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‘We’ve learned how to survive’: Amid allegations, women describe a toxic culture at the Minnesota Capitol

Women who work at the Legislature — a place long dominated by men where effectiveness is built on relationships — say they feel particularly vulnerable speaking out about sexual harassment. 

MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach

Lawmakers and more than a dozen people who have spoken with MinnPost say the sexual harassment allegations recently made against Minnesota lawmakers — DFL state Sen. Dan Schoen and GOP Rep. Tony Cornish — may just be the beginning: There are years worth of pent up allegations from people involved in state politics and government that have either gone unreported or unaddressed.

On Thursday, Gov. Mark Dayton and leaders of the Democratic party called on Schoen to resign in the wake of accusations by multiple women. Hours later, Cornish was suspended from his committee chairmanship over allegations that he sent inappropriate texts to a fellow lawmaker and made repeated sexual advances toward a lobbyist.

Both lawmakers have denied the allegations, saying their actions have been taken out of context. Schoen is refusing to resign, meaning legislators could be dealing with the accusations against him and a possible ethics complaint well into the 2018 session.

Since MinnPost first revealed the allegations on Wednesday, political leaders have engaged in a battle of political statements, arguing over who was ultimately responsible for reporting and addressing claims and following through on actions, a back-and-forth that’s revealed the limited ability of House and Senate leaders to address sexual harassment by legislators, who — as elected officials — can’t be fired.

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But the allegations, and their fallout, are forcing Capitol players to reckon with what could potentially be a much larger issue: a long-festering, not-so-hidden problem with sexual harassment in Minnesota politics — a matter that’s affected people at all levels of government, from House and Senate interns and staff to lobbyists and sitting lawmakers.

‘That’s a good door-knocking ass’

One of the women to first come forward with allegations about Schoen was Lindsey Port. In August of 2015, Port, then a first-time candidate for the Legislature, went to an event in downtown Minneapolis as part of three days of meetings for the Democratic National Committee. That’s where she said Schoen, then a DFL representative in the House, came up from behind her and grabbed her buttocks, before remarking: “Yep, yep, that’s a good door-knocking ass.”

State Sen. Dan Schoen
State Sen. Dan Schoen

Another woman who reported harassment by Schoen is Rep. Erin Maye Quade, a DFL House member from Apple Valley, who said Schoen started texting her in late 2015, shortly after she announced her campaign for the House. Schoen invited her out to drinks multiple times, and then invited her over for dinner. She declined. Later, he invited her again, saying his children weren’t home. That was followed by text that was “clearly meant for someone else.”

“I almost got her,” it said, according to Maye Quade. “Working on her pretty hard, but I almost got her.”

A third woman, who asked not to be identified, said Schoen sent her a photo of male genitalia over Snapchat.

Schoen, who served two terms in the House and is now a first-term senator from St. Paul Park, was aware of each incident but said in a subsequent statement that the allegations 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,” Schoen’s statement continued. “I also unequivocally deny that I ever made inappropriate contact with anyone.”

He has hired an attorney ahead of any potential ethics investigation. Schoen, who is also a police officer for the City of Cottage Grove, has been put on administrative duties pending a state investigation.

‘I got busted for staring at you … Haha’

Maye Quade also showed MinnPost text messages sent to her from Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, who chairs the House Public Safety Committee. After finishing a speech, Maye Quade looked at her phone to see a text from Cornish saying: “Just got an anonymous text saying I got busted for staring at you on the House floor … Haha,” Cornish texted. “I told him it was your fault, of course. Look too damned good. Ha. I must be more gentlemanly when I run for governor.”

State Rep. Tony Cornish
MinnPost file photo by James Nord
State Rep. Tony Cornish

The Star Tribune and MPR News also reported that an unnamed lobbyist has said Cornish repeatedly asked to have sex more than three dozen times, including during an encounter in his office. Late Thursday night, Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt suspended Cornish from his chairmanship of the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee pending further review of sexual harassment claims. Cornish did not respond to a request seeking comment.

