Former DFL legislative aide says she was harassed but Senate never investigated complaint

Woman says her boss Sen. Isaacson, Minority Leader Susan Kent and her chief of staff didn’t take allegations seriously

By: - July 28, 2021 12:46 pm

Cynthia Callais, a former Senate DFL staffer, reported her former boss’s brother and DFL operative for sexual harassment in 2020. Photo by Nicole Neri/Minnesota Reformer

A former Minnesota Senate aide faced months of harassment by a DFL operative and brother of a sitting Democratic state senator across two workplaces, but her complaint received no investigation in the Senate, where the harassment began, the woman said in a Reformer interview. 

Cynthia Callais, who now works for the teachers union, said she left her job at the Senate in January after attempting to find a remedy to what she called the repeated sexual harassment by Clay Schwartzwalter, who is the half brother of state Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview. He’s also the former campaign manager of Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent. 

The alleged harassment, which took the form of repeated unwanted advances, began in November 2019 and stretched into August 2020. Callais said it began when she worked as Isaacson’s legislative assistant and continued when she took a leave of absence to work for the Senate DFL caucus campaign.  There, she worked to reelect a handful of incumbents, including Kent, the Woodbury Democrat who ascended to leadership with Isaacson’s support in early 2020. Schwartzwalter was a legislative aide in the Minnesota House, and also took a leave of absence when Kent hired him as her campaign manager in July 2020. 

She had previously reported Schwartzwalter’s behavior to the state Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party through a Zoom meeting in September 2020 when they both worked on the election; he resigned from the campaign. But Callais’ experience with the Senate would prove very different, she said. 

Schwartzwalter’s political and familial ties protected him when she returned to her legislative assistant job with the Senate, she said, and she worried his friendship with the DFL Senate Chief of Staff John Pollard had affected how seriously her complaint was being taken.

Schwartzwalter was given a choice to resign from the campaign or be fired in early September 2020 after Callais complained to the DFL Party that he had sexually harassed her. When Callais returned to her job at the Senate, she said she requested a meeting with Pollard to ask him to facilitate a conversation between her and Isaacson to mediate her workplace environment. She said Pollard suggested she work for a different senator. She later sought a meeting with Senate HR and reported the harassment, reading aloud from her original DFL complaint in late November 2020. 

After his resignation from the campaign, Schwartzwalter faced a separate complaint later that month from another woman, a House staffer he briefly dated. In an emailed statement, he says he was terminated by the House but “was told no information beyond the initial questions asked of me, and was never given the impression that this was a formal investigation that could potentially result in termination.”

He said the reasons given for his termination “were never discussed in any of my conversations with HR” and did not include “the word ‘harassment.’”

The contrasting response by the House and the Senate illustrates the challenging landscape for women who are harassed in politics, even four years after #MeToo revelations felled two Minnesota lawmakers and ushered in a revamping of sexual harassment policies.

“The House did right by me,” said the female House staffer, who said her complaint received a thorough investigation over the course of several weeks, including interviews with other staff members who were witnesses. 

By contrast, “I left quite honestly feeling really exhausted,” Callais said of her experience in the Senate. “I left feeling unsure of if this were to happen again if they would respond appropriately. What happens if the next time it’s a senator that abuses a staff member or what happens if it’s someone with even more power, even more influence, even more connected than (Schwartzwalter) ever was?”

A spokeswoman for Kent cited law and custom for keeping a wall between the Legislature and the campaigns that elect them: “What happens on the campaign side does not automatically transfer over to the official side. The Senate has their own policies and procedures that they need to follow around reports of sexual harassment,” she said. 

This challenge was a frequent topic of discussion at the start of the #MeToo era in 2017 — legislative work often extends well beyond the walls of the Capitol and often involves campaign work, which are workplaces with a pop-up, improvisational quality comprising long hours and, sometimes, lots of alcohol in social settings.  

