Many Minnesota Democrats sad, angry over Franken's departure

University of Minnesota Duluth students watch Franken's resignation speech
University of Minnesota Duluth students watch U.S. Sen. Al Franken's resignation speech Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017 at the Kirby Student Center in Duluth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Updated: 8:30 p.m. | Posted: 5:44 p.m.

A couple dozen students at the University of Minnesota Duluth gathered in front of a big screen TV at the Kirby Student Center Thursday morning to see Sen. Al Franken announce his intention to resign in the coming weeks.

"It was hard to watch. It was a bummer," said UMD senior Willow Huber, who interned at Franken's Duluth office last year.

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She even got to meet him at UMD's commencement last year, which she recalls as a "great experience," where he shared memories of working on Saturday Night Live and talked about issues she was passionate about.

"It's hard to see someone you respect so much, see them change in your eyes. You know it's not quite the same anymore," she said. "I'm glad that he is understanding that he should have consequences to his actions."

Many young Democrats in Duluth and across the state are trying to reconcile their admiration for Franken the Senator — champion of progressive causes and pointed questioner of Trump cabinet nominees — with their belief that he should probably resign, even if they don't really want to see him go.

University of Minnesota Duluth
University of Minnesota Duluth junior Brian Muhs (standing) and fellow junior Megan Veeder (gray sweatshirt) watch United States Senator Al Franken's resignation speech Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017 at the Kirby Student Center in Duluth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Bella Maki, a sophomore at UMD, said she was heartbroken when she first heard the sexual misconduct allegations against Franken. She even cried. She's the Vice President of the College Democrats at UMD. And she wanted Franken to run for President in 2020.

"I think in the long run what we see today of Al deciding to step down is probably the best option," she said. "[It's] kind of bringing light to the whole concept that this is not a partisan issue. It is a societal issue, and quite frankly a male issue."

In the end, she believes it will be a good thing that Franken resigned, because it's helped to further elevate awareness of sexual harassment.

"It's about time that we start showing a no-tolerance policy for sexual assault," said Abby Kurowski, a freshman at UMD from Cambridge, Minn.

"It's been going on for so long and no one's really talked about it," she said. "And now that a very well-respected Democrat came out, I think the Democratic party really reacted well, in just shutting it down right away."

Kurowski added that she has no sympathy for Franken right now, even if she agreed with his politics and his stance on a majority of issues.

But there are plenty of Democrats who do sympathize with him. And many are angry, saying he was unfairly forced out because of unproven allegations.

"I'm frustrated because I feel like I know what he did was wrong, and he knows it was wrong, but I don't think he should be resigning," said Kelly Erickson, 40, a small business owner in Duluth.

The allegations against Franken pale in comparison to those against Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, Erickson said. Moore has been accused of sexual misconduct involving teenage girls.

University of Minnesota Duluth students watch Franken resignation speech
University of Minnesota Duluth students watch U.S. Sen. Al Franken's resignation speech Thursday, December 7, 2017 at the Kirby Student Center in Duluth, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Erickson said she's gotten in arguments with friends and colleagues who disagree with her position. But she said Franken is a good guy, who's done a lot of good things for Minnesota.

"I believe in women's rights," Erickson said. "And I believe that women should be treated fairly, but I think this situation has just gotten so overboard, that it's frustrating."

Many women say they have mixed feelings. Pam Bjorklund, a nursing professor at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, said she feels "like I'm supposed to be on the feminist bandwagon."

The 66-year-old said she's experienced sexual harassment in and out of the workplace. But she doesn't think Franken should have resigned.

"I don't think it serves the interests of the people of Minnesota. I don't think it serves the Democratic Party. And I don't think it's exactly fair to him. To me it just doesn't feel the punishment fits the crime."

But other Duluth Democrats who supported Franken said they agree with the senator's decision to step down.

Peter Hannegraf
Peter Hannegraf talks about Democratic Sen. Al Franken's resignation Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017 in downtown Duluth, Minn. Hannegraf was supportive of the process playing out, but expressed disappointment in the entire situation.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

"I like him, I want to like him, but, there's no place for this," said Peter Hannegraf, 30, a realtor in Duluth who voted for Franken twice.

"I don't care if you're Republican, Democrat, anyone, this shouldn't be allowed. These are supposed to be our leaders, you know. These are people who should be setting the example," he said.

And that's what it came down to for Brian Muhs, President of the College Democrats at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Franken is extremely popular among college Democrats, Muhs said. Personally, he's someone he looked up to as "a champion of liberal politics."

But as a group, he said, they decided Franken had to be held to the same standard as other men in power accused of sexual misconduct.

"I think it is important that you hold people to the same standards regardless of political ideology," Muhs said.

Across the state, a similar response

In St. Louis Park, the Minneapolis suburb where Franken grew up, Mary Anderson, took a break from shopping to talk about Franken's resignation.

Sen. Al Franken announces his resignation on television.
Sen. Al Franken announces his resignation on television as people stop to watch in the Minneapolis skyway the morning of Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"I'm sad, because I thought he was a really great senator, but we're moving forward," she said. "We've got, not necessarily a new standard, but we're going to try to adhere to the standard. That may be uncomfortable, but maybe it's what needs to happen."

Anderson, who lives in Golden Valley, said it is time that victims are listened to. Franken was right to resign and it's only the beginning of dealing with the issue, she added.

"But I also think there is a place to look at what are the different levels? What's sexual abuse? What's sexual harassment? What's inappropriate behavior? And I think that the penalties for those don't necessarily have to be the same," Anderson said.

For Cindy Langendorfer of Worthington, the news that Franken was stepping down brought tears.

"Other people are able to go through the ethics committee and get their side heard," Langendorfer said. "Since when do we condemn before we hear the truth and the facts. They need to let him prove his side. And they're not doing that and that's not right."

Mary Jane Haugen campaigned for Franken, but the retired librarian in Moorhead wants a firm line in the sand on the issue of sexual harassment.

"And that's why I think he had to do it," she said. "Instead of he or any of us saying, it wasn't as bad. It was bad enough."

Haugen hopes Franken's resignation will "shake the ground" in Congress and help force a non partisan response to sexual harassment. She said it's a moral issue that every voter must decide.

MPR News reporters Peter Cox, Kirsti Marohn and Dan Gunderson contributed to this report.