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Capitol Chatter: Today's sex scandals take different tone than 2012 event

Rep. Kerry Gauthier of Duluth tells a 2011 House committee that he supports longer sentences for sex offenders. In 2012, he was caught having oral sex with a 17-year-old boy at a rest area near Duluth.

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Legislature has been relatively free of sex-related scandals, which is one reason why recent harassment allegations came as a bit of a surprise to some.

The difference between a scandal five years ago and a couple in recent days shows how times have changed.

After then-Rep. Kerry Gauthier of Duluth was caught in 2012 having oral sex with a 17-year-old boy at a rest area, there were no immediate calls for his resignation.

Kurt Zellers, the Republican House speaker at the time, recalled on Thursday that he waited for a police report on the incident before he issued a call for Gauthier to quit.

Eventually, House Democratic leader Paul Thissen said Gauthier' conduct was inappropriate, and that he should not run again, but the leader did not call for Gauthier's resignation.

The Gauthier incident sits in contrast to the current situation.

Shortly after MinnPost.com revealed sexual harassment allegations against state Sen. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, numerous Democrats called for him to resign.

Republicans were mostly silent about the Schoen incident for hours, other than the party chairwoman condemning his actions.

In the hours after Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, was accused of sexual harassment, the only Republican to respond in public was House Speaker Kurt Daudt of Crown; he suspended Cornish's committee chairmanship.

Most people around the Capitol seem to expect more harassment complaints to come from women — legislators, staff or lobbyists — against male lawmakers.

"There are years worth of pent-up allegations from people involved in state politics and government that have either gone unreported or unaddressed," Briana Bierschbach reported in MinnPost on Friday.

She earlier broke the Schoen story.

"It actually is kind of surprising," Zellers said after learning of Schoen's situation.

He said that he does not recall a formal sex ethics complaint while he was speaker, although he said he did hear "some rumors and innuendo" about Cornish. On Friday, he asked that Cornish resign. Zellers was speaker from 2011-13.

One legislator who is not surprised is Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth.

"There's an undercurrent as you get elected a female legislator — others give you a heads-up or tell you who to stay away from," Olson told the News Tribune on Friday. "As female legislators, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't experienced something that's made them uncomfortable, whether that's a touch or a comment. ... And I've definitely dealt with rampant sexism at the Capitol, absolutely."

Rep. Jen Schultz, DFL-Duluth, echoed Olson's comments.

"I have never met a woman who has NOT been harassed," Schultz said. "I commend the courageous women calling out harassment and assault. Men who harass women should not be in positions of power or elected office. I understand not all women are able to come forward because of fear of retaliation. This is a legitimate fear as so many women experience it. That is why it's so important women in positions of power and ability are speaking out."

The public may be disappointed in lawmakers who are alleged to have crossed the line, Zellers said. "People expect them to behave themselves."

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Gary Dahms, R-Redwood Falls, said "it has to be dealt with," adding that many members now will check to see when they last took training about how to avoid sexual harassment.

"I don't think it is prevalent," Dahms added.

Talk around the Capitol, however, indicates that more allegations can be expected.

"This is obviously an incredibly difficult and serious challenge for any organization to face — and the Minnesota Legislature is apparently not insulated from it," said Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth. "We all need to respect what must be an incredibly difficult thing to do — women coming out and describing horrific acts — and accusing sitting legislators. My heart goes out to anyone involved."

Olson said she hopes profound changes occur in the wake of these allegations.

"I hope that we can really make a change so that not only folks like myself and others who have some power can speak, but those who may feel powerless can find their voice and speak out," she said. "It's time for change, and I'm glad to see that we're naming something that I know to be true at the Capitol. I hope that our leaders on both sides of the aisle can really work to address these problems."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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