By Ryan Faircloth and Dave Orrick
Republican attorney general candidate Doug Wardlow’s record of opposing some gay rights dates back years.
For Ryan Durant, a former high school classmate, Wardlow’s views aren’t just a question of policy. They’re personal.
Durant remembers Wardlow as a high school bully who repeatedly harassed him for being gay — and as the person who mocked him after he attempted suicide in the 10th grade. Both Durant and Wardlow attended Eagan High School and graduated in the class of 1997.
In an account corroborated by several other students, Durant, 39, alleges that Wardlow, who is now 40, bullied him for years because of his sexual orientation. He said Wardlow made phallic remarks about him playing the flute in band. He said Wardlow called him derogatory terms like “fag” and “faggot,” and then escalated to more personal insults such as “people like you should be shot.”
Among the classmates corroborating the account is a former friend of Wardlow’s who said he also participated in the bullying.
Wardlow, in an emailed statement to the Pioneer Press, denied ever doing “anything remotely like the things alleged.”
Wardlow’s views of gay and transgender people are an issue in the heated campaign between the former state lawmaker and Democrat Keith Ellison, who has denied an ex-girlfriend’s allegation of an instance of domestic abuse.
Wardlow and his supporters have attacked Ellison on the domestic-abuse allegation and attempted to cast him as an “extreme” liberal. Ellison and his supporters have lobbed the “extreme” label back at Wardlow, focusing on Wardlow’s record with lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues — from his opposition to gay marriage to his legal work defending businesses accused of anti-gay discrimination.
Durant believes Wardlow’s behavior, even years ago, is relevant today.
“I’m bringing this up because people can say people change,” Durant told the Pioneer Press. “You’re not the same person you were when you were in high school.” But Durant said he sees Wardlow’s public positions on gay rights as evidence that his views have not evolved.
The Pioneer Press spoke with several classmates who corroborated Durant’s claims, said they knew of bullying by Wardlow, or said they themselves were harassed by Wardlow.
Jason Kopp, who said he was a close friend of Wardlow’s at the time, said he and Wardlow harassed Durant because of his sexual orientation.
Another classmate, Sarah Beaulieu, said Wardlow bullied her often, calling her derogatory names like “slut” and “dyke” even though she was not gay. She also recalled seeing Wardlow harass Durant, who was her friend, on multiple occasions.
One schoolmate of Wardlow’s said Durant’s allegations don’t match the Doug Wardlow she knew at Eagan High. “It’s so crazy to me to think of Doug’s personality being even capable of saying or doing something cruel to another person,” said Heidi Bassett, who graduated a year after Wardlow and said she knew him as a fellow “debate nerd.” Bassett said she didn’t know Durant. She said she contacted the Pioneer Press on Friday evening after Wardlow sent her a message asking her to.
Durant said he met Wardlow in middle school shortly after his family moved to Eagan in 1991. He said Wardlow began taunting him before Durant came out as gay in eighth grade, and that the harassment continued throughout his first two years at Eagan High School.
Wardlow was part of a group of students, including Kopp, who bullied Durant for being gay, Durant said. Kopp, who later came out as gay himself, has since apologized for his conduct. Durant said Wardlow was the “worst” bully of the group and has never apologized.
“I hated going to school every day,” Durant said. “I wanted out of there so bad.”
Durant said he was a sophomore at Eagan High School when he attempted to kill himself on Oct. 19, 1994. He went home after school that Wednesday to change into his work clothes. He recalls leaving a goodbye note on his computer screen for his parents and going to work at Rainbow Foods, where he was a cashier. On his break, he bought a bottle of extra-strength aspirin. He said he took 15 pills every five minutes until the bottle was empty.
Durant said he takes responsibility for his attempt to harm himself. But he said Wardlow’s behavior was “a contributing factor, and a large one” to his state of mind at the time.
The aspirin did not take effect until he began suiting up for the marching band that evening, Durant said. He became uncoordinated and began to lose feeling in his limbs. He said his friend, who was also in the band, noticed something was wrong and called poison control and 911.
Durant said he spent months in the behavioral ward of the hospital before returning to school.
He said when he returned, Wardlow said to him: “What, you couldn’t even get that right?” referring to his suicide attempt.
WARDLOW DENIES ALL OF IT
A Wardlow spokesman initially said Wardlow was receptive to an interview, and the Pioneer Press emailed a summary of Durant’s allegations to the campaign. In the end, Wardlow declined repeated requests for an in-person or telephone interview with the Pioneer Press to discuss the matter.
He instead sent an emailed statement:
“I categorically deny these allegations about me when I was 14 years old. I never did or said anything remotely like the things alleged — not 26 years ago when I was 14, not ever. Voters are tired of these 11th hour dirty tricks by career politicians like Keith Ellison. Clearly, Ryan Durant is politically motivated. In late 2009, before I held any political office and just after I announced my candidacy for State House, Durant posted on Facebook that he would consider voting for me, wished me luck, complimented me, and congratulated me on my engagement. Now, Durant frequently compares Republicans to Nazis on his Facebook page, and he recently ‘liked’ Ellison attack dog William Davis’s Facebook comment that Republicans should be sent to the guillotines. The change demonstrates that the allegations are politically motivated lies. Ellison has shopped this story to multiple media outlets as a last-minute ‘Hail Mary’ to save his failing campaign. It will not succeed. This is a new low for Keith Ellison and Minnesota politics, and Ellison should be ashamed. As a father of three young children, I absolutely condemn all forms of bullying.”
Neither Ellison nor his campaign brought Durant’s story to the Pioneer Press; the Pioneer Press contacted Durant independently after listening to a radio segment that he called into. Durant alleges Wardlow harassed him through the 10th grade, when Wardlow was 16 years old.
