Former MNGOP political director says party chair outed, subjected her to months of verbal abuse

Francesca Zeller worked as political director for the party in 2018

By: - August 17, 2021 1:45 pm

Francesca Zeller. Photo provided to the Minnesota Reformer.

A former Minnesota Republican Party staffer is accusing embattled state party Chair Jennifer Carnahan of outing her as queer to party activists, donors and other officials in an effort to undermine her. 

Francesca Zeller, who worked for the state Republican Party for eight months, said in a Reformer interview that she was outed by Carnahan and other colleagues who used her sexual orientation to undergird claims of inclusivity among more progressive Republicans, while weaponizing it among conservative GOP activists who still hold strident anti-LGBTQ views. 

Zeller, who at the time was closeted about being queer, feared backlash if she shared her identity widely. She described to the Reformer a toxic work environment that also included Carnahan regularly shouting verbal abuse when her work was deemed unsatisfactory.

“I was 24, reaching a point in my life where I began to embrace my experience as a queer woman,” Zeller said. “MNGOP holds many opinions in its ranks, but anti-LGBTQ sentiments are as strong as ever within the party. … Carnahan’s blatant disregard for my privacy became a crisis in my personal life. The harassment and disrespect I received from activists was regular and reported.”

Neither Carnahan nor a state party spokesman responded to requests for comment. 

Zeller was hired in January 2018 as state political director, a position that entails managing and working with political organizing units, known as BPOUs. She said she had largely kept her sexual orientation to herself knowing that many conservatives still would not be accepting.

Carnahan, elected party chair in 2017 and reelected in April, couched herself as a supporter of LGBT rights, telling MinnPost in 2016 during an unsuccessful race for state Senate that she was “socially inclusive.” 

“Some of my best friends are gay and they deserve the right to be happy just like everyone else,” she said at the time

Carnahan’s four-year tenure leading the state GOP is now threatened by the indictment of her friend and party operative and donor Anton Lazzaro, who was arrested and indicted on several counts of sex trafficking, throwing the party into turmoil. 

Carnahan and other GOP officials have denounced Lazzaro and pledged to redirect to charity the more than $270,000 in contributions he has given to candidates, party units and PACs. 

Since Lazzaro’s indictment, a growing number of party employees have begun sharing their experience of a hostile work environment, as well as Carnahan’s prolific use of non-disclosure agreements intended to stifle criticism. 

Zeller said she sought support from Carnahan and party officials to deal with activists and delegates who were openly hostile toward her once they learned of her sexual orientation. 

“I was subjected to hostile work conditions, including being forced to attend and manage volunteer groups that would openly discuss anti-LGBTQ content and share disturbing opinions on how LGBTQ identifying persons should be treated today,” she said. 

Carnahan, she said, became a source of abuse a few months into the job, berating her for work. 

The rage was misplaced, said Dustin Grage, a GOP political consultant. He said in a Reformer interview that Zeller was one of the hardest working political operatives he knew. He first met her and became familiar with her work in 2014.

“Francesca singlehandedly out-dialed entire offices with a dozen volunteers,” he said. “She’s a very dedicated activist and very good for the party.”

Even after Zeller left the party, Carnahan threatened her with legal action.

Zeller took to social media to criticize Carnahan’s lack of a formal press statement more than a week after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police.

In a June 5, 2020 cease-and-desist letter, a lawyer writing on behalf of the party said Zeller’s social media posts constituted false statements that could harm Carnahan’s reputation. 

Zeller’s post also included screenshots of photos Carnahan published to her personal Instagram account lounging poolside in Arizona, seemingly on vacation. 

The cease-and-desist letter said Carnahan had made several public statements in media interviews, including Fox News and BBC.

The letter also accused Zeller of invading Carnahan’s privacy. “We expect you will retract your statements and photographs and issue a public apology to Chair Carnahan by the same means you made your wrongful statements,” the letter said. 

Lazzaro on Facebook also weighed in, calling Zeller a “lunatic” and saying Carnahan “doesn’t deserve this type of nonsense. She just fights back.”

Zeller no longer works in Minnesota, saying her professional reputation was ruined. She now lives in Texas and no longer works in politics.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez is the senior political reporter for the Reformer. Ricardo is not new to Minnesota politics, previously reporting on the Dayton administration and statehouse for The Star Tribune from 2014 to 2017, and the Republican National Convention in 2016. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Los Angeles Times covering the California economy. He's a Las Vegas native who has adopted Minnesota as his home state. In his spare time, he likes to run, cook and volunteer with Save-a-Bull, a Minneapolis dog rescue group.

MORE FROM AUTHOR