Following what amounted to a weekend political firestorm, the Minnesota Republican party Sunday evening found itself navigating treacherous waters of possible scandal that threatened to oust the state party’s leader.
The practical outcome of it all remained unclear Sunday evening, but what was clear was the entire GOP apparatus, from college grassroots supporters to lobbyists to the highest levels of power, had been upended by a rapid-fire series of allegations that ranged from criminal to unseemly, based on a mix of evidence that ranged from federal indictments to recorded phone calls to rumors.
Following a Saturday crescendo that set political social media ablaze, the executive committee of the Republican Party of Minnesota met privately Sunday night to consider how to act amid a growing chorus of calls for Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan to resign. As the meeting began around 9 p.m. Sunday evening, Carnahan appeared to have no intentions of leaving, even calling the campaign to remove her a “coup.”
As of 10:30 p.m., no action appeared to have been taken, and the meeting appeared to have been halted because leaks meant the goings-on of the closed-door meeting were being tweeted — according to tweets from those being leaked to.
It was a complicated and fluid situation — and one whose impact on the general public wasn’t at all clear. State party chairs are primarily responsible for fundraising and organizing and have traditionally had limited power, unlike the kingmaker status of colleagues in some states.
Here’s the really simple version:
Last week’s federal sex trafficking-of-minors indictment of GOP donor Anton Lazzaro — a close ally of Carnahan — put Carnahan on the defensive and raised questions. And that, as well as the subsequent sex-trafficking arrest of the University of St. Thomas chapter chair of the Minnesota College Republicans, served as a spark for an anti-Carnahan tinder box that had been growing for years.
That tinder box, previously known only to insiders, erupted in flames on Saturday, with Carnahan being accused publicly of misspending party funds, workplace toxicity, and even a callous disregard for her cancer-afflicted husband, U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn (R-1st).
By Sunday evening, at least a dozen Republican state lawmakers, a national party committeewoman, and the Minnesota College Republicans were calling for Carnahan’s resignation or ouster. Meanwhile, many of the state’s most prominent Republicans remained quiet, uneasy with the pace of developments and haze that threatened to obscure facts.
Hanging over it all is the political reality that Minnesota Republicans are in a precarious state: They hold no statewide office but have a narrow majority in the state Senate and see the state House within grasp in the 2022 elections, when Gov. Tim Walz will also face re-election.
Bryan Strawser, chair of the Minnesota Gun Owners Caucus and a Republican activist, put it bluntly in a letter to the party executive committee Sunday.
Emphasizing he was speaking only for himself, Strawser wrote, “right now — good people involved with politics on the right — want absolutely nothing to do with this dumpster fire — and that will very rapidly evolve into not wanting to support our candidates.”
Here’s the longer explanation:
SEX TRAFFICKING INDICTMENT
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Minneapolis alleges that Lazzaro conspired with others to recruit and solicit six people under the age of 18 to engage in commercial sex between May and December of 2020. An attorney for the 30-year-old Minneapolis man has said he’s innocent. A second person was indicted as well, but that person’s name and gender were redacted from the indictment, which provides little detail of the alleged trafficking operation.
A woman, Gisela Castro Medina, was arrested in Florida after being wanted by the Minneapolis FBI. The Minnesota College Republicans identified her as the St. Thomas Chapter Chair of the organization and said she was arrested on sex trafficking charges. The Minnesota College Republicans soon took an active role in the public discourse that followed, saying they were “disgusted” by her alleged actions and that they had immediately cut ties with her.
The revulsion over Lazzaro’s indictment was swift and widespread, especially by many politicians who had received campaign contributions from him. Most have announced they’ll donate the equivalent amount to charity, and a number have named causes that fight sex trafficking or seek to help its victims.
Carnahan announced she would do the same with some official donations, but it remained unclear how much money Lazzaro had donated to her internal campaigns to be elected to two-year terms as chair of the party. Lazzaro has been an ardent Carnahan supporter since she was first elected in 2017. The pair were often seen together at party events and private affairs, and they co-hosted a party podcast that launched in the fall of 2020.
No evidence has surfaced publicly that Carnahan had any knowledge of alleged sex trafficking — which she has condemned — although her ties to Lazzaro have led some, including Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, to publicly raise the question.
In a statement, Carnahan accused her critics of attacking her by “guilt by association,” adding “we cannot be expected to know more than law enforcement when heinous charges such as this are brought to light.”
Several party leaders Sunday were calling for a financial audit not only to trace any Lazzaro funds, but also to examine all party expenditures and reimbursements to staff and involving Carnahan herself.
Among the accusations against Carnahan that have festered and only became public this weekend is her conduct as a boss. In her tenure, Carnahan has overseen a parade of executive directors come and go. The sixth and most recent was Andy Aplikowski, who left the post earlier this month.
In a letter recently sent to the executive committee, Aplikowski wrote: “I simply want the board to know what is happening under the Chairwoman’s leadership and how I believe it is time to consider a change at the top for that and other reasons. You can’t ignore that every single person put in the ED position by Chair Carnahan has quit or been fired in a flash with little or no explanation. … I have a document that I asked to be put into my employee file that highlights just some of the erratic and corrosive situations that I was forced to navigate. I was fired 2 hours later.”
The letter did not provide details.
In an exchange with the Pioneer Press, Aplikowski confirmed penning the letter but declined to comment further.
A thread that runs through Carnahan’s detractors includes the accusation that she has used nondisclosure agreements or financial enticements to keep her critics silent.
In a Facebook post, Carnahan appeared to address the issue. “Like any other professional organization our position is to act professionally and we are not going to adjudicate human resource or personnel matters over Twitter.”
COLLEGE REPUBLICANS ALLEGE SEX HARASSMENT
The Minnesota College Republicans on Sunday aired a separate set of grievances as their justification for wanting Carnahan to step down.
In a statement posted to Twitter, the group said a woman in their organization was the target of sexual harassment by a man later accused of rape. The group accused Carnahan of failing to address the harassment complaint, as well as distancing herself from Medina following her arrest.
“The chairwoman has gone out of her way to harass and discredit the MNCRs,” the statement reads.
In a response, the party issued a statement: “The statements that the Chairwoman had any knowledge of sexual harassment allegations are categorically false.” The statement was issued in the name of the party, not Carnahan, although it’s been widely known throughout her tenure that Carnahan approves all party statements.
RECORDED PHONE CALL
One of the most damaging elements to surface over the weekend was an audio recording that purports to show Carnahan speaking callously on the telephone about her husband, Rep. Hagedorn, who has been battling kidney cancer since 2019.
The Pioneer Press was unable to verify the authenticity of the recording at press time, but its public release on Twitter sent shockwaves throughout the party.
Barb Sutter, the state party’s national committeewoman to the Republican National Committee, cited the recording in a Facebook post where she called for Carnahan to step down. “I am absolutely devastated to hear her heartless remarks about her husband,” Sutter wrote.
Carnahan has issued numerous statements over the past several days. None has addressed the recording.
The recording was released by Rebecca Brannon, a conservative operative who gained prominence on Twitter chronicling looting and violence during the protests of George Floyd’s murder. Like many of the players involved in the intra-GOP drama, she has both supporters and enemies inside the party.
CARNAHAN: IT’S A ‘COUP’
According to Carnahan, such internal party rivalries and tensions are to blame for much of the weekend’s drama, claiming that many of the allegations are aftershocks of her bitterly contested chair re-election campaign in April, in which she prevailed.
“The coup taking place right now to relitigate the chair’s race, smear my reputation and defame me is not right,” she wrote in a Facebook post.