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Melissa Hortman still isn’t sorry

Minnesota House photo by Paul Battaglia
House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, center right, meets with members of the media on the House floor on April 18.

As part of her job as a Democratic representative in the Minnesota House, Melissa Hortman sees “flashes of anger” nearly every day. Legislators often snap at each other in committees or after long debates on the House floor, she said, comments that are usually heard by only a small group of people. 

In other words, most comments at the Legislature — even angry ones — go unnoticed by the general public. 

But on April 3, Hortman rose on the Minnesota House floor to criticize a handful of legislators who were off in a side room while several female legislators of color rose to speak against a bill being debated to increase penalties for protesters who block freeways.

“I hate to break up the 100 percent white male card game in the retiring room,” Hortman said. “But I think this is an important debate.” 

Several Republicans, enraged by the comment, accused her of being a racist. One asked Hortman to apologize to the members she had just called out. “I’m really tired of watching women of color, in particular, being ignored,” she said. “So I’m not sorry.”

It’s safe to say the public noticed the incident. Since early April, Hortman’s comments have been covered in dozens of news outlets and garnered her thousands of tweets to @melissahortman, including a mention from New York City Mayor Bill Deblasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray

Thirty- and sixty-second videos of Hortman popped up online and fans filled her inbox with more than 3,000 emails from as far as Australia and the Netherlands. Her words even inspired a protest at the Capitol, where women and men carried signs that said “Sorry, not sorry. We support Melissa Hortman.” T-shirts were printed with “I will not apologize” on them.

“The fact that went viral was completely unpredictable and totally surprising,” Hortman said from her St. Paul office, pointing to a basket stuffed full of letters people sent her since the comments went viral. “It was nice how it made people feel.” 

It’s a lot of attention for an attorney and mother of two from Brooklyn Park who is still getting her sea legs as the new minority leader in the House. Being in the minority often means feeling unheard, she acknowledged, because the Republican majority controls what bills are taken up in committees and ultimately passed. 

But Hortman sees the incident as part of her role as a watchdog to the majority party in the House, whether through participating in debates or through monitoring budget bills, and serve as an ally to DFL Gov. Mark Dayton in budget negotiations. And when it comes to issues for which Republicans will need Democratic votes in the coming weeks — namely, transportation funding and a package of construction projects across the state — she could play an even bigger role. 

On a political path

By age 10, Hortman knew she wanted to be a politician. She watched the 1980 campaign unfold between Democratic President Jimmy Carter and Republican Ronald Reagan, who ultimately won the race by a landslide. “I thought, if he can do it, I can do it,” Hortman said. “So at 10 I decided I would be the first woman president.”

That life goal helped solidify her career plans at the age of 14, when she started learning about former U.S. presidents and members of Congress in a social studies class. All her favorite presidents, like Abraham Lincoln, were also lawyers. Hortman, who grew up in Spring Lake Park and Andover, didn’t come from a family of lawyers. The only lawyer she’d ever known growing up was a family friend who came to Christmas parties. “That was the closest thing I had to any sort of a personal connection to anyone who was a lawyer, so I knew basically nothing about it until I went to law school,” she laughed.

She got a bachelor’s degree in political science from Boston University, spending some time in Washington, D.C., in an internship for Al Gore and working in constituent services for former U.S. Sen. John Kerry. Hortman said she “fell in love” with Washington, but knew that if she wanted to run for Congress or the U.S. Senate one day, she needed to live in her home state. She got her law degree from the University of Minnesota and her first job out of law school was with legal aid, suing landlords who “wouldn’t provide heat or exterminate cockroaches,” she said.

In one such case, a woman sued her landlord for not providing her unit with a furnace; instead of paying for one himself, the landlord asked the woman to try to get a free one through an assistance program, which the woman thought was dishonest. “[The landlord] embarked on a sort of campaign of terror,” Hortman said, and she eventually secured the woman and her family a large discrimination settlement.

Around the same time, Hortman got involved in her local DFL organization and was helping recruit someone to run against her area’s Republican representative, Bill Haas. He had sponsored a Minnesota version of the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and a woman.

Before redistricting in the early 2000s, however, Hortman’s district was a tough one for Democrats to win. And when no one came forward to take on Haas, activists asked her to do it. Hortman wanted to have a political career in Washington, but she hadn’t considered running for the state Legislature before. And she had planned to wait until her two young daughters graduated from high school. “We couldn’t find anyone else, so I said, ‘OK,’ ” she said. “I thought it would be a good exercise.” 

It was 1998 when Hortman ran — and lost — in an election that saw Jesse Ventura take the governor’s office. She sat out the 2000 election but was recruited to run again in 2002, the year DFL U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash 11 days before the election. Once again, she lost.

She didn’t think she had another campaign in her until former DFL Sen. Don Betzold asked her to try one more time, in 2004. Hortman obliged. That year, she won. 

‘Swim like hell’

Now leading the 57-member House DFL caucus, Hortman is responsible for thinking about Democratic members’ elections in 2018. In fact, a big part of her job as minority leader is trying to help her caucus reclaim the majority, which they lost three years ago.

