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Recriminations and regrets

Former DFL staffer speaks out about breakdown in addressing concerns over sexual harassment; contends Rick Nolan ignored a plea to intervene

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 7/31/18

REGIONAL— When it comes to sexual harassment in the #MeToo era, the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party under the leadership of party chair Ken Martin has promised zero tolerance. It was a point that …

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Recriminations and regrets

Former DFL staffer speaks out about breakdown in addressing concerns over sexual harassment; contends Rick Nolan ignored a plea to intervene

Posted

REGIONAL— When it comes to sexual harassment in the #MeToo era, the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party under the leadership of party chair Ken Martin has promised zero tolerance. It was a point that Martin drove home last year when he became one of the first political leaders in the state to call for the resignation of his own party’s popular junior Senator, Al Franken, over allegations that he had behaved inappropriately with several women. He also called for the resignations of members of the Legislature, of both parties, when similar allegations arose earlier this year.

Even before then, Martin had been aggressive in attempting to change the culture within the DFL and instituted a new policy requiring sexual harassment awareness and implicit bias training not just for party employees, but for all DFL candidates and elected officials in Minnesota.

“I’m really proud of that,” said Martin. “I was the first party chair in the country to require that,” he said. As the president of the Democratic State Chairs Association, he also required party chairs from across the country to take similar training back in February.

The party is also now finalizing new policies designed to protect volunteers, said Martin, to ensure that anyone working in any capacity for the party can do so free from bias or harassment. That policy is scheduled for adoption by the DFL State Central Committee later this month.

But as Martin and other party officials have learned in recent months, any change in the culture of an organization can take time and face setbacks when not everyone is on board with the new way of doing business. That can be particularly true with political parties, which tend to swell with newly-hired, and often young, staff for every election cycle and where the lines of authority between campaigns and the party itself are not always clear. Add to that a large number of elected officials aligned with the party, many with differing attitudes toward what is acceptable behavior in a workplace, and you have a recipe for potential disappointment and recrimination.

Like that experienced by Christopher Horoshak.

Twenty-six-year-old Christopher Horoshak, of Cotton, worked for the DFL as a canvasser beginning in the late summer of 2016. He was based in the Mt. Iron field office and spent most of his time working at the direction of the Nolan re-election effort. As an articulate young man, with an outgoing and empathetic personality, Horoshak was a good fit for political outreach, and he said he got excellent feedback for his efforts.

Even so, he said his experience working in the DFL office was a difficult one. Horoshak is gay, and he said the harassment by two members of the DFL campaign team in Mt. Iron began even before he had completed filling out his employee paperwork on his first day on the job.

According to Horoshak, that’s when a party staffer named Kyle walked up to him and said: “I’ve just got a quick question, are you gay?”

Horoshak, who is comfortable with his sexual orientation, acknowledged that he was.

“We thought so,” chimed in the field organizer, named Andrew, who was sitting nearby.

What followed, said Horoshak, was a regular refrain of suggestive references and explicit questions about gay sex acts, references to genitalia, and questions about Horoshak’s sexual history. “It just kind of turned into a sport,” said Horoshak. “To see who could say the most outrageous thing. They [Andrew and Kyle] would switch off from day to day.”

Horoshak said he mostly answered their queries out of fear of losing his job, but that the abuse took an emotional and mental toll.

At one point, after Horoshak said Andrew inquired about his knowledge of female genitalia, he said Kyle called him over to his desk, where he displayed explicit pornography on his computer screen. At other times, he said Andrew would describe other sexual acts, that may not have been directed at Horoshak, but which he found inappropriate in the open, office-like environment.

Horoshak initially reported the behavior to Nathan Baerg, who was the DFL’s Canvass Director in the Eighth District at the time. Baerg, who spoke to the Timberjay, said Horoshak informed him of the situation in the fall of 2016, and that he initially reported Horoshak’s concerns to Eighth District Field Director Samm Bonawitz. “She was just as disgusted as I was with this behavior. She let me know that she would be contacting the higher-ups at the DFL and the Nolan campaign,” stated Baerg.

Bonawitz, who now works for the Secretary of State’s office, confirmed to the Timberjay that she quickly contacted her immediate supervisor about the complaint but had no further involvement in the matter.

Baerg’s duties took him to several campaign offices throughout the sprawling district, but he made time to visit the Mt. Iron office, in part to check into Horoshak’s complaint. Baerg said he personally witnessed behavior similar to what Horoshak had described, including “crude insinuation to Chris about his sexual orientation.” According to Baerg, Andrew made “repeated inappropriate statements in front of not just the canvass team but volunteers as well.” Baerg said he filed a second report to his supervisor confirming what he felt was “crude and childish behavior,” and said he was told that “people were working on how to best handle the situation.”

