By J. Patrick Coolican and Jennifer Bjorhus
A pair of Minnesota state lawmakers -- one a DFL senator, the other a Republican representative -- announced Tuesday that they will resign from office in the wake of sexual harassment allegations.
Word of the resignations of Sen. Dan Schoen and Rep. Tony Cornish came within two hours of each other, capping a stunning sequence of events that vividly demonstrated a new awareness of what many insiders say has been a long-standing tolerance of mistreatment of women working at Minnesota's Capitol. Both men had been under pressure from leaders of their parties to resign.
But in leaving, the two legislators, both with law enforcement backgrounds, struck sharply different tones. Cornish, an eight-term representative from southern Minnesota's Vernon Center, issued an apologetic statement and agreed to pay the legal bills of Sarah Walker, a lobbyist he had repeatedly propositioned for sex.
"As a proud former peace officer and longtime champion for public safety, I am forced to face the reality that I have made some at the Capitol feel uncomfortable, and disrespected," Cornish said in the statement. "To those individuals and specifically [Walker], I sincerely apologize for my unwelcome behavior."
Schoen continued to deny wrongdoing. The St. Paul Park resident served two House terms starting in 2013 and joined the Senate at the beginning of this year.
His lawyer, Paul Rogosheske, said Schoen felt he had little choice but to resign, adding that they plan to release information Wednesday that would demonstrate Schoen's innocence.
"He doesn't feel he can be effective anymore," Rogosheske told the Star Tribune. "And he doesn't want to work in an environment like this."
The resignations end -- for now -- a jarring period in Minnesota politics, with the Capitol beset by highly charged harassment allegations similar to those sweeping the country. Politicians in Washington and other state capitals along with executives at prominent media companies and Hollywood studios have faced similar accusations in recent weeks. Two women have accused U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota of unwanted touching, for which he has apologized even as he resists calls to resign.
Walker, the lobbyist who accused Cornish of badgering her for sex over a period of years, had remained anonymous until shortly after Cornish announced that he would step down. She then issued her own statement.
"My deepest hope is that the current conversations will lead to long-term institutional changes that will allow hardworking, dedicated, and intelligent women at the State Capitol the freedom to do their work without being subjected to harassment," Walker said.
Cornish asked to leave
Cornish plans to resign from the Minnesota House by the end of the month. House Speaker Kurt Daudt and Majority Leader Joyce Peppin revealed Tuesday that they had asked Cornish to resign.
"Over the last week, it has become increasingly clear his resignation is the most appropriate course of action for him, his constituents, and our institution," they said.
A high-profile supporter of gun rights who cultivated a law-and-order image, Cornish is a former DNR game warden and small-town police chief who until recently had been chairman of the House Public Safety Committee. Walker and other lobbyists told reporters from the Star Tribune and elsewhere in recent weeks that Cornish repeatedly propositioned them for sex, and was known by many women who worked at the Capitol as someone to avoid.
Cornish, 66, initially denied any wrongdoing but acknowledged that he had mixed his career at the Legislature with the pursuit of women he found attractive. Cornish is divorced; the Star Tribune reported that, in 1990, his ex-wife obtained a domestic abuse protection order against him.
Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, produced text messages in which Cornish favorably commented on her appearance on the House floor. Cornish said the texts were taken out of context and were not meant to offend.
Walker, the lobbyist, recalled a scene around 2010 when she went to Cornish's office to discuss a bill. When she moved to leave, she said, he asked her not to go, and stood up.
"He said 'Look down,' " she said. " 'I have a raging boner. You can't leave.' "
Dumbstruck, she sat back down. She said he repeated the statement. She deflected, she said, by telling him she was running late for a meeting, and left the room.
In a later incident, she said, Cornish pushed her against his office wall and tried to kiss her. She said she pushed him away and left.
Walker's attorney, Scott Flaherty, said Tuesday that he and Jon Hopeman, representing Cornish, started talking about a settlement last Friday. The terms of the agreement were simply that Cornish apologize, resign and pay for Walker's attorney fees, Flaherty said.
Flaherty described Cornish's apology as "heartfelt."
"What he did was not OK, but it was a good apology and he was sincere and he should be applauded for that sincerity," Flaherty said. He added that, "I think it reflects the changed political environment around the sexual misconduct claims."
Schoen denies allegations
Considered Schoen, 42, had a political career that just weeks ago seemed to be on the rise. A police officer and paramedic in Cottage Grove, he was a gregarious legislator who could level a sharp partisan attack one moment but find common ground with Republicans the next. He had publicly mused about running for state auditor in 2018.
The divorced father of two denied the allegations when they arose two weeks ago, calling them "either completely false or ... taken far out of context. It was never my intention to leave the impression I was making an inappropriate advance on anyone. I feel terrible that someone may have a different interpretation of an encounter, but that is the absolute truth. I also unequivocally deny that I ever made inappropriate contact with anyone."
Lindsey Port, a DFL candidate for office in 2016 who is running for a House seat again next year, said Schoen commented on and later grabbed her buttocks at a Democratic National Committee meeting in Minneapolis in 2015.
Port said in a phone interview that she is glad Schoen is resigning, because it means women will not have to relive their trauma had the scandal continued.
Maye Quade said Schoen sent her a string of text messages when she was a candidate, inviting her to drinks, including one apparently not intended for her that read: "I almost got her. Working on her pretty hard, but I almost got her."
Maye Quade released statements after news of Schoen's resignation broke, including one that said: "One senator's resignation does not change the culture. I want to change the culture."
Schoen also had been called out by a Senate employee who said he sent her an unsolicited photo of male genitalia. Rogosheske said the photo was intended for someone else with whom Schoen had an intimate relationship.
The allegations against Schoen quickly prompted DFL leaders, including Gov. Mark Dayton, to call for his resignation.
Once Schoen and Cornish resign, Dayton is authorized to call special elections. Schoen's south metro district could yield a competitive race, with both House seats there currently held by Republicans. Cornish's district south of Mankato is solidly Republican.
Star Tribune staff writer Karen Zamora contributed to this story.
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