MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Lori Swanson stood by her running mate, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, on Friday despite pressure from liberal groups to dump him over his handling of a top aide accused of sexual harassment, and her campaign suggested that her political rivals had a hand in raising the allegations.
The online news site MinnPost reported Thursday that Nolan's legislative director, Jim Swiderski, was allowed to leave quietly in 2015 rather than be fired over the alleged sexual harassment of several young female staffers. Swiderski was then hired by Nolan's re-election campaign months later, which Nolan now acknowledges was a mistake.
Liberal groups, including TakeAction Minnesota, DFL Feminists and Land Stewardship Action, called on Swanson to drop Nolan or for him to quit the race, while Swanson's opponents in next month's close three-way primary issued sharply critical statements urging Swanson to speak out.
After more than 24 hours of silence, Swanson campaign spokeswoman Ruth Stanoch suggested that Swanson's primary opponents, U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and state Rep. Erin Murphy, are trying to exploit the matter for political gain. She said some of the women in the MinnPost story have links to their campaigns.
"It is unfortunate that candidates who are behind in the polls seek to exploit this matter for their political advantage," Stanoch said.
In an accompanying statement, Nolan made the same point but said that doesn't diminish the fact that the harassment was wrong, and he apologized to the women.
Swanson's brief statement noted Nolan's apology and said he "has fought for gender equality throughout his entire career." She said sexual harassment would have no place in her administration.
Swanson, the state's attorney general, shifted abruptly to the governor's race last month two days after she lost the endorsement for another term as attorney general at the party's state convention, and announced Nolan as her running mate the same day she announced her candidacy.
MinnPost reported that the staffers, who requested anonymity to protect their careers, said Swiderski frequently made inappropriate comments. One said Swiderski groped her often.
Months after Swiderski left, Nolan's re-election campaign hired Swiderski to work remotely. Joe Radinovich, who was Nolan's campaign manager in 2016 and is now running for his seat in Congress, told the AP on Thursday that he promptly fired Swiderski when he learned of the allegations.
Murphy said earlier Friday that Nolan "enabled and protected a predator."
"Engaging in sexual harassment or sexual assault — or sweeping it under the rug — is unacceptable. Lori Swanson's silence reveals a troubling lack of leadership at a moment that demands it, especially from someone seeking to serve all Minnesotans as our next Governor," Murphy said in a statement.
Walz tweeted that "the predatory behavior" in Nolan's office was "an inexcusable failure of leadership."
TakeAction Minnesota , which endorsed Murphy, staged a demonstration outside Swanson's Capitol office on Friday.
"This is what the #MeToo movement is all about. Women are breaking the culture of silence that perpetuates sexual harassment in the workplace," Elianne Farhat, the group's program director, said in a statement.
DFL Feminists also called on Nolan to drop his bid for lieutenant governor, and later tweeted that the campaign's statement was an "empty" non-response "that shows that they are not treating this with the compassion and decisiveness that it deserves."
Land Stewardship Action, which has not endorsed anyone in the governor's race, issued a statement calling on Nolan to resign from Swanson's ticket and for Swanson to address "the issue of gender injustice in our society."
Republicans also chimed in.
"The lack of response from Lori Swanson and her campaign team regarding accusations of sexual harassment against Rick Nolan's staff member and close friend is inexcusable, and a direct reflection on the type of leadership she would display if elected as Minnesota's next governor," state party spokeswoman Rachael Grooms said.