Jennifer Carnahan spoke during the Women for Trump bus tour with Katrina Pierson, senior advisor for the 2020 Trump Campaign. Credit: Republican Party of Minnesota

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Jennifer Carnahan stepped down as chairwoman of the Minnesota GOP after a heated three-hour executive board meeting Thursday night.

Rather than voting to remove Carnahan from the post, the 15-member board voted 8–7 to give her a three-month severance deal following her resignation. Carnahan originally requested eight months.

The meeting came after a week of arrests and sexual abuse allegations against a GOP donor and Carnahan ally, and accusations about a toxic work environment at the top of the state party. 

On August 12, the FBI arrested Anton Lazzaro, a GOP political operative with strong ties in Minnesota, on charges of sex trafficking. Soon after, Gisela Castro Medina, the 19-year-old St. Thomas College Republicans chair, was arrested in Florida for allegedly aiding Lazzaro in recruiting six minors to engage in commercial sex acts. The charges drew attention to Carnahan’s friendship with Lazzaro and renewed calls from top party leaders for her resignation.

“It has been the honor of a lifetime to serve as Chairwoman for the Republican Party of Minnesota,” Carnahan said in a statement released after the meeting. “I never imagined my life would move from being abandoned as a baby next to the garbage dumpster on the back doorstep of a rural hospital in South Korea on the day I was born, to serving as Chairwoman of the Republican Party of Minnesota.”

Earlier on Thursday, six board members expressed their intention to vote for Carnahan’s removal. All six members voted against granting her a severance package: Dave Pascoe, Barb Sutter, Max Rymer, Gary Steuart, Patti Meier, and Bobby Benson, as well as Karrie Heinzman.

Carnahan’s vote—in her own interest—ended up breaking a 7–7 tie.

The accusations—and Carnahan’s responsibility—had divided party leadership and Republicans of color. “If the allegations against Mr. Anton Lazzaro are true, this is an abhorrent act that we condemn in the highest possible terms,” the Minnesota GOP said in an online statement posted a day after the arrest. “The Republican Party of Minnesota will be donating the contributions that Mr. Lazzaro has given our organization to charity.”

The next day, the party released an additional statement in response to Medina’s arrest.

“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,” the statement says.

Carnahan did not respond to interview requests with Sahan Journal before publication.

Instead of resigning from her post, Carnahan called on the executive board to put the matter to a vote of confidence.

The 15-member-board would have needed a two-thirds majority, or 10 votes, to remove Carnahan. Carnahan could have also been removed by a vote in the party’s central committee, but only through a meeting initiated by a petition signed by at least 45 of the central committee’s 300 members.

In the end, she stepped down.

As a Korean adoptee, Carnahan became the first Asian American chairwoman of the state’s Republican Party in 2017. Earlier in her career, the party faced a unique but crucial challenge: attracting a larger and more diverse voter base. According to APM Research Labs, Minnesota gained 64,000 voters of color between 2016 and 2018, but only 17,000 white voters.

Elected during the tenure of former President Donald Trump, who pursued anti-immigration policies, Carnahan’s selection as chair signaled a quiet welcome to women and Republicans of color in the state. Now, the allegations against Lazzaro and Medina, as well as emerging conversations about harassment within the party, could be turning away some of Carnahan’s most avid supporters, including party members of color.

Nia Moore, 21, is the chair of the Minnesota College Republicans. Moore recently shared her story of sexual harassment in the Minnesota Republican Party on Twitter.

“I have personally experienced several counts of sexual harassment working within the GOP. I know what it feels like to be confused, have your feelings invalidated, and to fear retaliation,” Moore wrote.

After sharing her own story, Moore told Sahan Journal that other young women came to her with similar experiences, including an 18-year-old Minnesota College Republicans member. Moore received permission from the member to share her story anonymously on Twitter.

