DFL senator resigns from leadership role in protest of party’s handling of misconduct allegations

The DFL Party is also dealing with reports that Democratic Rep. John Thompson allegedly abused multiple women throughout the early 2000s.

Sen. Melisa Franzen speaks on the Senate floor. (A.J. Olmscheid/Minnesota Senate)

A Minnesota state senator resigned from her leadership position in the Senate DFL caucus Wednesday amid reports that it failed to properly handle allegations of sexual misconduct.

Former DFL staffer Cynthia Callais recently came forward with allegations that she faced months of harassment by a current Democratic senator’s brother and received little support from top party leaders.

Her formal complaint with the Minnesota Senate DFL caucus received no investigation, she told the Minnesota Reformer in an interview.

The alleged harassment began in November 2019 and lasted until August 2020, according to the Reformer’s report.

The half-brother of Sen. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview, Clay Schwartzwalter, allegedly made “repeated unwanted advances” during Callais’ time as a legislative aide to Sen. Isaacson and staffer for the Senate DFL’s campaign arm, where she worked for a variety of candidates, including Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, who at one point employed Schwartzwalter as her campaign manager.

Schwartzwalter was forced to resign from the campaign side but the allegations were never investigated in the Senate, according to the Reformer’s report.

Callais first went public with her allegations in a July 1 Twitter thread.

“I was harassed and assaulted by someone I worked with who was extremely connected to my employer. When I finally came forward to the chief of staff I was told my options were: A. Transfer to another office and risk losing a position all together or B. Leave my job entirely. I was told ‘nothing could be done’ because of who this person was connected to,” she said.

Callais said she reported Schwartzwalter to two mandated reporters but the “policy in place was not followed.”

“HR never saw my report until I approached them myself,” said Callais, who claimed that other women had similar experiences with Schwartzwalter.

“They each filed their own complaints. There was no investigation from my employer,” she said.

29 DFL staffers quickly took to signing a letter Wednesday afternoon standing “in solidarity” with Callais.

“It is all too common for survivors like Cynthia to face obstacles when coming forward and sharing their story,” said the letter, adding that “all survivors should be supported and validated.”

Senator Melisa Franzen, DFL-Edina, announced her resignation as assistant minority leader, saying Kent “was aware of the allegations and should have called for an immediate investigation regardless of Senate policy.”

“Too many women can relate to the inappropriate and harmful experiences that Ms. Callais endured while serving our state as a Senate staffer,” said Franzen, who called for an “outside counsel investigation of the alleged events.”

Franzen said she made “several attempts to learn from caucus leadership” about the accusations after reading Callais’ July 1 tweet but was told “not to chime in and follow the lead of Senate Minority Leader Susan Kent.”

At least five DFL senators then joined Franzen in calling for an outside investigation, including Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth, who said it is “a disgrace that Cynthia was effectively forced out of her work at the Minnesota Senate after coming forward.”

Schwartzwalter denied the allegations in a statement provided to the Reformer. Kent told the Reformer that the Senate DFL takes “any report of workplace harassment seriously” and vowed to “pursue an investigation of Senate policies and how they are followed.”

The allegations of sexual misconduct and possible mishandling by DFL leaders follows allegations that Democratic Rep. John Thompson abused multiple women.