House DFL leader won't back down from 'white male card game' remarks

The full House Chamber.
Rep. Melissa Hortman was angry that some lawmakers played cards in a nearby private room while DFLers who are minority women spoke here on the House floor, seen on day one of the session.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

The top Minnesota House Democrat, facing criticism from Republicans over a comment invoking race and gender, stood by her remark Tuesday as calling attention to what she saw as disrespectful behavior.

Monday's debate about whether to ratchet up penalties for disruptive protests was heated to begin with. But when House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman rose to admonish some colleagues for checking out on the proceedings, she didn't mince words.

"I hate to break up the 100 percent white male card game in the retiring room but I think this is an important debate," she said, referring to a private room off the House floor.

Members of both parties were indeed playing cards as discussion on the public safety budget bill moved toward its fourth hour.

House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, a DFLer of Brooklyn Park.
Minnesota House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, a DFLer of Brooklyn Park, photographed last week.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

An incredulous House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, rose from her chair as a murmur rippled through the chamber.

"I have to say that last comment was completely inappropriate for the House of Representatives. And I would hope that you would apologize for that statement, that you made minority leader," Peppin said.

Other Republicans would add their own statements of offense. Representative Greg Davids, who was presiding over debate at the time of Hortman's remarks, later Monday called on Hortman to resign her leadership post.

On Tuesday, the tensions hadn't come down.

Hortman, of Brooklyn Park, said she found it particularly disrespectful that the card game was happening while a pair of minority women in her caucus were delivering deeply personal speeches about the potency of the right to protest.

The measure in question would make it a gross misdemeanor punishable by increased fines or jail time to block freeways, access to airports or light rail trains; the offenses are misdemeanors now.

"I thought it was very disrespectful. I thought it was impolite, I thought it was rude and I thought it needed to be called out," Hortman said.

"This is a new thing, members sitting in the back playing cards for extended periods of time. There is a whole new level of disrespect and disregard for debate and discussion," she said, adding, "I don't know a lot of people who get to sit for two hours and play cards and ignore what everyone else at their workplace is doing."

Davids said Hortman took things too far.

"To classify a race and to classify a sex is out of line and against House rules. She violated House rules," Davids said. "Now, what happens in the retiring room is nobody's business."

He said there is a general understanding that the room is there for members to relax, eat or have private conversations, especially during extended floor deliberations.

"After hours and hours of debate repeating the same thing, you need a break from that at times," Davids said.

Davids, a 13-term Republican from Preston, said Hortman should apologize to the body for "making it a hostile workplace." He said he wouldn't file an ethics complaint, which has occurred in past situations involving comments on the House floor.

Asked if she would deliver any apology or clarification, Hortman didn't provide any indication she would.

"For too long when women are ignored, when people of color are ignored, when women of color are ignored, people don't say anything," she said. "We need to say something. We need to call it out when we see it."

The House GOP says it will file a "protest and dissent letter," which essentially lodges objections in the House journal but is short of an ethics complaint.

Peppin said Hortman was wrong to single out a group of lawmakers in that lounge when others were going in and out of the debate. The retiring room, she added, has TV and audio feeds available.

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