But, according to Horoshak, none of this was ever communicated to him. Feeling as if his complaint was being ignored, Horoshak, in mid-October, decided to appeal directly to Congressman Nolan during a door-knocking session in International Falls. Nolan was scheduled to be there and Horoshak said he planned to speak directly to the Congressman about what he was experiencing. He invited a friend, Kayla Bjorkquist, a Falls resident, to join him for emotional support. Bjorkquist said she has experienced sexual harassment herself and that Horoshak had shared some of his experiences with her at the time, so she felt she understood what he was feeling. Bjorkquist said she was eager for the opportunity to meet Nolan. “I was a huge fan,” she said.

But she said her excitement later turned to shock as Horoshak was able to pigeonhole Nolan late that afternoon after the door-knocking was over, and described the harassment he was experiencing. “I witnessed the conversation,” said Bjorkquist. “Nolan stood there listening for a minute or so, then he laughed in his face.”

Bjorkquist said Nolan then gave Horoshak a thumbs-up sign, told him: “If it happens again, let me know,” and walked away.

“That struck me to the core,” said Bjorkquist, who said she took Nolan’s response as dismissive and saw it as indication that nothing would be done.

Horoshak said the experience was devastating. “I was heartbroken,” he said.

In response to questions about the incident, Nolan’s campaign office stated that the Congressman “categorically denies having any knowledge or conversation with Mr. Horoshak about these allegations at any time before he contacted the office, at which time he took immediate and appropriate action in referring this matter to the DFL.”

Horoshak, Bjorkquist, and Horoshak’s brother, Daniel, all spoke to the Timberjay and all three say they were witness to the conversation with Nolan. A group photograph taken earlier in the day, and subsequently posted on Facebook on Oct. 13, 2016, shows Nolan, Bjorkquist, and both Horoshak and his brother Daniel were present along with a number of other staff members and volunteers for the campaign event.

Despite his complaints about the situation, Horoshak said his experience at the DFL field office never changed, right up until the campaign staff was laid off following the election.

Addressing the complaint

After forwarding the complaint to Bonawitz, Nathan Baerg said he was later informed that Nolan campaign director Joe Radinovich would be reaching out to Chris over his complaint. “This was the last bit of information I was given regarding the handling of the situation,” said Baerg.

Radinovich says he took appropriate steps to address the situation after he was alerted by Bonawitz. In late October of 2016, he spoke to DFL Executive Director Corey Day to inquire about the party’s policy on such matters and said it should more appropriately have been addressed by the DFL party apparatus.

“None of the three staffers worked for the Nolan campaign nor was I their supervisor, so as soon as I learned about the issue with the staffers I immediately took action by calling the Minnesota DFL and inquiring as to how they typically would handle a situation like this that had occurred in the workplace,” said Radinovich in a statement. “The two staffers were verbally reprimanded at that time and the DFL later investigated the incident and took further action.”

According to DFL Executive Director Corey Day, however, Radinovich never passed on names or specifics about the situation but had inquired only about party policy on how to address such a situation. “He asked me for the handbook. It was my impression he was going to take care of it,” said Day.

Text messages from that period, provided by Radinovich to the Timberjay, describe that he contacted Andrew and Kyle and told them that harassing behavior “would not be tolerated.”

Radinovich’s texts also indicated that he planned to contact Horoshak and let him know about his conversation with Andrew and Kyle, although Radinovich could not remember if he’d actually made the call and later acknowledged that it may have been overlooked. “If I forgot to call Chris, I feel badly about that, but it wasn’t spiteful and it certainly wasn’t intentional.”

Horoshak said Radinovich never did contact him, and it was that lack of communication that fueled his sense that his complaint wasn’t being taken seriously.

Which is why, said Horoshak, he continued to press the issue even after their post-election layoff. In December, Horoshak reached out to a friend with long experience in the Iron Range DFL, who urged him to call Jeff Anderson, district director in Nolan’s office.

Horoshak described in graphic detail the kind of harassment he had experienced, in a Dec. 15, 2016, email to Anderson.

Later that day, Anderson replied: “Wow. This is the first that I have heard of any of this. This is behavior that Congressman Nolan would never tolerate. Let me look into this and get back in touch with you.”

On Jan. 21, 2017, Anderson wrote back to Horoshak, telling him that he had spoken to Corey Day about the situation, and that he had asked Day to put a letter of reprimand in Andrew and Kyle’s personnel files to ensure that neither worked for the party again. That was about all the party could do at the time, noted Anderson in his email to Horoshak, since both Andrew and Kyle had been laid off along with most of the campaign staff after the election.

“Corey also stated that the party will make a greater effort in training employees so that this does not happen and also make it clear to all staff who they can call… if something like this happened again,” wrote Anderson.

Horoshak said Anderson’s January response was encouraging, although he still had lingering questions about what was actually placed in the two men’s personnel files and what kind of investigation had been done. Still, Anderson’s response seemed to quell Horoshak’s concerns, that is until the spring of 2018, when Horoshak learned that Kyle had landed a job with the office of Sen. Al Franken in the fall of 2017 and was later promoted to a new position by Sen. Tina Smith. About the same time, he learned that Andrew had been hired (briefly, it turns out) in March by the Radinovich campaign.

