Congressman Trent Franks speaking at a Congressional field hearing at the Mesa Arts Center in Mesa, Arizona, August 22, 2013. / Gage Skidmore / Flickr
Two Arizona politicians, Trent Franks and Don Shooter, were forced from office in recent months after patterns of misbehavior and sexual harassment came to light. At a time when the #metoo movement is sending waves throughout the country, the cases of these two men are two of the most high profile success stories so far.
But do their downfalls constitute a shift in national and state politics or will their cases prove to be unique?
Trent Franks was first elected to the United States House of Representatives in 2002. In 2016 he won reelection with 68.5 percent of the vote, defeating Green party candidate Mike Salazar. Wildly popular in his district, there was no credible chance for him to be defeated in a general election.
Last December the House Ethics Committee announced that it planned to investigate Franks over allegations that he sexually harassed his aides. Specifically, Franks repeated asked female staffers to be surrogates for his child. The Associated Press reported Franks even offered $5 million to one of his aides to be a surrogate.
When the story originally broke, Franks announced that he would resign at the end of January 2018. However, the timetable was ultimately sped up by Speaker Paul Ryan who pressured Franks to resign immediately. On December 8, 2017, the eight-term Congressman who won reelection with nearly 70 percent of the vote resigned effective immediately from Congress.
Don Shooter was elected to the Arizona Senate in 2010. He served three terms in the state legislature’s upper chamber before running for the AZ House in 2016. Although highly controversial, Shooter was very successful at the ballot box and powerful in the legislature.
In November the winds shifted for Shooter. State Rep. Michele Ugenti-Rita (R-Scottsdale) revealed on Twitter that Don Shooter sexually harassed her while they were both serving in the legislature. Over the next month, eight more women would publically accuse Shooter of sexual harassment. Eventually, Shooter asked the House to investigate his actions. No doubt confident that he would ultimately evade significant penalties.
In January the AZ House released a report on the allegations. The report by Craig Morgan and Lindsay Hesketh of the law firm Sherman & Howard found “credible evidence” that Rep. Don Shooter violated the House’s zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment.
After the report was released, it appeared that Shooter would be allowed to remain a member of the state legislature. According to the Arizona Republic, House Speaker J. D. Mesnard (R-Chandler) was planning to introduce legislation to censure but not expel Shooter from the legislature. It was House Majority Whip Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa) who ultimately forced the vote to expel Shooter.
On February 1, the AZ House voted 56-3 to expel Don Shooter from the legislature.
Trent Franks’ resignations and Don Shooter’s expulsion are good signs for the future of accountability in politics. In both cases, leadership within their own party held them accountable for their actions.
However, both cases also reveal that we still have a long way to go.
Trent Franks remains popular in his former district. Consultants in CD 8 told Laurie Roberts with the Arizona Republic that is popularity may have to do with the swiftness of his downfall.
Don Shooter may have remained in the legislature had Townsend not been adamant that there be a vote on expulsion.
The final arbiters of a politician’s fate are the voters and the other members of the legislature. It is up to voters to ensure to find and elect candidates worthy of higher office and it is up to the leadership in government to ensure that members are held to the highest standards.
The true test of change will come when Franks, Shooter, or someone credibly accused of similar actions run for office. Will the voters reject outright an individual with a history of misconduct and sexual harassment? If the voters do not, will other government officials in positions of power hold them accountable?
Ultimately time will tell whether or not we are seeing an irreversible shift towards holding elected officials accountable for their actions.