Supporters, political allies and former employees of U.S. Sen. Al Franken responded with dismay, confusion and support Friday following his public apology for unwanted kissing and groping of a woman in 2006.
Some distanced themselves from the Democratic senator, including a Minnesota rape survivor who said she no longer wants Franken to sponsor legislation she has championed to aid sexual assault survivors. At the same time, a group of eight women who worked for Franken in recent years released a letter of support stating that he always “treated us with the utmost respect.”
The Franken revelations also created a divide in the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party toward a man who has been one of its most high-profile elected officials since he joined the U.S. Senate in 2009. Two DFL candidates for governor in 2018, State Auditor Rebecca Otto and state Rep. Erin Murphy, said Franken should resign, while a third — St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman — said that was for Franken to decide.
“I have been so torn by what to think, what to say, what to do,” Coleman wrote in a Facebook post.
Leeann Tweeden, a Los Angeles radio personality, reported a day earlier that Franken had kissed and groped at her without permission in 2006 while the two were on a USO tour in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Her account riveted Washington, throwing Franken’s political future into question and prompting Franken himself to call for the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate the behavior.
Tweeden appeared on the syndicated talk show “The View” on Friday morning, where she read from what she said was a personal letter of apology from Franken, a Minnesota Democrat. “ ‘There’s no excuse and I understand why you would feel violated by that photo,’ ” Tweeden said Franken wrote to her, in reference to a photograph that showed Franken reaching at Tweeden’s chest as she was sleeping. She said he also forced a kiss on her while they were rehearsing a comedy skit.
Tweeden reiterated that she accepts Franken’s apology.
Franken’s Washington staff did not make him available for interviews Friday. He missed several Senate votes since Tweeden went public. Tweeden has not responded to a Star Tribune interview request made through her employer, KABC Radio in Los Angeles.
In a sign of the challenges Franken will face going forward as a senator, Abby Honold, a rape survivor whose struggle to get justice after being raped in November 2014 drew national attention, said she no longer wants to work with him on legislation to aid other victims.
The bill, set to be introduced soon in the Senate, would provide funding to better train law enforcement on how to work with trauma victims. Daniel Drill-Mellum, the man who raped Honold, had worked as an intern in Franken’s office before committing the crime.
“It’s so difficult to see that from someone you know and someone you trust,” Honold said of Franken. She said she’s contacted the office of Sen. Amy Klobuchar to see if she’ll pick up the legislation. Klobuchar’s office declined to make her available for an interview but said she is now planning to introduce the bill.
Franken did get an expression of public support from women who previously worked for him. They released a letter stating that Franken had never mistreated or devalued any of them.
“Many of us spent years working for Senator Franken in Minnesota and Washington,” their statement read. “In our time working for the senator, he treated us with the utmost respect. He valued our work and our opinions and was a champion for women both in the legislation he supported and in promoting women to leadership roles in our office.”
One of the women who signed the letter, Natalie Volin Lehr, said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune that this isn’t the Franken she knows.
“I worked for him for seven years, several of which were focused on women’s outreach and related policy work,” Volin Lehr wrote. “He is a staunch supporter of women’s rights, and I am proud to have worked for him on his campaign, in his senate office, and on his leadership PAC.”
Along with Lehr, the letter was signed by former Franken staffers Katherine Blauvelt, Alexandra Fetissoff, Jessi Held, Karen Saxe, Charlotte Slaiman and Bethany Snyder.
Minnesota leaders continued to react to the news on Friday, some expressing deep conflict.
Coleman, the St. Paul mayor, noted in his Facebook post that his daughter Molly had volunteered for Franken’s first Senate campaign as a 16-year-old student. “What I do know is that something must change. It must change for Molly. It must change for women that have been subject to this behavior for years at the state Capitol.”
Lee Roper-Batker, president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, said on Twitter that the photo of Franken “shows the heart of the problem of sexual assault: without consent, I can take what I want, do what I want, & treat this person as an object. We must focus on the pervasiveness of objectification in our culture, change the culture & ensure safety of all.”
Franken, who joined the U.S. Senate in 2009, has an unusually high level of fame for a politician thanks in large part to his time as a performer and writer on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” from the late ’70s to the mid-90s. Franken, who grew up in St. Louis Park, moved back to Minnesota in 2005 to launch a political career.
Trump has faced allegations of sexual misconduct by a number of women. At a White House briefing on Friday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked how the allegations against Trump and Franken are different. “I think in one case specifically, Sen. Franken has admitted wrongdoing, and the president hasn’t,” Sanders said.
The accusations also come the same week as testimony on Capitol Hill revealed that the House has paid out millions to settle sexual harassment claims against lawmakers over at least the past decade, though identities of the victims have not been disclosed. As hundreds of women from 33 states travel to Minneapolis this weekend for a conference to train women on running for political office, sexual harassment is expected to dominate the conversation.
“I think it’s actually going to be addressed in almost every single presentation and workshop,” said Jennifer Howard, public relations director for VoteRunLead, the event organizer. “How do you handle this? How do you diffuse it? What do you do to move forward?”