DFL leader: ‘ I have been confident that the Senate has handled it properly’

Callais described repeated unwanted romantic advances from Schwartzwalter, who twice attempted to kiss her without her consent, she said. Schwartzwalter also shared personal information about her, including her reproductive health, to her boss, Isaacson. Isaacson, she recalled, occasionally would bring up those interactions in the workplace, making her uncomfortable. 

“Because I worked for his brother, (Schwartzwalter) always had a sense of power over me,” Callais said. 

In a statement, Schwartzwalter denied he harassed Callais. “Many of the things mentioned are either gross mischaracterizations or simply not true,” he said in an emailed statement. “I am in no way saying that Cynthia’s feelings are not valid or real, and I have no desire to disparage her or make an already difficult situation worse.”

Isaacson in a statement declined to comment, citing confidentiality regarding personnel matters. 

“I reached out to Senate counsel about what I could share regarding a former employee,” he said. “I was told, per Senate policies and practices, we cannot comment on current or past employees’ work history or personnel matters at the Senate.”

In a Reformer interview, Kent defended her handling of the original DFL complaint, saying she acted decisively to protect Callais. Kent said forcing Schwartzwalter to resign from her campaign staff was a faster alternative than a potentially lengthy investigation. She suggested that the resignations of former state Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, and former state Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL-Cottage Grove, set a precedent of having accused harassers step down voluntarily.  

“Throughout all of this, I reviewed the way (the nonpartisan HR office) handled it and I have been confident that the Senate has handled it properly,” Kent said. 

Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, speaks to reporters on May 17, 2021. Photo by A.J. Olmscheid/Minnesota Senate

Similarly, she disputed some aspects of Callais’ account but did not provide specifics, saying she was limited by confidentiality policies about speaking about sexual harassment cases handled by Senate human resources.

Pollard similarly said he was unable to discuss the circumstances of any specific cases involving Senate employees, but expressed confidence in the Senate’s processes. “But, I can say, of all of the cases I am familiar with and have been brought to my attention as chief of staff, they have been immediately reported to HR by any mandated reporter, including myself,” he said in an interview. 

The Senate sexual harassment policy outlines the procedures that occur when a designated “contact person,” which includes the minority leader, chief of staff and human resources director, are supposed to make a report of harassment. The policy “applies to each member and employee of the Minnesota Senate and to third parties … and applies to any interaction of these individuals in any place or activity that may affect the legislative working environment.”

Third parties can include vendors, lobbyists and other state government employees, according to the policy. 

It also states: ​​”Any report will lead to either an investigation or a hearing conducted by a retired judge pursuant to this policy.” 

Celeste Culberth, an employment lawyer and expert on workplace sexual harassment, said it is the employer’s duty to create and maintain a workplace free of sexual harassment. 

“An employer’s responsibility upon receiving a report is to investigate,” she said. “The employer has to realize that an initial report is likely to be the tip of the iceberg, and the investigation’s function is to discover the contours of the iceberg.”

She added: “One aspect of that is to follow their own policies with respect to investigating sexual harassment.” 

How it started

Callais got her start in politics as a canvasser and eventually interviewed for a job with Isaacson in early 2019. It would be her first non-campaign job with the Legislature. 

Without meeting, and before she had even been hired, Schwartzwalter sent her a friend request on Facebook, she recalled.

Schwartzwalter said he does not recall sending her the friend request, but said “it was common for staff to add other new legislative employees on social media.” He said Callais’ “profile may have been suggested as a ‘recommended’ friend. We did not have any personal communication until months later.”

They became friends after she started working for Isaacson, and by fall, he began to romantically pursue her despite being told of her expressed lack of interest, she said. 

“He always told me how connected he is in politics and how I should stick with him,” she said. 

He first tried kissing her when they got drinks at a Saint Paul pub on Nov. 12, 2019, which she did not reciprocate. She told him by phone later she wasn’t interested in anything more than a friendship. She would say so again by text message later that month. 

