About one out of every five members of the Minnesota House — and about the same portion of staff members — have witnessed or been subject to some form of sexual harassment in the workplace.
“I’m not hugely surprised,” Rep. Laurie Halverson, D-Eagan, said Monday about the recent survey. She was one of several lawmakers and staff members who said they had been subjected to harassment in recent years.
Dan Schoen, a Democrat from Cottage Grove, and Tony Cornish a Republican from Vernon Center, both resigned in late 2017 after allegations of inappropriate behavior. The arrival of the MeToo era to the State Capitol also revealed the Legislature’s gap in training, guidelines and help for people victimized by harassment and discrimination.
The findings of the survey — recently published by a task force formed in the wake of the 2017 scandal — underscored the Legislature’s ongoing challenge to prevent harassment at the Capitol. Legislative sessions bring together legislators and staff as well as lobbyists, the public, state agency officials and myriad other Minnesotans, while the lawmakers’ only true boss is the voters.
Half of legislators and more than 70 percent of staff responded to the anonymous survey, which found that sexual harassment most commonly occurred at off-site events, followed by lawmakers’ offices.
Legislators, staff and lobbyists often socialize at area restaurants and watering holes at both formal events like parties thrown by trade associations — and the informal gossip swaps that are endemic to political culture.
House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, required members to attend harassment and discrimination training before the 2018 legislative session or lose their committee assignments. For many lawmakers, it was the first training they received since their orientation.
A memo written by House researchers Ben Weeks and Cristina Parra that accompanied the survey findings made several recommendations, including training every two years. In addition to training on harassment and discrimination, they recommended training on implicit bias and “bystander training” for committee chairs and other senior lawmakers at least every two years.
The recommendations also included policy changes dealing with what to do if a legislative leader is accused; how to deal with situations away from the Capitol that don’t have anything to do with legislative work; and, how to define “unwanted” physical attention.
Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury, the acting chairwoman of a subcommittee formed to handle workplace safety, said the survey indicates that nearly all the respondents were aware of current policies and how to make a report if they are subject or witness to harassment or discrimination.
“I hope that legislators continue to work on this issue, and that the House will be a model for the state as we work to eliminate harassment and discrimination in the workplace,” Fenton said in a statement.