Then, suddenly and all at once, they did ask for his resignation. Senate Democratic women led the call for Franken to go, and the first senator to say it was Gillibrand.
“There were new allegations today, and enough is enough,” Gillibrand said at a news conference in December 2017 as Franken’s seventh accuser was reported. “We need to draw a line in the sand and say none of it is okay, none of it is acceptable. We as elected leaders should absolutely be held to a higher standard, not a lower standard, and we should fundamentally be valuing women. That is where this debate has to go.”
As I wrote then, literally minutes after Gillibrand became the first sitting Democratic senator to call on Franken to resign, she stepped up to a lectern in the Capitol and introduced legislation to make it easier for accusers to bring sexual harassment claims against their employers. The optics of trying to change the culture of sexual harassment in the workplace while giving Franken the benefit of the doubt would have been terrible for Gillibrand and other supporters of the bill.
And, ostensibly, terrible for her future 2020 presidential campaign. She ran on being THE champion for women’s rights, particularly abortion rights. She spoke about her stories of gendered harassment long before it was a hashtag to do so. That persona ultimately didn’t help separate her from the field, but it was part of her identity as a national figure and one she had to guard carefully.
More broadly, Senate Democrats were trying to get a Democrat elected in Alabama in a month, against a Republican opponent accused of inappropriate sexual behavior toward teenage girls when he was in his 30s.
(That’s not to say politics led the way for Gillibrand or these other senators on pushing Franken out, but politics is always inextricably part of the conversation when #MeToo comes to Congress.)
What mystifies Gillibrand’s supporters is that Gillibrand was the first, but she wasn’t the only senator to call for Franken to go that day. Dozens of Democrats did, including most of the women in the caucus. Some chimed in minutes after Gillibrand.
“Many people have been talking about this for some time,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the highest-ranking woman in the Senate, said at the time. “It wasn’t coordinated. It just happened.” An aide said this was even a hot topic of discussion in the ladies room in the Senate.
Most Senate Democratic men said Franken had to go, too. In fact, The Washington Post congressional team reported that, before other senators publicly said it, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called Franken and point-blank told him he had to resign.
But Gillibrand was the one haunted by this, likely because she was the first to say it publicly. Getting rid of Franken, from the point of view of her Democratic critics at every level of the party, was unforgivable. He was a potential 2020 contender. He was one of the party’s sharpest, most profound critics of Trump. At a time when Democrats needed all tools at their disposal to battle against Trump, Franken was considered indispensable.
Anecdotally, reporters like myself started hearing from readers who thought Franken’s departure was too big a loss for the party and that Gillibrand was to blame. Some donors couldn’t let it go. This spring, the New York Times got hold of a Gillibrand campaign memo explaining her poor fundraising that said in part: “There’s no question that the first quarter was adversely impacted by certain establishment donors — and many online — who continue to punish Kirsten for standing up for her values and for women.”
Franken didn’t help heal this split in the party over his political future. He didn’t deny most of the allegations, but he didn’t explicitly apologize for them, either. After he left the Senate, he expressed regret about quitting and gave his supporters a reason to believe his innocence, or at least that his offenses were unintentional and they didn’t warrant his exit from the Senate. That sentiment was revisited earlier this summer, when the New Yorker published a lengthy piece examining the first Franken accuser’s allegation.
In his last Senate speech, it was clear he was begrudgingly leaving: “I know there’s been a very different picture of me painted over the last few weeks, but I know who I really am.”
The not-so-subtle message to his supporters: I’m being unfairly pushed out. And fairly or not, Gillibrand was targeted as the reason.
Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly said all Senate Democratic women joined Gillibrand in calling for Franken to resign.