The shift is often subtle: A legislator pauses at the start of an inappropriate joke or before a hug, then thinks better of it.
A year and a half after reports of sexual harassment rocked the Legislature and prompted two resignations, lawmakers and lobbyists describe a changed atmosphere at the State Capitol. People are more cautious and aware of what crosses the line.
“It’s very, very different,” said Speaker of the House Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park. “I think there’s an absolutely zero-tolerance environment.”
There is also a new group of House members, many of them younger women, who are outspoken about addressing harassment and gender equality. But some at the Capitol say they worry that the good behavior and awareness will fall by the wayside if the energy of the #MeToo movement fades from the spotlight.
“It’s lurking and in hiding. … It’s not just like this one shining, glowing moment changes everything. It’s a long walk to the end of it,” lobbyist Nancy Hylden said.
It is hard to get a clear picture of the extent of the problem because people are often hesitant to report incidents and lawmakers are sheltered by confidentiality rules and a longtime exemption from public records laws.
Hylden informally polled 10 friends and colleagues on the topic. They told her people seem to be more careful about what they say, but they are not sure how much progress has really been made.
Lawmakers stress that it’s a slow process to make the Capitol — and workplaces statewide — comfortable for all. Meanwhile, complaints of inappropriate behavior continue to trickle in, Hortman said. A House survey conducted in the fall found one in five members and staffers say they have witnessed or experienced sexual harassment.
Historically there has been a lot of confusion about how to report inappropriate behavior, some lawmakers said. A key issue for legislators re-examining their policies has been the lack of a consistent system for complaints and discipline.
The Senate and House now both have guidelines for handling complaints and harassment training, which is required every two years. The House posted its policy a year ago, and the Senate finalized its version at the end of March.
The two policies differ somewhat, but both include long lists of people who can handle complaints. Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, said it will likely take months to train all the senators and staff supervisors who are required to know what to do with harassment or discrimination reports.
Complaints can come from legislators, staff or the public, including the thousands of lobbyists and activists who interact with lawmakers at the Capitol every year.
Lobbyist Elizabeth Emerson, president of the Minnesota Government Relations Council, said her organization would have liked to have a say in the development of the regulations. Although she doesn’t have major concerns now, she said it will take more occurrences of sexual harassment to vet the policies and make sure they are sufficient.
Benson said she would like to continuously revisit the Senate policy and make sure it is evolving with the times.
Sarah Walker and Erin Maye Quade, two of the women who went public in 2017 with stories of harassment, said they have noticed improvements at the Capitol in the wake of #MeToo, a movement that has swept through the media, businesses and government in recent years. Both reported being sexually harassed by Rep. Tony Cornish, a Republican from Vernon Center. He and Democrat Dan Schoen, a senator from St. Paul Park, resigned amid harassment claims.
But Walker and Maye Quade, both Democrats, said legislators need to look beyond internal policies. Maye Quade, a former representative who is now advocacy director at the nonprofit Gender Justice, said her goal was not just to change the Capitol culture, but to contribute to a broader shift in how harassment is handled.
“Policies at the Capitol are good. But our laws are the things we all live by,” Maye Quade said. “And I think changing those sends a stronger signal.”
They support legislation to broaden what qualifies as harassment, making it easier for people to bring cases to court. Rep. Kelly Moller, D-Shoreview, sponsored the bill. It passed the House floor but is tied up in the Senate.
Moller is one of 18 female first-time legislators in the House. In her few months at the Capitol, she said she hasn’t encountered sexual harassment but has noticed common gender equity issues. Men talk over women, she said, and on the House floor she notices that some male lawmakers routinely target questions at freshmen women.
Hortman is the first female House speaker in eight years and said that might have helped improve behavior, particularly because she has made it clear that “I’m kind of a ‘no-bull … on this issue’ person.”
While there is a broad recognition that no one is going to protect harassers, Hortman said that there can be misunderstandings and that lawmakers accused of harassment should get a fair process.
“Nobody is going to come to your defense, which maybe was the standard before the Dan Schoen and Tony Cornish situation, where people would kind of look the other way or not criticize their own or whatever,” she said. “I think it’s clear that, since both of those incidents, that we will take action against members of our own party. I think that’s clear on the Republican side too.”
Hortman said two complaints were brought to her attention since she became speaker in January. Neither met the threshold for sexual harassment, she said, but they still were deemed to be behavioral problems that needed to be addressed.
“What we learned from the first complaint this year is you have to enforce the policy before people will learn and understand that what we said about certain behaviors being not tolerated — we were serious,” Hortman said.
Citing confidentiality, Senate and House human resources officials have declined to provide any information on the number of complaints filed in recent years.
Although the Legislature has long exempted itself from public records laws, the Senate will begin releasing annual reports on the number of harassment complaints and any money spent hiring external investigators. The first report won’t be published until next February.
The executive branch also has been looking into harassment. In state agencies, there were 266 complaints of sexual harassment from 2012 to 2017, according to a report published last year. Former Gov. Mark Dayton called for a public office to provide training and handle harassment reports.
Gov. Tim Walz initially proposed $4.9 million in his two-year budget to hire eight staff members to do that work. Then the state revenue forecast dropped.
He cut all the money from his plan.