Minnesota Republican leaders forced Jennifer Carnahan out as head of the state party on Thursday, turning a page on a scandal that threatened to consume GOP politics ahead of a pivotal election year.
Carnahan leaves as chair of the party amid allegations that she created a toxic workplace environment, one that blurred personal and professional lines, ignored concerns about sexual harassment and retaliated against employees who didn’t fall in line.
The party’s 15-member executive board voted 8-7 to give Carnahan a severance of three months salary, roughly $38,000, to leave her role. Carnahan, who attended the meeting virtually, was the deciding vote to give herself severance on the way out. The board also approved investigations into the party’s finances and human resources protocols.
“It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve as chairwoman for the Republican Party of Minnesota,” Carnahan said in a statement after the vote. “However, I signed up for this party to help us elect Republicans and I want to ensure that we can continue to do that.”
The drumbeat for Carnahan to step down began a week ago over her close relationship with GOP donor Anton “Tony” Lazzaro, who was arrested on federal sex-trafficking charges. But allegations against her quickly expanded, prompting nearly 20 legislators and three Republican gubernatorial candidates to call for investigations and her immediate resignation.
Carnahan initially resisted the calls to resign, saying the allegations were part of a “coup” by her detractors. On Thursday, she continued to push back on the claims, saying she had no knowledge of sexual harassment accusations and a “mob mentality came out in this way to defame, tarnish and attempt to ruin my personal and professional reputation.”
The stream of allegations against Carnahan intensified by Wednesday, after multiple women detailed in social media posts experiences where they said they were sexually harassed or spoken to inappropriately by staff in the party.
The same day, four former executive directors of the party released a statement saying Carnahan “ruled by grudges, retaliation, and intimidation” in the party, aiding candidates she preferred and lashing out against those who spoke out against her.
Those staffers — Becky Alery, Andy Aplikowski, Christine Snell and Kevin Poindexter — said they were able to speak out after the party’s Executive Board voided nondisclosure agreements that Carnahan allegedly used to silence staff.
Carnahan’s ouster comes a year ahead of the pivotal 2022 midterm election, in which the governor’s office, all 201 legislative seats and Minnesota’s eight congressional seats are on the ballot. Republicans are trying to end a 15-year losing streak in statewide races, but campaign finance reports show the party has a major financial disadvantage to the state DFL Party.
It also abruptly halts the rapid rise of Carnahan, a small-business owner who attended her first-ever GOP caucus meeting in 2016 and ran for a Minneapolis state Senate seat that fall. By 2017, she unexpectedly vaulted to the helm of the state party, the first person of color to lead the party’s grassroots activists.
Under her leadership, Republicans flipped two congressional seats in rural Minnesota and clung to a narrow majority in the state Senate. Carnahan met and married Jim Hagedorn in 2018, now a Republican congressman representing Minnesota’s First District. Carnahan often touted her work to try to erase the party’s legacy debt and said she made strides to bring in more people of color into GOP politics.
But the allegations from former staff painted a portrait of a deeply dysfunctional workplace. A former political director at the party, Francesca Zeller, said Carnahan and others outed her sexual orientation, while the four former executive directors said she often brought her personal life into politics, texting and calling staff at all hours and accidentally sending them personal information that was sensitive in nature.
Carnahan also tried to distance herself from Lazzaro, who got deeply involved in state politics through their friendship. The two hosted a podcast together, and he attended her and Hagedorn’s intimate wedding ceremony in 2018.
She repeated Thursday that she had no idea about Lazzaro’s criminal activities until his arrest, adding that she believes he will “spend the rest of his life in prison.” But for many activists, even Carnahan’s supporters, the scandal became too much. They feared that if she remained chair the party would continue to be tied to stories about Lazzaro, affecting their ability to raise money and recruit volunteers and candidates to run next fall.
The party must now call a meeting of central committee delegates to elect a new chair to lead state Republicans.
“Today marks an opportunity for the Republican Party of Minnesota to focus on transparency and leadership to prepare us for the 2022 election,” said state Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake.
Roughly 15 activists gathered outside Thursday’s meeting at the party headquarters in Edina to protest Carnahan. They called for the party to turn a new page and focus on rebuilding.
“Right now there is no [Minnesota Republican Party] brand,” said Sheri Auclair, a GOP activist. “Right now the state party is in ruins.”
Briana Bierschbach • 651-925-5042