Minnesota House sexual harassment policy faces first test

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 Nov. 17, 2017.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2017

Women who came forward to share their experiences with sexual harassment in Minnesota politics say they're disappointed with the "tepid" response from lawmakers last session.

Several major bills to address harassment in workplaces failed in the final days of the messy session, and a new Minnesota House policy on sexual harassment — the only change made on the issue — is already getting mixed reviews.

"I think it's tempting to say that we did nothing, but we did pretty close to nothing," DFL House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman said.

The new House policy is facing its first big test: One day after it was passed in April, Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, was accused of sexual harassment by Emily Schlecht, a 23-year-old sexual assault survivor who was advocating for a new sexual violence center in Bemidji.

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After meeting with Hamilton, he invited Schlecht back to his apartment in St. Paul to avoid a snowstorm. At his apartment, he asked her to lay her head on his lap, stroked her head and arms and asked her to lie down with him, according to a police report filed by Schlect.

There have been no charges filed against Hamilton, but under the new policy an outside firm was hired to investigate. That investigation is still ongoing, according to House Republican caucus staff, but Schlect said she hasn't felt "validated" by the process.

"I was told that somebody from the Capitol would be reaching out to me, and I had to reach out to the Capitol anywhere up to four or five times to ask: 'What is happening, what is going on?'" Schlecht, who was recently interviewed by investigators, said. "I'm the first person this has happened to now that they have this policy in place, and if you wanted to genuinely know if this is working, you would definitely be contacting the person who was impacted."

The changes were proposed in wake of the resignations of DFL Sen. Dan Schoen and Republican Rep. Tony Cornish, after women came forward accusing them of harassment. The Senate hasn't changed its policies but is reviewing them, according to a spokesperson.

The resignations prompted a reckoning at the Capitol, where power imbalances and a flawed reporting system led to decades of unchecked sexual harassment. It was part of the broader #MeToo movement across the nation, which encouraged women and men to share their experiences.

The new House policy requires reporting of sexual harassment complaints to leaders of both parties, and it also allows the House human resources department to hire an outside investigator without approval of legislative leaders.

"We did a lot to take the politics out of it and to show that the Minnesota House is not going to put up with this behavior," said former House Republican Majority Leader Joyce Peppin.

But Rep. Laurie Halverson, DFL-Eagan, said the changes did nothing to make the process more transparent to the public. And even now, people like Schlecht don't have any idea how long it will take to investigate a complaint or any defined procedures for how they will be informed of the results.

"The Legislature still has some very serious self-examination that needs to happen with regard to dealing with this in a way that's open, that's reflective and that yields some results that people can point to," Halverson said. "I think that it was a very tepid response to sexual harassment."

Lindsey Port's overriding feeling is "disappointment."

She was one of the first women to come forward last November, when she said Schoen grabbed her from behind at a 2015 campaign event.

Numerous proposals to address sexual harassment failed to make it to the finish line, including a proposal from Port to create a sexual harassment task force of outside experts, and a nation-leading proposal to eliminate a strict "severe or pervasive" legal standard that has blocked harassment cases from having their day in court.

"It felt like there was a moment where this was something everyone was for, and at the end of the day, they just decided not to do anything about it," Port, a former DFL candidate for the state House, said.

Sarah Walker
Lobbyist Sarah Walker.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Sarah Walker, a lobbyist who said she was propositioned for sex dozens of times by Cornish and cornered in his office, was also disappointed more didn't happen this year. But she sees #MeToo as a long-term movement.

"You see these changes happening around women speaking up. Women haven't stopped speaking up," she said. "With anything that is a movement and not a moment, it takes a while to build up the grassroots infrastructure."

Both Walker and Port are also watching what happens in November closely, especially how many women are elected.

"This is clearly something that is a pervasive issue, and honestly, I think the only way that we get real substantial change is if we elect more women to the Legislature," said Port, who runs a nonprofit that works with House candidates. "The likelihood of anything happening really depends on how this election goes."