Jennifer Carnahan was busy "working every condo" in Minneapolis for a 2016 state Senate race when she knocked on businessman Anton "Tony" Lazzaro's door.
He wasn't home, so she left a piece of her pink campaign literature and a handwritten note. Lazzaro was delighted to see she was a Republican running in a deep blue district. He called her back and the two struck up a friendship.
Now Carnahan, in her third term chairing the Minnesota Republican Party, is distancing herself from Lazzaro, after his high-profile arrest on federal sex trafficking charges last week.
But the story of how they met came from Carnahan herself. She described their chance meeting and friendship on a podcast she hosted alongside Lazzaro in 2019. Their friendship spanned years, with Lazzaro becoming more deeply involved in state party politics after backing Carnahan's bid to become party chair in 2017. Carnahan says she can't know the personal background of every party donor, but many say Lazzaro's influence went deeper.
"They were frequently together. When there was a money shortage, she could always count on him," said Barb Sutter, an RNC Committeewoman and Republican Party Executive Board member who has joined growing calls for Carnahan's resignation. "She considered him a close friend."
More than a dozen Republican Party officials and activists, half who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of backlash, said Lazzaro never took on an official party role. But he materialized as a regular fixture almost overnight in Minnesota GOP politics through ties to Carnahan. He sat on the board of the high-dollar donor Elephant Club and worked for a 2020 Republican congressional campaign. Carnahan even floated his name as a candidate for a Republican National Committeeman position, according to sources.
Lazzaro also became a frequent guest at events supporting Carnahan's husband, Republican First District Rep. Jim Hagedorn, and Lazzaro attended the power couple's intimate wedding in 2018. Lazzaro gave more than $240,000 to Republican campaigns and political committees, according to state and federal campaign finance records, money that candidates now say they're returning en masse.
In a statement to the Star Tribune, Carnahan didn't respond to questions about her ties to Lazzaro, but said she "had absolutely no knowledge of the alleged criminal activities undertaken by Mr. Lazzaro" and "guilt-by-association" sets a dangerous precedent.
"The Republican Party of Minnesota has thousands of donors. Some give as little as $5, while others donate hundreds or thousands. We are extremely grateful for every contribution we receive, but there is no way for us to know the personal background of every contributor to our party — even those donors with whom we have a regular relationship," she said, echoing previous statements. "To imply otherwise is simply wrong."
Carnahan told WCCO Radio on Tuesday that she has not been interviewed by authorities related to Lazzaro's arrest.
The state party's Executive Board voted this week to conduct a full audit of the party's finances, including any ties to Lazzaro. Minnesota GOP Finance, Compliance and HR Director Ron Huettl Jr., who has worked for the party for 23 years, said the news about Lazzaro was "unfortunate" but the ensuing gossip was part of a "political hit job" being waged by detractors of Carnahan.
"It will be discovered that Mr. Lazzaro had no official capacity in the party. He was a donor," Huettl said in a statement. "The only financial transactions involving Mr. Lazzaro were his contributions."
But Republicans who've worked with the party said Carnahan was closer to Lazzaro than the average donor. They hosted hours of conversation on their podcast, #truthmatters, discussing Donald Trump and state elections. In one episode, Carnahan and Hagedorn joked about Lazzaro's love for the Minnesota Vikings — a topic the co-hosts would revisit on numerous episodes. Photos show all three attended a Vikings game together. In the first podcast episode, Carnahan describes Lazzaro as "one of the biggest advocates and champions in the Republican Party of Minnesota."
"You can't know what is in everyone's closet and what's in everyone's past. Everyone has something they regret, but Tony was all over the party," said David Pascoe, Secretary of the Republican Party of Minnesota, who called for Carnahan's resignation this week. "Most donors will write a check and you never hear from them, or you meet them one time and never hear from them again."
But not Lazzaro.
Michael Brodkorb, a former deputy chair of the Minnesota Republican Party, said that Lazzaro's rapid ascent to wielding influence and high-dollar donations at a young age made him an "anomaly in the party." Brodkorb said Lazzaro's role in Carnahan's "inner-inner circle" also set him apart from most of the Minnesota GOP's donor ranks.
"There are hundreds of donors in the party and not every donor ends up hosting a podcast with Jennifer Carnahan," Brodkorb said. "This is someone that she had relied on for political guidance and political advice and was someone she wanted to be in proximity to as she served in her leadership capacity as chair of the party."
In 2019, Lazzaro got involved in the campaign of Minneapolis businessman Lacy Johnson, who was running in the Fifth District against Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. He was quoted in stories as Johnson's campaign manager. Johnson said Lazzaro was "involved with the campaign extremely early in a volunteer capacity," but he said he never agreed to Lazzaro taking the title of campaign manager.
"Lazzaro would take calls from media, make up a title or confirm he was the campaign manager, and provide quotes and information without ever alerting me to these actions," Johnson said in a an e-mail, saying Lazzaro eventually stopped contacting him that summer, and he brought on Ascent Strategic to manage most aspects of his campaign.
A spreadsheet of GOP contacts Carnahan sent to the Star Tribune in August 2020 identified Lazzaro as Johnson's campaign manager.
Lazzaro still played a role in the 2020 election, becoming the youngest-known Minnesota GOP delegate and pushing the views of a newer, more socially liberal generation of Republicans. He created the Big Tent Republicans corporate PAC, which was described in a PowerPoint presentation on its website as "a unique group dedicated to broadening the appeal of the Republican Party."
Between the start of 2019 and the end of 2020, the PAC sent roughly $22,000 to a group of candidates that included Third District Republican Kendall Qualls, who lost in his effort to unseat U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, and the unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign of Michigan Republican John James.
Lazzaro was also prolific on social media, often using Twitter to go after people who were critical of Carnahan or the party. Rob Doar, political director for the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus, said he began receiving regular scathing comments on social media posts from Lazzaro after Doar criticized a GOP mailer that highlighted then-U. S. Rep. Erik Paulsen's support for gun control bills.
"That's when I started getting regular messages from Tony," said Doar, who added that he believed Lazzaro was lashing out at the behest of the Minnesota Republican Party leadership. "He would comment on my posts, chide me, call me names and undermine me on my posts. It was really nothing too severe but it was just kind of a pervasive annoyance."
Three Republican candidates for governor, a dozen lawmakers and four members of the party's executive board have called for her to resign, many citing concerns about Carnahan's relationship with Lazzaro.
Carnahan has shown no sign of leaving her post. She's calling for the party's internal executive board on Thursday to take a vote of confidence in her leadership.
Staff writers Jessie Van Berkel and Hunter Woodall contributed to this report.