U.S. Sen. Al Franken is leaving Congress much the way he entered it, amid a swirl of controversy and surrounded by equally ardent defenders and detractors.
Franken's fall was swift — a matter of weeks between the first accusation and Thursday's pledge to resign. It reflects a rapidly shifting national dialogue on sexual harassment and misconduct that is quickly creating a new order, one in which there is little tolerance for the kind of behavior that earlier might easily have been dismissed or gotten a mere wrist slap.
That does not make Franken a victim. He is among the first wave of those who are suffering serious penalties for behavior that victimized women. In an otherwise emotional and gracious speech, the one sour note was Franken's continued refusal to acknowledge his actions. He continued to assert that the incidents are either untrue or unremembered by him. Some of his closest allies struck a different note.
Gov. Mark Dayton, before noting that he considered Franken a friend, first said in a statement Thursday that "I extend my deepest regrets to the women who have had to endure their unwanted experiences with Senator Franken." Similarly, DFL State Party Chair Ken Martin called Franken "a tireless and strong progressive on behalf of Minnesotans," but added that it "in no way excuses his behavior toward the women who came forward. His resignation today is an important part of the healing process."
Franken should be commended for recognizing that his greatest obligation is to the people he represents and that circumstances had compromised his ability to be an effective senator, as the Star Tribune Editorial Board argued Thursday. There is a personal loss here for Franken, who called his Senate service "the great honor of my life." But there is a loss, too, for Minnesota. A relatively popular, hardworking public official with the seniority to command important committee assignments, the relationships that build good legislation and the voice so needed to cut through obfuscation with piercing questions is leaving. In a body like the Senate, where newcomers start at the bottom, there is no quick or easy way to replace that.
As a senator, Franken fought hard for advances in mental health legislation, brought awareness to the dangers of overreaching technology, worked with Native Americans, championed the Violence Against Women Act, pushed for badly needed Wall Street reforms and more. He was aided by his previous celebrity, a sharp wit and a sharper tongue, all of which worked to give him an outsized presence even as a freshman.
That voice in the Senate will soon be quieted. But other voices are being heard, voices that for too long have been ignored or trivialized. Minnesotans should be proud that this state has signaled that sexual misconduct will no longer be tolerated or excused. There are others in public office — or attempting to enter public office — who must be held accountable as well.
The work is just beginning.
Minneapolis Star Tribune, Dec. 7