By Brandon Stahl of the Duluth News Tribune and Don Davis
Rep. Kerry Gauthier said through the day today that he would continue his campaign for re-election, but as opposition from within his own Democratic Party increased dramatically he decided to drop out of the race.
He told a reporter he was thinking about resigning.
The first-term state representative from Duluth called the Northland’s NewsCenter to say that he is withdrawing from the House 7B race.
“He said there’s been too much fallout, that it’s been too hard on him psychologically,” NewsCenter News Director Barbara Reyelts said. “I asked if he’s resigning. He said, ‘I’m not resigning; I’m withdrawing.’ And that ‘I hope to keep my health insurance benefits through the end of the year.’”
But he told WCCO-TV’s Pat Kessler that he is thinking about resigning soon and will not attend Friday’s special legislative session to approve a disaster-relief package.
The lawmaker has been under fire since last week, when the Duluth News Tribune reported he solicited a teen-aged boy for sex in a rest area.
“Rep. Gauthier called to inform me that he has changed his mind and will be withdrawing from his race for re-election,” House Minority Leader Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said. “I fully support his decision, which brings to an end an unfortunate chapter and will allow the Legislature to focus this week on the approval of much-needed relief for those Minnesotans impacted by the recent storms and floods.”
Gov. Mark Dayton’s spokesman agreed.
“We think it is the right decision,” Bob Hume said.
The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party chairman was pleased with Gauthier’s change of mind
“We are grateful that Rep. Gauthier has chosen to do the right thing and end his bid for re-election,” Chairman Ken Martin said. “This has been a very difficult ordeal for our party, our legislative leaders and certainly for Rep. Gauthier and others involved in this tragic situation.”
Thissen, Martin, Dayton and other party leaders had taken the unusual step of criticizing, in strong terms, a fellow Democrat.
Soliciting a teen-aged boy for sex at a rest area went beyond what is acceptable, Dayton said.
Gauthier’s conduct was “a terrible mistake,” said Dayton, who called himself a long-time friend with Gauthier.
“It goes beyond the morals of Minnesotans,” Dayton said of the conduct.
Continuing to run, Democrat Dayton added, would be “destructive” to Gauthier, the party and other elected officials.
Fellow Duluth Rep. Tom Huntley called Gauthier “a child molester.”
“It will hurt us in every race in the state. (Republicans) will try to imply that we’re supporting him,” Huntley said. “As far as I’m concerned, he’s a child molester. And I realize that it’s not illegal what he did. … But I think one needs to consider the ethics of the person, and do you want someone like that in the Legislature?”
Huntley said he believed the DFL should withdraw its nomination of Gauthier and “kick him out of the caucus.”
A Gauthier friend for 30 years, Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon of Duluth, also asked him to not run.
“I’m asking Rep. Gauthier to not seek re-election and focus on regaining his health and well-being, while at the same time allowing the election to move forward in the best interest of Minnesota,” Prettner Solon said.
Dayton said he talked to Gauthier after he left the hospital Sunday and tried again Wednesday.
“I believe he is unfit to serve beyond this term,” Dayton said.
When asked by reporters before Gauthier changed his mind and announced he will not run, Dayton said he did not think Gauthier should resign. While he did not name her, he used as an example Sen. Amy Koch of Buffalo leaving her job as Senate Republican leader late last year but retaining her Senate seat for the rest of her term after it was revealed she and a male staffer had an affair.
However, Dayton added, if Gauthier does not participate in Friday’s special legislative session to approve disaster relief funding, he may change his mind and ask for him to resign immediately.
“He should be doing his job and be here on Friday,” Dayton said shortly after announcing that he would call a special session.
Dayton said Gauthier already missed a legislative meeting dealing with the disaster-relief bill because of the rest area incident. He was in the hospital late last week when the meeting was held.
House Speaker Kurt Zellers, R-Maple Grove, has called on Gauthier to resign immediately. Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party leaders have said Gauthier should not run again, but stop short of calling for a resignation.
The governor said that he will be in Duluth to discuss economic issues Friday, but did not know if he would meet with the lawmaker.
The secretary of state’s office says there is no way to remove his name from the Nov. 6 ballot. Secretary of State Mark Ritchie has said Monday is the last day the ballot can be changed and still be ready for the general election.