Callais sent Schwartzwalter a text message on Feb. 2, 2020 reiterating she was not interested in him, according to a screenshot shared with the Reformer. “I have been honest with you since day 1 with being uncomfortable because of my job and not looking for anything. I thought we had been on the same page about that. So I just want to be clear about this because I think we have a good friendship.” 

Schwartzwalter in a statement said he kissed her, but pushes back against the characterization that it was nonconsensual. When he kissed her in November, “I pulled away after a few seconds and asked if what I did was okay, to which she nodded. We kissed a few more times that evening before going our separate ways,” he said in a statement. 

He said the second time was at his apartment after a short hang out. “At the end of the night she got up and hugged me. I then kissed her, which she returned and did not make any statement or physical motion for me to stop,” he said.  

Callais said that when she rejected his advances or avoided his calls, it would make things awkward for her at work.

“I remember an instance where I was at the office, and Sen. Isaacson said, ‘I heard you and my brother are fighting’ because I didn’t pick up his phone call,” she said. “It turned into more of an obligation than a friendship, and I started to feel like any time I left him unhappy with an interaction, I had to be prepared for it to be brought up in my workplace.” 

State Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, is seen on the Senate floor on April 22, 2021. Photo by Catherine J. Davis/Minnesota Senate

Callais said she did not report Schwartzwalter’s behavior, believing she could handle it on her own, and she did not allow it to affect her job with Isaacson. 

She took leave from her Senate job in May to become deputy field director for the Senate DFL campaign, focused on reelecting incumbent senators. 

Schwartzwalter’s behavior continued, she said. 

In late May, he called her and appeared to be drunk, she said. He would ask her sexual history and people she was involved with romantically. 

As Kent’s campaign manager, Schwartzwalter started making overtures toward a female caucus campaign staffer who reported to Callais, including befriending on social media and sending text messages during late evening hours about non-work matters. That’s when Callais began to suspect a pattern emerging. 

The female campaign staffer spoke to the Reformer and said she reported her discomfort with the late night texts and phone calls to Callais. 

On Sept. 3, 2020, Callais wrote Schwartzwalter an email to advise him of her staffer’s work hours and added that after work hours, “all communications after that should be emailed. This will be a best practice for all communications moving towards election day.” Schwartzwalter provided a copy of the email to the state DFL several weeks after he resigned from the campaign and later viewed the original complaint.

Another campaign staffer who asked to not be named so as to not jeopardize her current job also spoke with the Reformer and said she helped draft an email reprimand containing concerns with his work performance. Schwartzwalter reacted poorly to the email, leading to a hostile response. He also complained to Isaacson about it.  

“First, I want to be absolutely clear — I do not report to you or the caucus. I am Susan’s campaign manager and I work for Susan,” Schwartzwalter wrote back in a Sept. 11 email, referring to Kent.  He copied Kent on the email. “I do not appreciate the tone of this email, and will not be talked down to like this.” 

Before Schwartzwalter sent the email, he notified Kent he would be sending it and would also copy her on it. 

“I have your back on this,” Kent texted back, according to a screenshot Schwartzwalter provided to the Reformer. “You’re employed by the campaign, not the caucus, and you’re doing a great job in spite of excessive demands on your time by others. As you saw, I was troubled by (the emailed reprimand) and I’m really upset that she’s weighing in our (sic) lot. Let’s talk soon.”

Kent in a statement said: “To be very clear, these communications took place BEFORE I knew anything about harassment claims. Once I knew the full scope of the situation, I took immediate action to remove Clay as my campaign manager to ensure a safe workplace for all parties involved.”

Kent also said she did not see Schwartzwalter’s response before he sent it.

Schwartzwalter said he also enlisted Isaacson and John Pollard, the DFL chief of staff, to seek their advice on how to deal with the reprimand. Schwartzwalter described Pollard as a close personal friend of his brother, Isaacson, and called him a professional acquaintance. Previously, he rented a room in Pollard’s home during a past election season. 

