WASHINGTON – Rep. Trent Franks, R-Glendale, said Thursday he will resign in the face of a House investigation of his discussions with female staffers about his and his wife’s search for a surrogate mother to help them have more children.
Franks said in a statement released by his office that he wanted to take full responsibility for the discussions that “unbeknownst to me until very recently, made certain individuals uncomfortable.”
He went on to insist in the statement, however, that he “absolutely never physically intimidated, coerced, or had, or attempted to have, any sexual contact with any member of my congressional staff.” He said he was resigning because he did not feel he could get “a fair House Ethics investigation before distorted and sensationalized versions of this story.”
Franks said his resignation will take effect Jan. 31.
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The announcement comes the same day that Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, said he would resign in the face of sexual harassment allegations by several women and follows a slew of similar allegations against sitting members of Congress, candidates, and media and entertainment executives.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement Thursday that he had been presented with “credible claims of misconduct” that Franks did not deny. He told Franks he intended to the House Ethics Committee and that Franks “should resign from Congress.”
The Ethics Committee said Thursday it had voted unanimously to open an investigation to determine whether Franks “engaged in conduct that constitutes sexual harassment and/or retaliation for opposing sexual harassment in violation of House Rules, law, regulations, or other standards of conduct.”
Franks’ announcement sets up what one analyst said could be a “Wild West free-for-all” race for a solidly Republican 8th District congressional seat. Republicans made up 41 percent of registered voters in the district, according to the latest registration numbers from the Arizona Secretary of State, compared to 24 percent for Democrats and 34 percent for independents.
Secretary of State Michele Reagan said in a tweet last night that, once the vacancy becomes official, state elections law says a special primary election will have to be held within 80-90 days, followed by a special general election 50-60 days after that.
She said that once the House officially reports a vacant seat to the state, the governor’s office will have 72 hours to announce the dates for those elections. Calls to Gov. Doug Ducey’s office last night were not immediately returned.
Most political watchers said they were surprised by the announcement, but not by the decision amid the current furor over sexual harassment in the workplace.
Jim Kolbe, a former Republican member of Congress from Tucson, said he was surprised and saddened by the news.
“Obviously I’m very saddened when any member feels they have to resign for whatever reasons,” Kolbe said. “But that’s his decision, his choice.
“I had no idea there was any reason he might resign. He was certainly moving up through the ranks with a chairmanship in a subcommittee, so this is quite a surprise,” Kolbe said.
A previous version of this story misidentified political analyst Jason Rose’s firm in the 16th graf. Rose is a Republican political consultant. The story below has been corrected, but clients who used earlier versions are asked to use the correction found here.
Franks was first elected in 2002 and has built a reputation as a staunch conservative and an outspoken pro-life leader in the House. His voting record routinely earned scores of 90 to 100 from the American Conservative Union.
Jason Rose, a Republican political consultant, said he was stunned by the news.
“Congressman Franks is one of those people who loved his job immensely, who appreciated being there and who you always thought would probably leave Congress in a box,” Rose said.
He predicted a rush of candidates will seek the seat.
“It is going to be a Wild West free-for-all for that seat because it’s such a safe Republican district,” Rose said. “It’s a jewel of a district for anyone who wants to be in Congress for a long period of time.”
That was echoed by Mike Noble, a consultant at MBQF Consulting, who said any Republican running for another state office may rethink their plans to take a shot at Franks’ open seat. He predicted state legislators would soon be in a “race to plant their flag first.”
“This is just like Flake’s announcement, the whole political landscape has shifted,” Noble said, referring to Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s surprise announcement in October that he will not seek re-election in 2018. “It’s absolutely a free-for-all.”
“He is the longest-serving Republican incumbent in Arizona currently and nobody was even thinking about that as an option but now it has completely turned the tables,” Noble said.
Franks’ lengthy statement said that he and his wife struggled for years with infertility, miscarriages and failed adoptions, but eventually had twins that were carried by a surrogate. After a second surrogate miscarried, they continued to look into the possibility, something Franks said he began talking about in his office.
“Due to my familiarity and experience with the process of surrogacy, I clearly became insensitive as to how the discussion of such an intensely personal topic might affect others,” his statement said. “I deeply regret that my discussion of this option and process in the workplace caused distress.”
Franks said his decision to resign both comes out of the desire to protect his family, staff and colleagues in the House, and also to “get this right for everyone, especially the victims.”
Rebeccah Heinrichs, a former adviser to the congressman, told Fox News’ Tucker Carlson on Thursday night that Franks said he asked the women in his office if “they would ever consider being a surrogate,” but that he never asked them to be a surrogate for him specifically.
Heinrichs admitted the conversation was “awkward” and “weird,” but didn’t think it was grounds for him to resign.
“This is incredibly startling to me, and frankly, I find it a tragedy,” said Heinrichs, who said she never felt uncomfortable around Franks.
In his statement, Franks maintained that he has never engaged in harassment of any kind.
“Given the nature of numerous allegations and reports across America in recent weeks, I want to first make one thing completely clear,” his statement said. “I have absolutely never physically intimidated, coerced, or had, or attempted to have, any sexual contact with any member of my congressional staff.
“It is with the greatest sadness, that for the sake of the causes I deeply love, I must now step back from the battle I have spent over three decades fighting,” the statement said. “I hope my resignation will remain distinct from the great gains we have made.”