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Hortman brings experience, quiet irreverence to speaker's chair

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Incoming Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman.
Incoming Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman sits in a meeting in her office in St. Paul Dec. 17, 2018. The DFL state representative from Brooklyn Park is only the third woman ever to hold the gavel.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2018

In between meetings on a recent Monday, Melissa Hortman took a moment to check the notifications piling up on her phone. She had a new message from the soon-to-be minority House Republican caucus about what committees they want each member to serve on.

"Not a lot of chicks in that group, not a single woman in here," Hortman said, scrolling through their lists for each committee. "There's a statute that says that we have to achieve geographic balance. There isn't one that says that we have to do anything about gender balance."

A DFL state representative from Brooklyn Park, Hortman made a splash in 2017 when she criticized a handful of male legislators for playing a card game in a side room while several female legislators of color were speaking on the House floor. Some Republicans were furious and demanded that she apologize, to which she responded: "I'm not sorry."

Now she's the incoming speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, only the third woman ever to hold the gavel, and Capitol watchers should expect more of Hortman's irreverent, "sorry, not sorry" attitude toward some political conventions.

She's already shaken up the committee structure and promised to remove a mute button installed by the former Republican majority that she said arbitrarily cut off debate on the House floor. "It's something folks in China or Russia might do," she said. And when asked if being a woman changes the way she approaches the job, she's blunt: "That question irritates me a little bit."  

"It's about the job, and we don't ask that with a man: Hey [Republican Speaker] Kurt Daudt, are you going to just be like other men?" Hortman said. "It's a question we only ask women."

After two years as a House minority leader, she now takes her direct approach to the second-most powerful role in state government, leading a more diverse and metro-centered House DFL caucus. The new majority must work to find agreement with a new DFL governor and the Republican-controlled Senate on a $48 billion state budget by summer or state government will shut down.

Hortman must also satisfy the demands of her notably suburban and urban members in a way that won't alienate voters in critical swing districts in two years when her majority is tested.

Not a 'top-down' leader

Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL) hugs Rep. John Persell (DFL).
Incoming Minnesota House Speaker of the House Rep. Melissa Hortman hugs DFL Rep. John Persell outside of her office.
Evan Frost | MPR News

It's a lot to take on. 

But Hortman, 48, has seen plenty since being elected to the House in 2004. A legal aid attorney who was involved in local DFL politics, it took Hortman three tries to win in her suburban district, which sometimes elected Republicans.

In her freshman term in the House, she broke ranks with her party to back a GOP-sponsored education bill that brought more money to schools in her district. And early on, she developed a close relationship with then DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, who tasked her with managing floor operations during a successful attempt to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty's veto of a gas tax increase.

That experience could come in handy this session, when a gas tax increase will be a priority of new DFL Gov. Tim Walz. Hortman said she also learned to avoid a "top-down" approach to leadership watching Kelliher delegate.

DFL Rep. Laurie Halverson, of Eagan, said she's excited that Hortman wants other legislators to take on leadership roles. It's something she said has been missing over the last several sessions. 

"It's been stated a lot around here that the decision-making process has devolved to be one of a small cabal of people making decisions for all legislators," she said. "Well, there's 134 of us in the House and we all want to say in what happens in our communities."

In addition to transportation and education, Hortman also zeroed in on energy and environment issues as a legislator, chairing the House energy committee for two years and authoring legislation that created Minnesota's solar energy standard.

Those issues will again be at the top of the agenda for Hortman and her House DFL caucus in 2019. She's created an Energy and Climate Finance and Policy Division Committee — the first time a Minnesota legislative committee has included the word "climate."

'The value of unspoken thought'

Energy was a highly sought-after committee assignment, Hortman told Michael Noble, executive director of Fresh Energy, in one of her back-to-back meetings on a recent Monday.

They were in her office to talk about what they'd like to see happen on the environment next year.

"It seems like potentially a big year for energy policy. There's a lot of pent-up demand, and a lot of years have passed without a lot of serious energy policy since you were the energy policy chair," Noble said, as Hortman jotted down notes. "Maybe little dribs and drabs."

Hortman nodded and sat mostly quietly, and she didn't make any pledges on what her caucus might do yet.

Rep. Hortman meets with Fresh Energy executive director Michael Noble.
Incoming Minnesota House Speaker Rep. Melissa Hortman meets with Fresh Energy executive director Michael Noble inside of her office.
Evan Frost | MPR News

In general, she's been reticent to get too specific, and she's urged caution to groups angling to get a bite of Minnesota's $1.5 billion budget surplus.

At a press conference announcing the surplus in December, Hortman spoke for less than five minutes, spending most of the time warning about inflation, an ongoing trade war that could hurt Minnesota's economy and the possibility of a looming recession. 

"It's not a forecast that allows us to go into session and talk about a lot of new spending and tax cuts, that would not be fiscally responsible," she said.

Despite her viral moment, Hortman isn't known among her colleagues as a firebrand legislator. She doesn't rise to speak or offer her opinion on every issue that comes up, even in a leadership position, said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who came to the Legislature in the same freshman class as Hortman.

"You'll notice many times she'll sit quietly, not because she doesn't understand the issue or doesn't have an opinion, but she sees the value of an unspoken thought," he said.

She's already quietly making deals behind the scenes. Hortman said she recently had dinner with Republican Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, where they agreed to pass a number of non-controversial proposals that fell apart at the end of the last session because they were packed into a larger budget bill vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Bumping up the timeline

Sitting in her Capitol complex office days before the start of the session, the transition is apparent. Hortman's shelves are empty and her things are packed in boxes on a cart ready to head a few floors upstairs. There's a fresh coat of paint on the walls for the incoming tenant.

She argued against moving every legislator to new offices, saying it's a waste of time. But it's one of the political conventions she can't seem to shake.

"It's what we do," she said. "Power changes over and we move offices."

Hortman has served under five different speakers, and one thing she's trying to do now is get organized faster than they did. That means hiring staff, selecting committee rosters and putting deadlines in place quicker.

In theory, that will bode well for the rest of the session.

"The more work we get done early, the more work we can do," she said. "This ain't my first rodeo."