Al Franken is still angry.
He’s also wrestling with fallout from his mistakes, redefining his goals and trying to “do good stuff” as he cautiously returns to public life after his high-profile downfall, he said in a Star Tribune interview.
The Minnesota Democrat resigned from the U.S. Senate in January 2018, felled by sexual misconduct allegations by several women as the #MeToo movement took root.
His enmity is directed at the circumstances that led to his departure and at fellow Democrats who nudged him to step down, he said in an hourlong conversation in a northeast Minneapolis office building.
“I’m angry about it,” he said. “I just don’t feel that it actually does me any good, so I try not to dwell on it, but, you know, it comes up.”
Franken then cracked a joke, which he did more than once to deflect questions about the price he has paid for his conduct: “But I don’t take it out on dogs or anything like that.”
A New Yorker article in July asserted that his first accuser, conservative talk-show host Leeann Tweeden, was motivated by politics. She had released a photo showing his hands outstretched near her chest as she slept on a military plane during a USO tour.
“I just knew what the intention was in that,” said Franken, who had not yet been elected at the time of the incident in 2006. “I knew what I had not done, but I also knew how people who wanted to take it a certain way would. … It was done at the time for a reason.”
Seven other women soon said that Franken had touched them inappropriately. Last month, a ninth woman made a similar accusation. Franken said then that he “must have been doing something” to make the women uncomfortable. “I feel terrible that anyone came away from an interaction with me feeling bad.”
He said in a recent speech that he has done “some reflection” and makes “it a point to be much more mindful in my interactions with everybody.”
In the newspaper interview, Franken, 68, was subdued. His remorse was evident, and so was a bit of self-pity. “Oh, I feel sorry for myself. It doesn’t do you a lot of good. You know, one thing I do have control over is, to a degree, my attitude and … what I can do now. I’m not happy about this at all,” he said.
“I don’t talk about it much,” he said a moment later.
He is talking, though. He launched a podcast in November 2018 that led to a weekly SiriusXM radio show that debuted in September. This month he spoke at a DFL fundraiser in Hibbing and a health summit in Minneapolis. He has embarked on a speaking tour that began with a sold-out show Oct. 2 in Portland, Ore.
Controversy still casts a shadow over Franken. Two King County Council members called for the cancellation of his Oct. 4 Seattle appearance after the most recent allegation. They wrote in an open letter that they objected to “an event that supports the comeback tour of a powerful man credibly accused” of groping and sexual harassment.
The Seattle event went on as scheduled, but there was a small protest outside.
When he sat down to talk with the Star Tribune, Franken had just finished interviewing Paul Tough, author of “The Years that Matter Most,” a book about higher education. He asked an aide to buy him some ice cream — vanilla, in a cup — from a nearby shop. He was relaxed but seemed a little guarded.
The former senator referred to his steps back into the political and entertainment spotlight as “this period” and “this transition.”
“I was very down right away,” Franken said of the dark days after his exit from the Senate. “It was a shock. I was in shock, frankly. … Then my Democratic colleagues doing what they did, that was a shock as well.” Three weeks after Tweeden’s accusation he said that he would step down.
His wife, Franni Bryson, the rest of his family and his former staff helped him pull through it, he said. “They knew who I was, you know.”
Franken noted that eight current and former U.S. senators who called for his resignation have since apologized.
He demurred when asked to recall when he knew that his exit from the Senate was inevitable. “It happened so fast,” he said. “It just happened, and I don’t want to go into it all, but I felt that I had no choice.”
He now regrets resigning and chose his words carefully when asked twice whether there’s any chance he’d run for office again: “I don’t have any plans for that.”
Is being back in public a risk? “It’s all a very sensitive subject that people feel very strongly about,” he said. “So … you know, I’m going to keep going forward.” No one has gotten in his face, he said.
“I just have people saying all the time, ‘wish you were still there.’ ” he said. “I think people, if they did have a negative thought, probably wouldn’t come up and say it.”
Franken considers Minneapolis home, though he also has a small apartment in Washington two blocks from two of his four grandchildren. The others live in New York. He returns here often, recently for a party with classmates marking the 50th anniversary of their graduation from the Blake School in Hopkins.
He wants “to have an effect on public discussion,” adding that when he left the Senate, he wasn’t giving up his voice. “Since I left, I’ve had so many folks ask me to re-enter the fray,” he wrote on his website, alfranken.com. “Fray, here I am!”
His Twitter account has more than 724,000 followers. He has more than 1 million followers on Facebook.
He spoke with pride of his effort to raise donations and collect books for the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school library on the Leech Lake Reservation, which he visited last week. He’s involved with organizations that train service dogs, including Hero Dogs and Minnesota’s Can-Do Canines.
“I’m still eager and ambitious to do good stuff, to do stuff that I believe in,” he said.
Franken became emotional once during the interview. He choked up after explaining that he misses the Senate because it “was a place where I could get things done, whether they were big or small.”
He recalled a Minnesota immigrant without documents who cared for her son who was born here with lung problems. After the woman was notified that she was about to be deported, she sought Franken’s help. “If she was deported, the kid would probably die,” he said.
Franken tracked down a federal immigration official in Kansas City who agreed to rescind the deportation order. Franken believes he helped save that child’s life.
He wants his fellow Minnesotans to know that he’s OK. “I’m a very lucky man,” he said. A Star Tribune Minnesota Poll conducted in January 2018 found that a majority of the state’s voters believed that he had groped or harassed multiple women. Just 41% said he should have resigned; 48% said he should have stayed in office. The rest were unsure.
Is Franken happy? “I’m getting happier,” he said. “There’s lots of times I’m happy.”