“It really just highlights how severely Jennifer Carnahan has failed to live up to what she’s meant to do as chairwoman,” Moore said. “Here’s the thing, I felt compelled to speak out because of the lack of doing so on behalf of Jennifer Carnahan.”

The anonymous Minnesota College Republicans member told Moore she had gone to GOP leadership, including Carnahan, about comments and instances of sexual harassment. Moore herself said she was told to keep her experiences to herself if she ever wanted to work in Minnesota politics again.

Moore, who entered the political arena at just 19 years old, admired Carnahan. ”I looked at everything she did in awe,” she said. Moore said she had hoped that Carnahan could be an advocate for other young women of color looking to get involved in politics. 

“I don’t necessarily think that the party has been inaccessible to women of color, but she had the opportunity to—as a woman of color—be an example and to strengthen the voices of victims that also fit her profile,” Moore said. “Not only did she fail to do so, but she neglected to do it at all.”

Moore said she doesn’t necessarily blame Carnahan for her connection with Lazzaro. “But it was disappointing that someone so capable of doing something so heinous, allegedly, had infiltrated our circles in such a close radius,” Moore said. And it happened under Carnahan’s leadership, she added.

In a series of statements, the Minnesota College Republicans called for Carnahan’s resignation.

“The Chairwoman displayed no sympathy for the ‘alleged’ victims,” one statement said. “Sending a very strong message to the young women in the party she is supposed to protect.”

The Minnesota College Republicans are unaffiliated with the state party, but they’re not the only ones who have called for her to step down.

Four previous executive directors of the Minnesota GOP Executive Board have echoed the same sentiment, including Andy Aplikowski. In a statement Thursday morning, he described a vivid account of “the toxic environment” Carnahan created.

Carnahan said in a WCCO interview Tuesday that she’s become a victim of “guilt by association.”

“I didn’t have any direct knowledge on the alleged criminal activities. I found out when you guys found out,” Carnahan told WCCO. “I was shocked and disgusted. I think Mr. Lazzaro is going to spend the rest of his life in prison.”

Aplikowski said in a statement that he had previously forwarded a media request about Lazzaro to Carnahan in July. To claim that she did not know “is questionable at best,” Aplikowski said.

“During a follow up phone call from Carnahan a few hours later, she asked me to swear not to tell ANYONE not even my spouse about this,” Aplikowski’s statement continued. “Carnahan went on to tell me basically the same version of details that Lazarro told the Daily Beast, that the matter was almost resolved, totally unrelated to the party, nothing to worry about, etc.”

The allegations have been especially difficult for Carnahan’s friends and supporters. 

Robert Yang is the former chair of the Asian American Republicans of Minnesota and a close friend of Carnahan’s. Carnahan had helped Yang greate the group, the first of its kind in Minnesota.

“I don’t know how to respond to GOP activists requesting Jennifer Carnahan to resign, because I’m her friend. But also, the people who are calling for her to resign are also my friends,” Yang said. “Regardless, it may take years for the MNGOP to heal from all the allegations.”

Yang recently spoke with Carnahan, and while they did not discuss the allegations or her role as chair, he described her as sounding “pretty worn down.” Despite his close relationship with Carnahan, Yang said he believes she should be held accountable for failing to address allegations of sexual harassment in the party.

“Whether you’re a male or female chair, you should take care of the allegations seriously. You should either investigate it or hire an outside investigator,” Yang said.

When she first took on the role as party chair, Yang said Carnahan connected him with party leaders to better include Asian American GOP voters.

For Mohamed Amin Ahmed, she’s made no such effort for other communities of color. 

Mohamed runs a cartoon series called Average Mohamed, which aims to turn Somali youth away from radicalism. He was also an outreach specialist for a pro-Trump fundraising team in Minnesota. 

He said that Carnahan has not been responsive to multiple attempts at improving the disconnect between party leadership and Somali Republicans in Minnesota.

“Carnahan has done a poor job of reaching out to minority Republicans of color,” Mohamed said. “A fresh face could change all that.”

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.