MINNEAPOLIS — While GOP state party chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan is facing a rising chorus of calls for her resignation in the wake of an indictment of a party strategist and donor for child sex trafficking, southeast Minnesota lawmakers and party leaders are far from unified in what she should do.
Bill Kuisle, a former state legislator and leader in the Republican Party of Olmsted County, said Carnahan should step aside for the good of the party.
While there is no evidence that Carnahan had any advance knowledge of the alleged criminal activities made against GOP strategist and donor Anton "Tony" Lazzaro, 30, who faces federal charges of recruiting and sex trafficking charges, it is clear that their relationship was not a casual one. He was not only a GOP donor to organizations and congressional candidates, such as Rep. Jim Hagedorn, Carnahan's husband and holder of the U.S. House seat for Minnesota's 1st District, he was among the few invited to their wedding.
"Everybody is due their day in court, but they were together at the wedding, and those pictures will be spread far and wide during the next campaign, including against Hagedorn," Kuisle said. "It's going to be tough to overcome those brochures and TV commercials. It's going to be brutal."
Photos of Carnahan and Hagedorn with Lazzaro are circulating on social media.
Over the weekend, 19-year-old Gisela Castro Medina, chairwoman of the University of St. Thomas College Republicans, was arrested in Florida on allegations of aiding Lazzaro. Lazzaro, who was arrested Thursday, Aug. 12, and remains in the Sherburne County jail awaiting his first court hearing, has ties to many prominent state Republicans, including Carnahan, who recently co-hosted a podcast with him.
Carnahan did not respond to repeated calls for comment over the weekend, but released a lengthy statement Sunday on Facebook, saying that "leaders in our party are now using guilt by association to demand my resignation," while saying that the party and its leaders "cannot be responsible for the actions of donors and unofficial persons" like Lazzaro.
"The coup taking place right now to relitigate the chair's race, smear my reputation and defame me is not right," she wrote. She added that the party took immediate action to donate Lazzaro's contributions to charity and condemn his actions, as well as Medina's. The state's executive committee met Sunday evening, she said, to discuss the matter. The committee plans to meet again Thursday.
Several GOP elected officials from Southeast Minnesota are far less certain than Kuisle that Carnahan should resign. State Rep. Greg Davids, a Republican from Preston, said the tendency in such situations is to rush to judgment even before all the facts have come out. He compared the situation to that of former U.S. Sen. Al Franken, who resigned in January 2018 after allegations of sexual misconduct were made against him but before any inquiry was made.
"These are very serious things, and I've seen a lot of folks be falsely accused," Davids said.
Several legislators said they didn't know enough about the Lazzaro-Carnahan connection to offer a judgment. And whatever happened to her would probably have little impact on their own political fortunes, they said, because outside of a brochure or two, the state party doesn't give them much support anyway.
Sen. Dave Senjem of Rochester said he would be "astonished" if Carnahan knew anything about Lazzaro's alleged crimes.
"I don't think she's associated in any way, shape or form with the activities" alleged against Lazzaro, Senjem said. "I've never heard anything suggested of that nature. And then, it becomes all politics. Should she resign for the good of the party?"
Senjem said he probably has met Carnahan before, but he doesn't know her well. Most GOP candidates at the state level don't rely on the chairperson or the state party for support. That has been the case since the party found itself $2 million in debt under Tony Sutton a decade ago.
"We don't rely on the state party for anything really," Senjem said.
The Minnesota Reformer reports that several anonymous party officials came forward following the Lazzaro indictment saying that Carnahan forced staffers and donors to sign nondisclosure agreements "prolifically" to silence them.
On Saturday through the MN GOP's Twitter account, Carnahan released a statement regarding the arrests and charges, but she did not address the growing number of calls from within her party to resign.
"The arrest and charges involving Ms. Gisela Castro Medina, in conjunction with Thursday's arrest and sex trafficking charges of Mr. Anton Lazzaro are heinous and disturbing," Carnahan wrote. The Minnesota GOP, she added, has "no jurisdiction over the Minnesota College Republicans, including the chapter at the University of St. Thomas which Medina led.
The federal indictment alleges Lazzaro recruited six minors to engage in sex for money over several months last year.
Carnahan added that the party stands with victims of sex trafficking. But some Republicans say the statement isn't enough and the chairwoman should step down.
Scott Jensen, a family physician from Chaska, Minn., and former Republican state senator who is running for governor, released a video Saturday evening on Facebook, where he is restricted from making advertisements due to repeatedly posting content that has been debunked by third-party fact-checkers. In the nearly 3-minute-long video he thanks Carnahan for her service, but said she must immediately resign. Carnahan first took over as GOP chairwoman in 2017.
"It's hard to be a leader. Sometimes it's even harder to know when to stop being a leader," Jensen said. "We're broken. Transparency is gone. Respect for one another and building a culture of respect is not present. Accountability is often best achieved through audits and the potential to right the ship through audits has been declined numerous times," he said.
State Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, was the first legislator to call for Carnahan's immediate resignation, while adding that he will be "praying for the victims" of Lazzaro.
"Carnahan's close, ongoing relationship with him (Lazzaro) is troubling to say the least. I find it impossible to believe she didn't know about his activities," he wrote. "That relationship is cause enough for Carnahan's resignation."
Barb Sutter, a Republican National Committeewoman and executive committee member, released a statement Sunday saying that Carnahan brought Lazzaro "into the fold in 2017, and she actively encouraged his complete immersion into the party structure and the homes of activists and donors."
"Her poor judgment of character and the resulting lack of leadership has tainted the party," Sutter wrote, adding that Carnahan's calls to "come together as a party" and "rally around our Chair" do not address the problem, and she must step down "for the sake of our Party's and state's future."
Rep. Marion O'Neill, R-Maple Lake, said in a statement that Lazzaro is "the worst humanity has to offer," adding that if Carnahan did not have "the wisdom to recognize the evil that lurks within," she is unfit to lead.
Rep. Duane Quam of Byron has worked on bipartisan bills to prevent human trafficking, which he called a "horrible crime." He still wanted to know the nature of the relationship between Carnahan and Lazzaro before casting judgment.
"Is somebody saying it's more than just knowing that donor, because I'm assuming that she knows and interacts with hundreds of donors a year," Quam said. "I think just about every president has taken a picture with someone that later on was convicted of a horrible crime."
On Saturday, a letter sent to the state GOP executive board signed by Republican state Reps. Steven Drazkowski of Mazeppa, Tim Miller of Prinsburg, Cal Bahr of East Bethel and Jeremy Munson of Lake Crystal called for a change in leadership, saying Carnahan has "toxic conflicts of interest surrounding herself with a board that fails to act."
"The news of a close, personal friend and advisor to our state party chair being indicted and arrested for heinous crimes against children doesn't just look bad. It is bad," the state GOP lawmakers wrote.
Minnesota Young Republicans issued a statement Sunday calling for Carnahan's resignation as well. GOP state Sens. Michelle Benson of Ham Lake, Julia Coleman of Chanhassen and Andrew Matthews of Princeton have also called for her to resign, along with Mark Koran of North Branch, who challenged Carnahan for party chair this year.
(Star Tribune staff writer Briana Bierschbach contributed to this report.)