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Capitol Chatter: Sex harassment allegations reach several states

State Rep. Dan Schoen of St. Paul Park listens to Tuesday, July 9, 2013, testimony in front of a Minnesota House committee about synthetic drugs. Don Davis / Forum News Service file photo1 / 3
Minnesota state Rep. Dan Schoen of St. Paul Park talks to colleagues before a Tuesday, Sept. 30, 2014, legislative meeting about railroad delays. Don Davis / Forum News Service file photo2 / 3
Minnesota state Rep. Tony Cornish of Vernon Center watches a witness criticize his bill regulating police body cameras in a Tuesday, May 10, 2016, committee hearings. Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 3

ST. PAUL — Minnesota is far from the only state in which legislators stand accused of sexual harassment.

Reports have surfaced in states coast to coast about women lawmakers, legislative staffers and lobbyists saying they have been harassed. Stateline.org reports that women in at least 16 states have made the allegations: Minnesota, South Dakota, California, Illinois, Colorado, Kentucky, Oregon, Vermont, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Massachusetts, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Washington

The same is happening in Congress, where House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, has urged members to complete sex harassment prevention training and to require it of staff members. That was before harassment charges against Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken surfaced.

In Minnesota, the training is given to new lawmakers, and in light of recent allegations the House and Senate will offer it to all as the next session begins Feb. 20.

Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party says it will demand that its candidates and their campaign staffs get training before the party will provide support such as lists of voters. That is one of the most powerful incentives a party has available because without voters lists, a campaign is in a world of hurt.

Much of the legislative-related sexual harassment around the country sounds much like Minnesota's first two cases, Sen. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, and Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center.

Three women say Schoen talked to them inappropriately or sent them graphic material. One says he made inappropriate contact with her.

A lobbyist whose name is not public accused Cornish of aggressive behavior toward her.

In Kentucky, the House speaker resigned because he had "engaged in inappropriate text messages" with a legislative employee.

An Ohio senator resigned, saying "I sometimes asked her for hugs and talked with her in a way that was not appropriate for a married man, father and grandfather like myself."

Many of the infractions are like a South Carolina comment: "She was in line getting food at a state house political function when she felt someone place their hand on her rear end."

A former Kansas Legislature intern summed up the situation to the Kansas City Star: "It's like, 'Oh my gosh, why would you say that? It's super inappropriate and you'd never say that to a male intern.' It becomes normal after a while. As time goes by, you just kind of accept it. But you're also like, 'OK, I really like this internship and it's a good opportunity,' so you're willing to ignore things that were said, which sucks because you shouldn't have to."

Nolan, Lewis 'vulnerable'

Two Minnesota congressmen are considered vulnerable by Roll Call, a news outlet that covers Congress.

Republican Jason Lewis, who serves the southern Twin Cities and areas to the south, could face a rematch with Democrat Angie Craig. Roll Call says a third-party candidates took some Craig votes in last year's narrow loss, so if that does not happen again Lewis could be beaten in 2018.

Democrat Rick Nolan, with a district north of the Twin Cities into northeast and north central Minnesota, never has had "an easy race in his Minnesota district since returning to Congress in 2013," Roll Call reports. "Despite lackluster fundraising, his retail political skills (and outside spending) have helped him hold on."

The Cook Political Report considers the race in Nolan's district a "toss up." It points out Republican candidate Pete Stauber is a union member who could appeal Iron Range workers.

"Republicans are also eager to attack what they say are Nolan's flip-flops on the Iron Range's mining permitting issues, which could squeeze him from both the right and left," the report says.

No Niska now

Harry Niska has dropped out of the Republican race for Minnesota attorney general.

He said he left the race to put his family first. The decision leaves former state Rep. Doug Wardlow as the lone GOP candidate.

On the Democratic side, several people are watching to see if incumbent Lori Swanson runs again. She is considering a governor campaign.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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