Minnesota GOP chair faces growing calls to step down

A woman smiles and talks.
Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan speaks with an attendant of a rally for President Trump in Bemidji, Minn., on Sept. 18, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

Updated: Aug. 15, 12:50 p.m. | Posted: Aug. 14, 5:51 p.m.

Republican Party of Minnesota Chair Jennifer Carnahan faced growing calls to resign this weekend, in the wake of a major GOP donor and activist being indicted on sex trafficking charges.

More than a half-dozen GOP state legislators have publicly called on Carnahan to step down after news of Thursday's indictment of Anton "Tony" Lazzaro.

"We need a change in leadership. We have an elected leader with toxic conflicts of interest surrounding herself with a board that fails to act," four Republican lawmakers — state Reps. Steve Drazkowski, Tim Miller, Cal Bahr and Jeremy Munson — wrote in a letter posted Saturday.

"Chair Carnahan needs to resign," the letter continued. "There are simply too many questions about actions taken under her watch as the leader. ... The news of a close, personal friend and advisor to our state party chair being indicted and arrested for heinous crimes against children doesn't just look bad. It is bad. It affects members, volunteers and donors' ability to trust the integrity of our organization."

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The four are members of the New House Republican Caucus in the Minnesota Legislature. Among other steps, the letter also calls for a "full independent audit" of the party's finances, and a review of any non-disclosure agreements made with executive board members.

On Friday night, GOP state Sen. Roger Chamberlain of Lino Lakes — the assistant majority leader — called on Carnahan to resign.

"The charges against Anton Lazzaro of sex trafficking minors are deeply disturbing, disgusting, and repulsive, and Carnahan’s close, ongoing relationship with him is troubling to say the least," Chamberlain wrote. "I find it impossible to believe she didn’t know about his activities."

And on Sunday morning, Republican state Sens. Michelle Benson of Ham Lake and Julia Coleman of Chanhassen also called on Carnahan to step down.

"Federal sex trafficking charges against someone with close ties to the Chair damages the sole purpose of the organization," Benson wrote in a Facebook post. "The Chair has failed to act in the best interests of the Republican Party of Minnesota, therefore I call for the Chairwoman to step down. The Executive Board also has a responsibility to remove the Chair either through her action or theirs and conduct a full audit of state party’s finance and operations."

Coleman wrote on Twitter that the "questions surrounding (Carnahan's) actions make it impossible for her to effectively serve as chair any longer," and that she should step down. Coleman also called for a financial audit of the party's finances, and to release any current or former employees from non-disclosure agreements.

Other prominent Republicans in Minnesota also have weighed in. On Saturday night, former Republican state Sen. Scott Jensen, who has declared his candidacy in the 2022 governor’s race, called on Carnahan to resign.

Republican State Sen. Karin Housley of Stillwater issued a statement Saturday that did not call for Carnahan to step down — but did urge the board to audit the party's finances and release all former employees from non-disclosure agreements.

The state GOP Executive Board was set to meet Sunday night.

Carnahan did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday.

But she did post a lengthy statement on Facebook, labeling calls for her ouster a "coup" and an attempt to "defame" her with "false accusations and a misrepresentation of facts." Carnahan said the party is in its strongest position in more than a decade and gave no indication of plans to step down.

Lazzaro is accused of conspiring with others to recruit and solicit six people under the age of 18 to engage in commercial sex between May and December of 2020. Another person — who had been chair of the College Republicans chapter at the University of St. Thomas — also has been arrested in connection with the case.

Multiple people who have worked for or closely with the Republican Party told MPR News that Lazzaro and Carnahan have been close friends for years, traveling often and working the party circuit. He is also a top donor to Carnahan’s husband, Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn. Lazzaro was part of a select group of invitees to the couple’s California wedding, according to sources and photos.

People who discussed Lazzaro’s party ties on the condition they not be identified by name said he was a go-to donor for Carnahan. He helped her win her job as party chair in 2017, both as a volunteer and a financial contributor.

Carnahan on Friday issued a statement saying that "if the allegations against Mr. Anton Lazzaro are true, this is an abhorrent act that we condemn in the highest possible terms," and she pledged to turn over donations he made to the organization to charity.