Attorney General Lori Swanson faced her first major test as a DFL candidate for governor Friday as she confronted claims that her running mate, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, did not take seriously a former aide’s alleged sexual harassment of women on his staff.
“Congressman Nolan has been a champion for women,” Swanson said Friday night, when she and Nolan were interviewed by the Star Tribune. “He was one of the first advocates of the Equal Rights Amendment. He’s sponsored legislation for equal pay for women and legislation to reduce violence against women. He’s been a remarkable leader and is going to make a great lieutenant governor.”
The controversy stemmed from allegations raised by several anonymous accusers published in the online news outlet MinnPost. The aide in question was fired in 2015 but later briefly worked as a vendor for Nolan’s 2016 re-election campaign, then was let go from that position.
Women who worked in Nolan’s office told MinnPost that Nolan’s longtime legislative director, Jim Swiderski, focused on young women in the office, including interns, commenting on their appearance and making unwanted advances. One woman said he touched her inappropriately. None of the women is named in the MinnPost story.
Swiderski’s voice mail box was full on Friday, and other attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
The issue turned what had been a DFL campaign largely free of attacks into a brawling fight for the soul of the party in a year when the treatment of women has become a priority for many of the activist Democratic voters who turn out in primaries. Swanson’s DFL opponents, state Rep. Erin Murphy and U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, both released statements Friday critical of Nolan.
Swiderski worked for Nolan during his first tenure in Congress in the 1970s and again after his election in 2012, but Nolan said he was unaware of any complaints about the aide until they were brought to his attention in May 2015. Nolan said he instructed his chief of staff, Jodie Torkelson, to conduct an investigation, and he accepted her recommendation that Swiderski be fired.
“Sexual harassment just can’t be tolerated anywhere,” Nolan said. “I’ve believed that all my life and believe it to this day, and have worked hard to make sure women are given every opportunity to compete in the workforce.”
Despite Nolan’s long record on progressive issues such as single-payer health care, the influential liberal group TakeAction Minnesota, which has endorsed Murphy, called on Nolan to step aside.
Allegations of inappropriate touching cost U.S. Sen. Al Franken his political career last year, although many rank-and-file DFLers believe he was unfairly cast aside given more serious allegations against other politicians, including President Donald Trump.
The allegations also reverberated in the DFL race to replace Nolan in the Eighth Congressional District, where his 2016 campaign manager, Joe Radinovich, is locked in a battle for the DFL nomination. Radinovich hired and fired Swiderski from that campaign. He told the Star Tribune he did not know of the allegations until another campaign staffer approached him about the matter, after the hiring.
Radinovich said the suggestion to hire Swiderski came from someone who would have known about the allegations, though he wasn’t sure who. Nolan said he couldn’t recall who suggested hiring Swiderski for campaign work. Radinovich called it “a deep lapse in judgment on the part of the people who knew Jim’s history” — a group that may have included Nolan, he said.
Nolan’s opponents for the DFL nomination went on the attack: “Everyone deserves safety and respect in their workplace. The leaders within the workplace must ensure that happens,” Walz said.
Murphy, who is DFL-endorsed, said “Nolan enabled and protected a predator while engaging in truly reprehensible behavior himself.”
In a statement Friday afternoon, a Swanson campaign spokeswoman suggested that the criticism from Murphy and Walz was politically motivated. “We believe the 2015 complaints by the women were genuine, but that Walz and Murphy are engaging in dirty politics by exploiting this in a primary campaign when they are behind in the polls,” Ruth Stanoch said.
One accuser in the MinnPost article works for the Walz campaign, but Kayla Castañeda, a Walz spokeswoman, said in an e-mail, “We did not shop this story to MinnPost.”
The DFL is trying to keep Gov. Mark Dayton’s seat. GOP candidates in the primary are former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson.
The DFL is banking on strong turnout in November from women, and single women in particular, if they are to hold on to the governor’s office for a third four-year term — which would be unprecedented for the party.
Those making allegations against Nolan’s aide in the MinnPost story also maintain that Nolan was flippant about the situation. He compared women who work in offices with those in blue-collar workplaces. “There’s a lot more fragility in the professional world [than] in the industrial and the hardworking world,” he said during a meeting with staff in his office.
In the Star Tribune interview, Nolan did not retreat from the comments: “My daughter works as a professional but in the construction trade. She’s worked for large construction companies, and it’s pained me greatly to hear what she and her colleagues have had to endure.”
Nolan said he sponsored legislation that would require sexual harassment training for all congressional employees and create the job of an independent compliance officer to hear complaints.
Swanson said she had worked on both factory floors and in the male-dominated legal profession and understands what Nolan was saying.
She said she could not recall specific instances of sexual harassment complaints in her office during her tenure as attorney general.
“As the state’s first woman governor, I would want to lead by example,” she said, promising a diverse administration.
She promised a commissioner of human rights who would “aggressively and fairly enforce the law. We want to create a climate where people can come forward.”