#MeToo: Sexual harassment is the worst kept secret in Minnesota politics

February 3, 2018

When several women came forward to accuse now-former Representative Dan Schoen (DFL-St. Paul Park) of grabbing them and sending them lewd photos, it came as no surprise to those of us who have worked at the state capitol. One of the worst-kept secrets in Minnesota politics is the rampant sexual harassment within the ranks of both parties.

What was astonishing is that the accusations against Schoen (who is a buddy of DFL party chair Ken Martin) came from two DFL state representatives and a House DFL staffer—a chink in the armor that has long enabled men in power to treat women like toys.

A number of other female legislators, lobbyists and staffers have since come forward, and a lobbyist went public with allegations against now-former Representative Tony Cornish (R-Vernon Center).

These stories are just a tip of the iceberg that has been floating around St. Paul for decades. Ely Timberjay editor Marshall Helmberger wrote of his mother’s experience in the 1990s at the state capitol:

She would call after a particularly rough day, of propositions or of being grabbed or groped in the lawmaker’s office. Once, she called after the lawmaker had ripped her blouse open, right in front of another staffer and several of the legislator’s own constituents.
She talked one day to a member of the Legislature’s human resources staff, but was told she had few, if any, protections, and almost certainly wouldn’t have the backing of any other legislative staff, even those who were witness to the harassment and abuse.
The end was near when one day another female staffer came into the senator’s office to find my mother crying. When she asked what was wrong, my mother told her of her predicament. The next day, the same staffer approached my mother and told her she had talked with her husband, who encouraged her to get a lawyer. That was the last my mother ever saw of that staffer, who apparently lost her job as well for suggesting my mother take legal steps to defend herself. Shortly after that staffer was let go, my mother’s senator came into the office and told my mother she was fired.

This mirrors my own experiences as a staffer and lobbyist at the state capitol, extending back to the late 1970s. Two older House members—notorious for inappropriate behavior towards young women—accosted me during a reception at a popular restaurant. The room was packed with legislators, staffers, and lobbyists, but that didn’t stop them from grabbing my breasts and sticking their hands up my skirt. They knew my pleas for help would fall on deaf ears. Of those who glanced my direction, most either turned away or shook their heads and shrugged. A few laughed.

In another instance, a senate committee chair asked me to work late on a project—it was a ruse. When I refused his advances, he became aggressive, saying I didn’t have a choice, and attacked me. He earned a sore groin, a bloody nose and black eye, while I escaped with a torn dress and a badly bruised hand. Other women weren’t so lucky.

Even friendship is no protection. A married House committee chair began pursuing me despite the fact that I was one of his wife’s best friends and a frequent guest in their home. Another married Senate leader got handsy because he could “move bills quickly” for a “very special friend.”

Then of course there’s the blatantly sexist behavior, like the committee chair who refused to discuss my bills unless I was wearing pink, his favorite color. Another insisted I serve coffee to the men during strategy meetings.

Taking the cake was the married House member who called me into his office, ostensibly to discuss a piece of legislation, but then asked me to model a two-piece swimsuit he had purchased for his girlfriend.

Women in Minnesota politics are regularly expected to put up with sexually explicit jokes, comments about their bodies, lewd looks, intimate personal questions, and unwanted physical contact. No matter the degree, the intent behind the behavior of these powerful men is the same: To put a woman “in her place” by humiliating her.

Women have had virtually no power to fight back in a system that assumes we are lying and that values men more than women’s dignity and safety. Women who do speak out are attacked: She’s lying. She’s unstable. She’s out for revenge. She’s part of a political conspiracy.

A woman finds herself victimized further as she watches the smear campaign destroy her reputation and career. She need not even file a complaint or go public in order to suffer consequences; simply refusing unwanted advances or demanding that an offensive behavior stop is sufficient to lose one’s job or be ostracized: She’s not a team player. She’s trouble. She’s gone off the deep end. She’s too sensitive. Put up with it or get out.

Meanwhile, the perpetrator gets, at most, a slap on the wrist and continues his pattern of abuse. As a result, most women remain silent and develop a strategy for survival.

Despite the gains women have made over the years, sexual harassment remains deeply ingrained in Minnesota’s political culture, and women still rightly fear losing their reputations and careers for daring to speak out.

The anger unleashed by the #MeToo movement represents decades of pent-up rage and frustration. That so little has changed at the state capitol over the past 38 years points to a systemic failure. Any legislative or party leader who claims ignorance of this pervasive misconduct is simply not telling the truth.

Forcing Schoen and Cornish to resign was a good first step, but these two oinkers are just the tip of a massive iceberg. If men now fear retribution—good! They are finally paying attention. But it is going to take more than a couple of sacrificial lambs to change the toxic culture in the halls of power. Accusing a politician of sexual harassment or assault is a catch-22. There is no way to win. And until that changes, we all lose.

A member of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Shelly Mategko is an award-winning journalist.

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