Minnesota House sex harassment training criticized
ST. PAUL — State Rep. Erin Maye Quade left Wednesday's sexual harassment training for the Minnesota House of Representatives in tears.
The Apple Valley lawmaker — a central figure in the #MeToo movement's presence in the Minnesota Capitol — needed a few minutes to compose herself before speaking with a reporter.
"It was cruel," Maye Quade later said as she offered sharp criticism of what House leaders had billed as a first step toward changing a male-dominated culture perceived by some as hallowed in chauvinism. "We shouldn't have to go to work and tell every single person, 'Do not flirt with me.' And that's how it felt."
Maye Quade wasn't alone.
Several Democratic women representatives — Jamie Becker-Finn, Peggy Flanagan and Ilhan Omar — walked out at the end of Wednesday's all-day mandatory training session and described a sexual harassment presentation that they said cast the issue backward: sympathy for the harasser, and skepticism toward the harassed.
"It was immensely disappointing," said Becker-Finn, an attorney from Roseville who has prosecuted cases of abuse. "I have a victim-centric lens for things. This was the opposite."
Becker-Finn roughly quoted a particular slide during the presentation that stuck with her: "'The most horrifying thing would be to be accused of being a harasser.' To me, the most horrifying thing is to be assaulted."
Becker-Finn was a confidant of both Maye Quade and DFL candidate Lindsay Port — two women whose allegations of sexual harassment by male lawmakers played a role in the men's resignations. Port reported that Democratic Sen. Dan Schoen, a Cottage Grove police officer, grabbed her buttocks at an event. Maye Quade reported Schoen creeped her out with comments and text messages, and she reported inappropriate text messages by Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, who was also accused of unwanted sexual advances by a lobbyist. Both Cornish and Schoen resigned.
Becker-Finn and Maye Quade, both in their first terms, have pushed for the creation of a task force on sexual harassment.
Linda Holstein, the attorney hired by the House Human Resources Department to provide sexual harassment training, could not be reached for comment Wednesday evening after the criticism.
The training, which House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, made mandatory for all 134 representatives, was not open to the media. A request by the Pioneer Press to review training materials beforehand was denied by House staff.
Daudt said he was surprised to hear several women were unhappy with any of the training.
"I talked to so many members on both sides of the aisle who said it went well," Daudt said. He said he believed several of the women's criticisms of specific aspects of the training were "taken out of context" and suggested their expectations might be unrealistic.
"They want us to take action that would prevent sexual harassment, and unfortunately that's not possible," he said. "We took a pretty big step here today. This is the first time in the history of the House we've had mandatory training for all members. I'm sorry to hear they're unhappy."
Wednesday's training consisted of two parts: a morning session on implicit bias, run by Sara Taylor, president of Deep See Consulting, and an afternoon session on sexual harassment by Holstein.
MANY LIKED TRAINING
The session about implicit bias — which deals with subconscious assumptions about other people based on aspects like skin color — received high marks from numerous male and female lawmakers of both parties, according to Pioneer Press interviews.
Attendees described a sensitive and thought-provoking event. "She challenged people's assumptions and how we filter information," said Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe.
As they filed out of a meeting room in the State Office Building, a number of lawmakers, both men and women of both parties, commented briefly on the day without any criticism.
"It was a good starting point," said Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown. She wasn't taken aback by the sexual harassment session. "I don't think it was slanted," Murphy said. "She (Holstein) made it very clear from the beginning: She's a defense attorney."
State Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, one of the few African-American House members, praised the implicit-bias training. "The harassment (training), I think, fell a little short," she said. "It didn't focus on the responsibility for those who do this behavior."
Maye Quade said that what ultimately brought her to tears was a comment by Daudt during a closing Q&A that she felt was directed at her. Daudt said it wasn't.
Omar described the sexual harassment session as "disappointing."
"The biggest disappointment is the reinforcement that we've done something to deserve it," said Omar, also in her first term. "Our expectation was that this would would be a dignified workplace. That's where this conversation needed to begin."
On Thursday afternoon, a number of senators are scheduled to attend a "Respect in the Workplace" training session.