Senate DFL harassment, MNGOP party implosion, COVID-19 changes GOP hearts: 2021 year in review

By: - December 29, 2021 6:00 am

The Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul as the sun sets on Election Day, November 3, 2020. Photo by Tony Webster.

Time has completely warped: a year feels like five, but also feels like a month? 2021 started and before I knew it, it was September. Minnesota politics proved to be as unpredictable as ever, with all the high drama of a tabloid. Who could have guessed that serious charges against an accused sex trafficking GOP donor would lead to the downfall of the MNGOP Party Chairwoman? I doubt that was on anyone’s bingo card. 

Let’s look back on some of the most memorable political stories I covered this year:

How Bill Cosby led to the sexual harassment report that roiled the Senate DFL caucus

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

In late June, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the rape conviction of Bill Cosby, leading to widespread outcry. 

Among those condemning the ruling was Cynthia Callais, who tweeted about her experience as a former Senate DFL staffer who faced harassment, reported it and received no investigation by the state Senate human resources department. 

I reached out to Callais for an interview and worked to verify her claims that Clay Schwartzwalter, the brother of her former boss, state Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, and former campaign manager for the Senate DFL leader had harassed her for months. 

When the story was published in late July, the fallout was swift. DFL lawmakers immediately called for an outside review. Several weeks later, Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, who had employed Schwartzwalter, announced she would retire from the Senate, citing unrelated reasons that included family needs and the stress of the pandemic.  

The outside review was completed this month, but is not being made public. A good reminder to people: The Legislature is not covered by the state data practices law, so it does not have to turn over any documents related to the investigation or say what it contains. The only thing Senate Secretary Cal Ludeman said was: “While the contents of the report remain confidential, it indicates a lack of clarity and understanding of the policy’s obligations on the part of some Senate members and staff.”

An accused sex trafficker, GOP donor leads to ouster of MNGOP party chair

Former Minnesota Republican Party chair Jennifer Carnahan looks on during the national anthem during a rally for President Donald Trump at the Bemidji Regional Airport on September 18, 2020 in Bemidji, Minnesota. Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

In August, the Minnesota political world was rocked by the arrest of Anton Lazzaro, a GOP strategist who was close with former MNGOP Party Chair Jennifer Carnahan. They hosted a podcast together, traveled together and Lazzaro was at Carnahan’s small California wedding to U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn. 

Young, wealthy and ostentatious, Lazzaro was a prolific donor to many prominent Minnesota Republicans. The federal indictment charged him with underage sex trafficking, and in court proceedings since then, we learned that police have accused him of attempting to get witnesses to sign non-disclosure agreements in exchange for money.

Carnahan’s close ties to Lazzaro led many Republican operatives and activists to call for her to resign, followed by a flood of accusations that Caranahan created a toxic workplace. 

I reported on Carnahan’s prolific use of non-disclosure agreements, which former party officials said was used as a way for Carnahan to safeguard her reputation. I also reported on how one former executive director was outed by Carnahan as lesbian and driven from the party. What ultimately led to her ouster was a signed letter from four former executive directors who wrote an extraordinary missive detailing Carnahan’s alleged failures as party chair. 

She resigned, but only after voting on a generous severance package for herself. 

COVID-19 nearly killed this GOP activist, making him a supporter of the vaccine (mostly)

Mark Korin, 64, shown shortly before he was intubated and on a ventilator after contracting COVID-19 in July. He had refused the vaccine and now is encouraging others to be vaccinated. Courtesy photo.

Former Oak Grove Mayor Mark Korin, a local GOP official, spent more than a month hospitalized with COVID-19. Before his long stint in the intensive care unit, he had been a vocal opponent of pandemic restrictions and had not been vaccinated. He was also a prolific Facebook user, frequently sharing political posts and his own views. 

Those views began to change after he survived being on a ventilator.

“I always believed, it’s just another virus,” he said. “I was wrong. I will be the first to admit: If I had taken the vaccine, I believe that I may have gotten sick, I probably wouldn’t be in the hospital. If I was in the hospital, I probably wouldn’t be on the ventilator.”

While he doesn’t believe in vaccine mandates, he said he is telling anyone who will listen to strongly consider getting vaccinated. 

Here’s hoping people listen! 

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Ricardo Lopez
Ricardo Lopez

Ricardo Lopez was a 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.