The sudden resignation announcements this week by two legislators facing allegations of sexual harassment may be comforting to Minnesotans thinking the infection at the State Capitol has been remedied.
But any newfound sense of security following the planned departure of Sen. Dan Schoen and Rep. Tony Cornish would be naive, say lobbyists, legislators and staffers.
“There are other lawmakers who behave inappropriately toward women and haven’t been named in these stories, and that’s why this issue isn’t over,” said a lobbyist who declined to be named for fear of retribution.
“It’s shocking what these guys think they can do,” said another Capitol lobbyist.
The swift toppling of Schoen and Cornish — the former a St. Paul Park DFLer, the latter a Vernon Center Republican — offered the Capitol a tidy symmetrical catharsis: Each party, each chamber and both metro and greater Minnesota lost a lawmaker to sexual harassment allegations, offering a sense of quick resolution and closure.
But women at the Capitol say Schoen and Cornish, both with backgrounds in law enforcement, were just the most blatant offenders. Other legislators who act or speak inappropriately to women or try to use their office to win sexual favors will return to the Capitol in February when the Legislature goes back into session, which has lawmakers, lobbyists and others who work there asking what can be done to clean it up.
“It’s a relief the two individuals won’t be there, but it doesn’t solve the problem,” said Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, who has called for a task force to review policies and make changes.
Becker-Finn and her colleagues want to improve a workplace that has been portrayed in recent weeks as anywhere from juvenile to hostile for the women who work there.
In announcing his resignation, Cornish apologized last week to Sarah Walker, a lobbyist he had propositioned for sex dozens of times over the years while she was working on criminal justice issues that came before the committee he chaired.
“As a proud former peace officer and longtime champion for public safety, I am forced to face the reality that I have made some at the Capitol feel uncomfortable, and disrespected,” he said in a statement announcing his resignation.
Even as Schoen pushed back against accusations of harassment, he acknowledged sending a vulgar photo to a Senate aide, which he said was sent to the wrong person and intended for an intimate partner.
Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, has said she was also forced to look at a vulgar photo by a legislator but declined to name him. Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said when he was DFL caucus leader, two harassment complaints were brought to him — one involved Schoen, but he has declined to name the other under confidentiality rules, meaning the person could still be serving.
Changes will be challenging
In recent weeks, Capitol insiders traded stories of harassment and inappropriate behavior like trading cards.
Changing the work environment will be challenging. Elected legislators do not have a “boss” other than the voters. The Capitol is an unconventional workspace, filled with both lawmakers and staff, executive branch officials who do not work for the Legislature, as well as lobbyists and constituents who do not work for the government.
Under an agreement between House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, and Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, the House will conduct discrimination and harassment training.
Daudt said recently that members who do not participate will face the loss of committee assignments.
“I’ll let them explain to their constituents why they don’t sit on any committees,” Daudt said recently.
Sheila Engelmeier, an employment attorney with more than three decades of experience representing both workers and management, called this an “excellent first step.”
House nonpartisan staff are also working on improving current House policies on harassment and discrimination.
David Larson, a professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, said there’s room for improvement: “It’s extremely vague,” he said of the policy, in an e-mail. “And it’s unclear what consequences will result when it’s determined that sexual harassment did occur.”
Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, helps conduct orientation for new members. She said she would never blame victims of harassment, but she also offers new members advice on how they can keep a professional atmosphere: “It’s not a social club,” she said. “I draw a bright line. When I’m done with my work, I go home.”
Policies protecting lobbyists
The Senate will also undergo training and is reviewing its own policies.
Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, boiled down what needs doing: “Let’s be professionals, keep it nonpartisan and give people a place to go that will respect their privacy until we come to a reasonable conclusion about what happened.”
House and Senate staff are also considering possible adoption of additional policies, some of which would be aimed at protecting lobbyists from harassment and discrimination.
“We’ve made a direct request of legislative leaders that we want a seat at the table,” said Elizabeth Emerson, director of government relations at Goff Public and spokeswoman for a trade association of lobbyists called the Minnesota Governmental Relations Council.
Lobbyists feel particularly imperiled by the current environment.
“There isn’t a safe, anonymous, third-party entity where female lobbyists can file complaints, and until this happens women at the Capitol will continue to feel they have no recourse,” said a lobbyist who asked to remain anonymous to avoid retribution.
The dark shadow of retribution over revelations of sexual harassment hangs heavy over the Capitol, even for a culture accustomed to Machiavellian intrigue.
“It is very telling that so many people still fear retaliation,” Engelmeier said. “That is the best indicator that we are very far behind from where we need to be on the issue of holding predators accountable for inappropriate behavior.”
Engelmeier said the best thing the Legislature could do to improve the atmosphere is simply legislate. Current sexual harassment law as interpreted by the courts makes it too difficult for victims to win compensation, which means perpetrators act with near impunity, she argued.
“Up the ante in the area of harassment law,” Engelmeier said. “We need new legislation making individuals more accountable for unacceptable behavior in our workplaces and government. Harassment — and other mistreatment — will continue until there is unequivocal economic accountability for the individual perpetrators.”