Aug 16, 2021 - Politics

Anton Lazzaro sex trafficking allegations rock Minnesota GOP

Illustration of scales of justice weighted down by an elephant

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Fallout over a federal indictment of a GOP donor and political operative accused of sex trafficking minors continues to threaten the Minnesota Republican Party.

Why it matters: The charges against Anton Lazzaro, who has denied wrongdoing via his attorney, are serious and serve as a troubling reminder of the prevalence of sex trafficking in the Twin Cities and beyond.

  • Politically, the scandal has become a distraction and PR problem for the state GOP, deepening existing internal rifts as leaders gear up for the crucial 2022 midterms.
  • Plus: A number of Republicans are expected to announce gubernatorial runs soon. The allegations threaten to divert conversations as they launch their bids.

What's happening: Calls for MNGOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan to resign over her ties to Lazzaro, as well as other, unrelated leadership and personal conduct grievances, grew over the weekend.

Of note: The push comes amid news that a 19-year-old St. Thomas student involved in her college's GOP chapter was also arrested Thursday for allegedly acting as Lazzaro's accomplice.

Zoom out: Lazzaro, a prolific young donor who gave tens of thousands of dollars to Minnesota Republicans, worked on behalf of at least one congressional campaign.

  • Top state Republicans, including Carnahan, have condemned the allegations and vowed to donate Lazzaro's contributions to charity.

But, Carnahan's close ties to Lazzaro, who backed her bid for party chair, have attracted added scrutiny.

  • While there's no evidence she knew of his alleged crimes, photos show the two of them socializing, along with Carnahan's husband, U.S. Rep. Jim Hagedorn.

What they're saying: Carnahan rejected calls to resign in a Sunday Facebook post.

  • "The coup taking place right now to relitigate the chair's race, smear my reputation and defame me is not right," she wrote.

Between the lines: Carnahan won a third term as party chair this spring after a bruising, and deeply personal, leadership fight.

  • The recent departure of another executive director, combined with the Lazzaro controversy, has fueled fresh criticism of her tenure, including over the use of nondisclosure agreements.

Yes, but: The process to remove the chair requires a vote of 10 of 15 members of the executive committee. Carnahan's allies on the board have held together to block such moves so far.

What to watch: An effort to collect enough GOP delegate signatures to trigger a meeting of the full State Central Committee is reportedly underway.

  • Meanwhile, a number of top GOP officials, including Hagedorn, Minnesota's three other Republican members of Congress and legislative leaders in both chambers, have yet to weigh in.
  • It's also not clear how the fallout might impact Hagedorn, who's undergoing cancer treatment, ahead of what could be a close race for reelection in his southern Minnesota district.

The bottom line: Dysfunction within the ranks of MNGOP isn't new. And while the party manages the endorsement process and directs staff and resources statewide, plenty of other Republican-aligned groups will be active here next year.

  • But the growing controversy is a distraction that could further divide the party as it gears up for key races next year.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Rep. Jim Hagedorn is among the GOP officials who haven't yet commented on MNGOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan's leadership, as of Monday morning.


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