Less than six months ago, Lindsey Port was a rising star in Minnesota’s Democratic party: a well-respected DFL candidate for the state House who also ran a growing nonprofit that supported others seeking elected office.
Last week, Port suspended her campaign for the Legislature, and she is struggling to keep her business alive. She’s lost critical allies in her own party and tens of thousands of dollars in donations. “I realized that I wasn’t even getting my calls returned anymore,” Port said, sitting in her Burnsville home.
It has been a dramatic turn, and Port said she knows exactly what changed: “This is the price for being loud.”
Accused of ‘softening the ground’ for Franken’s ouster
In November, Port and several other women, including DFL Rep. Erin Maye Quade, became the first people to talk openly about experiencing sexual harassment in state politics. Port spoke about her experience at a 2015 DFL campaign event, when then DFL state Sen. Dan Schoen came up from behind and grabbed her, telling her she had a good “door-knocking ass.”
Her story became part of the growing #MeToo movement, which encourages women to share their stories of sexual harassment, and initially there was an outpouring of support for Port and the other women who had come forward. By the end of the year, Schoen and Republican Rep. Tony Cornish had resigned from the Legislature, after more women spoke out about repeated and unwanted advances from the two legislators.
“It wasn’t about any one story,” Port said. “We had the power to speak publicly in this moment, when it’s necessary for women to share their stories, and a lot of women feel like they can’t for a lot of reasons.”
But things changed in December, Port said, shortly after Democrat Al Franken said he planned to resign from the from the U.S. Senate. Eight women publicly accused Franken of unwanted kissing and groping, and he was pressured by nearly three dozen of his colleagues in the Senate to step down. Yet many Democrats, in Minnesota and beyond, felt Franken was unfairly pushed out of office before an independent investigation could look into the women’s allegations.
Port was not one of Franken’s accusers, but she was the woman most closely associated with the #MeToo movement in Minnesota. After Franken resigned, Port noticed the tone toward her changed on social media and at DFL events. People started suggesting Franken’s accusers were paid to take him down, and before long, Port said she was being accused of being paid as well. Some people even argued her own story “softened the ground” for Franken’s eventual ouster, she said.
Within weeks, several prominent DFL donors who had pledged to support her second campaign for a seat in the state House withdrew those pledges, which were for a total of $6,000. They also withdrew support from Port’s nonprofit, Blueprint Campaigns, which supports Democratic candidates for the state House. In all, Port said she lost $70,000 in pledged donations to the nonprofit, which amounts to the operating budget for an entire year. One donor who rescinded a pledge told Port that it was “too controversial” to support her at this time, she said.
She suspended her second campaign for a competitive Burnsville-area House district and recruited someone else to run in her place: Alice Mann, a family doctor who lives in the district and immigrated from Brazil. Mann will challenge Republican incumbent Rep. Roz Peterson this fall.
“I know that this is likely to probably end my political career, at least for the time being, in Minnesota,” Port said. “And that sucks, but it feels like this is a necessary part of the story to keep telling.”
Mostly, Port said she’s worried women in politics who see what’s happening to her will be even less likely to speak out about their experiences with harassment than they were before.
“I’ve talked to a lot of women in politics, and there are a lot more stories about a lot of different people,” she said. “Knowing now what’s happening, and feeling like I’ve been blackballed and there are these economic repercussions, those women don’t feel like they can speak out.”
A message that’s been lost
Across the nation, the #MeToo movement is at a critical juncture. It started with dozens of allegations of sexual harassment and assault against powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, but it quickly swept up other major industries and powerful institutions. Media men like Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose lost their jobs after years of harassment of women who worked for them. The controversy also focused on state legislatures and Congress, places that had been sitting on decades of pent-up stories of widespread sexism and harassment. U.S. Rep. John Conyers Jr. resigned after allegations that he sexually harassed former employees, and then Franken.
But as the movement continued — and grew in scope — many women feared that a backlash was inevitable. Several prominent columnists have decried the movement, saying it’s gone too far. Longtime Democratic Party donor Susie Tompkins Buell recently told the New York Times she is considering withdrawing support for senators who urged Franken to resign. That includes many of the female politicians she had long championed, including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren.
“We started noticing this turn, that first started on social media and DFL Facebook groups,” Port said. “Suddenly people who were talking about supporting women and believing women were now talking about how these women were liars and how they know how this was just never something [Franken] would do, so this must be some big conspiracy.”
Amid the continuing debate over #MeToo, Port said she also feels that part of her message is being lost. She’s one of several women who have repeatedly called on Gov. Mark Dayton and legislative leaders to establish an independent task force on sexual harassment that would include experts and professionals outside of the Legislature who regularly deal with issues of harassment in a workplace setting. That task force would establish recommendations on how to create a transparent way to handle, report and discipline sexual harassment in politics. Part of the breakdown with Franken, Port said, was that there was no clear process in place to handle an investigation of the allegations against him.
“Should there be different consequences for the Roy Moores of the world and the Al Frankens of the world? Absolutely, but we don’t have a process that does that right now,” she said. “We need it, and at this moment there wasn’t another option for Democrats other than to draw a line and say, ‘We have to stand with the women. This has to be our line in the sand.’ ”
For now, Port will continue on with BluePrint Campaigns throughout the 2018 election. The nonprofit is currently working with eight House candidates in suburban, urban and rural districts. They work with candidates who might not find the campaign process easily accessible — namely women, minorities and transgender and LGBTQ candidates who are underrepresented in state politics. She said there is a way to change the culture of the Capitol from the outside, by recruiting and bringing more women and new faces into politics. Port and her business partner, Meredith Stacey, are now looking outside of state networks to try to find funding to keep operating into the next year.
“I think it’s important, as we move forward to remember that this isn’t about any one person, one resignation, one cost. It’s time to have a broader conversation about the costs of both silence and speaking out, and what we are willing to accept as a society,” Port said. “It’s frustrating for me to feel that often gets lost in the particulars of high profile stories, in this case one that I had literally no connection to aside from unfortunate timing. I’m turning my focus to the future, to how we can change the culture so my daughters aren’t fighting this same battle.”