“The allegations of sexual harassment against Rep. Tony Cornish are extremely troubling. I have shared the reports with the House Director of Human Resources as prescribed by our Policy against Discrimination and Harassment,” Daudt said in a statement. “In addition, I spoke with Rep. Cornish and told him that his reported actions were inappropriate and unacceptable as a member of our caucus and the Legislature.”

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‘We’ve learned how to survive’  

In conversations with MinnPost, numerous women who work at the Capitol say that the kind of behavior alleged of Schoen and Cornish isn’t a surprise, or even that unusual. One woman, who was watching the response from top leaders to sexual harassment allegations, told MinnPost she was “surprised how surprised everyone is.”

Women who work at the Legislature say they feel particularly vulnerable and without recourse at the Capitol, a place that has long been dominated by men and where effectiveness is largely built on relationships. Many fear retribution for speaking out about harassment. Female lawmakers fear their bills won’t be heard in committees or their positions won’t be taken seriously, while staffers and lobbyists worry it could harm their reputations or mark them as someone who can’t take a joke.

To get by, women who work at the Capitol said they’ve developed something of a code they share among themselves: the men who are known to regularly cross the line with women; those to avoid getting into an elevator with alone; who not to schedule one-on-one meetings with; what bars or hangouts to stay away from, places where legislators are known to drink.

“We’ve learned how to survive, and that’s how we do our job,” one woman who works in the Capitol told MinnPost.

State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn
State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn

“Those [men] who do it operate with a sense of entitlement that’s really disturbing,” said another woman, who has spent years in the Capitol in various roles, including as a staffer and a lobbyist. “And they are very aware of the power dynamic in which they have the upper hand, and they use it freely.”

DFL Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, a first-term member from Roseville who previously worked as a staffer in the House, said the burden has been on women to “live with and manage this type of behavior.”

Maye Quade, who is openly gay and married to a woman, says that has often felt that her sexuality and appearance were of particular fascination to her male colleagues, especially to male Republican lawmakers. In one incident at a bar, she said, a fellow legislator told her: “Hey Maye Quade, we have something in common: We both like to fuck hot women.’”

In another incident, Maye Quade said, she was speaking on the House floor when she heard two legislators behind her loudly discussing the fact that she’s gay. One of the legislators said it was a shame, a waste of her body.

An unclear process

In 2015, both Port and Maye Quade reported the incidents with Schoen to Rep. Erin Murphy, who was then the House DFL deputy minority leader. Murphy reported both incidents to the House DFL executive director and eventually to DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen.

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Thissen said he met with Schoen and “made it clear that such conduct was unacceptable for a member of the House and a member of the DFL Caucus. I emphasized that such behavior must stop.

State Rep. Erin Maye Quade
State Rep. Erin Maye Quade

“No further incidents were communicated or reported to me or to House leadership staff,” Thissen said. “I also considered it important to respect the privacy of the individual who reported the behavior.”

Thissen, however, did not know there were more incidents with other women.

Maye Quade and other DFL legislators said they also reported the comments made about Maye Quade’s sexuality and appearance to House leadership. “In my role as Minority Leader, I have spoken to the Speaker many, many times about gender discrimination and sexual harassment at the Minnesota House of Representatives,” said DFL Minority Leader Melissa Hortman. “I have discussed both members’ concerns about the general atmosphere as well as members’ concerns about specific instances.”

Hortman recently released a confidential email between her and Daudt from May 19 asking the speaker to take “immediate action to instruct your members on what is and what is not sexual harassment and to take steps to stop sexual harassment that is occurring.”

Early this year, Daudt said he was approached by Hortman and Republican Majority Leader Joyce Peppin about general concerns about the work environment in the Minnesota House, but he was not “made aware of specific complaints and names of those responsible despite repeated requests for information in that meeting.”

