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Duluth group calls for Nolan to resign

U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan (file / News Tribune)

Rep. Rick Nolan was already scheduled to surrender his congressional seat at the end of the year. But a letter on Tuesday from a group of Duluth-based elected officials called for the 8th Congressional District representative to resign immediately in the wake of a workplace sexual harassment scandal first reported in an online expose last week.

"It's important as elected officials to hold each other accountable for our actions," began the letter cosigned by seven Duluth-based officials, including state Sen. Erik Simonson and City Council President Noah Hobbs. "This is why we are asking for Rep. Nolan to resign his congressional seat."

The congressman's legislative office responded defiantly and with a pledge that Nolan will also carry on in the state's gubernatorial race, which he joined as a lieutenant governor candidate on the Lori Swanson ticket last spring.

"There is nothing new here from these individuals," said Nolan's communications staff in an email. Nolan's staff referred the News Tribune to a statement from last week in which Nolan expressed "zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior in the workplace."

Nolan was swept up in scandal by a MinnPost report published last week. The report detailed his repeat support for a longtime legislative aide, Jim Swiderski, who was alleged to have sexually harassed multiple women, including groping one woman, in the congressman's Washington, D.C., office. Swiderski was allowed to leave the federal office quietly with a resignation and going-away party in 2015, MinnPost reported. Swiderski was later rehired to work alongside Nolan's 2016 re-election campaign as a paid copywriter, MinnPost reported. Nolan said in a statement last week that "in hindsight" Swiderski should not have been retained by the campaign. Nolan apologized to the women in his office as part of a statement last week.

Simonson, who represents Senate District 7 encompassing most of Duluth, was the only state legislator to cosign the call for Nolan to resign. The six others were city, county and school board officials from Duluth. All of the names on the letter belonged to male officials, including Hobbs and fellow Duluth city councilors Zack Filipovich and Joel Sipress, Duluth School Board chair David Kirby and board member Josh Gorham, and St. Louis County Commissioner Patrick Boyle.

The letter came about, Hobbs said, after he and Boyle began talking Monday about how they were struggling to reconcile Nolan's response to the controversy. A day later, after rounding up support to the cause, Hobbs issued the letter via email calling on Nolan to resign. Hobbs told the News Tribune it was important that male lawmakers came forward to condemn Nolan's handling of the Swiderski situation.

"We should stand up and hold other male-elected officials accountable when they engage in these behaviors or allow these behaviors to happen when they have direct control of their office," Hobbs said.

The MinnPost report also detailed two instances in which Nolan himself seemed to behave insensitively with female staffers — reciting a bawdy anecdote in the office in one case, and telling one of the victimized women while driving past Swiderski's house: "There's your boyfriend's house."

The women sourced in the story continue to combat Nolan's response. In a letter published on Facebook on Monday, one of the women who was provided anonymity as a protected source in the MinnPost story and went by the name Amanda wrote Nolan publically to say, "The fact that you're blaming your political opponents because eight of your former staffers spoke the truth about your misconduct proves that you do not understand the severity of what you've done."

Last week, the Cook County Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party executive committee called for Nolan to both resign from Congress and the Swanson ticket. The progressive group Take Action Minnesota also joined in calling for Nolan to leave the race.

It's been a tumultuous year for Nolan. He announced his resignation from Congress in February, effective at the end of the year. It created a open seat in the 8th Congressional District which has drawn eight candidates into a wide-open race, including five DFLers vying in the Aug. 14 primary.

Weeks after Nolan's retirement announcement, he surprised everyone by joining Attorney General Swanson's sudden gubernatorial bid coming in the wake of the state DFL convention in the spring.

The DFL-endorsed gubernatorial candidate Erin Murphy and another challenger, Tim Walz, both offered sharp criticism last week of Nolan's actions in the Swiderski case. But they stopped short of calling for Nolan to drop out of the primary race.

Nolan's actions this week don't indicate he is going anywhere. Earlier Tuesday, Nolan's legislative office issued his weekly news column — one promoting almost $700 million in federal grants the congressman said he has fought to secure for state construction and improvement projects.

"It's a little-known fact that much of the state funding that goes into construction and improvement projects originates with the federal government," the Nolan column said.

The column seemed to remind its readers that Nolan helped gain federal financial support for projects in Cook, Duluth, Ely, Eveleth, Two Harbors and other 8th District locales.

But Hobbs said Nolan's good works don't outweigh the congressman's "really bad response" to the Swiderski report.

"Most of us, if not all, have been supporters of Congressman Nolan at one point and he's done some very good work," Hobbs said. "... But we can't make exceptions for people we've supported. This behavior is morally wrong and how he handled it does deserve being called to attention regardless of his track record."

In a Swanson-Nolan response last week to the MinnPost report, the campaign questioned the use of protected anonymity for the female sources and wondered aloud about sources for the story now working for opposing campaigns.

The local officials calling for Nolan to resign characterized the campaign's response as "victim blaming."

"We respect the courage of women to share their stories and we are calling out Congressman Nolan's blaming of victims for the harassment by a member of his leadership team," their letter said. "As fathers, brothers, husbands, partners and grandparents we don't accept this status quo. We are committed to change. And that change starts with the 8th District."