To our call last week for state Sen. Dan Schoen to resign from the Legislature, we add another: Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, has also sullied his reputation and squandered his effectiveness by making persistent and unwanted sexual advances in a professional setting. Cornish, too, should leave his seat.
We aren’t alone in those calls. DFLer Schoen’s resignation has been requested by DFL Gov. Mark Dayton, state DFL chair Ken Martin and both Senate caucus leaders. Republican Cornish’s departure has been urged by former Republican House Speaker Kurt Zellers. Dayton issued a new statement Monday that did not name Cornish but said that “any legislator who commits acts of sexual harassment or sexual assault should resign.”
In addition Monday, 54 clergy members from around the state, representing a Protestant, Catholic, Unitarian and Jewish faith traditions, issued an open letter to both legislators, asking for their immediate resignations. “As faith leaders of various traditions, we believe in redemption,” the letter said. “But redemption can only come to those who have done wrong when you offer serious apologies and substantive restitution to the women you have harmed. That begins with a public apology to the women you’ve wronged, to the people of the great state of Minnesota, and your immediate resignation from office.”
We’re under no illusion that such calls will secure their desired end. Schoen and Cornish both deny at least in part the accusations that have been made about their behavior; both say they do not intend to resign. If they do not step down, they are likely to be the subject of ethics investigations that could lead to their expulsion by a two-thirds vote of their respective bodies, as specified by the state Constitution.
That process should be triggered now. Already, House Speaker Kurt Daudt has suspended Cornish from his post as chair of the House Public Safety Committee. Daudt’s office said Friday that the House would hire an outside firm to investigate complaints about Cornish.
There’s merit, too, in the suggestion for the creation of a legislative task force to recommend improvements in the Legislature’s response to sexual harassment. The fact that two of Schoen’s accusers — one of whom also complained about Cornish — say that the “culture of the Legislature” needs changing should be taken to heart by the institution’s leaders.
Some have argued in recent days that calls for resignation are premature, absent a finding of guilt in a judicial or quasi-judicial process. Indeed, if these lawmakers were accused of a crime, we, too, would insist on due process.
But this is not a criminal matter. Rather, what’s at stake in these instances are the preservation of public trust in an institution of authority and every district’s right to effective representation within that institution. The accusations against these two lawmakers are backed by enough credible evidence to have hobbled their effectiveness. Lawmaking is a relationship-based activity. A reputation for making repeated and unwanted sexual advances is toxic to the working relationships with both men and women that legislators need in order to represent their districts well.
Schoen has been in office for more than four years; Cornish, for nearly 15. That’s long enough for both of them to know that they can’t soon recover the trust that effective legislative service requires. They should allow their districts’ voters to choose someone who can.
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One other legislator’s recent words bear comment — and condemnation. State Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, was way out of bounds when she tweeted after the Minneapolis City Council election: “A guy who thinks he’s a girl is still a guy with a mental condition.”
That Twitter attack was timed to refer to the first-ever election of two transgender people to the City Council, Phillipe Cunningham in the Fourth Ward and Andrea Jenkins in the Eighth. But Franson’s message was also a mean-spirited swipe at every transgender person.
To their credit, the state’s four openly gay or lesbian legislators were quick to refute Franson’s suggestion that being transgender is a mental illness. It is not, according to the American Psychological Association. They also pointed out something Franson should not need to be told: When people in positions of leadership “casually trade in negative comments about transgender people, some interpret that as an invitation to treat their fellow Minnesotans poorly.” No legislator should incite such ill will.
Franson’s subsequent apology, since deleted on social media, confessed to being unkind. But she added: “I do not apologize for not conforming to the PC world where I’m supposed to go along with fantasy and participate in it.” She’s entitled to her views. But the people of District 8B are also entitled to more enlightened representation.