When Minnesota Senator Al Franken was accused late last year by eight women of groping or forcibly kissing them, the controversy seemed to wrap up relatively quickly. Less than a month after the initial allegation, his Democratic colleagues called on him to resign, and he did, though without admitting to any misconduct. But even in his absence, intra-Democrat squabbling over how his scandal was handled has festered, and has now blossomed into a public feud between one of the leading potential 2020 candidates and the party's most famous big donor.
Before his fall, Franken was a progressive hero who had earned a reputation as a sharp questioner during Senate hearings; his name was even being thrown around as a potential 2020 candidate. The allegations against him seemed like a litmus test for Democrats at the time. While Republicans were rallying around accused sexual predator Roy Moore in Alabama, the opposition had a chance to enforce a zero-tolerance policy on bad behavior from one of its idols, and that's what it decided to do. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said it was time for him to step down, at least 32 other Democratic senators joined her, and Franken was left with little choice. (It might have helped that everyone figured Democrats are unlikely to lose Franken's seat in a special election.)
But where some saw Democrats' swift decision to believe Franken's accusers and oust him as a template for how sexual misconduct scandals should be handled, many of Franken's supporters believe he was wronged when he was chased out of the Senate without even an Ethics Committee investigation into charges that were a lot less serious than those facing Moore or Donald Trump. Democratic Senators like West Virginia's Joe Manchin decried Franken's treatment, and even some true-blue progressives like New York anti-corruption activist Zephyr Teachout thought the decision was made too quickly.
Some of those displeased at Franken's banishment blame Gillibrand in particular, and that's where things get complicated. Gillibrand, who once held relatively conservative positions when she represented an upstate New York House district, has become a progressive leader on issues ranging from abolishing ICE to investigating sexual assault in the military. She's young, she's charismatic, she's unafraid to call Trump's policies straight-up evil—all of this should endear her to Democratic voters looking for a champion in 2020. But among the Democrats who now disdain her are many donors, chief among them George Soros.
The Hungarian-born mega-donor told the Washington Post in June that Gillibrand took down Franken “in order to improve her chances” in the upcoming presidential race, and for that reason he wasn't going to support her. And though Soros is maybe the most famous Democratic donor in the country (and the one most often made into a bogeyman by conservatives) there are plenty of other donors, including women, who agree with him, according to recent reporting from HuffPost. “I viewed it as self-serving, as opportunistic―unforgivable in my view,” a New York donor named Rosalind Fink told the outlet.
“If standing up for women who have been wronged makes George Soros mad, that’s on him,” Gillibrand told HuffPost in response. “It is clear that we must put our morals and the valuing of women ahead of party loyalty. When someone does something wrong, you have to speak up and be counted, whether it’s President Trump, or a Democratic colleague.”
Even though the 2020 primaries are a year and a half away, there's already a behind-the-scenes scramble for New York donors—a reliable source of Democratic cash—among potential candidates. None of the big names have declared that they're running, but we know the 2020 race will be chock full of contenders, most of whom can't exactly afford to alienate a huge chunk of Democrats with deep pockets.
It's not clear that Franken's resignation will be an out-in-the-open debate when those primaries approach. It's a complex topic that doesn't lend itself to soundbites favored by campaigns—on one hand, shouldn't politicians be held to high standards? Shouldn't women be believed? On the other, isn't there a right to due process? A lot of people loved Franken, and Gillibrand's move to oust him looked to some people like careerism, a play to boost her profile while getting rid of a potential rival. But Gillibrand is also obviously genuinely interested in issues of sexism and harassment, and it's not difficult to imagine her telling Franken to resign even if she wasn't planning to run for president. And don't those charges of "opportunism" reek a little bit of misogyny? Would she face the same criticism if she were a man? By 2020, the Democrats may have many other things to debate that have nothing to do with Franken or men like him, and all of these questions may never end up being asked.
But the Franken scandal doesn't need to be in the news to have an effect on the Democrats. It's already taken root among the donor class and poisoned some of them against Gillibrand, and if she's behind on fundraising, that could impact the entire campaign. (That we're even talking about this now, in 2018, is a byproduct of an incredibly fucked election process that gives enormous power to a handful of wealthy people.) It may also become part of a more nebulous narrative that had already been swirling around Gillibrand: that she acts out of political instinct rather than genuine progressive feeling—a hard allegation to rebut when you're trying to become the most powerful person in the world.
Franken's resignation will always be a blot on his political career, as well as its likely end. But in a perhaps unfair way, it's become a blot on Gillibrand, as well. Maybe she was in the right when she called for him to leave the Senate, but it's undeniable that it's now made her path to the White House more complicated. If she is an opportunist, she doesn't seem like a very skilled one.
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