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Minn. House members lounge: Is it really 'nobody's business'?

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The full House Chamber.
Outside the busy Minnesota House floor lies a place shrouded in mystery and intrigue: the retiring room.
Evan Frost | MPR News file

A DFLer who called out her "white male colleagues" for playing cards during a recent House debate inadvertently pulled back the veil on the chamber's "retiring room," the lounge just off the House floor.

Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, admonished her card-playing colleagues for not paying attention while female House members of color spoke on the floor. Some GOP House members on Friday plan to formally rebuke her for framing her remarks along race and gender. 

Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, was incensed enough to say out loud, "what happens in the retiring room is nobody's business." Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, lamented that a long-standing custom — what happens in the retiring room, stays in the retiring room — had ended. "Now that room feels unfriendly and toxic. Sad," she tweeted.

So, what is this place shrouded in mystery and intrigue, and why does even speaking of it trigger hard feelings among lawmakers?

Members see it as a "place of respite," former House GOP Speaker Steve Sviggum told MPR News Thursday. "It's an appropriate place for members that have a place to go where they're not necessarily being addressed by or hounded by lobbyists or others during the floor debate."

Legislators can make phone calls and eat, which is not allowed in the chamber, he said. During long debates, "you don't necessarily expect a member of the House to sit in his or her chair for 10, 12, 14 hours," he added. "You can hear what's going on" in the chamber "if you're very, very attentive," he said. "It would not be the place to hear and see what's happening on the floor."

Sviggum, a former lawmaker from Kenyon who served as speaker from 1999 to 2007, described the retiring room as dark paneled with benches and tables and a fireplace that's never used. There's access to a small balcony out back, and to rest rooms.

The room has red-patterned carpet and floral scenes above an oak-paneled wall. An antique leather couch sits between French doors leading to a balcony. On the fireplace is a Sir Francis Bacon quote, "Measure not dispatch by the times of sitting, but by the advancement of business." Above it is a line from Scottish writer George Campbell: "Free and fair discussion will ever be found the firmest friend of truth."

Entry is restricted to lawmakers only an hour before a House session starts and for an hour after one finishes, he added. Otherwise, members can bring in friends and guests. (The Senate has a similar retiring room but it's restricted to members only.)

While playing cards is not a regular scene in the House lounge, Sviggum said the room does serve as a place where members can meet and talk informally on legislative strategy.

Sviggum didn't speak directly to the Hortman's remarks. But it's clear the controversy hasn't ebbed.

House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said a "protest and dissent" letter would be added to the House journal.

"If you listen to her comments she talked about white males. We just think it's inappropriate to single out a group and a gender of people on the House floor," Peppin said. "It's just not what we do in the House. It's not our custom and usage. It does not set a positive tone and members are very angry by it."

Peppin added, "There's a lot of hard feelings about it, about the incident that took place."

Hortman said she was getting "overwhelming support" from inside the DFL caucus and believes she was raising needed concern for the lack of attention colleagues were paying to dissenting viewpoints.

On Thursday, though, she said she worried her comment further soured the tone in a chamber where cross-party relationships matter.

"I have some work to do because the way in which I tried to get my colleagues to listen to some of my other colleagues have in some ways made the gulf deeper," Hortman said. 

She said she had approached some of the fellow lawmakers who said they were offended, but joked, "it's probably too soon to invite you to my house for a game of Texas Hold'em."

Click on the audio bar above to hear the extended interview with Steve Sviggum.