“I consulted with my brother and John Pollard who both agreed that the email came off poorly and helped me craft my response,” Schwartzwalter wrote in a statement to the Reformer regarding the reprimand.

Shortly after Schwartzwalter responded to the reprimand, Callais filed her sexual harassment complaint with the state DFL party. 

Schwartzwalter resigned a few days later, on Sept. 14.

In a statement, Schwartzwalter said Kent had informed him in a meeting about the complaint and gave him the option to resign or face termination because “she can’t have this kind of thing floating over the campaign.”  

In a statement, Kent said she did not recall making those remarks. “I am not able to comment on specifics of the situation, but I do not recall saying what he reported, and my communications were focused on ensuring an expeditious departure.”

He said he viewed the complaint 10 days later.

House HR investigates

After he left the campaign, Schwartzwalter returned to his job at the Minnesota House, where he worked as a legislative aide to two lawmakers, as well as a House committee. 

The Reformer interviewed the House staffer who said her complaint led to Schartzwalter’s eventual dismissal in the lower legislative chamber following weeks of interviews. 

She described and shared screenshots of messages he texted to other House staffers, where he would ask others to avoid walking in front of his desk with her. 

In one text, Schwartzwalter said: “It hurts everytime I see you. You can’t just delete me and expect me to be okay with that.” 

The House investigation included an interview with Callais, who spoke with Kelly Knight, director of the House human resources department, in October 2020, according to an email Callais provided to the Reformer

House human resources declined to comment.

In November, after she returned to her job at the Senate, Callais said she reported the harassment that had occurred during the campaign, as well as before, to Senate human resources. 

“I am wondering if we could have a meeting to discuss a situation that has occurred,” Callais wrote to Annette Gratke, the former director of human resources for the Senate, on Nov. 24, 2020, providing the Reformer a copy of the email.

In an interview with the Reformer, she said she read aloud to Senate HR from her original complaint, which contained events that transpired during her time as a Senate employee and that she believed were covered by the Senate’s anti-sexual harassment policy.

A week later, she followed up to ask about the protocol for her leaving Isaacson’s office. She said she had spoken with Pollard, the Senate DFL chief of staff, about being moved to a different desk. 

Gratke on Dec. 3 wrote back asking Callais when would be a good time to talk about her follow-up questions, according to an email reviewed by the Reformer.

Gratke, who is now retired, said she was unable to comment because personnel information is private data. 

“I am wondering if we could have a meeting to discuss a situation that has occurred,” Callais wrote to Annette Gratke, the former director of human resources for the Senate, on Nov. 24, 2020.

– Cynthia Callais

Callais wrote to Anette Gratke, the former director of human resources for the Senate, on Nov. 24, 2020, providing the Reformer a copy of the email.

Pollard in a Reformer interview said Callais’ characterization that he said little could be done to accommodate her request to leave Isaacson’s desk is untrue. He said she was offered a temporary placement with a different lawmaker, state Sen. Foung Hawj, DFL-St. Paul.

Callais confirmed that, but said she was never taken off Isaacson’s desk and was instead working for two members. She provided the Reformer screenshots from a three day period starting on Dec. 11, 2020 where she was confirming the calendars for Isaacson and Hawj. 

Unsure whether her concerns were being taken seriously, she began interviewing for other jobs. Eventually, she received a job offer elsewhere and left before Schwartzwalter was finally fired from the House shortly before the start of the 2021 legislative session in January. 

Recently, Callais sought to get records of her complaint to Senate human resources from the current director, Nicole Miner. 

She was dismayed to see, despite her meeting with human resources, there wasn’t a record of a complaint. 

“Because you did not describe nor make a complaint of sexual harassment that occurred while working at the Senate, there is no documentation of any complaint under the Senate’s Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy to provide to you,” Miner wrote on July 16. 

Miner declined to comment.

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