‘It's disturbing:' Minnesota lawmakers shaken by sexual harassment report

Minnesota lawmakers are vowing to strengthen their rules on sexual harassment after being surprised by the behavior’s prevalence at the state Capitol.

One in five House lawmakers and staff who responded to a recent survey said they had experienced or witnessed sexual harassment. A series of changes, including a complaint hotline and mandatory training, are now in place, while other issues remain unresolved.

“I’m a little surprised,” said state Rep. Deb Kiel, R-Crookston and the acting chairwoman of the House’s task force on workplace safety. “We need to make sure that we protect our members, and more importantly, our staff.”

The poll was conducted this fall, one year after Republican state Rep. Tony Cornish and Democratic state Sen. Dan Schoen resigned while facing sexual harassment allegations. The report became public amid a changing landscape in the House; Democrats will retake control of the chamber at the start of 2019.

Incoming House Speaker Melissa Hortman has said she will strip any lawmaker of committee assignments who doesn’t show up to anti-harassment training in January. Outgoing Speaker Kurt Daudt, a Republican, put the policy in place earlier this year and got cooperation.

“I know we’re doing the mandatory training, which is a start,” said state Rep. Mike Freiberg, DFL-Golden Valley. “And there’s serious penalties if people don’t attend it.”

House lawmakers and staff said sexual harassment was most likely to happen at off-site events, the report found. The second most common place: members’ offices.

Lawmakers questioned how the House would regulate events, including social functions, that happen away from the Capitol complex.

“That is complicated,” Kiel said. “I think we would have to first of all decide what constitutes off-site work, how far you go to mandate people’s personal lives.”

Legislative analysts said 50 percent of House members took the survey, while 72 percent of staff did. Most staffers who responded to the survey did so within the first 24 hours it was available, indicating “a real desire to speak out,” legislative analyst Cristina Parra said Friday.

Combined, 20 percent of House lawmakers and staff said they’d experienced or seen sexual harassment in the legislative workplace. Another 71 percent said they had not, while nine percent said they didn’t know.

It wasn’t just sexual harassment: Two-fifths of House lawmakers and staff said they had witnessed or experienced harassment, inappropriate behavior or discrimination in the workplace. Some said it happened just once, while a handful said they had seen such behavior weekly.

One possible reason why fewer lawmakers took the survey: it happened during the closing stretch of this fall’s general election campaign.

The House has created a telephone hotline and email address where lawmakers and staffers can make complaints. Amid the #MeToo movement, lawmakers said the sexual harassment issue should not fade into the background at the Capitol.

“I think [the report] is disturbing, and we need to take it really seriously and make sure we have procedures in place to make sure it doesn’t happen,” Freiberg said.