ST. PAUL, Minn. — A Minnesota Democrat who had a rest-stop sexual encounter with a 17-year-old boy dropped his re-election bid Wednesday, hours after declaring he would stay in the race in defiance of party leaders who wanted him out as they fight to regain control of the state Legislature.
Rep. Kerry Gauthier, 56, told The Associated Press the decision was his own after multiple conversations with Democratic leaders pressing him to withdraw. He said he had been going back and forth about running "every 20 minutes for a week."
"I changed my mind," he said. "Too much. It's just too much."
Gauthier also told the AP that an overdose of muscle relaxants he took last week that led to his hospitalization was a suicide attempt. He'd earlier issued a statement saying he has been in recovery from chemical dependency for 30 years with one relapse.
Gauthier's decision came after Democratic leaders, from Gov. Mark Dayton on down, urged the first-term lawmaker to step aside so the party could field another candidate in a reliably Democratic district. Democrats need to gain at least six House seats to take control of the chamber, a top goal in November, and the last thing they needed was the possibility of losing what was thought to be a safe seat.
State election officials have said Gauthier can't be replaced on the ballot, which would mean a write-in campaign for a replacement that would be much more difficult to win. But Democrats said earlier this week they were looking at legal avenues to replace Gauthier on the ballot if he dropped.
Gauthier's initial decision to stay in the race, announced in an interview with Northland's NewsCenter in Duluth, drew widespread condemnation from fellow Democrats.
Dayton said the move would be "destructive" for Gauthier's reputation, his district, his party and the state.
"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," Dayton told reporters at the Capitol. "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."
Police say Gauthier admitted having 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.
Earlier, Gauthier apologized for the incident in a statement posted online by the Duluth News Tribune.
"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," he said.
Gauthier told the station his unwillingness to accept he is gay led him to the act. 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.
Gauthier told the AP he won't attend a Friday special session to vote on a flood relief package after his district was one of the hardest-hit by June flash floods. Gauthier had pushed hard for state aid until he dropped out of public view when the scandal hit last week.
"I just think it would be a distraction for the city to get what it needs from the special session," Gauthier said.
Sen. Roger Reinert, a Democrat who shares a district with Gauthier, said the withdrawal was "absolutely the right decision."
Reinert said Gauthier's presence in the campaign threatened to drag down Democratic attempts to win control of the Legislature. He said the scandal reinforced negative stereotypes of gay people, and could hurt an effort to defeat a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot banning gay marriage.
Republican leaders called on Gauthier to resign immediately from his legislative seat, but Democrats did not make that request.
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.
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.