Embroiled in controversy over allegations that he sexually harassed an employee for several years, Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler will resign from office next week, putting to bed weeks of speculation about his political future.
"I leave the office with a heavy heart knowing I have disappointed the people in my life who care for me the most," Schedler wrote Tuesday in a resignation letter effective May 8. "But I have also experienced from them the miraculous power of forgiveness and grace during the twilight of my career, and for that I am grateful."
News of Schedler's resignation comes less than two months after he announced during a defiant news conference that he would not step down over a lawsuit claiming he harassed a woman in his office for more than a decade, sending her love letters and sex tapes then retaliating when she refused to go along with his repeated sexual propositions.
Schedler, a St. Tammany Parish Republican who previously served in the state Legislature, has faced mounting pressure to resign since The Advocate last week published sexually suggestive emails and messages that were part of his on-the-clock exchanges with employee Dawn Ross, who filed the lawsuit in February and has since come forward publicly.
Ross' attorney Jill Craft said her client was "a little surprised, but a lot relieved" by news of Schedler's impending resignation.
“I believe it sends a strong message that our elected officials and those who represent us have to be held at least to the same standard as those in private industry," Craft said. “This behavior doesn’t fly because the law says it doesn’t fly and it shouldn’t ever be tolerated.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, was among the first to call on Schedler to resign after news of Ross' lawsuit first began to circulate.
“Given the serious nature of the allegations, in February, I called on Secretary of State Tom Schedler to resign," Edwards said in a statement. "In light of the additional information that has been disclosed, I believe this is the best course of action for Tom, his family, and the state of Louisiana.”
In the past week, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge, and U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-Madisonville, also called on Schedler to resign after the contents of his exchanges with her were published.
"Tom did the right thing by resigning," Kennedy said Tuesday.
The state Republican Party, which did not take a formal position on the matter before Schedler's resignation announcement, also expressed relief.
"Under the circumstances, we feel this is the best thing for Louisiana," Louisiana GOP spokesman Andrew Bautsch said.
First Assistant Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin will take over Schedler's duties until a special election can be held this fall, likely Nov. 6.
Schedler, 68, has claimed he had a "consensual sexual relationship" with Ross — an assertion she denies.
In his resignation letter, Schedler compared media coverage of the lawsuit to gossipy "tabloid" fodder.
"I trust the judicial process will fairly consider all the facts when they can be properly presented in due time," he wrote.
Even after Edwards and several female legislators called for Schedler's resignation, the embattled secretary of state on March 14 stood before the state seal and American flag and announced to reporters that he would not leave office early but also wouldn't seek re-election to a third term in 2019.
"I’m not so naive to believe staying here is going to be an easy task for me, but leaving would be cowardly," Schedler said at the time. "And Tom Schedler is not a coward."
A forced removal was unlikely, given the hurdles that the state's recall and impeachment laws hold.
"There really isn't a public remedy short of a massive recall petition," said Pearson Cross, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette political science professor. "He (could) just fester there as long as he's willing to endure the slings and arrows."
State officials can be impeached through a process that starts in the House and gives the Senate final say, but impeachment was last used in Louisiana in 1929 against then-Gov. Huey Long, who successfully thwarted the attempted removal.
A public recall to remove Schedler would have required signatures from a third of the state's registered voters — about 1 million names collected in 180 days — before it could even go forward.
"Clearly, the recall option is extremely difficult against a statewide official," Cross said.
Just hours after Schedler's resignation sent shockwaves through state government, the Senate advanced legislation meant to curb sexual harassment in the public sector. House Bill 524 still has to go back to the House to consider Senate changes, but lawmakers have made anti-sexual harassment efforts a priority this session.
"Sexual harassment is not just a national issue, it is an issue in Louisiana," said Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell. "We need to change the culture of sexual harassment in state government and through private industry as well."
Schedler emerged as the second headline-grabbing harassment case in Louisiana state government during the national #MeToo movement, after a top aide to Edwards resigned during an investigation into allegations he sexually harassed an employee in the governor's office.
"This is a huge step, and it's an acknowledgement by the Legislature that this is important and our employees matter," Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, said of the push to adopt a comprehensive anti-harassment law in HB524. "None of us are immune. I have a #MeToo moment as a legislator."
Before the allegations against Schedler became public, his reputation was largely that of a respected statesman. With a knack for predicting election voter turnout rates, he was frequently quoted during election season and also often made the rounds for large-scale voter registration events.
"I really liked him. I thought he was a good public official," Cross said, adding that resignation could be the only hope for Schedler to try to preserve what's left of his legacy.
Less than two years ago, Schedler finished a one-year term as president of the National Association of Secretaries of State, a nonpartisan group made up of officials from all 50 states. He was the first Louisiana official to serve as association president since the 1940s — an accomplishment Schedler often noted with pride.
Before he was elected secretary of state, Schedler spent three years in the office's chief deputy role, under then-Secretary of State Jay Dardenne, who left the post to become lieutenant governor.
Schedler got his political start in 1990 with a special election for a vacant seat on the Slidell City Council. After six years on the City Council, he successfully ran for the state Senate, where he spent 12 years before leaving in 2008 when he couldn't seek re-election because of term limits.
In his resignation letter, Schedler touted some of what he sees as key successes during his time at the helm.
"From implementing online voter registration and protecting private voter data to reducing the number of elections to save precious tax dollars, the Secretary of State's office has time-and-time again done the right thing," he wrote. "I take away from this experience many precious memories that will sustain me and only ask that the office continue their focus on customer service and transparency so that legacy remains in place for many years to come."
Schedler's resignation quickly touched off speculation over who might run to replace him in a special election that will likely take place in mere months. Political insiders say there ultimately could be as many as a dozen candidates in the race.
Ardoin, addressing a House committee, said he will not seek the permanent post.
"This office has to remain laser focused, ignoring the politics swirling around us at this time," he said.
Peterson, who is also chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, during a floor speech later in the day called on anyone in the Secretary of State's Office who knew of improprieties by Schedler to also resign.
Bautsch said that the GOP has full confidence in Ardoin's ability to run the office through the mid-terms and special election to fill the rest of Schedler's term.
Hewitt, who was the first Republican state official to call on Schedler to resign, said she wants to "work with Ardoin to rebuild trust in the department and to incorporate sound policies to create a safe workplace for all employees."
Advocate reporter Jim Mustian contributed to this report.