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Let's not thank Jim Knoblach for his service

Kurt Daudt, left, trusted Jim Knoblach, and made him one of the most powerful men in Minnesota.

Kurt Daudt, left, trusted Jim Knoblach, and made him one of the most powerful men in Minnesota. Glen Stubbe

 Imagine a family pulled so tightly around the man of the house that some members grow angry with a daughter for accusing him of touching her inappropriately for more than a decade.

Laura Knoblach says relatives asked her, How could you do this to him? Don’t you know your dad’s “boss” asked him about this, and that it's “your fault”?

Laura says this is what happened to her not long after she posted her claim to Facebook in 2016 alleging her father, state Rep. Jim Knoblach (R-St. Cloud), had made her physically uncomfortable throughout her young life. She was 21 then, and says the conduct started when she was nine.

“I love my children more than anything, and would never do anything to hurt them,” Knoblach said in a written statement issued to Minnesota Public Radio, which told Laura’s story late last month. He added: “[Laura’s] allegations are false.”

Laura's late-2016 Facebook post held back on details, instead focusing on facing up to life experiences. “I figured I’d be a hypocrite not to share my story,” she told Facebook friends, “since I spend so much time encouraging others to own theirs.”

Her post soon vanished, though by day’s end it was swirling through media outlets, which asked Laura for more details. She demurred. Until last month, when she broke her silence with MPR, offering a detailed account about a severely unpleasant childhood, which she blamed on one of the most powerful men in the state.

As chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Jim has been House Republicans’ money mechanic, tasked with looking under the hood and tuning up an already-humming state budget. He’s known as House Speaker Kurt Daudt’s “brain” on the budget, the House leader’s right-hand man with a reputation for squeezing budgets and holding a hard line.

If Daudt didn’t know Laura’s story about her father by New Year’s Eve 2016, he heard it soon enough. He is the aforementioned “boss,” who had to ask Jim about this family situation of his.

According to Laura, it was just a few days after she’d posted the claim to social media when her mother, Janet, said the accusation was causing this conflict in Jim’s life.

When the issue surfaced at the Capitol, questioners got roughly the same story Knoblach has told reporters: Laura was either inventing or misinterpreting incidents. This was all a misunderstanding, this view Laura took of a “defining part of her relationship with her father,” as MPR put it.

The GOP leadership team took Jim at his word, or at least didn’t do anything to enact a change; when the 2017 session started, Knoblach again held the gavel on the committee that oversees the state’s budget.

Knoblach, through his attorney, and then his wife, declined interview requests for this story. Daudt and former House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin also refused to be interviewed.

As the story was relayed to Laura Knoblach, her dad at least paid Daudt the courtesy of taking his phone call about the matter. That’s more than Knoblach offered to St. Cloud police or Sherburne County investigators, who opened a case on Laura’s claims in early 2017. Knoblach referred their questions to his lawyer, Susan Gaertner, who denied the accusations on his behalf.

A couple months later, cops closed the case without criminal charges. A reluctant detective told Laura that what she’d described was “really creepy and not right,” as quoted in a case file she gave to MPR, yet didn’t “quite rise to the level” of a crime under Minnesota law.

By then, in spring 2017, Jim Knoblach was a couple years into a second stint chairing the House’s most important committee, and a couple months removed from Kurt Daudt and/or others asking Knoblach (and/or each other) if he’d inappropriately touched his daughter.

Exasperated and deep in therapy about all this, Laura finally took the story to MPR in September. She requested, collected, and handed off the records of her own police investigation file to MPR. Gaertner, Knoblach’s lawyer, suggested that her claims might be “politically motivated.”

It’s a clever defense, this attempt to discredit a 23-year-old progressive making a case against a 61-year-old conservative.

But what “political” points was Laura trying to score in seventh grade? That’s around when she started telling people -- friends, a youth pastor, and later a Catholic school teacher – stories about her home life, as revealed in police files she shared with MPR: that her father held her in grinding embraces she didn’t enjoy; that he climbed into bed with her and put his arms around her; held her and kissed her without her consent. Asked her to sit in his lap.

As MPR’s story broke, Daudt offered a short, cold statement to reporters, which started like this: “I want to thank Chair Knoblach for his many years of service to the State of Minnesota.”

Let’s talk about that service. Through his eight non-consecutive terms in the House, Jim Knoblach has exhibited all the warmth of a tax-obsessed, services-cutting calculator, his flat affect and numbers-only mentality put to use by colleagues who could not, themselves, bear to break bad news about the budget to poor, sick, and otherwise needy people.

Knoblach didn’t seem to mind. He led or backed plans to reject welfare benefits to Minnesotans who’d been in-state 60 days or fewer; to kick 95,000-some poor residents off government insurance; and to kill off domestic-partner benefits for gay state employees, who he worried would merely use it to run scams. (Besides, he wondered: “What about sisters living together?”)

On occasion, this human calculator’s math spat out errors. He once eyeballed a bill on teacher licensing and determined it had no financial impact. State experts later said it would cost Minnesota $1 million, not to mention untold millions more for school districts.

Another time, Knoblach pitched an extension of the Northstar commuter train to his hometown of St. Cloud, adding 27 miles to a 40-mile route. He said he’d figured it all out in a way that would cost no money. Experts with the Met Council ran the numbers, and estimated a $40 million price tag. At least.

By outward appearances, none of these mistakes planted a seed of doubt in Jim’s superiors in the House GOP caucus. Then again, they’d already stood by Jim when he was facing grave charges from a family member. If you’re comfortable with that, who cares about falling a few million dollars short?

As Daudt bid Knoblach farewell, he added: “I support [Knoblach’s] decision to suspend his re-election campaign to focus on his family.”

That’d be the same family where one-fourth of the immediate members say Knoblach creeped on her many times over, and others blame a young woman for having the audacity of trying, often and for many years, to make him face consequences.

Daudt’s statement makes no mention of the disgusting acts Knoblach is accused of committing, and spares not a single thought for his accuser, not even on the off chance she’s not just his friend Jim’s crazy, progressive, vengeful daughter. That she might just be a survivor telling a painful truth.

It is a cold, easy, cowardly way of thinking. One that sides with the powerful over the vulnerable, perpetrators over victims, men over women and children. People who think that way shouldn’t be in charge of anything. Not even their own house.