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Everything we know, so far, about the sexual harassment scandal at the Minnesota Capitol

The breadth and speed with which the story has spread means that many questions remain unanswered, including: How many more allegations are out there? And did those in power know what was going on? 

What can be done to change the culture that has made sexual harassment prevalent in state politics?
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

It started with two women sharing their story. 

Two weeks ago, former DFL candidate Lindsey Port and DFL Rep. Erin Maye Quade told MinnPost that DFL Sen. Dan Schoen sexually harassed them. Within 24 hours, allegations of repeated harassment came out against another state legislator, eight-term Republican Rep. Tony Cornish. On Tuesday of this week, both men had announced their imminent resignations from the Minnesota Legislature. 

It fits a familiar pattern unfolding across the country — and across different industries. In October, multiple women told the New York Times that Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein had sexually harassed and assaulted them. After the first story broke, dozens more women came forward with stories about Weinstein, as well as allegations against plenty of other prominent figures in Hollywood and the media. It sparked the #MeToo social media campaign, which encouraged women to share their stories of sexual harassment.

It’s not surprising the wave has hit politics too, which often features power imbalances between men and women. Now, women in statehouses across the country are coming forward with their stories, revealing a long-festering problem with sexual harassment in politics and government that has gone unchecked for decades. 

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The breadth and speed with which the story has spread — in Minnesota and across the country — means that many questions remain unanswered: How many more allegations of harassment are out there? How many of them will come out? Did those in power know what was going on? And what can be done to change the culture that has made sexual harassment prevalent in state politics? 

Here’s what we know, so far, about the sexual harassment scandal in Minnesota — and what could be coming next. 

What happened this week
A lot. On Tuesday evening, facing increasing evidence of harassment and mounting calls for their resignations, Schoen and Cornish individually announced their plans to step down from from the Minnesota Legislature. Schoen’s attorney told reporters he would announce his resignation in a Wednesday news conference. In a statement, Cornish said he would resign effective Dec. 1. 

What Schoen and Cornish are accused of doing
The allegations against Schoen date back to 2015. At a DFL Party event in Minneapolis, Port, then a DFL candidate for the Minnesota House, said Schoen walked up behind her and grabbed her buttocks, commenting that she had a “good door-knocking ass.” Later in 2015, via text messages Schoen repeatedly invited Maye Quade to drinks. Maye Quade, a candidate for the House at the time, declined his invitations, but Schoen persisted, inviting her to his home, and noting that his children weren’t there. Soon after, Maye Quade received a text message from Schoen she believes was meant for someone else saying: “’I almost got her. Working on her pretty hard, but I almost got her,’” it said, according to Maye Quade.

State Sen. Dan Schoen
State Sen. Dan Schoen

Both women told then Deputy House DFL Minority Leader Erin Murphy about their experiences at the time, and former DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen said he spoke with Schoen, who was then serving his second term in the House, about the incident with Port. Another woman told MinnPost that Schoen sent her a photo of male genitalia over Snapchat. Last week, a second woman, DFL Senate staffer Ellen Anderson, reported to human resources that Schoen also sent her a photo of male genitalia over Snapchat.

Maye Quade also received text messages from Cornish, R-Vernon Center, who said he was caught staring at her on the House floor because she looked “too damned good.” Lobbyist Sarah Walker also told the Star Tribune and MPR News that Cornish propositioned her for sex more than 40 times, including during an incident in his office. It was part of a pattern with Cornish, who treated the Capitol as his own “personal dating pool,” according to MPR News, which talked to more than two dozen people about the lawmaker’s behavior.

State Rep. Tony Cornish
State Rep. Tony Cornish

Cornish initially denied the allegations, but in a subsequent statement said he was “forced to face the reality that I have made some at the Capitol feel uncomfortable, and disrespected. To those individuals and specifically the unnamed lobbyist [Walker’s story was initially shared anonymously], I sincerely apologize for my unwelcome behavior.” He agreed to apologize to Walker and resign by the end of the month.

Schoen, who lives in St. Paul Park and also worked as a police officer and paramedic for the city of Cottage Grove, has been put on administrative duties at the city. He has denied the allegations against him and said they are “either completely false or have been taken far out of context. It was never my intention to leave the impression I was making an inappropriate advance on anyone. I feel terrible that someone may have a different interpretation of an encounter, but that is the absolute truth. I also unequivocally deny that I ever made inappropriate contact with anyone.” 

What about Franken?
Minnesota U.S. Sen. Al Franken has also been accused of groping by two women. Last week, radio personality Leeann Tweeden wrote a personal account of being harassed by Franken while they were on a USO tour in 2006, two years before he was elected to the Senate. She said Franken forcibly kissed her during a rehearsal of the show. She also shared a photo of Franken smiling with his hands positioned over her breasts while she slept. Another woman, Lindsay Menz, said Franken grabbed her buttocks while she was posing for a photo of him at the Minnesota State Fair in 2010.

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Sen. Al Franken
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Sen. Al Franken

In both cases, Franken initially said he did not remember the incidents the way they were told by the women. Franken has since apologized to Tweeden, which she accepted, and said he “felt badly” that Menz came away from the experience “feeling disrespected.” Franken has said he does not plan to resign and has not spoken to reporters since the first allegations surfaced.

How are sexual harassment allegations handled when it comes to sitting lawmakers?
Most political staffers and employees — whether at the local, state or federal level — can be fired or suspended for serious harassment allegations. But not lawmakers. Since they are elected by their constituents, they can’t be terminated. Instead, the Minnesota Legislature, House and Senate sexual harassment policies direct legislative leadership to handle cases with sitting legislators. Those leaders can take away leadership or committee posts from a sitting legislator or encourage them to resign, but until recently, that has not happened often. 

