When is it appropriate to come back into the limelight after being accused, several times over, of sexual misconduct?
That’s a question former U.S. Senator Al Franken of Minnesota has probably been asking himself ever since resigning in 2017. He took his time, remained quiet. Then, in July, he confessed that he “absolutely” regretted resigning in a lengthy profile with the New Yorker. No fewer than seven of his colleagues in the Senate said they regretted pushing him out. The winds, it seemed, were changing.
Then Franken made his move. Last week, he announced he was launching a weekly radio show on SiriusXM, which he would be calling “The Al Franken Show.” He set up a string of events to promote it, and lined up comedian Chris Rock as a guest. He said he was going to “re-enter the fray,” in addition to helping Sirius with coverage on the 2020 election. This was it – his return to the public sphere.
But on Monday, an unnamed military veteran and senior staffer at a major progressive organization came forward, becoming the ninth woman to accuse him of groping her.
She told New York Magazine it happened in 2006. She was fresh out of college, helping U.S. Senator Patty Murray at an event. Franken was a guest speaker. She said when it was her turn to get a photo with him, he put his hand on her ass.
“He’s telling the photographer, ‘Take another one. I think I blinked. Take another one.’ And I’m just frozen,” she said. “It’s so violating. And then he gives me a little squeeze on my buttock, and I am bright red. I don’t say anything at the time, but I felt deeply, deeply uncomfortable.”
Just like that, Franken's reemergance began to break. Lawmakers in Seattle sent a letter calling on Franken and his event planners to cancel their appearance at the Paramount on Friday.
“We believe women and we believe Senator Franken does not deserve a space at one of Seattle’s most historic and treasured theatres,” King County Councilmembers Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Joe McDermott wrote. “For him to appear in our city just days after it was revealed that a former staff member of one of our own U.S. senators has credibly accused him of groping her right here in Seattle would be a slap in the face to this courageous woman and our entire community.”
It’s a setback in Franken’s journey back to relevance, and for those who've tried to dismiss the earlier claims as misunderstandings between a few sensitive women and a clumsy, oafish man. But the people reacting the strongest to this news are the people who never forgot the seriousness of the allegations against Franken in the first place.
“Anyone who claims to believe Franken meant well is also a liar,” one Twitter user said. “There is no way anyone thinks that butt-honking is just a friendly greeting between strangers.”
There’s a tendency to focus on Leeann Tweeden, because there’s literal photographic evidence of Franken pantomiming grabbing her breasts while they were on a USO tour. She also says Franken insisted upon rehearsing an onstage kiss and “mashed his lips” against hers, “aggressively” sticking his tongue in her mouth. Franken said he didn’t remember the rehearsal that way, but he admitted it was “obvious” why Tweeden would feel “violated” by that picture.
But it wasn’t just Tweeden. There was also Lindsay Menz, who says Franken grabbed her from behind during a photo op at the Minnesota State Fair in 2010, his hand “wrapped tightly around my butt cheek.” Franken said he didn’t remember that picture, but he felt bad if Menz came away from their interaction “feeling disrespected.”
Then there were also the two unnamed women who told the Huffington Post that Franken groped each of them – one during another photo in 2007, the other at a Democratic fundraiser in 2008. The second woman said Franken suggested the two of them slip off to the bathroom together.
Franken told the Post it was “difficult” to respond to anonymous accusers, and that he “didn’t remember” those events. He denied having propositioned anyone to join him in the restroom.
Then there was Stephanie Kemplin, an Army veteran who says Franken groped her in 2003 while she was stationed in Kuwait. The two took a photo together, and she says Franken grabbed her breast.
“And I remember thinking – is he going to move his hand?” she told CNN. “Was it an accident? Was he going to move his hand? He never moved his hand.”
Franken said he never “intentionally” did any such thing.
Next, an unnamed elected official in New England told Jezebel that Franken attempted to give her a “wet, open-mouthed kiss” in 2006 during a live taping of his show, Air America. She told Jezebel she felt “stunned,” “demeaned,” and “put in [her] place.”
A former aide came forward next, telling Politico that Franken tried to force a kiss on her during a taping of his radio show that same year. She says when she tried to leave, he explained, “It’s my right as an entertainer.” Franken called that one “categorically not true.”
And then there was Tina Dupuy, who wrote an essay for the Atlantic about an alleged groping during a Media Matters party during Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. She says he put his hand on her waist, grabbed “a handful of flesh,” and “squeezed.”
“Al Franken’s familiarity was inappropriate and unwanted,” she said. “It was also quick; he knew exactly what he was doing.”
Franken offered New York Magazine a response to the most recent allegation:
“Two years ago, I would have sworn that I’d never done anything to make anyone feel uncomfortable,” he said. “But it’s clear that I must have been doing something. As I’ve said before, I feel terrible that anyone came away from an interaction with me feeling bad.”
He’s planning to appear in Seattle on Friday anyway.