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Mike Franken’s ship is caught in a storm
So for three days this past week I attended the Okoboji Writers Retreat, where I taught workshops on opinion writing.
On Monday, one of the attendees at my workshop was C.J. Petersen, who works as communications director for Democrat Mike Franken’s U.S. Senate campaign. Like the rest of us, he took some time away from his day job to hone his writing craft.
During that session, Petersen received a phone call and left our group abruptly. Soon, some of us started getting emails alerting us to a report by the conservative website Iowa Field Report revealing that a former Franken staffer had filed a police report in April alleging Franken had grabbed her by the collar of her vest and kissed her on the mouth without her consent, after they left a bar.
Suddenly, Petersen’s quick departure made sense.
Franken’s response? “It never happened,” he said Monday. And, in the end, a Polk County prosecutor found insufficient evidence of criminal conduct. The report was labeled “unfounded.”
Your columnist has since returned to his post. Good to be back. Now, I’ll stroll directly into this minefield.
The staffer, Kimberley Strope-Boggus, was fired by the Franken campaign in February. In March, Franken asked to meet with her at the Dam Pub in Des Moines, according to an incident report Strope-Boggus filed with the Des Moines Police Department. The name of the investigation’s target is redacted, but it clearly refers to Franken.
According to the incident report, Franken expressed concerns about his campaign’s leadership and asked Strope-Boggus to return as a senior adviser. As they left the bar and walked to their cars, Strope-Boggus said in the incident report that Franken grabbed her by the collar of her vest and kissed her on the lips. She pulled away, the contact ended and they parted ways.
In the following weeks, Franken and Strope-Boggus exchanged text messages, but didn’t address the incident. In April, Franken called Strope-Boggus, and during the call, asked her wife, Becky, if she would make a donation to his campaign. Becky turned him down flat and “disconnected the call,” according to the incident report. Becky then tweeted about the exchange.
Strope-Boggus retweeted Becky. Franken called to ask Strope-Boggus to take down the tweet. The Franken campaign argued she violated an agreement signed when she was fired pledging to not disparage the campaign or candidate. Strope-Boggus removed the tweet.
After telling her wife about the March incident, Strope-Boggus filed a police report.
During her police interview, Strope-Boggus was asked if Franken “did these things in an aggressive or sexual manner … she stated no.”
Strope-Boggus told police Franken had “old school,” “1950s interactions” with multiple women. “She stated he just has an old fashioned view of how to interact with women …”
Assistant Polk County Attorney Meggan Guns determined there was insufficient evidence to support a simple assault charge. The report was deemed “unfounded.” There will be no further investigation.
Where do we start?
First, it is completely unacceptable to touch a woman without her explicit consent. Being “old school” is no excuse for entirely inappropriate behavior. Why don’t men get it? Will we ever?
We should believe women when they step forward to report behavior such as this, or, at the very least, start from a place that sees these allegations as credible until proven otherwise. They should be encouraged to step forward.
Franken insists “It never happened.” But I find it very hard to believe Strope-Boggus would simply make this up. She told the police she wanted him to admit what he did and change his behavior.
That said, Strope-Boggus did say Franken’s actions were not sexual in nature, which is important. And the assault allegation was determined to be “unfounded.” The case was closed. But “unfounded” means there wasn’t enough evidence to back a criminal charge. It doesn’t mean nothing happened.
Republicans charged that Strop-Boggus’ non-disparagement agreement is stopping her from commenting further. The Franken campaign says she is free to talk. But on Thursday, Strope-Boggus told me in an email she has no plans to do that.
“I’m not going to make any comments,” she wrote.
But Franken’s already uphill run to defeat Sen. Chuck Grassley has been damaged. At a critical moment in the campaign, he’s addressing this saga instead of focusing on his strong case for denying Grassley an eighth term in the Senate.
Women who were ready to vote for Franken now face a more complicated choice. But what hasn’t changed is that Grassley was a key architect in building a conservative Supreme Court majority that overturned a constitutional right to abortion, opening a Pandora’s box of draconian state-by state restrictions. Other fundamental rights, such as the right to obtain contraception, are now under threat.
And despite Grassley’s campaign trail insistence that abortion is now a state issue, there’s no doubt if a bill restricting abortion nationally makes it to the floor of a Republican-controlled Senate, Grassley will vote for it. Franken supports abortion rights.
Some Democrats are decrying what they see as a political hit job. And, of course, it is. But this is what campaigns do, dig up dirt and use it to their advantage. In this case, Franken provided the dirt. Did Republicans sit on this information and then report it through a Republican media site at a moment when it would have maximum effect? Very likely. Franken had momentum in the race going into last week. This development applied the brakes.
Franken’s campaign is by no means dead. The former admiral’s ship is caught in a storm. But with our fundamental rights on the line, the daunting prospect of a GOP Senate and the future of democracy on the ballot, a damaged candidate still is better than a senator who will do damage.
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