Wednesday and made their own personal appeals.
“I feel like I owe that to him as a colleague, to talk to him directly, and I’ve shared my thoughts about this matter with him,” Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, one in a minority of Democrats who did not call on Franken to resign Wednesday. “I’m not going to be making additional comments until after his announcement tomorrow, but I feel like I have strong feelings about it and I wanted to speak to him about it directly.”
Democrats are preparing for a huge political challenge over sexual misconduct if Alabama GOP Senate nominee Roy Moore — who has denied multiple harassment and assault allegations from women who said they were as young as 14 when the incidents took place — wins his race in a special election next week. As many Republicans struggle to overtly distance themselves from Moore, some Democrats acknowledged Wednesday that pushing Franken from the Senate would send a message that their party has no quarter for victimization of women.
Indeed, intense deliberations were underway late last week at the Democratic National Committee, with Chairman Tom Perez and senior staff debating whether to call on both Franken and Conyers to resign together, stressing the idea of zero tolerance. Conyers announced Tuesday that he was leaving Congress immediately.
Franken lobbied Perez and top aides directly, and the chair reached out to several senators along the way for input. A former civil rights lawyer and Labor Department secretary who’s been struggling to unite a divided party, he was torn on what to do.
Ultimately, the idea was shelved — but with the expectation that the statement would be made eventually.
By Wednesday morning, Perez put out a carefully written tweet: “Sen. Al Franken should step down. Everyone must share the responsibility of building a culture of trust and respect for women in every industry and workplace, and that includes our party.”
Edward-Isaac Dovere contributed to this report.