We Used to Elect U.S. Senators
To: Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer
Dear Sen. Schumer:
It’s a pretty good guess the readers of this column are part of the 1.9 million Minnesotans who voted in 2014 for U.S. senator. In that election, Al Franken won convincing reelection, with 53 percent of the vote, over businessman Mike McFadden. Franken’s reelection represented the collective judgment of the Minnesota electorate that his record merited reelection in spite of the fact that his election in 2008 over Sen. Norm Coleman had been won by 312 votes. And, of course, that is why we have elections for U.S. senators—so that we, the voters and taxpayers of this state, can render our judgment on their performance.
That opportunity was denied to us by an unusual set of conditions. Harvey Weinstein was outed by a number of famous (and not so famous) starlets. The “Me Too” movement was born. Allegations were publicly lodged against a number of prominent men, among them Roy Moore, a candidate for Senate in a special election in the state of Alabama. It was alleged that Judge Moore had had a number of liaisons with underage teenagers.
Then, on Nov. 16, three weeks before the election in Alabama, a woman came forward with a photograph showing Al Franken with cartoonish glee almost groping her upper body while she was fully clothed and sheathed in a flak jacket (they were both on a USO tour). The woman in the photograph alleged that Franken had attempted an unwanted kiss. Several other women came forward—some anonymously—to allege unwanted kiss attempts and, in one case, an unwanted butt grab. Sen. Franken’s response was to ask for an immediate Senate Ethics Committee investigation, stating that he either had no recollection of these episodes or that they had been misinterpreted. A Democratic senatorial caucus frenzy ensued.
Let’s examine the most damning allegation against Sen. Franken: the cartoonish photograph establishing an almost-grope. The woman (fully clothed) in the photo, Leeann Tweeden, claims that the existence of the photo caused her great embarrassment and emotional harm. This claim was never subjected to any form of scrutiny, but it should be noted that many photographs of Tweeden fully unclothed and voluntarily distributed by her can be found in Playboy (2011) and a variety of movies, including one titled Edenquest: Pamela Anderson (1995). We cannot show these photographs in this magazine.
The Senate Democratic caucus, led by you, and pushed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, did not dwell on these; it was looking at a political calculus. You see, the Senate faced the embarrassment of a corruption trial against Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), which had just resulted in a hung jury. The senator may be retried. The caucus rewarded Sen. Menendez with a coveted position on a conference committee. Expulsion of Menendez for corrupt acts committed while a senator would have required his replacement by the governor of New Jersey, then a Republican. The Democratic Senate caucus faced no such problem with Al Franken. The governor of Minnesota, Mark Dayton, a Democrat, could be counted upon to appoint a Democrat to take Sen. Franken’s seat.
And there was yet another political element to this throw-Al-under-the-bus frenzy: the pending Senate special election in Alabama.
A bit of precedent for how the Franken matter should have been handled is that of Sen. Robert Packwood of Oregon. Packwood, a senator for 26 years, resigned from the U.S. Senate in 1995 after he was threatened with expulsion by the Senate Ethics Committee, following a complete investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and abuse by 19 women.
Sen. Packwood at least had the benefit of a proceeding, where his version of the facts could be heard and weighed by his peers. The Democratic Senate caucus extended no such procedural courtesy to Al Franken. The allegations against Sen. Packwood (actions that apparently took place while he was a senator) were much more serious and pervasive than the allegations against Sen. Franken (while he was a private citizen). Former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Secretary of State (and Senate candidate) Joan Growe have both been quoted as opposing Franken’s resignation, pending a Senate Ethics Committee investigation. Polls show the same result among voters in Minnesota. Forcing Franken out of the Senate is unfair to him; where does he go to get his reputation back?
It is also unfair to us, the people who elected him. We have been deprived of the person we reelected. And it is unfair to the person appointed to his seat, Tina Smith. Sen. Smith is known to many of us as an extremely competent, highly experienced public servant, and most recently as lieutenant governor. Smith will have less than 10 months to establish her record of service and a voting record in the U.S. Senate. Our ballot will now contain the governor, all constitutional office holders and two U.S. Senate candidates. What we can expect, and what is unfair to those of us who try to participate financially in our state’s political process, is an unprecedented flood of money from outside this state.
So pressuring an elected senator out of office—without benefit of a Senate Ethics Committee investigation—for highly partisan expedient purposes—is unfair to the electorate, the senator and the Senate appointee. Unfairness all around!
Vance K. Opperman
In favor of electing U.S. senators
Vance K. Opperman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is owner and CEO of MSP Communications, which publishes Twin Cities Business.