The domestic abuse allegations against U.S. Representative Keith Ellison would be troubling and difficult to adjudge under any circumstances. His ex-girlfriend, environmental activist Karen Monahan — and most forcefully, her son — have claimed a history of psychological abuse with at least one incident of physical violence (though without any injury, it seems). He’s denied the abuse allegations entirely and has suggested the whole saga was just the sad denouement of a dying relationship. And there’s a mystery surrounding a video of the physical incident Monahan says she took (and that her son says he saw) but at first could not find and now says she simply cannot bear to see again. Empirically, it’s all a bit of a mess.
The case is getting national attention, of course, for two reasons: First, Ellison is a very prominent member of Congress (its first Muslim member) and a leader of the self-consciously progressive wing of the Democratic Party — vice-chairman, in fact, of the DNC, whose chairmanship he came close to winning. And second, the allegations broke suspiciously close to the August 14 primary in which Ellison was making his first statewide race, for attorney general (he won the primary anyway, even though two opponents tried to make Monahan’s claims a last-minute campaign issue).
What makes this a particular agony for many Democrats, particularly from his home state of Minnesota, are the comparisons that will inevitably be made between his case and that of former U.S. Seator Al Franken, who was pushed into premature retirement last December before allegations of sexual harassment had been fully investigated. Almost immediately, there was mumbling among Democrats regretting the precipitous rush to kick Franken to the curb, affected as it was by the red-hot campaign against alleged mall predator Roy Moore in Alabama. In a climate where progressives are torn between fidelity to the #MeToo movement and a desire to close ranks in the battle against Trump, uncertainty about the appropriate line to take when progressive pols face poorly substantiated claims of sexual misconduct has increased. And that’s particularly true in Minnesota.
On the one hand, Ellison’s political allies don’t want to see him run out of office (or his campaign) precipitously like Franken was. On the other hand, if he’s given what appears to be a pass, perceptions of a double standard will be unavoidable. As the Washington Post’s Paul Kane observes, Ellison is standing on the precipice of an ordeal:
Ellison is at least the 10th member of the House or Senate to face some type of harassment allegations: four, including Franken, announced they would resign immediately; three decided to retire rather than run for reelection in November; and two said they would retire but then immediately resigned rather than answer questions before the ethics committee.
At this point, in contrast to what happened with Franken, no Democrats are calling for an Ethics Committee investigation; the DNC is undertaking some sort of inquest, but it’s not clear how far it will go.
There are obviously plenty of differences between the allegations against Ellison and Franken. Ellison is being accused mostly of psychological abuse during and near the end of a failed but entirely consensual (so far as we know) personal relationship. Franken was accused of crude sexual misconduct toward total strangers in public settings. The evidence of Ellison’s bad behavior is at this point entirely limited to statements from his alleged victim and her son. The Franken scandal began with public disclosure of a photograph showing him leering at the camera while touching a sleeping woman’s breasts. Ellison has totally denied Monahan’s allegations. Franken has more or less said he doesn’t remember doing what he’s said to have done.
But still, those who fear Ellison’s case could turn back the clock by placing the burden of proof on victims of abuse are demanding swift action instead of the “wait and see” attitude that’s pervasive among the politicians. The president of the National Organization for Women, Toni Van Pelt, was unequivocal on this score:
If the allegations are true, Keith Ellison has no right to serve as the state’s chief legal officer. And he had no right to run under false pretenses, as a man standing wrongly accused. Voters had only his word on that claim, and the investigation is ongoing.
In the meantime, Keith Ellison must withdraw from the race and not put Minnesotans through another cycle of political scandal. They’ve been through enough.
It’s very simple. We believe survivors.
Politics doesn’t matter. We believe survivors.
Keith Ellison says he wants to protect women from domestic violence and sexual assault. That starts by believing survivors.
Ellison is rejecting NOW’s call because he says he’s done nothing wrong and it’s up to Monahan to supply the evidence she says she has.
Ellison’s friends and colleagues — and some who mistrust him — obviously hope some clear evidence will quickly emerge either to exonerate him or to force a serious official investigation with consequences. So far Al Franken hasn’t had anything to say publicly about Ellison’s plight. But the longer the controversy goes on, the more Franken’s “reckoning” will be relitigated.