The Potluck

DFL lawmakers call for outside investigation in Senate harassment case as minority leader faces criticism

By: - July 28, 2021 2:48 pm

State Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, speaks on the Senate floor earlier this year. Photo by A.J. Olmscheid/Minnesota Senate

Democratic state senators are calling for an outside investigation of the sexual harassment claims alleged by a former Senate DFL staffer, saying Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, should have immediately called for an investigation last year.

State Sen. Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, first issued a statement just hours after the Reformer published an investigation that outlined attempts by Cynthia Callais to find a remedy to what she called repeated sexual harassment by Clay Schwartzwalter, who served as Kent’s campaign manager last summer before resigning after Callais complained. Franzen also resigned her post as assistant minority leader. 

By Wednesday evening, Franzen was joined by Sens. Lindsey Port, DFL- Burnsville, and Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, in calling for an investigation. Other senators also said they supported an investigation.

“It is clear that the current system did not support Cynthia,” Port said on Twitter. “That is unacceptable, and it must be replaced with a system that centers survivors and justice. I join Senator Franzen in calling for an outside investigation. We must do better.”

Murphy, too, expressed support for Callais. “Cynthia deserved better. Yes to an outside investigation and yes to overdue change to a system that meant the only way for an abused staffer to protect herself was to quit.”

Schwartzwalter is the brother of state Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, who employed and directly supervised Callais. Isaacson is close friends with Senate DFL Chief of Staff John Pollard, who was involved in managing the situation last year. Pollard had previously rented a room in his house to Schwartzwalter during a past election season.

Franzen is the first DFL lawmaker to criticize Kent’s handling of the situation and it could indicate a threat to Kent’s leadership, which she attained in early 2020 after a battle with former Minority Leader Tom Bakk.   

Franzen said she first learned of the allegations when Callais tweeted about her experience on July 1.  Franzen also resigned her role as assistant minority leader, critical that she was given more information about the case.

“(A)fter several attempts to learn from caucus leadership about these accusations, I was told not to chime in and follow the lead of Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent,” she wrote in a statement. “I cannot in good conscience sit back while being shut out of the conversation on harassment in the workplace in the name of archaic ‘Senate policy.’” 

Schwartzwalter in a statement denied Callais’ characterizations of their interactions and said he believed them to be consensual. 

Kent and Pollard both defended their handling of the situation. Kent said her swift handling during the campaign was an effort to protect the women who had complained, and Pollard said any reports of harassment were appropriately reported to Senate human resources. 

In her statement, Franzen said Callais’ experience was all too familiar: “Too many women can relate to the inappropriate and harmful experiences that Cynthia Callais endured while serving our state as a Senate staffer,” Franzen wrote. “It’s 2021, well past time for the Legislature — for both parties — to step up with action and protection at the Capitol.”

In a statement, Kent said the “Senate DFL is committed to creating a safe, supportive, and respectful workplace.”

She added: “We take any report of workplace harassment seriously. I will pursue an investigation of Senate policies and how they are followed.”

Senate DFL legislative aides on Wednesday met with Kent, Pollard and other Senate officials to discuss the situation. Before the meeting, 29 DFL staffers signed a letter in support of Callais.

“As Senate DFL caucus employees, we stand in solidarity with former Senate DFL staff member Cynthia Callais and all survivors of sexual harassment and trauma,” the statement said. “It is all too common for survivors like Cynthia to face obstacles when coming forward and sharing their story.”

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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.