Durant has spoken with the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party. At one point, members of the DFL reached out to Durant, urging him to tell his story at a news conference. He declined. Durant said he leans Democratic but has never worked for the party in any capacity.
WARDLOW’S PUBLIC RECORD ON GAY RIGHTS
As the attorney general campaign has worn on, Wardlow has frequently declined to discuss his stances on gay rights.
He has said gay marriage is “the law of the land.” During a recent debate with Ellison, he said that he believes gays should enjoy equal protection under the law. When asked about his past advocacy against issues favored by the LGBT community, he has frequently demurred, saying they’re legislative matters outside the purview of the attorney general’s office.
But his public record of opposing a number of gay-rights issues, such as same-sex marriage and recognition of transgender people, is clear. And Ellison, fellow Democrats and many in the LGBT community have raised it frequently during the campaign.
Wardlow’s public record began shortly after he graduated from Georgetown Law School in 2004. In 2004 and 2005, Wardlow appears to have authored a conservative blog while he clerked at the Minnesota Supreme Court.
In it, he criticized gay marriage, summarizing his takeaway from the 2004 election thus: “Americans have spoken decisively: We do not want the government to secularize our society, we stand together in the common belief that marriage should be reserved for the union of one man and one woman.”
It’s unclear if that blog, in which the author espoused numerous partisan positions, violated the court’s policy in effect at the time, which prohibited court employees from “participating in any form of partisan politics” except attending precinct caucuses.
The author of the blog, who posted under the pseudonyms “Marius” and “HoyaLawyer,” claimed to hold the same degrees that Wardlow holds: an undergraduate degree in government and political theory and a J.D. from Georgetown University.
In addition, email@example.com was once listed as the blogger’s contact email; an American flag banner on the website was linked to lynnwardlow.com/rostrabanner.jpg; and the blogger speaks of “My brother, Captain Jason Wardlow, USMC.” Doug Wardlow’s brother is named Jason Wardlow. And a fellow clerk at the time, Lindsay Carlson, told the Pioneer Press that Wardlow authored the blog. The daughter of Democratic state Sen. Jim Carlson, she also graduated from Eagan High in 1997.
Wardlow was elected to the state House in 2010 to fill a seat previously held by his father, Lynn. During his tenure, Doug Wardlow supported a Republican-led effort to place on the ballot an amendment to the state Constitution that would have defined marriage as exclusively between a man and woman.
The contentious campaign galvanized the LGBT community. The amendment was voted down by a majority of voters in the 2012 election, Republicans lost control of both chambers in the Legislature, and Wardlow lost his seat. The next year, the DFL-controlled Legislature, with Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature, legalized gay marriage.
Shortly after the House voted in favor of the provision, Wardlow tweeted: “MN House votes to allow same-sex marriage, undermine building blocks of a free society, upend rule of law, jeopardize ordered liberty.” Wardlow appears to have deleted that tweet earlier this month as part of a purging of his social media accounts, including the taking down of his LinkedIn profile.
ALLIANCE DEFENDING FREEDOM
In 2014, Wardlow began serving as legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based Christian group that has fought expansion of some gay rights.
Wardlow gained a national platform in his role as he defended businesses that practiced unequal treatment of gay or transgender people on religious grounds.
In 2015, Wardlow penned a piece for FOX News criticizing the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that the Constitution guarantees a nationwide right to same-sex marriage.
Wardlow wrote: “Marriage is and always will be the union of one man and one woman for life, regardless whether the government incorrectly applies the label of marriage to other kinds of relationships.”
ADF represented the Masterpiece Cakeshop Colorado baker who successfully argued that he should be allowed to refuse to make a same-sex wedding cake for a couple. The group has been in the Minnesota news recently, as it has advocated for a St. Cloud couple whose videography business declined to create a video for a same-sex wedding. Minnesota’s current attorney general, Lori Swanson, a Democrat, is arguing on the side of the state’s human rights commissioner, who concluded the couple violated state law that prohibits businesses from discriminating.
In 2016, Wardlow argued victoriously that a Michigan funeral home was within its rights to fire an employee who was transitioning from a man to a woman after the employee decided to dress as a woman at work. The firing was legitimate, Wardlow and the Alliance Defending Freedom argued, because to do otherwise would have violated the owners’ religious beliefs.
Last year, Wardlow, on behalf of ADF, argued against transgender accommodations before the Anoka-Hennepin School Board.
Wardlow told school board members “… there are boys, and there are girls, and boys and girls are fundamentally different in ways that really do matter.”
Wardlow doesn’t appear to still work for ADF, although his exact status is unclear. The organization has not responded to requests from the Pioneer Press to clarify the question, and Wardlow and a spokesman did not answer it.
LGBT COMMUNITY CONCERNED ABOUT WARDLOW
Monica Meyer, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group OutFront Minnesota, said Wardlow’s record matters for a position like attorney general.
“As the top lawyer in the state, we really want an attorney general who will work to … enact laws that actually stop discrimination against people based on who they are and who they love,” Meyer said, adding later: “From his work history and what he has chosen to do with his law degree, (Wardlow) has been anything but that.”
When questioned on the issue by Ellison at a recent debate, Wardlow responded: “I will fight for the rights of all Minnesotans, regardless of sexual orientation or gender or race.”
PARTY BACKS WARDLOW
Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan said she believes Wardlow — not Durant, Kopp or the other students who corroborate Durant’s account.
“I have known Doug for several years,” Carnahan said. “He is a good, honest man. In all his speeches, I’ve never heard anything like that come out of his mouth. I have a hard time believing these allegations because they do seem to be politically motivated.”