WASHINGTON — Sen. Al Franken took to the Senate floor Thursday for a final farewell, surrounded by some of the same colleagues who demanded his resignation just weeks before.
“Even in the face of everything that is happening today, I still believe in Paul [Wellstone’s] words: ‘Politics is about the improvement of people’s lives,’ ” said Franken, who will officially resign Jan. 2 after more than eight years in the Senate. He agreed to step down, reluctantly and only after pressure from political allies, after several women accused him of trying to grope, kiss or harass them.
Franken’s initial resignation announcement, which came on Dec. 7, was followed by the Senate version of a Long Minnesota Goodbye. For weeks, Franken continued to cast votes and tend to committee business while Gov. Mark Dayton selected a replacement appointee in Lt. Gov. Tina Smith.
Again and again, Franken returned to the Senate floor to deliver parting speeches on a range of topics that both summed up his core political values and tried to leave his constituents with a reminder of the statesman he had tried to be — not the guy grinning out of an 11-year-old photo with his hands reaching toward a sleeping woman’s breasts.
Franken talked about education policy, net neutrality, school bullying, the Trump administration and the eight years it took to secure federal funding to replace one crumbling high school on the Leech Lake Reservation. He talked about his bedrock belief that government can be a force for good. He talked about his family, his constituents and Wellstone, his political mentor and the person who held the same Senate seat from 1991 until his death in a plane crash in 2002.
On Thursday, Franken — author of books with titles like “Lies: And the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” — made his case for keeping politics combative, at least when it comes to battling a presidential administration he accused of lying about issues ranging from health care to voting rights.
Arguments, whether around the Senate chamber or around the supper table, are a big reason why a lot of people don’t like politics, Franken said.
“I get that. I get why people want us to stop arguing and start, well, doing stuff,” he said. “But since I am leaving the Senate, I thought I would take a big risk and say a few words in favor of arguments.”
At the end of Franken’s half-hour address, his colleagues made their own goodbyes. First to speak was fellow Minnesota Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Smiling wistfully, she described Franken’s entry into the Senate: a former comedian trying to shake both the “No Joke” headlines and fellow senators who kept trying to test their wisecracks on him.
“When Al leaves here, he will not be quieted in any way. His work will live on, his voice will be stronger than ever,” Klobuchar said. “That last call of action that he left us with, for a war for truth … and truth in our politics, is something no one should forget in this chamber.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., joined the majority of the Democratic caucus in calling for Franken’s resignation earlier this month. Nevertheless, he said, Franken “has been a credit to the United States Senate, a passionate advocate for his home state of Minnesota, a defender of our Constitution and a determined fighter for justice. He became a better senator every year.”
“I’m sorry that he’s leaving under these circumstances,” Durbin said. “Every person who has ever lived has had moments they wish they could erase and words they wish they could take back.”
Franken, whose Senate career was defined by his fight for women’s rights — including enthusiastic support for women who began speaking out this year about their abuse at the hands of powerful men — was brought down by a series of accusations from women who say he put his hands on their buttocks or breasts while they posed with him for photos, or that he made other uncomfortable advances on them during encounters before and during his Senate career.
Despite Franken’s repeated apologies and his call for a Senate ethics investigation into the allegations, by the time a seventh woman described an inappropriate encounter, his political allies lost patience. More than two dozen Senate Democrats, along with many allies back in Minnesota, called on him publicly to resign.
As Franken’s Senate career was winding down, the Senate was gearing up for one last series of votes in an effort to keep the federal government funded and open at least into January. Then Congress will adjourn for the holidays. When it returns next year, it will be time for Franken to resign.
“As I leave the Senate I take great comfort in knowing that my successor, Senator-Designate Tina Smith, has a well-earned reputation for being a smart, diligent, hardworking public servant and I have no doubt she will serve Minnesotans and all Americans exceptionally well,” he said.
Smith will be sworn in to the Senate on Jan. 3, one day after Franken steps down.