Two Metropolitan King County Council members are calling for the cancellation of a Seattle appearance by former U.S. Sen. Al Franken, citing a new allegation that Franken groped a former aide to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.
Franken, a former Democratic senator from Minnesota, announced his resignation in 2017 after several women accused him of groping or inappropriate advances. He has since said he regrets stepping down and has returned to public life with a Sirius XM radio show and a speaking tour, including a Friday talk at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre.
On Tuesday, King County Councilmembers Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Joe McDermott sent an open letter asking Seattle Theatre Group (STG) executive director Josh LaBelle to call off the Franken event, pointing to a new allegation that emerged in New York magazine over the weekend.
In the letter, they pointed to the new allegation, arguing STG should not condone “an event that supports the comeback tour of a powerful man credibly accused of a growing number of sexual harassment and groping incidents …”
LaBelle and STG did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Tickets to the event, ranging in price from $25 to $75, were still available Tuesday afternoon.
STG, the nonprofit organization that operates the Paramount, Moore and Neptune theaters in Seattle, gets the vast majority of its $92 million in annual revenue through ticket sales. But it does get limited public funding through 4Culture, a county authority that distributes grants for arts and culture.
4Culture is giving the group $35,000 for program support in the 2019-2020 biennium, and an additional $76,000 for capital investments in the Paramount Theatre.
In an interview, Kohl-Welles said she would protest in front of the Paramount on Friday if the Franken event is not canceled.
“We have a new victim making an allegation about a groping incident that took place right here in our city, I think that’s reason enough to have this event canceled,” she said. “If this tour were about contrition and remorse, that would be one thing. But he’s capitalizing off his visibility that’s only been enhanced by continued allegations of wrongdoing.”
McDermott said he expected the event to be canceled.
“Giving Mr. Franken his own stage sends the message that we don’t actually care,” McDermott said. “The voices we need to elevate and the people we need to make sure are on the stage are the people who have been terrified of coming forward with their stories of abuse of any kind.”
The ACLU of Washington criticized the two council members, saying they should not be “picking and choosing who can and cannot speak.”
“Allegations of sexual harassment are a serious issue, and we recognize the intent to support the brave women who step forward. But the government cannot do so by pressuring private venues to shut down certain speakers,” said Emily Chiang, ACLU of Washington legal director.
“The First Amendment is designed to protect against government singling out speech it does not like — and trying to suppress that speech before it even happens would be an impermissible prior restraint,” Chiang said.
In the New York magazine article, the unidentified former Murray aide, working her first job out of college, said Franken squeezed her buttocks while in a photo line at Murray’s annual Golden Tennis Shoes fundraiser in 2006.
She described the incident as embarrassing and confidence sapping, and recounted bursting into tears on receiving a New York Times news alert about other accusations against Franken years later.
Franken did not deny the new accusation in a statement to the magazine, saying he’d have sworn two years ago that he’d never made people feel uncomfortable, “but it’s clear that I must have been doing something … I feel terrible that anyone came away from an interaction with me feeling bad.”
Franken’s Seattle event was being billed as a look at his comedy career as a member of the Saturday Night Live cast, as well as a behind-the-scenes look at the U.S. Senate. A promo quoted Franken’s speech when he left the Senate, saying, “I may be giving up my seat, but not my voice.”
In a statement, Murray said she didn’t know about the incident involving her former aide at the time, “but her story shows exactly why we need to raise these voices up, ensure they are heard, and keep making clear that we’re not tolerating this behavior any more. No one should have to spend their life living with something like this. It is not OK.”
In late 2017, Murray and fellow U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., were among nine female Democratic senators to demand that Franken resign. In a statement at the time, Murray said Franken had shown “a deeply harmful, persistent problem and a clear pattern over a long period of time.”
Franken announced his resignation a day later and stepped down Jan. 2, 2018.