The permanent rules of House and Senate don’t even mention the words “sexual harassment,” but they do lay out a process for addressing ethical violations. Any two members of the Legislature can file a complaint with the House and Senate ethics committees, which are made up of an equal number of Republican and Democrats. If the committee takes up the complaint in a public hearing, the committee members can set in motion a vote to expel a legislators, which requires a two-thirds majority in each chamber. Schoen was facing the possibility of an ethics hearing and a vote to expel him from the Senate, according to top leaders.

In Franken’s case, he has said he will cooperate with a Senate ethics investigation. The Senate can vote to censure Franken, a formal expression of disapproval that has no practical impact on his work. They can also vote to expel him with a two-thirds majority, but that rarely happens. 

How many more accusations could surface involving Minnesota political figures?
It’s impossible to say, though in nearly two dozen interviews with politicians, staffers, lobbyists and campaign workers and state government employees, women who work in Minnesota politics describe a culture of sexism and harassment in government that hits people at every level and in both political parties. Harassment flourishes in workplaces where there is a substantial power imbalance between men and women — as is the case in Hollywood, the media and politics — and where male-dominated environments tend to foster a culture of complicity, places where people whisper about allegations rather than address them. 

There are potentially dozens of stories of sexual harassment in the halls of the Capitol going back decades, but not everyone is comfortable sharing their stories. Some fear retaliation for speaking out about harassment, that their bills won’t be heard in committees or that their positions won’t be taken seriously by lawmakers. Other women worry it could harm their reputations with their colleagues. As a result, many women have learned to avoid certain men or brush off advances from legislators or superiors to get through their workday without damaging their relationships.

On Tuesday, Sarah Walker, the lobbyist whom Cornish repeatedly propositioned for sex, was the latest to come forward and identify herself. She said she initially remained anonymous to “avoid retaliation” and to continue to do the public policy work she cared about at the Capitol. She said lobbyists, as non state employees who work closely with lawmakers, are particularly vulnerable at the Capitol. Elizabeth Emerson, a lobbyist with Goff Public, said a small group of lobbyists have formed a committee to discuss how they can be part of the discussion on how to make the Capitol a safer workplace for women.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
House Speaker Kurt Daudt

It seems like the problem was common knowlege among a lot of women at the Capitol. Did top legislative leaders know too?
It’s hard to know who knew what — and when — about allegations of sexual harassment in the Legislature. Minnesota legislators are not covered by the state’s data practices act, so emails, sexual harassment complaints and other documents are not available to the public. Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt has said repeatedly that he didn’t know about allegations against Cornish or any other lawmakers. In a statement, former Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers said he heard secondhand rumors about Cornish and warned him that sexual harassment wouldn’t be tolerated.

What about other areas of state government?
Minnesota’s government bureaucracy is massive, covering two dozen agencies with more than 34,000 state workers, and it has its fair share of issues with sexual harassment. MinnPost obtained documents detailing 20 substantiated claims of sexual harassment in state agencies between 2013 and 2016. The cases revealed widely divergent penalties for harassers, but none of the substantiated claims led to an employee getting fired. The state has multiple unions representing state workers, and each state agency handles its own sexual harassment complaints differently, leading to some of the inconsistencies.

In one case at the Minnesota Department of Transportation, a senior legal counsel was visibly drunk and inappropriately touched multiple female co-workers, including putting his hands down one woman’s pants. He was suspended for 10 days and then returned to work. Another man at the Department of Corrections talked to an employee about visiting nudist colonies, called her a “backstabber” when she switched departments and made comments about wanting to “bend that one over” about women visiting the facility. He was suspended for one day.

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In response to a records request, DFL Gov. Mark Dayton’s deputy general counsel May Chao Parker said there have been no seuxal harassment complaints filed in the governor’s office during his administration. 

Gov. Mark Dayton
MinnPost photo by James NordGov. Mark Dayton

Is there anything being done change the culture around sexual harassment at the Capitol and in state government?
Dayton has ordered the Department of Minnesota Management and Budget, which administers sexual harassment policies, to do a review of how the state handles sexual harassment claims. A group of seven commissioners, four women and three men, will also take a broad look at what happens with claims across government. They will consider whether better harassment training is need for supervisors and employees, and if there is a way to provide more guidance to state agencies when it comes to reprimanding employees. 

Even before the scandal broke, leaders in the Legislature had been planning to administer new sexual harassment training to all legislators. Since reports of harassment were made public, Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt said nonpartisan research staff in the House is also looking into ways to improve sexual harassment policies for legislators and staffers.

Will that really change anything?
Probably not completely. Plenty of studies have shown revamping harassment policies and providing more training isn’t enough to stop this behavior. Groups that study women in politics say there needs to be a shift in the power imbalance between men and women in the halls of the Capitol. And some have recommended promoting women to higher positions in state government jobs and electing more women to state politics. But none of that is going to happen overnight. 

Promoting and retaining women has helped in private-sector environments, according to studies cited in the Harvard Business Review: “Reducing power differentials can help, not only because women are less likely than men to harass but also because their presence in management can change workplace culture.”

Port said it gave her no pleasure to see Schoen resign, but she was relieved to see that people were being held accountable for their actions. “We have a choice as a society to make the necessary changes to protect people in the workplace from harassment, and I’m hopeful that doesn’t end with a few resignations, but with a renewed commitment to stand together and say ‘No more.’ ”