‘Let me tell you how strongly I felt about it — I didn’t even vote for her in the recent election. I left it blank,’ said one top donor.
Just a month after Al Franken formally resigned from the Senate amid sexual misconduct allegations, the former senator met with an intimate group of Bay Area supporters at the home of major Democratic Party financiers Mary and Steve Swig.
As Franken and his wife, Franni Bryson, made the rounds thanking supporters in the philanthropists’ San Francisco home at the February 2018 event, the conversation broke off into another subject: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. The New York Democrat had, in their opinion, pulled the rug out from under Franken, a senator beloved by the group, forcing him out without any real vetting of the allegations facing him.
“It was said not in front of Al to impress him; it was said privately in a corner. A group of us were standing there talking about it. He was one of our best weapons against this administration, his presence on these committees. [Gillibrand] did the damage that Republicans could not do themselves,” one of the attendees told POLITICO. “There were other people at this event who were saying the same thing. They said, ‘Absolutely, I will never do anything for her.’”
Today, nearly a year after Gillibrand led the charge in calling for Franken’s resignation, the anger is fresh on the minds of major donors across the country.
More than a dozen prominent West Coast, New York and national donors and bundlers — many of them women — said they would never again donate to or fundraise for Gillibrand or would only do so if she ended up as the Democratic presidential nominee.
Gillibrand has defended her approach by insisting she placed deeply held personal values over party loyalty. But the still-burning resentment among the donor class now confronts Gillibrand as she explores a presidential bid, cutting her off from influential and deep-pocketed contributors and their networks at a time when an expansive 2020 field will compete for their dollars.
Among those donors is Susie Tompkins Buell, a prominent Democratic fundraiser and cofounder of Esprit and the North Face clothing brands, who said the matter remains fresh in her mind and among those in her circles. The episode, she said, “stained [Gillibrand’s] reputation as a fair player.”
“I do hear people refer to Kirsten Gillibrand as ‘opportunistic’ and shrewd at the expense of others to advance herself and it seems to have been demonstrated in her rapid treatment of her colleague Al Franken,” she said. “I heard her referred to as ‘she would eat her own’ and she seems to have demonstrated that. I know [Gillibrand] thought she was doing the right thing but I think she will be remembered by this rush to judgment. I have heard some of her women colleagues regret joining her.”
The anger is at least in part a testament to donors’ fondness for Franken, a comedian who rose to fame as a “Saturday Night Live” cast member and remains in the eyes of his supporters one the Senate’s greatest champions for women — even after his resignation. Several of those who talked to POLITICO also spoke of an inner party struggle to keep Franken from resigning, fearing he was swept up in a panic at the time. A Change.org petition opposing Franken’s resignation had 75,000 signatures. Some blamed the media for rushing to publish allegations without a full vetting.
“I could stay on the phone all afternoon talking about this,” said a Manhattan-based member of the ‘Majority Trust’ of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, an elite group of top donors, who has donated to Gillibrand in the past. “Let me tell you how strongly I felt about it — I didn’t even vote for her in the recent election. I left it blank.”
Another major Manhattan-based donor said the episode raised suspicions that it was a craven political move by Gillibrand.
“I thought she was duplicitous,” the donor said. “Once the whole thing happened with Al Franken, it was confirmed 1 billion percent that she’s not to be trusted. I think that she hurt the Democratic Party. I think that she hurt the Senate. I think that what she did for women in politics was dreadful.”
The Franken accusations came in the weeks after a parade of powerful men were toppled by the movement; among them Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Louis C.K. and Garrison Keillor. The wounds over Franken’s ouster were reopened, some Democrats say, during confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, who faced sex misconduct allegations but still took a seat on the Supreme Court.
One major national Democratic fundraiser told POLITICO the level of residual anger runs the gamut, but it’s still very much present.
“I know Kirsten well and I know Al well … It’s tragic what happened to Al and a lot of my donors feel anywhere from strongly to adamantly about anger at Kirsten for what she did. Others see that it was a way to kind of grab the high ground with no ambiguity,” the fundraiser said. “Personally, I lean towards I think Kirsten overdid it. It’s such a shame that Al couldn’t just go through the process and be reprimanded, or censured. At the moment it happened it was understandable.”
Gillibrand has stood her ground, never publicly backing down from the criticism, even when it came from the Democratic Party’s most prolific donor, George Soros. In June, he told the Washington Post he blamed Gillibrand for cornering Franken into resigning, accusing her of doing so “in order to improve her chances,” in 2020.
In August, Gillibrand responded specifically to Soros, telling the Huffington Post in a statement: “If standing up for women who have been wronged makes George Soros mad, that’s on him.”
Gillibrand’s campaign pushed back against the criticism, asserting that the senator did the right thing by speaking up.
“Leadership means standing up for your values when it’s hard. Kirsten has never been afraid to stand up for what she believes in and never will be. You can disagree with her views, but holding her accountable for someone else’s behavior towards women is wrong, and her values aren’t for sale,” Gillibrand spokesperson Glen Caplin said in a statement to POLITICO. “One year later, after the special election in Alabama, the Kavanaugh hearings and the historic number of women who took back the House in the midterms, there is just no case to be made the Democratic Party would have been better off with a different outcome. We have to put our morals and the valuing of women ahead of party loyalty.”
NARAL Pro-Choice America president Ilyse Hogue said “history will laud” Gillibrand for her actions.
On its face, the revolt against Gillibrand seems counterintuitive. At a key moment in the “Me Too” movement, Gillibrand stood up to a revered colleague in her own party. She led the call for Franken’s resignation after he was accused of groping or trying to forcibly kiss more than half a dozen women. A chorus of senators quickly followed her. It raised Gillibrand’s national profile, almost immediately branding her as a fierce female leader who told the establishment that when it came to sexual harassment, “enough is enough.”
It’s unclear whether or to what extent a donor backlash could debilitate Gillibrand’s possible 2020 campaign. In the era of small donor, digital fundraising, major donors arguably don’t hold as much sway — but that’s typically only true for candidates who catch fire like Sen. Bernie Sanders or Beto O’Rourke.
Since 2013, Gillibrand’s campaign committee raised nearly $18 million for her reelection. Almost 60 percent of it came from high-dollar donors, but Gillibrand also raised nearly $6.5 million, or about 30 percent of her total, from small dollar donors who gave less than $200.
Ana Maria Archila, the co-executive director for the Center for Popular Democracy who famously confronted Republican Sen. Jeff Flake in a congressional elevator this summer during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings called Gillibrand’s response “important and courageous.”
“It probably made her more enemies than friends,” Archila said.
If Gillibrand is unpopular with a certain subset of the Democratic donor class, it didn’t hurt her in her most recent reelection bid in New York in November, when she won roughly two-thirds of the vote against her Republican opponent, and garnered 3.73 million votes — the most for any candidate in New York in this election cycle.
She earned almost 400,000 more votes than Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is sometimes mentioned as a possible 2020 contender himself. In 2012, when she was running for her first full Senate term, she garnered 350,000 more votes than President Obama, who led the Democratic ticket.
Franken, who declined to comment for this story, posted on Facebook over the Thanksgiving holiday thanking supporters for well wishes over the last year — and offered a reflection.
“I’ve also spent a lot of time over this past year thinking about the broader conversation we’ve been having about the experience of women in this country. I know that, for so many people, this issue raises a lot of powerful and painful feelings,” Franken wrote. “This conversation can also be incredibly complicated. I don’t think it’s my place to weigh in on all the debates – but I will continue to listen and learn.”