MANKATO — Before Nov. 9, Rep. Tony Cornish was a top GOP leader in the Minnesota Legislature.
The Vernon Center Republican was chair of the House Public Safety Committee and in the middle of his ninth term in office. He had built a reputation as the top gun advocate in the state, as well as one of the GOP’s biggest law enforcement supporters. A former cop himself, Cornish was lauded within his district as an at-times blunt, straight-talking lawmaker.
That changed after several Twin Cities media outlets reported a DFL lawmaker and a lobbyist accused him of sexual harassment. The allegations would eventually lead to Cornish resigning from the Minnesota Legislature, shaking up local politics and leading to an impending special election.
Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, released texts to media showing Cornish objectified her during a House session in May. Sarah Walker, a DFL lobbyist who publicly came forward after Cornish resigned, said he had harassed her multiple times over a decade.
Cornish at first denied the accusations, claiming his texts with Quade were meant as a joke and calling Walker’s account “damned lies.” Yet pressure mounted on Cornish after former House Speaker Kurt Zellers publicly revealed he had admonished Cornish for similar behavior during his time as speaker in 2011 and 2012.
Cornish was suspended from his position as chair. Walker’s attorneys sent Cornish and the House notices to preserve any possible evidence of sexual harassment. While Cornish had said he wouldn’t resign over such allegations, a subsequent investigation by Minnesota Public Radio revealed more than two dozen people who worked at the Capitol had either seen Cornish sexually harass someone or were sexually harassed by the lawmaker.
The ensuing political pressure proved too much for Cornish and Sen. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, who faced similar accusations. An attorney for Schoen announced Nov. 21 the senator had plans to resign the following month; Cornish told The Free Press later that day he planned to resign at the end of November.
“As a proud former peace officer and longtime champion for public safety, I am forced to face the reality that I have made some at the Capitol feel uncomfortable, and disrespected," Cornish said in a statement. "To those individuals and specifically the unnamed lobbyist, I sincerely apologize for my unwelcome behavior. I would also like to apologize to God, my family, my constituents, and friends for the mistakes I have made.”
His resignation came about as part of an agreement with Walker, who later went public with a request for the state to seriously consider its sexual harassment policies.
Gov. Mark Dayton has called for a task force to reshape the state government’s policies concerning sexual harassment reporting. He also set a special election on Feb. 12 to replace Cornish and Schoen’s seats before the Legislature starts its 2018 session later that month.
Cornish's district is largely seen as a safe bet for Republicans given the area's historical support of conservative candidates. Capitol watchers expect GOP-endorsed Jeremy Munson to beat out DFL challenger Melissa Wagner, but some believe Wagner could capitalize on growing resentment toward President Donald Trump and a GOP-controlled Congress to defeat Munson.
Cornish’s resignation was among a wave of similar accusations against state and federal lawmakers across the country, part of a growing reaction against people in power who have sexually harassed people for years. The movement started after Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein faced credible sexual harassment allegations and was subsequently fired from the production company he helped start.