Just after taking office as a 25-year-old state representative in 2011, Carly Melin recalls running into a married state senator in the lobby of a St. Paul apartment building. He looked her up and down with “elevator eyes,” Melin said, and made a sexually suggestive comment in the presence of another male lawmaker.
Months later, Melin said, she ran into the now-retired senator again as she was moving out. He winked and said there was room for her to stay in his apartment.
“I just declined again and avoided him like the plague,” said Melin, who never reported the incidents. “I was a new legislator — nobody knew me,” she said, adding that “I didn’t want the first time my name was in the paper to be the subject of sexual harassment.”
In St. Paul, new allegations in recent days against two sitting lawmakers are unmasking what many women with experience in state politics say is a long-standing problem of mistreatment by some men in positions of power — from degrading comments to overt sexual overtures to groping, or worse. The public revelations echo similar stories tumbling out in recent days — in the entertainment and news industries, among national political figures and in other statehouses around the country.
Allegations against DFL Sen. Dan Schoen and GOP Rep. Tony Cornish — and the ensuing pressure on legislative leaders to respond — come at a high-pressure time in Minnesota politics, with the Legislature poised to run out of money to pay its own employees in the coming months unless legislative leaders can resolve a legal dispute with Gov. Mark Dayton. The next legislative session starts in three months, with a pivotal state election to follow.
Melin, of Hibbing, didn’t run for re-election last year after serving just six years at the Capitol. She is a DFLer; the retired senator who she said directed crude comments at her is a Republican. But the problem transcends parties: Schoen’s accusers are fellow DFLers, and Republicans and Democrats alike have been implicated in statehouses around the country.
“There were a lot of good men in the Legislature who would never even think about harassing women and that’s why I think the bad apples of the bunch do need to go,” Melin said.
Current and former state lawmakers, their employees, and lobbyists and advocates who regularly pass through the Capitol share stories of a proverbial small world that can enable untoward behavior by people in positions of power.
For a few months every year, 201 lawmakers — two-thirds of them men — gather in St. Paul, many far from home and family, and insulated from the traditional constraints of a workplace by the fact there’s no simple way to “fire” a person from a position to which they’ve been elected.
Meanwhile, hundreds of lobbyists employed by major corporations, powerful unions and other moneyed interests work to cultivate lawmakers who control whether employers’ priorities are achieved through the legislative process. Lobbyists rely on relationships with lawmakers — and have little or no recourse if they are harassed or face discrimination.
Legislative employees are often young and ambitious, a first or second job out of college in many cases. Members are often older men, many who grew up in an era when “Mad Men” wasn’t a period drama but a way of life.
“I think sometimes there’s a generational problem, where older men grew up in a different era when this kind of stuff was ignored,” said Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul. Melin said she saw “some male lawmakers abuse their power and seemingly target women who have less power than them.”
Some of the Legislature’s specific circumstances make it harder to enforce normal workplace rules, especially given the elected nature of potential offenders. And the Minnesota Legislature has long exempted itself from the state’s public records laws, making inappropriate behavior by its members harder to track even than in the state executive branch or in local governments.
“The environment is much different from a corporate environment or any other typical workforce environment,” said state Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina. “But at the same time, it’s an institution that we as a society and a state should have high hopes and regards for.”
For now, the allegations against Schoen and Cornish are front and center. Both have denied wrongdoing and said they will not resign. In the Senate, Schoen faces a protracted and expensive ethics investigation even as Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, prepares to start furloughing employees on Dec. 1 stemming from the dispute with Dayton.
Schoen, of St. Paul Park, was accused by DFL Rep. Erin Maye Quade and by former DFL candidate Lindsey Port of unwanted sexual attention. Prominent DFLers including Dayton and Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk are calling on him to resign.
Cornish, of Vernon Center, also faces allegations from Maye Quade of sending unwanted texts. She shared the messages, in which Cornish acknowledged staring at her on the House floor while commenting favorably on her appearance. Cornish said the exchange was taken out of context and that he meant no disrespect. Maye Quade said the two have had a cordial relationship “which doesn’t excuse sexual harassment.”
A lobbyist who asked not to be publicly identified told the Star Tribune that Cornish propositioned her for sex at least 40 times over a decade, described his anatomy to her, and tried to kiss her while pushing her against his office wall.
Cornish vehemently denied the allegation about trying to kiss the lobbyist. But when asked by the Associated Press whether he had ever propositioned a lobbyist, he acknowledged that his work and social life sometimes mix: “Have I ever had an adult conversation with a woman about a relationship? Sure.”
Former Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers said he confronted Cornish about treatment of women in 2011 or 2012. Zellers, who was speaker at that time, said he heard second-hand reports of sexual harassment and promised disciplinary proceedings should credible reports come to him, but they never did after the warning. Zellers has called on Cornish to resign.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, has suspended Cornish from his post as chairman of the House Public Safety Committee. And Daudt’s office said Saturday that the House would hire an outside firm to investigate allegations against Cornish, while also proceeding with plans to facilitate harassment and discrimination training that is mandatory for all members.
“There will be consequences for failing to participate” in the training, Daudt wrote in a letter to DFL Minority Leader Melissa Hortman sent Saturday. He also said House nonpartisan staff would be tasked with suggesting improvements for existing House policies on harassment and discrimination.
For some longtime lawmakers, the current environment at the Capitol is an improvement. Pappas, who joined the Legislature in 1984, said it used to be worse.
But sexual harassment is just one concern. Women legislators say they are treated differently. Melin said she and other women were also talked over in meetings and that male lawmakers sometimes prevented them from speaking.
Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, a first term DFLer from Roseville and an attorney, said last week that the Legislature is the most sexist place she’s ever worked. She joined Maye Quade and Port — who said that Schoen grabbed her at a campaign event in 2016 — in calling for a bipartisan task force to come up with recommendations to create a safer workplace free of harassment and discrimination for lawmakers, staff, lobbyists and the public.
Employment lawyers said the Legislature has challenges when it comes to creating a work environment free of harassment and discrimination given the unique workspace, the bevy of different people working there — many not affiliated with state government — and the importance of First Amendment protections.
The solution is to get creative, said Sheila Engelmeier, an employment lawyer with three decades of experience representing both workers and companies. She suggested what she called a “paradigm shift.”
Engelmeier suggested that political parties should require candidates to sign a code of conduct pledge and to voluntarily agree to leave a race if they violate anything within that pledge. The Legislature could create its own code of conduct pledge, she said.
“We have certain expectations about how we’re going to treat each other — with respect,” she said. “Sign on the dotted line.”