When Minnesota Senator Al Franken’s first accuser came forward in November, with a decade-old photograph of Franken appearing to fondle her while she slept, progressives found themselves in a dilemma. They were supportive of the #MeToo movement and had said publicly that women should be believed, yet here was a progressive stalwart—an outspoken feminist ally, no less—credibly accused of misconduct. So while some Senate Democrats immediately called for his resignation, others (as well as many Republicans) fretted about whether the word of one woman should be sufficient to sink a man’s political career.
After a half-dozen more accusers came forward, alleging that Franken had groped them, the question became academic. He had to go. But there are still some Democrats who think he got a raw deal. In January, as Franken’s replacement was sworn in, David Axelrod, President Obama’s longtime political Svengali, tweeted that he “can’t help thinking that Al Franken was sacrificed by Senate Dems to enhance their chances against [Roy] Moore in Alabama. Perhaps an ethics review would have led to the same result, but Franken never got a hearing.”
Of course, if it was a coldblooded political calculation, it paid off: shoving Franken off a cliff allowed Democrats to claim the moral high ground as President Trump embraced an accused child molester, and Doug Jones defeated Moore in Alabama. And because the governor of Minnesota is a Democrat, there was no risk that Franken’s seat would be filled by a Republican. But Axelrod was correct that Franken was convicted without a trial.
Opining for The Week the day Franken announced his intention to resign, columnist Paul Waldman wrote, “When it comes to sex scandals, the politicians who are the most guilty and the least repentant are the ones who survive.” Franken, he continues, “was contrite and apologetic. … While he said in general terms that he didn’t remember events in the same way his accusers did, he didn’t attack them or call them liars, and he pledged to do better. When a politician reacts that way, there’s a good chance he’s on his way out. And who survives this kind of scandal? The ones that are the least repentant—and often, the most guilty.”
Which brings us to the local iteration of this drama, which has a similar dynamic.
Last week, the website NC Policy Watch, an arm of the NC Justice Center, published two stories in which seven sources—some on the record, others anonymous—accused state representative Duane Hall, an amiable Wake County Democrat considering a run for lieutenant governor in 2020, of sexual misconduct, including making degrading statements and forcibly kissing a woman at an Equality NC gala in 2016.
As quickly as Senate Dems turned on Al Franken, North Carolina Dems turned on Hall. Governor Cooper, House Minority Leader Darren Jackson, and party chairman Wayne Goodwin called for his resignation, with the latter saying “the North Carolina Democratic Party has no tolerance for sexual harassment and we continue to encourage women to speak out against inappropriate behavior of any kind.”
Unlike Franken, though, Hall was defiant rather than contrite. He admitted no wrongdoing, telling Policy Watch, “One hundred percent, I have never harassed at the General Assembly. I have never harassed anyone or engaged in anything that was not completely consensual.”
The fifty-one-year-old Hall then told News & Observer opinion writer Ned Barrett that, while he’s a flirt, and while he did inappropriately kiss a woman while “trying to be funny,” as Barrett put it, he wasn’t a harasser. Barrett quoted two high-profile Democrats—Michael Schaul, a member of the state party’s executive committee, and John Wilson, a former executive director of the N.C. Association of Educators—arguing that what Hall allegedly did wasn’t that bad.
On Sunday, Hall went on the attack, telling WUNC in a statement that not only was he not guilty and would not resign, but the allegations against him were the result of a vendetta, a reprisal for him dating and then breaking up with the daughter of NC Justice Center executive director and former state representative Rick Glazier. “Policy Watch staff then spent months and much effort aggressively contacting colleagues, associates, and acquaintances to manufacture gossip,” he said. “… I ask that you consider the personal motives of this group in soliciting stories.” He continued: “I won’t run away so a tiny far-left element of my party can finish their attack and install a person of their choosing in House Seat District 11 without a vote of the people.”
On Monday, Hall told me in a text message (he declined to be interviewed): “I’ve had personal relationships with several people at NC Policy Watch. There is no way for me to know what degree that played a role, but it has been confirmed to me by one of them that it was discussed at length and the father of the girl I broke up with [Glazier], who is also the [executive director], edited, proofed, and had final say over this story. The main point of my statement is that minimal journalistic integrity demands those relationships should have been disclosed.”
That may be his main point—and it certainly warrants exploration—but underlying it are two insinuations about Policy Watch that deserve scrutiny: that the progressive organization used its journalists to settle the boss’s scores, and that it’s acting as a front for a cabal that wants to force the centrist Hall out of his solidly Democratic seat so they can pick his replacement.
