Schoen, Cornish resignations put Capitol culture on notice

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn speaks to a crowd
Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn speaks to a crowd with her 3-year-old daughter at the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul during a rally against sexual harassment on Friday, Nov. 17, 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Two Minnesota legislators succumbed to pressure to leave office amid allegations of sexual harassment, a move cheered as the first step toward changing a Capitol climate that some women say was too tolerant of misconduct.

The announced resignations Tuesday of DFL state Sen. Dan Schoen and Republican Rep. Tony Cornish marked a hard fall for the two lawmakers, both with law enforcement backgrounds and political ambitions.

Cornish had at times weighed a campaign for Congress and Schoen was mentioned as a candidate for state auditor.

"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," Cornish, of Vernon Center, wrote in the statement disclosing he would leave by Dec. 1.

Schoen, of St. Paul Park, was expected to address his own exit Wednesday, although his attorney said the senator realized he would face new difficulty if he remained in the Legislature even if he disputes accusations against him.

"The reason he's resigning is he can't serve his district. Everyone has made up their mind," Schoen's attorney Paul Rogosheske said. "There's no way he can be effective. He doesn't want to be involved in this atmosphere where he can't get anything done."

Both legislators were subject to multiple complaints, some of which were denied and others explained as jokes or electronic communications that went awry.

But women — lobbyists, staff and fellow lawmakers — said it stemmed from a culture where too many looked the other way when it came to bad behavior.

Sarah Walker, the lobbyist who accused Cornish of repeated sexual advances, said in a statement that harassment had become pervasive.

"No one should be forced to accept sexual harassment in exchange for the opportunity to work on issues in the political arena or anywhere else," she said, coming forward publicly Tuesday evening as the lobbyist who had anonymously alleged wrongdoing by Cornish.

DFL state Sen. Dan Schoen and Republican Rep. Tony Cornish.
DFL state Sen. Dan Schoen and Republican Rep. Tony Cornish.
Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune via AP 2016 | Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune via AP 2013

Walker said it was difficult to make the decision to speak out. A settlement with Cornish brought her an apology and left him to cover her legal bills, but she wasn't otherwise compensated. "Making progress in this area is and was my only motivation," she said.

Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, said both men had crossed the line in their interactions with her. Reacting to Schoen's departure, she said, "One senator's resignation does not change the culture. I want to change the culture."

House Republican leadership, which had ordered an outside probe into Cornish but otherwise resisted publicly calling for his resignation before he announced it, promised change.

"As House leaders, we will continue to take concrete steps to combat misconduct at the Legislature and ensure a safe and respectful work environment for legislators, staff, lobbyists and the public," Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Zimmerman, and Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said in a joint statement.

Previously, Daudt and Minority Leader Melissa Hortman agreed to mandatory sexual harassment training for all House members early next session. Some legislators haven't gone through training for years.

Beyond training, there are broader calls to fix the system for flagging harassment and investigating it — and not just for legislative colleagues and their staff.

In the Cornish case, the House was paying an outside investigator $275 an hour to investigate because it didn't have a policy in place to handle lobbyist complaints.

"The other people who come to the Capitol don't necessarily have any protocol to follow if they end up in a situation that is uncomfortable or is elevated to the level of harassment," said Anne Finn, a lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities, which represents the interests of 853 cities at the Capitol.

Anne Finn, lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities.
Anne Finn, lobbyist for the League of Minnesota Cities, says the Legislature needs to create a sexual harassment policy that protects lobbyists.
Tom Scheck | APM Reports

Finn, who has served in various roles in the Capitol since 1995, said she's not aware of any lobbyist complaints being filed against a lawmaker since she started working there. She said part of the problem is that there's no formal process in place.

Finn said lobbyists could complain to a legislator or legislative leadership if they feel victimized but she said it's a risk not many lobbyists would take. She said making a complaint about a lawmaker could jeopardize a lobbyist's reputation.

"When things go wrong we need to make sure that there is a process in place to address the issue so that they don't fester," she said.

MPR News has spoken to several other lobbyists who say they won't speak publicly about any alleged harassment or the legislature's policy over concerns of retribution.

The Minnesota Government Relations Council, which represents lobbyists, says it has also created a "workplace safety committee" that it hopes will be involved in any discussions legislative leaders have about changing the complaint policy.

Maye Quade made it clear Tuesday that the push to change the culture would not end with the departures of Schoen and Cornish.

"The resignation of two such harassers in the Minnesota State Legislature is not enough to dismantle a pervasive culture of misogyny or to end the sexual harassment of women inside and outside the Capitol," Maye Quade said after Cornish announced his decision to step down.

She said she would continue to push for a task force to recommend ways to make the Capitol "a safe and respectful place to work."

People, she said, "should not approach non-sexual relationships in a sexual manner."

Tom Scheck is a reporter for APM Reports. Contact him here.