Facing Second Accuser, Franken Sees His Once-Rising Star Dim
By Sheryl Gay Stolberg And Jonathan Martin
New York Times
November 20, 2017
|Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, during a committee hearing in May.|
WASHINGTON — After making the transition from comedy to politics, Senator Al Franken, Democrat of Minnesota, positioned himself as a staunch defender of women’s rights. “Sexual harassment and violence are unacceptable,’’ he wrote on Twitter last month. “We must all do our part to listen, stand with and support survivors.’’
Now it is Mr. Franken who stands accused, and his uncompromising stance in support of “survivors” of harassment has left him few options but to apologize and try to weather the storm. On Monday, a second woman said the senator touched her inappropriately, telling CNN that he grabbed her rear end as her husband took a photo of the two of them at the Minnesota State Fair in 2010. Mr. Franken said that he did not remember the episode but that he was contrite nevertheless.
The disclosure — just days after Leeann Tweeden, a radio news anchor in California, accused Mr. Franken of forcibly kissing and groping her while he was working as a comedian in 2006 — complicates an already tenuous situation for Mr. Franken, making it more difficult for him to carry out his senatorial duties and raising questions about whether his political career can survive as he is likely to face an ethics investigation.
Already, a rape victim with whom he was working on legislation has asked him to no longer sponsor the bill, which called for federal funding to train law enforcement officers in how to interview victims of sexual trauma. The victim, Abby Honold, 22, said in an interview on Monday that she had asked Mr. Franken’s Minnesota colleague, Senator Amy Klobuchar, to take over his work on the measure.
“My main focus is this bill,” Ms. Honold said, “and I think if his name was on it, it would send the wrong message.”
Mr. Franken, 66, who has been mentioned as a possible presidential aspirant in 2020, joined the Senate in 2009 after a successful career in comedy, including as a writer and cast member of “Saturday Night Live.” The new accusation against him, made by Lindsay Menz, 33, of Frisco, Tex., is the first to involve Mr. Franken’s time as a senator.
CNN reported Monday morning that Ms. Menz, who previously lived in Minnesota, reached out to the network after Ms. Tweeden went public last week, saying that she wanted to share an “uncomfortable” interaction that left her feeling “gross.”
Ms. Menz told CNN that she attended the Minnesota State Fair with her husband and father in summer 2010. Her father’s business was sponsoring a radio booth, she said, and she spent the day meeting various elected officials and political candidates, including Mr. Franken, who was elected in 2008.
When Mr. Franken walked into the booth, she said, they had a brief exchange and her husband held up her phone to take a photograph of the two of them.
The network quoted her as saying that Mr. Franken “pulled me in really close, like awkward close, and as my husband took the picture, he put his hand full-fledged on my rear,” adding, “it was wrapped tightly around my butt cheek.”
In response to the disclosure, Mr. Franken issued a statement, saying: “I take thousands of photos at the state fair surrounded by hundreds of people, and I certainly don’t remember taking this picture. I feel badly that Ms. Menz came away from our interaction feeling disrespected.”
The accusations involving Mr. Franken come during a roiling debate over sexual harassment and abuse that has tarnished powerful men in the news media and the entertainment industry and cost several their jobs.
On Monday, The New York Times suspended Glenn Thrush, a White House correspondent, while it investigates allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior. And The Washington Post published a report saying eight women had accused the longtime television host Charlie Rose of making unwanted sexual advances.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are grappling with their own scandal; in Alabama, multiple women have accused the Republican candidate for Senate, Roy S. Moore, of making inappropriate sexual advances toward them when they were teenagers.
Mr. Franken issued an apology last week after Ms. Tweeden came forward, and he has supported calls from both Democrats and Republicans for the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate. While two prominent Democrats in Minnesota — including a candidate for governor — have said Mr. Franken should resign, his allies in Washington and at home remained steadfast Monday, only reiterating their calls for him to go before the ethics panel.
“This troubling story further highlights the need for an immediate and thorough ethics investigation into Senator Al Franken’s behavior,” said Ken Martin, the state party chairman. James Barone, a member of the Democratic National Committee from Minnesota, said it “would be premature” to demand Mr. Franken’s resignation before an inquiry into his conduct.
But Mr. Barone said that his conversations with fellow party activists over the weekend found a sense of “sadness and disappointment.”
“When you see somebody doing good work and you see someone personally being such a caring person, you don’t like seeing a dark side come out,” Mr. Barone said. “It’s sad.”
Mr. Franken himself remained in Washington, spending time with his wife and daughter, who lives in the capital.
But even as Mr. Franken’s allies insisted that he had no plans to step down, Democratic officials acknowledged that his fate was largely contingent on his colleagues, particularly women in his party, not abandoning him.
So far, none have; a spokeswoman for Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, who has been a fierce advocate for victims of sexual assault, said Monday that Ms. Gillibrand “believes the Ethics Committee investigation is the appropriate step and needs to happen immediately.”
Past investigations by the committee have been long and drawn out. The panel spent 22 months investigating allegations that former Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada, had made false statements and violated federal conflict of interest rules to cover up an extramarital affair; he resigned in 2011, as the inquiry was underway.
If just one Senate Democrat says Mr. Franken should quit, it would heighten the pressure on Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, to take action. On Monday, a spokesman for Mr. Schumer declined to comment.
Senate Republicans, who might be eager to tear into Mr. Franken, have been hamstrung by accusations of sexual misconduct and assault against President Trump.
And prominent women’s rights groups on the left remained subdued after the disclosure on Monday, declining to go beyond what they had said after Ms. Tweeden made her claims last week. Mr. Franken’s former female aides continue to stand by him. Fourteen have signed a statement saying he treated them with the “utmost respect” and “valued our work and our opinions.”
Were Mr. Franken to quit, Gov. Mark Dayton of Minnesota, a Democrat, would appoint a successor and a special election to fill the seat through 2020 would be held next year. A number of prominent female Democratic officeholders in the state could step in to fill the post, including the lieutenant governor and the attorney general.