Democrats have found themselves once again in the uncomfortable position of trying to determine how to judge one of their own accused of misdeeds.
For now, at least, Rep. Keith Ellison’s fellow Democrats have taken a wait-and-see approach following allegations he was abusive toward a now-former girlfriend, an accusation that went public just days before he won the party’s nomination for Minnesota attorney general in November.
Ellison, a prominent supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential bid, also serves as deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the organization that has said it is reviewing the allegations.
Does Sanders have an opinion on what Ellison should do?
“Nope, nothing,” the Vermont independent said Thursday, rushing for the Senate doors. “You’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get going.”
Other Democrats expressed support for the DNC review but much less of a rush to judgment as they did last fall when accusations against other members surfaced at the height of the #MeToo movement.
“I know that the DNC is investigating it, so we’ll see and let that run its course,” said Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.).
“I think that’s appropriate to look into it,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said.
Many Democrats were harsher last year when their Senate colleague Al Franken faced accusations of groping women and other inappropriate sexual advances. Within an hour of the first accusation, Harris and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) forcefully called for the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate, making clear they would not spare the senator from Minnesota just because he was a leading liberal.
“Sexual harassment and misconduct, should not be allowed by anyone, and should not occur anywhere against anyone,” Harris said then.
Three weeks later, as other women came forward, Gillibrand led the calls for Franken to resign, which he did.
So far no congressional Democrat has called for a House Ethics Committee investigation into Ellison, instead settling for the somewhat vague DNC “review” of the situation. Gillibrand has not issued a statement about Ellison, and her press office did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.
The difference between the two cases illustrates just how inconsistent the approaches have been to allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior with members of Congress.
Ellison is at least the 10th member of the House or Senate to face some type of harassment allegations: four, including Franken, announced they would resign immediately; three decided to retire rather than run for reelection in November; and two said they would retire but then immediately resigned rather than answer questions before the ethics committee.
And now Ellison stands in the rarest of positions, holding an official party position at the DNC and pursuing a job that would give him a high-profile role opposing President Trump’s agenda in the courts.
On social media posts beginning Saturday Ellison’s former girlfriend, Karen Monahan, and her son alleged the lawmaker psychologically abused her and, in one case, pulled her off a bed while screaming obscenities. They suggested there was a video of the bedroom incident, but no such video has surfaced.
On Sunday Ellison acknowledged his past relationship with Monahan but denied he had ever been abusive.
“We are going to keep on fighting all the way through. We are going to be respectful to all, and we are going to stand like steeples and insist upon the truth,” Ellison told supporters Tuesday night after his primary victory.
Perhaps no Democrat demonstrates the situation’s political vise grip better than Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), who served alongside Franken for more than eight years. Klobuchar serves as the top Democrat on the Senate Rules Committee, which has been trying to pass new legislation to rewrite outdated laws governing harassment cases on Capitol Hill.
Initially, in the wake of Franken’s exit and the other cases, this overdue legislation seemed to be one good thing that would come of the allegations. “I think the process needs to be shored up,” said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.).
Those negotiations are stalled over how much liability lawmakers should face personally in these cases, and now another member is facing allegations — and no one is sure anymore how to respond.
On Wednesday, leaving the Capitol, Klobuchar declined any comment on Ellison.
He is another prominent figure from the Democrat Farmer Labor Party, as Minnesota’s Democrats formally call themselves, facing allegations as his career is taking off.
A small but very vocal faction of DFL activists believe Franken fell victim to a right-wing conspiracy because the ex-comedian had become such a prominent Trump critic. “I thought it was extremely politicized. I think Franken was a strong presence, and a lot of people were afraid of him. He was a straight shooter, and that made him more vulnerable when people wanted to bring him down,” Sally McCartney, 77, told The Washington Post’s David Weigel after a campaign event Saturday in St. Louis Park, a Twin Cities suburb.
That sentiment has left the state’s Democrats fearful of a backlash in how they handle questions about Franken — and will probably affect how they handle the Ellison issue.
“Al is a friend of mine,” Sen. Tina Smith (D-Minn.), who was appointed to Franken’s seat, told Weigel just hours before the Ellison allegations broke. “He was a great champion for Minnesota and a champion for the country. He had to make a really, really tough decision, and I respect the decision that he made.”
Gillibrand received initial praise for her consistent approach in calling on Trump and Franken to resign for the abuse allegations they faced, as well as suggesting that, in retrospect, President Bill Clinton should have resigned when word of the Monica Lewinsky affair broke.
Ever since prominent donors, close to both Franken and Clinton, have vowed to oppose Gillibrand if she runs for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.
Now, with another prominent Minnesota liberal under fire, other Democrats have decided to largely keep their powder dry, unsure of what the right approach is.
McCaskill, who called on Franken to resign, let out a loud sigh when asked about Ellison. She was not sure what the line would be to call for Ellison to resign from party leadership or give up his nomination.
“I think it’s going to depend on what the facts show,” she said.