Gauthier’s name will appear on the ballot along with Republican Party-nominated Travis Silvers.
Duluth City Councilor Jay Fosle and Duluth Assistant Fire Chief Erik Simonson have said they will conduct write-in campaigns for the 7B seat.
Labor leader Alan Netland, who earlier Wednesday told the News Tribune he supported Gauthier’s decision to run for re-election, later said he also supported Gauthier’s decision to withdraw from the race.
“I don’t know the reason,” why he’s withdrawing, Netland said.
Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, said he spoke to Gauthier on Wednesday and told him not to run.
“I told him the decision to run was not one I could support, and that I was going to be asking the DFL to support another candidate,” Reinert said. “I’m sure he was hearing that from a lot of people.”
Gauthier told the Northland’s NewsCenter Wednesday morning when he decided to run for re-election that despite the news that he had oral sex with a 17-year-old he met over Craigslist at the Interstate 35 Thompson Hill rest stop, “he still feels he’s the best person to represent his district,” Reyelts said.
In a statement Gauthier released to the media, he called the incident “an obvious tragic embarrassment to me. I am sorry for the hurt this has caused my family, friends and my constituents.”
“I know I made a mistake and am determined to make amends as best I can. I am a better person than this incident would indicate and will try to demonstrate this with my future behavior,” Gauthier said.
The St. Louis County attorney’s office has said charges are not warranted in the case of Gauthier’s rest-stop liaison because the 17-year-old is of the age of consent in Minnesota.
Gauthier said he overdosed on pain pills after the rest-stop incident was made public, resulting in a four-day hospitalization.
“I am a chemically dependent person and have been in recovery for over 30 years with one relapse,” he wrote. “However, when faced with the trauma and public shame brought about by this incident I reverted to old bad behavior and tried to run away and escape the reality that I was facing.”
When he was interviewed by NewsCenter, Gauthier was with labor leaders Netland, the past president of the Duluth AFL-CIO labor body, and Dan O’Neil, the current president of the labor body.
Netland told the News Tribune that both he and O’Neil spoke with Gauthier Tuesday night and supported his decision.
“Dan and I were on the same page on this,” Netland said, “and said that if he decided to run we’d do our best to garner labor support and to continue to support him. We’re not going to abandon him because of one indiscretion in his personal life.”
When asked about the incident on Thompson Hill, Netland responded: “It’s an unfortunate incident, but … I will not judge him based on one incident. As unfortunate an incident as it was, it does not determine who he is as a legislator or a person.”
Other party leaders besides Huntley expressed concern that if Gauthier stayed in the race he would hurt statewide races and ballot initiatives, such as the marriage amendment.
Former Duluth City Councilor Jeff Anderson, who recently lost a primary bid for U.S. Congress, called Gauthier’s decision to run for re-election “selfish” because it could “hurt our efforts to take back the House and has unforeseen implications for other local races and ballot measures.”
“It continues to be the story that people continue to be talking about and it’s taking our eye off the ball,” he said.
Huntley said he believes Gauthier’s decision to run would make it more likely the amendment to ban gay marriage in Minnesota will pass.
“It will lose a lot of people that could go either way, and I think this will multiply the anti-gay feelings that many people have,” he said.
Reinert said he has spoken with other Minnesota senators who say constituents ask them about the incident.
“They said if your party is supporting someone like that, I won’t vote for you,” Reinert said.
The incident at the rest stop has been picked up by national media outlets such as The Associated Press, the New York Daily News and the Drudge Report. It has also become fodder for conservative radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh.
The National Republican Congressional Committee sent out a statement tying Democratic congressional nominee Rick Nolan to Gauthier, because each had endorsed and supported the other before the incident was made public.
“Rick Nolan’s silence on this shocking scandal has Minnesota families wondering if he supports the behavior displayed by Rep. Gauthier,” the NRCC said in a statement. “Rick Nolan wants to serve Minnesota in Congress but he is showing voters that he doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong.”
“This is a real test of leadership for Democrats like Rick Nolan, who has donated to Rep. Gauthier,” Minnesota GOP Chairman Pat Shortridge said. “Rick Nolan should do the right thing, use his influence, and join the chorus of Republicans and Democrats calling on Gauthier to resign.”
A spokesman for Nolan did not return a News Tribune call seeking comment.