ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — A Minnesota Democrat who had a rest-stop sexual encounter with a 17-year-old boy said Wednesday he's still running for re-election, defying party leaders who urged him to drop out as they battle to regain control of the state Legislature.
Rep. Kerry Gauthier, 56, told Northland's NewsCenter in Duluth that he will let people in his district decide his political future, "rather than the political power base in St. Paul." Gauthier told the news network he is "a better person than this incident portrayed me."
Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton said Gauthier's decision would be "destructive" for his reputation, his district, his party and the state.
Police say Gauthier admitted engaging in oral sex with the boy on July 22 after the first-term lawmaker from Duluth advertised on Craigslist for "no strings attached" sex. Police declined to charge him because the boy was older than 16, the legal age of consent, and no money was exchanged.
Gauthier has not returned repeated calls and messages from The Associated Press since the scandal broke.
"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," Gauthier said in a statement posted online by the Duluth News Tribune.
He appeared in a photo on the network's website with a few supporters. In the interview, Gauthier explained his hospitalization last week as the story became public by saying he had taken several muscle relaxants and lost consciousness.
"I took an overdose of pills to not feel any pain and this resulted in my hospitalization," he said in the statement, adding that he has been in recovery from chemical dependency for 30 years with one relapse.
Gauthier told the station his unwillingness to accept he is gay led him to engage in the inappropriate liaison in a public place. He said he is getting counseling. He also said he feels badly for the teen and wouldn't talk specifically about the incident to protect the boy.
"I can change my behavior, but I cannot change the fact that I am a gay man, and have known this since my college days. I simply must act like a mature gay man would act, and not as the incident portrays me," the network quoted him as saying.
His decision drew condemnation from Democratic leaders including Dayton, who urged Gauthier to drop out of the race. Democrats need to gain at least six House seats in November to take control of the chamber. Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Ken Martin and House Minority Leader Paul Thissen said Gauthier would get no support from the party or the House DFL caucus.
"It's a terrible mistake on his part," Dayton told reporters at the Capitol. "I think it's just something that goes beyond the morals of Minnesotans — to solicit on Craigslist sex with a minor and do it in a public area, publicly owned area, as a state legislator, and come back to the parking lot with his clothes disheveled. It's not about whether it's a same-sex or a heterosexual act. It would be the same if it were the same circumstances involving a heterosexual individual."
Sen. Roger Reinert, DFL-Duluth, who shares a district with Gauthier, earlier urged Gauthier to skip a Friday special session on flood relief for his district and surrounding areas hit by severe flash floods in June. Reinert said Gauthier would be a distraction and could end up being censured by majority Republicans, or even blocked from taking his seat in the House chamber.
"That's not what we need right now," Reinert said. "What we need is all eyes and efforts focused on recovery."
Republican leaders called on Gauthier to resign immediately, but Dayton and other Democrats have not.
Dayton said his signed agreement for the special session with top Republican and Democratic legislative leaders would preclude a House vote on Gauthier's conduct because it limits the scope of the special session. A spokeswoman for the GOP House caucus had no immediate comment.
Rep. Tom Huntley, a Democrat whose Duluth district adjoins Gauthier's, told the Duluth News Tribune he considers Gauthier a "child molester."
"Why would anybody support someone that did what he did?" Huntley said in an Associated Press interview. "I am a strong supporter of gay rights, but that does not mean 55-year-olds with 17-year-olds. And I just can't imagine the public would approve of that."
But Gauthier has support from labor activists, including Alan Netland of the Northeast Area Labor Council.
"He had a personal problem but it doesn't affect the fact that he's a great representative for working people," Netland said.
Duluth firefighter Erik Simonson launched a bid as a write-in Democratic candidate for Gauthier's seat Tuesday. Duluth City Councilor Jay Fosle also has filed paperwork to run as a write-in candidate. Republican Travis Silvers already is on the ballot.