Al Franken’s next act is the subject of curiosity for friends and foes alike.
A cultural and then political celebrity publicly humbled by sexual misconduct allegations, the now-former U.S. senator had a unique career trajectory. It took him from “Saturday Night Live” to the top of book bestseller lists to a national radio show to Washington. Now, after his exit this week from the Senate, he’s being forced to rethink his future.
Franken, who has declined interview requests, hasn’t shared any details, and an aide said he’s focused on his family for now. But in public remarks as his Senate career wound down, Franken made it clear when he announced plans to leave Capitol Hill that he doesn’t intend to fade quietly into obscurity.
“I may be resigning my seat, but I am not giving up my voice,” the Democrat said Dec. 7 on the Senate floor. “I will continue to stand up for the things I believe in as a citizen, and as an activist.”
Franken offered a little more detail in farewell remarks in Minneapolis on Dec. 28. “We still have a lot of work to do together on issues ranging from net neutrality to climate change,” he said.
That’s welcome news to some Minnesota DFL county chairs, including Herb Kroon in Nicollet County. “He certainly has a place in public life in Minnesota,” Kroon said. “People still support him.”
Bad idea, said Alex Conant, a Minnesota native and Republican strategist in Washington who was an adviser to Norm Coleman when Franken unseated him in 2008.
“Al Franken needs to go away for a very long time,” Conant said. “He embarrassed himself and he embarrassed the state and he embarrassed his party.”
Running for public office again is almost certainly off the table, said J. Scott Johnson, a political science professor at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.
“Every mailing and every billboard and every Facebook feed would be plastered with the infamous photo of Franken’s smiling face and grabbing hands,” Johnson said in an e-mail, “and no one wants to see that photo ever again.”
So what might be next for Franken? He will be 67 in May but has shown no appetite for retirement. He could write. He could find an outlet on TV or radio for the skills he showed in cross-examining Trump administration officials during committee hearings.
He could remain an advocate for some of the issues he worked on in the Senate: privacy, health care, education, farm policy, policing Wall Street. Several advocacy groups that promote those issues declined to comment on Franken’s prospects.
DFL chairs offered their own suggestions. “He’s a very good spokesman on issues like farming and mental health,” said Morrison County’s Roman Witucki, who asked friends to share their ideas over coffee. “I really think he can still make a difference.”
Blue Earth County DFL Chair Mark Halverson said that Franken can still be effective. “He’s certainly a good fundraiser and a draw for liberal causes,” he said. “Even if [the allegations against Franken] are true, I think he should be given another chance.”
The first allegation against Franken surfaced in November when Leeann Tweeden, a Los Angeles radio broadcaster, published an account of traveling with Franken and others in the Middle East and Afghanistan to entertain U.S. troops in 2006. She wrote that Franken forced a kiss on her as they rehearsed a comedy sketch and published a photo of Franken grinning for the camera as his hands hovered over her breasts.
That was followed by a half-dozen similar accusations by other women, including several who said Franken grabbed their rear ends as they posed together for pictures. A longtime champion of women’s rights, Franken suddenly found himself swept up in an exploding cultural movement around outing sexually inappropriate behavior by powerful men.
Franken apologized to some of his accusers while also trying to explain that his behavior was misconstrued; he also denied some of the more serious allegations and said he would submit to a Senate ethics inquiry. But he stepped down after more than half of his fellow Senate Democrats demanded he do so.
Some DFL county chairs found it difficult to talk about Franken’s future because they wish he had not decided to step down. U.S. Sen Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., told Politico last month that Franken should have reversed his resignation until after an Ethics Committee inquiry.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and two other senators who were not named agreed with Manchin, Politico reported. Arne Carlson, a former Republican governor of Minnesota, also had said that Franken should reconsider.
Julie Ackland, chair of the Freeborn County DFL, said Franken “should have stayed there. He did a lot of good.”
Several DFL county officials suggested that, despite the reasons for his downfall, Franken should continue to work on women’s issues.
“What I would like to see him do is take the issue of sexual harassment and make that issue his own … by working to eliminate it in politics and the workplace,” Kroon said.
“He should maybe start a group that advocates for women’s rights,” said Joan Muth-Milks, Faribault County’s DFL chair.
Hubbard County Chair Carolyn Spangler agreed. “Al Franken is a fighter and I see him using his wit and brilliance to ... speak out for women who have been sexually abused,” she said.
Conant doesn’t see that happening and said Franken might have a hard time finding any work. “People who have admitted to sexual misconduct are having trouble finding follow-up jobs,” he said. “You don’t see [former NBC ‘Today’ host] Matt Lauer on another network.”
It would be best, Conant said, for Franken to “go away and see what happens a couple of years from now.”
Johnson, the political scientist, said Franken’s situation parallels that of former U.S. Rep. Vin Weber, a Minnesota Republican who chose not to run for re-election in 1992 after a House banking scandal. He was implicated for writing bad checks.
Weber “likely had a reasonable explanation for using the House bank,” Johnson said, “but the political environment was so toxic that any explanation that focused on excuses wasn’t going to be plausible with Minnesota voters.” Weber remains a Republican strategist and lobbyist.
Another example is David Durenberger. A Republican, he was elected to the U.S. Senate from Minnesota in a 1978 special election and was re-elected in 1982 and 1988. He was censured in 1990 for improper financial dealings and didn’t run for re-election in 1994. In 1995 he pleaded guilty to falsifying his congressional expense account. He continued to be an advocate on health policy issues.
Like Weber and Durenberger, Franken can rehabilitate his reputation, Johnson said. But “he can no longer be a champion for women,” he added, and “a more humble role is now required.”