ST. PAUL, Minn. (CN) – In the affluent Edina suburb of Minneapolis, a 70-year-old woman in a wool hat and scarf meticulously removed the night’s snowfall from her driveway. “I think we have condemned people before they have the opportunity to have a trial or at least a hearing, just like Franken,” she said.
She is registered Independent and has no strong feeling about U.S. Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, who resigned last week after several women gave accounts of unwanted advances. But like many people around Minneapolis and St. Paul, she was guarded in her comments and did not want to give her name.
Among men and women in coffee shops, at a construction site, and on campus, the elderly woman was perhaps the least unforgiving in a region with a strong expectation of moral rectitude and accountability from their elected representatives.
The Democratic senator’s downfall was caused by seven accounts from his former days as a comedian. The most damaging was a prank photo where he appeared to be grabbing the breast of a woman who was sleeping while wearing a flak jacket and a helmet.
The physical actions complained of included an unwanted grab of the butt and unwelcome kisses, culminating with a complaint that he squeezed a woman’s side midriff while posing for a picture and another, the one that brought the wrath of the congressional women’s caucus, that he tried to kiss a woman who ducked and escaped.
His resignation speech last week was welcomed by female columnists and TV commentators as a necessary sacrifice for the greater cause of emancipation, while it was seen by many women outside the media as the result of a “witch hunt.”
But in the region that elected Franken, there was little mercy to be found. The well of redemption was dry.
Inside a large home under extensive reconstruction, with no door and holes for windows, a group of workers were evasive in addressing a female reporter.
Standing in a circle big enough to fit an elephant, one man joked, “Lock him up!” Another politely declined comment. A third jumped in, “You don’t want an opinion from me! You can’t handle the truth!”
Not far away, at a bus stop in the Bloomington suburb of Minneapolis, 36-year-old Greg Goldie said that if the accusations against Franken are true, it was time for him to leave.
“You do wrong here in Minnesota and you lose our trust,” he said. “You’re gone.”
In another side of the city, on the University of Minneapolis campus, a woman in her 50s was quickly walking up a flight of stairs with a FedEx package in her right arm, but she stopped to make a more nuanced comment. She noted the lesser nature of Franken’s sins compared to the more egregious conduct recounted against prominent Republicans who have remained steadfast in refusing to abdicate their positions.
“I think he has shown more strength of character than most people. And I would hope it would make others do the right thing, but I don’t know,” said the woman who, along with others, refused to give her name.
“I think he was strongly encouraged to do the right thing and step down,” she added, “even though what he has done doesn’t stand up to what other people have done, like Roy Moore.”
A common theme among the people in the region was that Franken had a right to an examination of the complaints against him and some form of judgment. But accompanying that point was a pervasive acceptance of his resignation.
“He would have had a right to go through the ethics committee review and have that investigation done,” said Beth Kluge, 30, who works for the University of Minnesota. “But I think he made the right choice to resign either way. The allegations were serious enough and there’s enough evidence that this is a pattern of behavior, that it seems he probably did those things and that he really shouldn’t be serving. ”
She said she hopes Franken’s resignation will bring about change in how Americans respond to sexual harassment allegations, but she is not all that optimistic because she hasn’t seen long-lasting change when other politicians have stepped down.
Pointing to the pressure on Franken from his own party, “Especially right now, Democrats are trying to gain the moral advantage so I see it that way, not necessarily because he represents Minnesota,” she said.
Franken’s various responses to the complaints of his behavior demonstrated an agonized hesitation between prostrate apology and an instinct to defend himself.
After Thanksgiving, he made a fulsome apology to everyone he may have offended at any time. But he later followed with another statement, saying his past apologies “gave some people the false impression that I was admitting to doing things that, in fact, I haven’t done. Some of the allegations against me are simply not true. Others, I remember very differently.”
In his resignation speech last Thursday, on what he called the worst day of his political life, Franken said “all women deserve to be heard” and called himself “a champion of women” during his time as senator, but also cast doubt on some of the claims against him. As was widely reported in the media, he also noted that the man in the White House has been accused of much more, along with the current Republican senatorial candidate from Alabama who on Tuesday evening went down in a narrow defeat at the hands of his Democratic opponent.
Minnesotans’ reaction to Franken’s voluntary departure is a mixed acceptance of the need for Franken’s resignation along with a worldly skepticism about how much long-term effect it will have.
“In order for things to change and for people be held to a higher standard, then it does need to be zero tolerance,” said Cora, a 23-year-old barista, while preparing a latte in a downtown St. Paul coffee shop. She said she is still struggling with her opinion of Franken and how Americans should handle sexual harassment. An art history major, she, like most of those interviewed, refused to give her full name.
“But then you look at the allegations against people like Harvey Weinstein – so much worse than what Al Franken did. But Al Franken still did something.
“I think it was good that he resigned because I don’t think he would be able to get anything done effectively anymore,” the barista added. She said paradoxically that the resignation had not heightened her respect for Franken, but she was glad he mentioned groping allegations against Trump in his resignation speech.
At a cafeteria nearby, two female workers on their morning break said the senator was a frequent topic of conversation “in the back kitchen.” But they limited their public comments to saying Franken was right to step down.
In the Northeast Coffee Shop, named after its Minneapolis neighborhood, a group of women in the late 30s to early 40s were seated at a table. Asked for comment, they all deferred to the most outspoken among them, Kristin Boldon, a Democrat and mother of two boys.
“I voted for him twice and I think it’s absolutely the right thing for him to do to have resigned,” said Boldon.
“Everyone should be accountable, and he’s being held accountable. It sucks because I think he was a good senator, he did a good job, he fought for things I wanted to do,” she said.
Even though the allegations against Franken may not be as serious as those against Trump and Moore, she said, “It’s not someone I want in elected office. Had the allegations come out before the election I might have had voted differently.”
“I think there is a gray area between assault and harassment, absolutely,” she added. “There are different levels of bad things. However, unwanted sexual advances are unwanted sexual advances. That’s unacceptable at any level to me. Yes, there are gray areas on how bad it is, but if it’s bad, that’s a deal breaker.”
She concluded, “Do I want to stand next to a senator at the State Fair and risk having my ass grabbed? No.”