There are two important pieces of context that bely Hall’s conspiracy: One, before Policy Watch published its piece, the N&O was also working on a story about one of Hall’s accusers, and to my knowledge no one at the paper has ever dated Hall. Two, the Policy Watch reporter who broke the story, Billy Ball, used to be a staff writer at the INDY, and I was for a time his supervisor. He is an assiduously fair reporter, and it’s nigh-impossible for me to imagine him going after Hall to satisfy Rick Glazier’s grudge. That’s just not who he is.
“Duane’s allegation is utterly, totally preposterous,” Policy Watch director Rob Schofield told me. “This was not something any of us enjoyed or were looking to do.”
Besides, Schofield adds, the story didn’t come about in a top-down manner. Ball—who normally covers education for the website—heard from legislative sources about sexual improprieties in the General Assembly some two years ago. As he kept reporting, Hall’s name kept coming up.
According to Schofield, Ball didn’t learn of the relationship between Hall and Glazier’s daughter until a few months ago; he approached Schofield as the story neared completion to ask whether they should disclose it. In a blog post Monday, Schofield described what he saw as his three options: kill the story, “attempt to report on the past relationship between Hall and Ms. Glazier as part of the story and thereby broach the topic of a private matter that did not impact the story,” or proceed as planned.
He proceeded as planned. Early last week, Schofield took the story to Glazier—something he almost never does—to give him a heads-up. “I felt obliged to say something to him,” Schofield says. “I was feeling pretty darn nervous about it.”
So, yes, Glazier knew about and reviewed the story in advance. According to Schofield, he made sure Policy Watch had its sources nailed down and, after Goodwin and Jackson said Hall should step down, gave Schofield permission to publish.
Schofield writes: “Neither Billy Ball, nor I, nor any member of the Policy Watch team was ever encouraged or discouraged in our pursuit of the story about Representative Hall by Rick Glazier or any other Justice Center senior staff. While we readily concede that the matter of reporting on an individual who once had a relationship with a colleague poses some potentially challenging issues of journalistic ethics, we strongly believe that in this instance, we made the right call on all fronts.”
I’m not so sure. Certainly, the story was in the public interest and needed to be told. But it’s never a bad idea to err on the side of transparency, even if doing so is uncomfortable or clutters the narrative. Policy Watch may believe the relationship was irrelevant to its story—and it probably was—but that’s the sort of thing readers should determine for themselves. And, in retrospect, not disclosing the relationship gave Hall space to claim the NC Justice Center was out to get him.
To buy Hall’s argument, however, you have to concede a vendetta not only on Policy Watch’s part, but also on the part of Policy Watch’s sources, including the women who have accused Hall of being a creep. And that brings us back to the Al Franken question: Are the allegations—absent a hearing that allows Hall to present his case or even a formal complaint against him for harassment—a sufficient basis to drum Duane Hall out of office?
Schofield points out that Policy Watch has not called for Hall’s resignation. But he does see the due-process issue as central to this story. The General Assembly’s process for filing sexual-harassment complaints, he argues, is broken; there’s no way to anonymously report an incident, and complaints have to be filed with the chamber’s leader—in this case, Democratic operatives would be complaining to Republican House Speaker Tim Moore about a fellow Democrat.
“It’s a competitive, partisan environment,” Schofield says. “And the fact that there isn’t an independent tribunal of some sort is a problem.”
Despite being ostracized by his party, Hall says he’s running for reelection. He faces two women in the Democratic primary this May, and two Republican men are vying to challenge him in the fall. (There’s also a Libertarian candidate.) If Waldman’s theory of sexual misconduct is correct—that those who refuse to apologize ultimately prevail—Hall is still the odds-on favorite.
As with Franken, it would be politically advantageous for Democrats if Hall exited stage left. District 11, which Hall won by twenty-nine points in 2016, will probably go blue no matter the candidate. And the alternative is that Hall stays in the legislature with this cloud hanging over his head, rendering him an ineffectual pariah even in his own caucus. I don’t see how that would be good for anyone, least of all his constituents.
Maybe Policy Watch should have disclosed the relationship between Hall and its executive director’s daughter. And maybe we should all be skeptical of trial-by-media. But none of that undercuts the numerous, credible women who have accused him of abhorrent behavior that can’t be brushed aside as mere flirtation. And trying to pin this on an allegedly jilted lover’s angry father, rather than to accept responsibility for his own behavior, is a serious failure of judgment.
Come down off that cross, Duane. You’re not the victim here, and martyrdom doesn’t suit you.