She’s hoping 2018 is a lot like 2006, when Democrats in the state House picked up 19 seats. “They flipped 19 seats, I need to flip 11 seats,” Hortman said. “I’m hoping that America is at least as dissatisfied with Donald Trump as they were with George W. Bush.”

Cards of support are on display
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Cards of support are on display in House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman’s office.

Part of Hortman’s pitch to become minority leader is her record of winning races in a tough district. She won that 2004 race by 402 votes. And even after she won her seat, she was repeatedly targeted for defeat by outside groups. “I had to take three whacks before I won the seat and I’ve had competitive races since I got elected,” she said.

When talking to prospective candidates for 2018, Hortman describes running for the Legislature as a lot like surfing. As much as candidates want elections to be decided by their message and hard work, there are plenty of variables they can’t control.

“You kind of need a wave in some of our districts, but you have to swim like hell if you want to catch the wave when it comes,” she said. 

‘I have the governor’s back’

But before she gets there, Hortman needs to get through this session. Legislators must agree on a more than $40 billion state budget soon or else state government could go into shutdown mode.

Hortman’s been backing Dayton’s positions on the budget. “[Republicans] don’t need us, so it’s not like we’re moving and shaping a lot of bills,” she said.  “I think the most important thing is that I strongly have the governor’s back here in the House. We’re very aligned. He’s done a good job of fighting for the values we stand for, which is fighting for working families in Minnesota.” 

There are a few issues where Republicans will need Democratic votes, though. That includes the bonding bill, which constitutionally requires 81 votes to pass out of the House. Hortman said she’s had plenty of discussions with her bonding committee members to form a strategy, and the caucus held a press conference Tuesday to put pressure on House Republicans to release their list of projects.

She also expects Republicans will need Democrats to pass a deal to put more funding into the state’s transportation system. Historically that’s been the case, she said, and any deal Dayton would support would have to include some funding for bus routes and mass transit, meaning Republicans could lose plenty of votes within their own caucus. 

“Those are the two bills where they really need us if the speaker is serious about getting something done,” Hortman said. “It’s about holding the majority accountable to recognize that not everybody agrees with them, and they need to consider an alternate point of view if they want to get bills signed into law.”

Though Hortman once pictured herself in Washington one day — she considered running for Congress when Rep. Jim Ramstad retired ahead of the 2008 election — she’s grown fond of the workings in the state Legislature.

“One day, I would love to be speaker,” she said. “[Former Rep.] Martin Sabo told me once: ‘The best job I ever had was speaker of the Minnesota House.’ So I thought, ‘D.C. is a cesspool; I don’t want to go there.’ ”

Comments (33)

  1. Submitted by Howard Salute on 04/26/2017 - 11:22 am.

    Help Me Understand?

    Help me understand when it is ok to call out people based upon their race and gender?

    • Submitted by Brian Scholin on 04/26/2017 - 01:58 pm.

      My standard for when it is okay to include race or gender in calling out bad behavior is this: The more clearly the bad behavior is based on race or gender, the more justifiable (or sometimes even necessary) it is to include race or gender in your calling it out. I wasn’t there to witness this bad behavior, but it’s pretty clear Ms Hortman felt the race and gender of the perps contributed to their bad behavior. I hope her pointing that out to them will make her criticism more effective. You do what you can.

    • Submitted by J. Kurt Schreck on 04/26/2017 - 04:26 pm.

      When it’s OK…

      When white, card-playing male legislators overplay their hand, acting as though (gender-bating) selective performance is a male birthright… that’s when!

    • Submitted by Tracy Feltmann on 04/27/2017 - 02:46 am.

      The male gender can and should be called out when the problem is misogynistic and patriarchally unjust.

      Likewise, the white race can and should also be called out when the individuals are exhibiting implicit bias toward people of color. It is not racism to call someone white, particularly if you yourself, are white; nor is it even possible to be racist toward white people when our society is set up to favor whites.

      The problem in this case was that white male card players were dismissive and disrepectful toward women and people of color. They became defensive and indignant when called out because they do not understand what racism racism is.

      • Submitted by Bob Petersen on 04/27/2017 - 09:27 am.

        It’s Never Okay – Racism is Racism

        So there are certain situations when it is perfectly okay to be racist?!? People need to be judged on their actions, not by the color of their skin. Just because you don’t like something someone has done or is doing has zero relation to their skin color.

        So Hortman felt she was being disrespected. Then call that out. Making a racial and sexist comment is beyond the pale and she deserves to be called out on.

        • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 04/27/2017 - 09:45 am.

          As Rep. Ilhan Omar said on the House floor…

          Racism is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.”

          Rep. Hortman’s comments, by definition, cannot be racist.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/28/2017 - 09:15 am.


          “Just because you don’t like something someone has done or is doing has zero relation to their skin color.” If they are behaving that way because of someone’s skin color, that is bigotry and deserves to be called what it is.

          If we can never mention race in the context of, as you put it, disrespect, we can never discuss racism. We’re stuck with pretending it doesn’t exist.

