No one in Congress is more associated with the Me Too movement than Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). Long before Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer became infamous creeps, Gillibrand was focusing her attention on sexual assault and harassment in the military, on college campuses and in the workplace.
But the two-term senator cemented her prominence in the movement last year when she called out members of her own party. In November, she said that Bill Clinton should have resigned the presidency over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. And then the following month, she became the first Democratic senator to publicly call on then-Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to go after multiple women accused him of engaging in sexual misconduct.
Franken announced his resignation the following day.
Speaking out has consequences. Women who come forward about the abuse they’ve faced are often barred from further job opportunities. And even someone in power like Gillibrand who tries to be an advocate for victims can find themselves facing a negative response from a previously friendly community.
Eight women accused Franken of groping them. Yet he remains beloved by many Democrats, who say he was one of the party’s strongest champions on progressive issues. His questioning in Senate hearings landed both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos in hot water, and if he were still around, he’d no doubt play a big role in taking on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
His defenders say he was pushed out too early for transgressions that, while unfortunate, didn’t rise to the level of what some members of the GOP have done and didn’t make him a threat who needed to leave immediately.
Gillibrand wasn’t the only senator to publicly call on Franken to step down, but she was the first (but only by minutes) in a wave of female senators ― who were eventually joined by many of their male colleagues on the same day, Dec. 6 ― to do so. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), however, reportedly told Franken in private that he needed to go beforehand.
But Gillibrand has received the brunt of the blame for what happened, with many of her detractors saying the reason she came out against Franken was that she’s an “opportunist” who was positioning herself for a presidential run in 2020. Some Democratic Party donors have been reconsidering whether they would support her in a primary.
Most prominently, Gillibrand has attracted the ire of billionaire George Soros, who has long funded Democratic candidates and causes. Soros recently said he wasn’t sure whom he was supporting for 2020, but that it absolutely wouldn’t be Gillibrand. He accused her of going after Franken, “whom I admire,” to “improve her chances” for president.
“If standing up for women who have been wronged makes George Soros mad, that’s on him,” Gillibrand said in a statement to HuffPost. “But I won’t hesitate to always do what I think is right. For nearly a year, we have seen countless acts of courage as women and men have spoken hard truths about sexual assault and sexual harassment and demanded accountability.”
“I stand with them in this new watershed moment of important change in our society on what we deem as acceptable,” she added. “It is clear that we must put our morals and the valuing of women ahead of party loyalty. When someone does something wrong, you have to speak up and be counted, whether it’s President Trump, or a Democratic colleague.”
‘I Think It Was A Big Mistake’
HuffPost spoke to dozens of elite donors who contributed significant amounts of money to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Gillibrand, at one time, was part of the tight, loyal Clinton world. The Clintons were early supporters of hers and Hillary wrote the foreword to Gillibrand’s book.
Many of these donors said that either they were unhappy with Gillibrand or knew plenty of people who were. The 2020 race is still years away, but as donors start to shop around, her comments on Clinton and Franken could be a factor.
“I viewed it as self-serving, as opportunistic ― unforgivable in my view,” said Rosalind Fink, a New York donor. “Since then, I have not purposely attended any fundraiser where she was there. And there is absolutely no way I will support her.”
Fink said she condemned Franken’s behavior, but she believed the Senate should have investigated the allegations thoroughly before forcing him out.
“I think it was a big mistake,” said Irene Finel Honigman, another Clinton donor from New York, adding, “I was not that impressed with her to begin with. I think she certainly had potential, but as for many people, this kind of sealed the deal.”
Another donor, who like many others asked to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly, called Gillibrand a “ruthless opportunist.”
“That’s the knock on her, and that’s what this proved,” he said. “She saw an opportunity to be out front, and regardless of the ramifications, she took it.”
Susie Tompkins Buell, a major Democratic Party donor who has championed female politicians, also said she was reconsidering her support for senators who called for Franken to resign.
On social media, it’s easy to find anti-Gillibrand posts. No matter the issue, Gillibrand has detractors who circle back to what she did to Franken.
There’s also a theory, readily found on social media, that Franken was the target of a right-wing hit job centered around Leeann Tweeden, the first woman to accuse Franken of groping her without her consent, who appears to be conservative-leaning. But besides Tweeden, there were seven other women who said Franken harassed them, and four of them were on the record. Several of the incidents also occurred while he was either in office or running for office.