“Leader Hortman’s recommended course of action included asking me to speak to my caucus about what is and what is not sexual harassment, which I did. I asked her to do the same and I assume she has done so,” Daudt continued. “It was my understanding at the time this satisfactorily addressed Leader Hortman’s concerns which we took very seriously.” 

Speaker Kurt Daudt
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Speaker Kurt Daudt

Early next year when session convenes, members of the House and Senate will receive mandatory sexual harassment training, Daudt said, a change that was in the works before the scandal broke open. But that doesn’t address issues with the policy itself, which features a loose chain of responsibility when it comes to reporting claims and doesn’t include language to make sure complaints are followed up on.

According to the House sexual harassment policy, reports of harassment should be reported “to any House supervisor,” including the speaker, majority leader, minority leader or directly to human resources. Anyone receiving a complaint must report it to human resources or the House Employment Law Counsel, according to the policy.

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When it comes to resolving a complaint, there are plenty of options if the person involved is an employee of the Legislature, including requiring the person to issue an apology, suspension or termination. But when it comes to a sitting legislator, the policy says: “Disciplinary action involving members of the House will be handled by Leadership or pursuant to the Rules of the House.”

Neither the House or Senate rules even mention the word sexual harassment, however. Both lay out a process to deal with behavior that is considered below the “decorum” or expectations of House and Senate members. One possible remedy includes a vote of expulsion, which requires a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate. The chambers also have ethics committees, which are equally divided between Republicans and Democrats and can receive and investigate complaints.

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka

In response to the allegations against Schoen, Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said “this is clearly behavior that brings the Senate into disrepute,” adding: “We have an ethics process in place that might need to be utilized if Sen. Schoen doesn’t resign.”

But some have suggested that process is deeply flawed, that complaints languish because the politically divided panel can’t agree how to proceed. 

In a letter to Gov. Mark Dayton and top legislative leaders Friday, Port, Maye Quade and Becker-Finn recommended creating a task force on sexual harassment that would establish better systems for reporting and making recommendations around sexual harassment. 

“We ask that you appoint a bipartisan group of experts in sexual harassment, human resources, public sector employment law, and employee focused employment law who will make a set of recommendations to the legislature that addresses this important workplace issue,” they wrote. 

The ‘tip of the iceberg’?

The allegations in Minnesota comes amid increasing awareness of and focus on sexual harassment across the country, attention set off when two dozen women spoke out about years of sexual harassment and assaults at the hands of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. In the wake of those allegations, women and men — using the hashtag #MeToo — started telling their stories of harassment by people in positions in power.

Statehouses have become a prominent locus of such stories. In California, more than 200 women involved in politics signed a letter exposing what they called a “pervasive” culture of sexual harassment at the Capitol in Sacramento. In Florida, a legislator was stripped of his powers as the state’s budget chief over harassment allegations, and in Illinois, a top Democratic legislator was removed from his leadership position after a woman reported that he had sexually harassed her.

Former state Sen. Kari Dziedzic
State Sen. Kari Dziedzic

In Minnesota, one prominent female lawmaker said the reported allegations are just the “tip of the iceberg,” but that many women still live in fear of retribution if they speak out. Others hope the allegations will start to change attitudes and behaviors in St. Paul, where harassment and sexism had gone unchecked for so long.

Kari Dziedzic, a three-term DFL senator from Minneapolis, was part of a high-profile sexual harassment lawsuit against Norm Green, the former owner of the NHL’s North Stars. As Green’s former executive assistant, she alleged that he would shake females to see if they were wearing a bra, and that he would kiss female employees and demand kisses in return.

“Twenty-five years ago I did not imagine we would still be having this same conversation in 2017,” she said. “I hope 25 years from now we are still not having this conversation.”

“Women who have experienced sexual harassment don’t want to be labeled a troublemaker, be told to ‘loosen up and learn to take a joke’ or lose our jobs — we just want to do our job,” she said. “The #MeToo social media campaign put a spotlight on the problem and now is the time to take action to make sure we have respectful workplaces where harassment is no longer tolerated.”