The national conversation on sexual harassment and assault reached a tipping point on Capitol Hill this week as lawmakers began facing serious consequences for their alleged behavior.
The week was bookended by revelations and resignations. Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas said he would pay back some $84,000 in taxpayer funds that were used to settle a sexual harassment claim levied against him in 2014.
Two Democratic members accused of misconduct announced they were stepping away from their posts: Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, who retired on Tuesday, and Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, who announced he would be resigning from the Senate in a defiant speech on Thursday. Later that day, Rep. Trent Franks, a Republican from Arizona, also announced he will resign. Franks said in a statement that he had discussed surrogacy with former members of his staff just as the House Ethics Committee announced it would investigate whether that constitutes sexual harassment.
In a way, with the departure of these powerful men, the stories of women and men who have accused powerful men of sexual harassment and assault were validated.
“For so long, women who were abused didn’t feel like they could say anything because they thought they’d get fired, they thought nobody would believe them, they thought they’d get trashed or pushed aside,” Sen. Tim Kaine, a Democrat of Virginia, said on Thursday. “I think we’ve crossed a Rubicon where people believe they can say stuff and there will be folks who support them.”
The moment of reckoning reached a fever pitch on Wednesday when over two dozen of Franken’s colleagues, led by a group of Democratic women, called on him to step down. That same day, two women had come forward with allegations that Franken groped or tried to forcibly kiss them. With that, many of his colleagues felt that enough was enough: it was time for him to go.
“I believe it would be better for our country if he sent a clear message that any kind of mistreatment of women in our society isn’t acceptable by stepping aside to let someone else serve,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York wrote in a lengthy Facebook post on Thursday.
But the Minnesota Democrat didn’t go quietly. And though he’d previously apologized to the women who have accused him of groping, forcibly kissing or inappropriately touching them, he did not do so in his floor speech. “Some of the allegations against me are simply not true,” he said. “Others I remember very differently.”
He also used his speech to note the “irony” in the fact that he’s being asked to leave the Senate, but there is a chance that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, who has been accused of sexually molesting teenage girls, could soon be joining his colleagues on Capitol Hill.
“I, of all people, am aware that there is some irony in the fact that I am leaving while a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office and a man who has repeatedly preyed on young girls campaigns for the Senate with the full support of his party,” Franken said on the Senate floor.
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon told reporters on Thursday that he hoped the Minnesota Democrat’s actions would “help set a higher standard for all parts of our society.” He said, “sexual harassment is always unacceptable.”
But the irony that Franken alluded to was not lost on some of his soon-to-be former colleagues. “I don’t know how you could be a public official in either party and support a nominee that has as many disturbing allegations as the candidate in Alabama has,” said Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania. “If he is elected, it’s going to be a fundamental decision: Is he elected and retained in the Senate, or is he not?”
In the same week that two Democrats found themselves shunned by their colleagues amid sexual harassment allegations, the Alabama Senate candidate received a monetary boost from the Republican National Committee and an endorsing tweet from the President. It could be argued that Democrats did not have a choice but to come out against their own; how could they seek to have any moral authority on the issue of sexual misconduct if they refused to dump their own when they’re faced with similar allegations?
But in the halls of the Senate, many lawmakers were reluctant to view what happened Thursday through such a partisan lens. As Franken spoke on the floor that morning, some of his colleagues wiped tears and a few hugged him as he made his way out. And if anything has been made clear in the past few weeks, it’s that sexual harassment is a bipartisan issue.
“There is no moral high ground on this,” said Sen. Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina. “I don’t know that we should try to find a partisan path in the issue. I think that’s counterproductive.”