Part of the reason Franken faced so much pressure to resign was that there was a heated campaign to win the U.S. Senate race in Alabama underway. Franken’s problems were a distraction at a time the party was hammering Republican Roy Moore, who was facing allegations of pursuing teenage girls while he was an adult. The senator resigning without a fight was no doubt, in part, an acknowledgment to the politics of the moment.
Jill Farber Bramson, a Democratic donor and activist in Michigan, said she knew a number of women ― who tended to be older ― who were deeply disappointed when Gillibrand spoke out against Franken.
“They had always really liked Kirsten Gillibrand very much,” she said. “They really respected her. ... They were just devastated that she pushed, they felt, all too hard and all too soon to have him resign.”
‘Why Are We Making This About Her?’
Gillibrand still has plenty of supporters ― including some former Clinton donors ― and many of them are standing by her even more fiercely since she faced the Franken attacks. They are deeply worried about the damage her principled stand may have done to her political future.
“Why are we blaming Sen. Gillibrand for what Sen. Franken did?” asked Risa Levine, a New York donor who is friends with the senator. “Why are we making this about her? It’s not about her.”
“She’s not the one who put her hand on all those women’s asses and boobs. She didn’t do that,” added another donor. “Why does she have to sacrifice her career, her brand, her authenticity, for the sake of Franken?”
Gillibrand, after all, isn’t a newcomer on the issue of sexual misconduct. In addition to her work on women in the military and on college campuses, she has an organization devoted to promoting women running for office and introduced the Me Too Congress Act in the Senate, legislation devoted to combating sexual harassment in Congress.
In fact, if she hadn’t spoken out, she likely would have lost credibility with her core group of supporters for deciding to suddenly be silent when it came to one of her colleagues. It seemed like no matter what she did, she couldn’t win.
“She’s either a shrew with no power who’s just trying to make a name for herself, or she’s so all-powerful that her saying one thing made a man who has made decisions for himself for 60 years crumble like a cheap suit,” said a Democratic activist, summing up the way Gillibrand has been characterized.
There’s a good chance Gillibrand would have been attacked if she had remained silent on Franken. In Minnesota, a GOP-aligned group sent out a mailer attacking state Rep. Melissa Hortman, the Democratic minority leader in the House, for signing a November statement expressing support for the senator after four women had come forward. Hortman, too, has been outspoken in her support for women’s rights.
Gillibrand isn’t the only woman to face a backlash for the Franken resignation. In November, Lindsey Port, then a Democratic candidate for the state legislature, accused state Sen. Dan Schoen (D) of sexual harassment. Schoen resigned, and Port initially received an outpouring of support.
But after Franken announced he was leaving the Senate, the tide turned. Port lost financial support for her campaign and her nonprofit, with some people alleging that she “softened the ground” for Franken’s resignation by speaking out about the sexual harassment she faced at the hands of a totally different man. Others even wondered if she was secretly a conservative operative.
Many Democrats say they see the split on Gillibrand and Franken as generational, with younger voters ― both men and women ― more likely to support Gillibrand, or at least be sympathetic to what she did.
In June, Gillibrand spoke at the Washington, D.C., chapter of The Wing, an all-female social club that attracts a younger crowd, and she addressed the reason she spoke out on Franken. An attendee said the audience was supportive of her answer and applauded her.
Gillibrand has also had other discussions in the wake of the matter, including calling some other prominent Democratic women in the San Francisco area who are friends with Tompkins Buell. According to someone with knowledge of the situation, the senator reached out to them to explain why she believed Franken needed to go, and she’s been willing to talk about her views with people who are skeptical and have questions.
“Times change, and this is time changing for the better. This is about sexual harassment and sexual assault. Are we for that?” said a Democratic donor. “People just have to get over it. They should expect people to speak up and take a position on it.”
“Did she do it because she wanted to position herself for president? Gee, I’m shocked. People do that all the time. Why is this issue a no-go? Is Bernie [Sanders] taking advantage of single-payer and putting people in an uncomfortable position by being so aggressive about that? We say it’s not the same, but it is the same. It’s getting a different frame because it’s squeezing the old-boy network.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was the Senate Majority Leader instead of Minority Leader.