In response to inquiries from the Timberjay, Sen. Tina Smith’s office stated that the Senator had inherited Kyle from Franken and that, as of June, he no longer works for Smith’s office. That appears to have been a response to a phone call from Ken Martin alerting Smith’s office about the situation. Martin said he first learned of Horoshak’s experience this spring when they spoke at two different conventions. That’s when he reached out to Smith’s office.

Radinovich, as well, said he didn’t learn the full details of Horoshak’s experience until they spoke for the first time about it this spring. Andrew, who Radinovich had hired in March, appears to have worked no longer than a single pay cycle based on Federal Election Commission filings reviewed by the Timberjay. That would coincide with Radinovich’s conversation with Horoshak.

Misunderstanding fuels recriminations

Martin said he has no doubt about the credibility of Horoshak’s allegations regarding Andrew and Kyle. “We investigated and found out the allegations were true,” said Martin. And he said he understands why Horoshak feels disappointed. “He was told that these people wouldn’t work for the Minnesota DFL anymore, and while that’s factually true, he’s not making the distinction between other elected officials and the DFL. I can certainly sympathize with him on that. These two guys shouldn’t work in politics again. What they did was absolutely obscene and crossed the line and they’re certainly never going to work for the DFL again as long as I’m chair.”

Yet Martin notes that the DFL has no actual control over the actions of elected officials or candidates, who are free to make their own hiring decisions and often don’t consult with the party when doing so.

“It would be completely unfair to suggest that the Minnesota DFL was involved in those [hirings]. We didn’t get any sort of reference call on these folks. Had we gotten a reference call, one of the first things we would have done is gone through their personnel file and seen that there was a letter of reprimand there and we would have told them not to hire them because of this sexual harassment and discrimination.”

All of which highlights the practical challenges to zero tolerance in an organization like the DFL, particularly where the public often doesn’t distinguish between the actions of its elected officials and the party itself.

Such challenges are further complicated by the occasional lack of clarity about who actually is in charge in a campaign office where employees may work for the party or any of a number of different campaigns.

Nolan’s office, in a statement, put the onus for Horoshak’s experience on the DFL and claimed that “federal campaign laws forbid congressional campaign offices from managing or supervising employees of any independent political organizations or PAC groups – to do so would be a violation of federal campaign laws.”

While the Nolan campaign statement is technically correct, it is also misleading since the relationship between candidates and their political parties is different. “Parties are unique in this way,” Martin said, noting that almost all DFL campaign staff are hired as part of what’s known as a “coordinated campaign” that works closely in sync with the various endorsed candidates and their campaign staff.

Even so, candidate campaigns are separate entities, which can lead to confusion about who is responsible for addressing complaints of harassment or other abuse. In Horoshak’s case, however, it appears that Radinovich, who was directing the Nolan campaign, was the first person tasked with actually intervening in the situation, and whose response appears to have fallen short of Horoshak’s expectations.

Even within the party structure, the response can be slower than employees suffering from harassment might expect. In Horoshak’s case, Martin said he’s not sure why the matter didn’t make it to top party leaders sooner and said he did not know about Horoshak’s earlier reports to his supervisors, which apparently never made it up the chain to the proper party authority. “Wherever that breakdown occurred, that’s unacceptable,” Martin said.

According to Martin, part of the new volunteer policy being implemented by the party will focus on ensuring that both employees and volunteers are clear about how to report abuses in the future. “The reason that’s important is because it sets up a process that allows victims and survivors of this type of discrimination to not only come forward but to easily navigate the process and to be able to have their complaints heard quickly and to have them resolved.”

Horoshak said he welcomes such changes. “I’m not out to hurt the DFL,” he said. “I want to make it better.”

Horoshak said he is motivated by a desire to help others who have faced similar harassment and discrimination in their lives, and to help change a political culture within portions of the DFL’s big tent which is still too accepting of the kind of harassment he experienced. He said he was disappointed in some DFL elected officials from the Iron Range who he believes overheard some of the talk in the Mt. Iron office but said nothing. “And I’m really disappointed in Rick Nolan,” he said. “I didn’t expect to be laughed at to my face.”

Perspectives differ

While Horoshak and his brother Daniel say they both witnessed such behavior in the office themselves, it was not the experience for everyone there. The Timberjay spoke to two women who worked nearly full-time in the office during that period, who both said they never witnessed anything abusive or inappropriate. One of the women, Judy Cramerich, did acknowledge some “banter” between some of the people in question, but never felt it was malicious, but was more teasing in nature, and that Horoshak sometimes participated in it.

“The atmosphere there was really good, I thought,” Cramerich said, and she was unaware that Horoshak had filed a complaint. “If anything really pointed happened, I never witnessed it,” she said.

The Timberjay also reached out to both Andrew and Kyle. Andrew spoke at length but declined to go on the record. He generally expressed shock over the complaint and anguish if he had caused pain to Horoshak. Kyle did not reply to a social media message.

Timberjay Cook-Orr Editor Marcus White assisted with this story.

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