There were more than a few missteps at the beginning after sexual harassment allegations surfaced against Michigan's U.S. Rep. John Conyers. There were Conyers's own statements about fighting his accusers "until the cows come home", and Nancy Pelosi focusing on the congressman's legislative achievements rather than his personal wrongdoing.
But Conyers’s resignation on Tuesday, and the push that led up to it, can and should be a model going forward for other liberals in similar situations — like Minnesota Senator Al Franken — and, ideally, for powerful men in general.
On Nov. 20, Buzzfeed published an article with affidavits from four people alleging that Democratic Congressman John Conyers of Michigan’s 13th District had sexually harassed his staffers over a long period of time and that he had misappropriated his office’s funds to pay settlements to the women he harassed. Conyers acknowledged the settlements while denying the harassment — and in the aftermath of those denials, several other women and ex-staffers came forward to allege misbehavior on the part of the representative.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi began calling for Conyers’ resignation on Nov. 30, along with leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus. Despite that pressure, as recently as this past Monday, Conyers’ lawyers were saying that the congressman might fight it out, and his supporters held a rally in Detroit in support.
But yesterday, Tuesday, John Conyers announced that he would resign his seat. That’s for the better, because there’s no angle from which a Democratic, supposedly pro-woman congressman riding out his sexual harassment accusations in office looks good, and there are more than a few that look bad.
Already, it looks like Democrats will also follow this model for Franken. More than half a dozen of Franken’s female Democratic colleagues in the Senate called for him to resign on Wednesday, and their calls are being echoed by others.
Neither John Conyers nor Al Franken will be the last politician — Democratic or Republican — to have their past behavior exposed. And for that reason, we ought to take a cue from the Michigan congressman’s case.
The right is refusing to hold its abusers accountable. That doesn’t mean the left shouldn’t.
At the rally for Conyers in Detroit on Monday, supporter Rev. Wendell Anthony asked, “Why is it that John Conyers is the only individual to be denied due process? It is apparent that if we’re going to raise this unholy and unlawful guillotine, calling for the head of John Conyers, then in fairness we must begin with the president of the United States. ”
And the answer there is that it’s in the interest of the American left, both politically and morally, to rise above rather than to descend to the level of the Commander in Chief. Trump has survived his accusations because his party supported him despite the evidence. The Democratic Party did right in Conyers’ case and it should, beginning with Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer.
The accusations against Conyers and Franken were only the latest in a season of outing for powerful men with a penchant for harassment. The whole set of revelations themselves is only confirming what we already knew — that we live in a society shot through with men who can and do abuse their positions. We’re in a liminal moment right now, and the responses to those revelations, on the right and on the left, are going to determine where we as a country go from here.
Conservatives in the US have rallied around the accused. Beginning with the Republican establishment’s decision to brush off the Access Hollywood tape and Donald Trump’s accusers, and continuing right now with Republicans across the board lining up behind accused child molester and Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama, the American right has made it clear that it’s looking backwards, pining for a return to the days when powerful men did what they wanted and the rest suffered for it.
The left, on the other hand, has by and large stood with the victims. Harvey Weinstein found little approval for his Kanye-tinged apology letter, and other figures in the entertainment industry have also been roundly censured.
With John Conyers, American liberals had the chance to walk the walk — and they took it. Al Franken can and should serve as the test case in the Senate, like Conyers did in the House.
Dragging this out won’t end well politically
Documented settlements and multiple accusers, backed up by credible lawyers, meant that it didn’t look like the controversy around Conyers was going to go away.
With photographic evidence on hand and more women coming forward by the week, including a new allegation published by Politico Wednesday morning, it seems as though Al Franken’s case is headed in the same direction.
There’s no way that prolonging this kind of process — whether in Franken’s or any future case — is going to turn out well for the Democratic Party. The longer this goes on, even if the party leadership doesn’t actively defend the senator, the worse both he and the Democratic Party are going to look.
The aforementioned attempts by Republicans to elide the misconduct of men like Roy Moore has disgusted voters (at least those outside of Alabama), and women in Congress have begun to indicate that they feel the same way about Franken’s attempt to keep his seat while resolving the accusations against him.
As mercenary as it might sound, Conyers and the Democratic leadership must have done the political math at some point. Michigan fills empty seats in its delegation by special election, and the Democrats have Conyers’ 13th District locked up — he took it by a 61 point margin in 2016, so a Conyers resignation wouldn’t hurt the party much in the House, where it was already down 194-240 seats.
Franken’s case should be similarly easy for the Dems. Minnesota replaces its Senators by appointment, so Governor Mark Dayton of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party will be able to pick another liberal to fill the empty seat, maintaining the 48 liberal votes in the Senate. Likewise, Minnesota is a reliably blue state, meaning what when the seat comes up for election, another Democrat would in all likelihood take it.
But even if that weren’t the case, the ethical math is clear: the Democratic Party should be standing with victims and showing abusers the door. In situations like Conyers’s and Franken’s, the political arithmetic should only make it easier for the party to hustle them out.
These men should resign for their own sakes
John Conyers started serving in the Congress in 1965, while Lyndon Johnson was still president, and much of that career has been illustrious. He was prominent in the Civil Rights Movement, helped found the Congressional Black Caucus, moved impeachment proceedings along against Nixon, has been a constant advocate for better and wider healthcare coverage, and was an outspoken critic of the War in Iraq.
But his more recent years were also muddied by ethics violations and the corruption conviction of his wife, Monica Conyers. With these new accusations on top, it was high time to put a bow on that career and save what dignity was left after 52 years in the House.
Al Franken has served less time in his chamber than Conyers, but in his brief stay in the Senate, as during his time on Air America, he has become a liberal and Democratic favorite for his incisive questions in hearings and his willingness to speak like a person, rather than a politician.
Americans love a redemption story, and it’s possible that these men will rehabilitate themselves. But if Al Franken wants to walk that path, he’s got to do it outside of Congress. Anything less, even the proposed ethics investigation, looks like a cop-out on the part of the Democratic leadership and Franken himself.
The Conyers rally on Monday called for due process rather than a trial in the press. It’s true that the congressman didn’t and probably won’t get a day in court to defend himself. But his resignation and the resignation of Al Franken and any other credibly accused Democrat are a way for the party to recognize that the legislature’s investigations into its own ethics are a far cry from “due process,” and to affirm these women’s right to justice beyond any statute of limitations or the result of any past mediation.
It’s time for the Democratic Party to demonstrate that it’s got nothing like the Republican tolerance for hypocrisy. When Democrats turn out to be harassers or abusers, they need to be rooted out. Al Franken, like Conyers before him, with the pressure of the leadership, needs to step down, for his own good, for the good of the Democratic Party, and for the country at large.