Former lawmakers recall hostile workplace

Two state lawmakers accused of sexual harassment are gearing up to defend themselves, rather than heeding calls to step down. In the meantime, veteran female lawmakers say they've often encountered a hostile work environment at the State Capitol.

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Minnesota State Capitol can be a hostile workplace at times for female lawmakers, lobbyists and staff, according to two former legislators.

"It’s a few bad apples who kind of make everybody else look bad, and that’s really a shame," former Sen. Ellen Anderson told KARE. "But absolutely, I think people take advantage of the position of power they’re in at times."

Anderson, an attorney who now heads the University of Minnesota's Energy Transition Lab, spent 18 years in the Minnesota Senate. She left in 2011 after being appointed chair of the Public Utilities Commission by Gov. Mark. Dayton.

"You mostly had to laugh it off," Anderson recalled, of her encounters with male legislators who would say inappropriate things.

"If you want to be an effective senator and represent your constituents well, you have to swallow a lot of B.S., because you have to maintain relationships with people – it’s very relationship focused, and you don't want to make enemies."

Anderson remembers a time in 1998 when she successfully pushed through legislature requiring employers to give new mothers time and space to express breast milk. She was a new mother herself at the time, and encountered an uncouth remark from a male senator with more seniority.

"A senator who was in a position of power over me, because I was a junior senator and he was a senior one, said, 'Oh will there be a demonstration of that?' That was not fun."

She said there was harassment prevention education and training available at the time for lawmakers, but it wasn't getting through to some people.

Carly Melin, a former state representative from Hibbing, said she encountered harassment from an older state senator when she first arrived at the State Capitol at the age of 25.

"I was moving into a temporary apartment, and another Iron Range lawmaker was helping me, and this senator gave me elevator eyes, like looking my body up and down, and said, 'What are you doing with him when you could be with me'?"

She said the same senator made suggestive offers to let her stay at his place during a special session, once again unwanted, inappropriate attention.

Melin, who now works as a prosecutor for the St. Louis County Attorney's Office, said she encountered less harassment as she became more established in the Minnesota House. But she believes younger legislators and lobbyists are more vulnerable to harassment.

"Women with less power at the Capitol are targeted more, and are subjected to a lot more harassment than probably I was as a legislator," Melin explained.

"Those are the women I'm really concerned about right now, and those are the women I want to stand in solidarity with."

Governor Dayton and DFL Senate leaders have called for Sen. Danny Schoen, a fellow Democrat, to step down, after several women told the online magazine MinnPost that Schoen harassed them in 2015.

House candidate Lindsey Port of Burnsville said Schoen, then a state representative, made comments about her posterior and later touched her from behind as they stood in line to meet presidential candidate Martin O'Malley at the DNC meeting in Minneapolis in August of 2015.

Rep. Erin Maye Quade of Apple Valley told MinnPost that Schoen began texting her in November of 2015, because she was commenting online about the Fourth Precinct siege in the wake of Jamar Clark's death. Maye Quade, at the time a legislative candidate, told MinnPost that Schoen began texting her invitations to come to his house in St. Paul Park.

In 2017, after Maye Quade joined the legislature, she learned that several Republican lawmakers were making comments about her figure on the House Floor.  She also received texts from Rep. Tony Cornish, telling he was caught staring at her, but it was her fault because she looked so good.

A more serious accusation against Cornish was leveled by a lobbyist, who said the Vernon Center Republican had for years texted her invitations to have sex. The lobbyist, who has asked not to be named, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that Cornish tried to keep her in his office once as she was leaving.

House Speaker Kurt Daudt, in light of those accounts, ordered an independent HR investigation and temporarily removed the Public Safety Committee chairmanship from Cornish.

Former House Speaker Kurt Zellers told the newspaper he warned Cornish to dial down his unwelcome overtures to women around the Capitol. Zellers has called on Cornish to step down.

Ellen Anderson asserted that part of the harassment stems from the entrenched notion among some male politicians their women counterparts are inferior.

At the time Anderson joined the Senate she found some of the traditions to tone deaf or outright sexist, including the dress code.

"When I was elected in 1992 I had heard that women were not allowed to wear pants in the Senate. There were rules against it and that seems so archaic to me, considering it was the 1990s and Minnesota winters are really cold."

And when she became chair of the Senate Energy Committee, she was stunned to learned she would not also be chair of the House-Senate Joint Energy Commission. All of her predecessors in the role the Energy Committee chair -- all male Senators -- had also headed the joint commission.

"The leaders made some lame excuse about forgetting to sign a form. It was ugly."

© 2017 KARE-TV


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