MANKATO — Former Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, is mulling a return to St. Paul.
Cornish confirmed Wednesday he is considering running for his old House District 23B seat in the Minnesota Legislature, saying he believes more needs to be done to address area residents’ needs at the Capitol.
“I’m not happy with how things are being handled in my district,” he said.
Cornish, once a powerful lawmaker who chaired the House public safety committee, resigned in November 2017 after he was accused of sexual harassment by several women.
If he runs next year, he won’t be the first state lawmaker accused of sexual harassment in the U.S. to run for their old job — at least 25 state lawmakers across the country ran in 2018. Yet Cornish’s run also threatens to expose a schism between House Republicans and far-right conservatives.
“He certainly has a right to run,” said Rep. Jeremy Munson, R-Lake Crystal, who now holds the seat. “It’ll be an interesting race.”
Resigning from power
Before his resignation, Cornish was a popular Republican leader beloved in his district who built a reputation for blunt talk, supporting gun rights and at-times controversial political showmanship. He was first elected in 2002 after former Democratic Rep. Henry Kalis retired, but no DFLer gave Cornish a serious challenge at the ballot box since 2008.
House District 23B is made up of parts of Blue Earth, Le Sueur, Watonwan and Waseca counties.
Cornish left office after several women publicly accused him of sexual harassment. Two of them publicly identified themselves: former Rep. Erin Maye Quade, who gave up her House seat in a failed run for lieutenant governor; and Sarah Walker, then a criminal justice reform lobbyist who recently resigned under controversy from a top post at the Department of Corrections amid allegations she lobbied for a veterans nonprofit run by her husband on state time. Walker has denied the allegations.
Quade and Walker said he sent them inappropriate texts and Walker said he cornered her in his office with a sexually aggressive proposition.
Cornish and former Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, resigned in 2017 as a wave of sexual harassment scandals hit statehouses across the U.S. as part of the #MeToo movement when women publicly named alleged sexual harassers.
Their departure spurred the Legislature to reform its sexual harassment policies and examine Minnesota’s sexual harassment laws. A study publicly released in December 2018 found about one-fifth of House staff and members had witnessed or experienced sexual harassment.
Cornish declined to comment Wednesday on how his sexual harassment allegations could affect his potential campaign, citing a legal agreement he reached with his accusers. But he said he believes he has enough support within the district and around the state to take back his old seat in a primary contest with Munson.
“Having been there 15 years, you always get push-back, but there I believe there’s tons of support that I’ve received and that’ll mean everything if I decide to run,” he said.
Munson said Cornish’s campaign may not be so simple, however. If Cornish were elected, House Speaker Melissa Hortman may have trouble figuring out what to do with him, according to Munson.
“Would the speaker seat him? Would there be a restraining order at the Capitol where he couldn’t go near it?” he said.
Cornish’s potential run brings a fight between Republican representatives into the spotlight. Munson is one of four members of the New House Republican Caucus, which separated itself from the House Republican caucus in December.
The caucus is comprised of rural Republican lawmakers who are ideologically further to the right than their conservative colleagues. Though the group is small, it hasn’t gone over well among state Republican leaders.
Munson won a special election for Cornish’s seat in February 2018 despite House Republicans endorsing his opponent in a primary, then-Watonwan County Commissioner Scott Sanders. Munson said Wednesday he expects many state Republicans to support Cornish should he decide to run.
“I think it’s really going to be the race of the swamp against me,” he said.
Cornish and Munson discussed Cornish potentially running for office over dinner last December, though the two have different accounts of what they said.
Munson said Cornish asked him to run against Sen. Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, for the District 23 seat, which covers most of south-central Minnesota. Cornish said Munson approached him with concerns over his reportedly rocky professional relationship with Rosen and the two discussed potential campaigns in the future while Munson sought advice.
The two do agree on one thing: Cornish told Munson he wouldn’t run against him for control of District 23B. That changed earlier this year, when Cornish texted Munson he was retracting his promise after the New House Republican Caucus kicked off.
Munson said he believes Cornish wants to run in the House to regain his seniority, and a potential committee chair spot should Republicans come back into the majority.
“I don’t know what unfinished business he has in the House, but 15 years is a long time,” Munson said.
Munson said he thinks a Cornish campaign would bring a lot of negativity into the race, and wouldn’t be beneficial for area residents. He touted his record voting against excess government spending and his efforts to bring down health care costs as positives for the area.
Cornish acknowledged his seniority is part of why he’s thinking of running for a House seat, but he said he took back his promise not to run against Munson after he heard Munson refused to author several local infrastructure bills for sewer and wastewater projects. Cornish also said he’s concerned Munson doesn’t show up to community events or visit with residents enough.
“The lack of his presence in his district and complaints from citizens and city officials caused me to take back my statement,” Cornish said.
Munson confirmed Rosen was likely “not a fan” of his as he has repeatedly voted against omnibus bills, including a $1 billion infrastructure bill in 2018. He said he opposed the bill as it had too many non-essential projects the government shouldn’t borrow money to fund.
Munson also opposed the package of bills Rosen spearheaded addressing opioid treatment and prevention, as he had concerns pharmaceutical companies had too much influence in the bills.
Munson said Rosen has taken up infrastructure proposals within the district and sought out Rep. Bob Gunther, R-Fairmont, to author the House bill for several projects, including a St. James sewer project and additional money to build a new water treatment plant in Waldorf.
Munson said he supports wastewater funding and was involved in the early stages of securing funding to help clean up Lake Elysian, as well as a bill to help Rapidan Township with ditch cleanup funding.
Rosen disputed Munson’s account Wednesday afternoon. She said she hasn’t worked with Munson on any legislation thus far, including local infrastructure.
“He could have put a bill in and then you match them up,” Rosen said. “But he is not asking for advice, and he hasn’t been around long enough to understand the game and how it’s played.”
Rosen also said Munson should have voted for the infrastructure bill as it contained projects for small towns in his district.
“If you’re listening to your constituents, you’re going to support a bonding bill if there’s projects that are in there such as wastewater and sewer,” she said. “Those are crucial to a community and its vitality.”
Rosen said she would support Cornish if he decides to run because she believes he’ll support the district as an effective legislator. Though she acknowledged his past sexual harassment allegations may cause Democratic lawmakers to shun him, she said there’s more to the issue than what has come out in the public.
“No one has really heard Tony’s side of the story,” she said. “He did the honorable thing. He was asked to step down by leadership and he did. I don’t believe he’s had his day in court, so to speak.”