  2. Submitted by Maria Jette on 04/26/2017 - 01:09 pm.

    I think I can help!

    It’s when the speakers are minority women, and the rude jerks are white men who are OUR REPRESENTATIVES, and effectively thumbing their noses at them. If they were so horribly exhausted that they couldn’t endure another moment of listening to their colleagues– something I EXPECT from my representatives– they should be taking a proper nap, and not playing cards. I think it’s pretty clear that those white men were making a snotty statement about their lack of interest in the totally germane experiences and opinions of several black female legislators. I think you know it, too.

  3. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 04/26/2017 - 01:18 pm.

    I think that some legislators

    were called out – apparently – for disrespectful behavior, not for being white or male. My guess is that there were white males present when Ms. Hortmann called out the card players.

    It will be interesting to see if this type of behavior continues in the future.

    Of course it could be that the card players were in the locker room to better see and hear the speakers on the tv in there. And they could have been preparing for budget negotiations by playing cards.

  4. Submitted by Gene Nelson on 04/26/2017 - 01:27 pm.

    Those repubs are the ones who should apologize

    Why on earth should she apologize, when it was they who should have?
    As usual we’ve come to expect this sad treatment of women and minorities and the poor from repubs.

    • Submitted by Mike martin on 04/30/2017 - 01:25 pm.

      who said they were Republican?

      How do you know some of these white men were not Democrats?

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 05/01/2017 - 06:41 pm.

      Poor Assumption

      According to MPR, it was a bipartisan game of cards.

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

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/02/2017 - 09:29 am.

        Very True

        However, it seems to be only the Republicans who have their collective shorts in a knot over Rep. Hortman’s comments.

        • Submitted by Steve Rose on 05/02/2017 - 10:44 am.

          Imagine that in politics

          This is an interesting piece regarding the Retiring Room and it’s purpose.

          While Holtman may have broken no rules, she may have breached etiquette. “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.”

          It was good to hear that legislators socialize across party lines; I consider that a good thing. Rep. Hortman’s comment may not endear her to certain members of both parties; legislators that prefer not to be told how to do their jobs by a colleague.

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 05/02/2017 - 12:17 pm.


            What’s really sad is that this socializing should come at the expense of respecting other colleagues who were speaking on an issue I presume was of importance (if not, why was the bill introduced in teh first place?).

            • Submitted by Steve Rose on 05/02/2017 - 01:32 pm.

              Attendance Record

              If Rep. Hortman’s attendance is not perfect at the legislature, I want an accounting of where she was and what she was doing. Then I can be the judge of her excuses. If this is how she wants to roll, then she needs the same level of accountability.

  5. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 04/26/2017 - 01:42 pm.

    All it takes is one to question the ignorance or arrogance of…

    the card playing doodlebugs sitting out on a most serious an issue of human rights to be so violated’?

    However, did I miss it or, what are the names of the card playing neocons sitting out a most controversial story here, eh?

    All citizens have the right to know and consider their blatant disrespect whomever they represent and the system itself,,,..

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/26/2017 - 03:18 pm.

    It always amazes me when white males pretend not to acknowledge their innate privilege in our society. They are so used to not seeing their whiteness–their race–that they get offended when it’s called out as part of their automatic arrogance.

    Right after November 9, 2016 and when I was very angry about the election of Donald Trump (as well as the hateful racist and misogynist campaign he ran, based on whiteness and nostalgia for white hegemony in America), an old white man came into the gym I go to. He came right up to the cross trainer I was using and asked me to get off the machine because he needed to use it. I’m an old white woman, and I took umbrage. His outrageous demand caught me off guard so I did immediately get off the machine. But I also gave him some lip, known today as extreme attitude (I took out a bit of my anti-Trump furor in that moment).

    He was shocked–shocked!–that I told him off in no uncertain terms, for displaying his old white male privilege in thinking that his needs and preferences took precedence over mine.

    He went to the owner/manager of the gym and complained about my response. Just as the white males who were playing cards and watching a ball game (not the televised debate!) in the retiring room who took such umbrage at Rep. Hortman’s calling them out as a group of privileged white men got all put out and demanded SHE apologize!

    In today’s world of increasing violence against women and minorities by white men, both young and old, we all must be vigilant and not permit that automatic privilege to morph into something even worse. This is not yet Gilead.

    • Submitted by Jan Arnold on 04/26/2017 - 04:37 pm.

      Excellent post

      but you may have to explain to the older white male with Gilead is. I doubt they have ever heard of it or realize the significance of it.

      I am a Social Security/Medicare age white female and I have seen this behavior all my life. I hope it will change in the future. I hope my granddaughters will speak up when they see this (I know a least one will) and that others, including their male peers, response and change the attitude. Trump has only increased it publicly and made it acceptable behavior.

      As Trump would said, so sad.

  7. Submitted by Jackson Cage on 04/26/2017 - 04:44 pm.

    Lots of unanswered questions

    1. Were they indeed playing cards? Presumably you’re off in another room conducting other legislative business, which might be acceptable. If you’re really playing cards when ANY business is going on, you should find another vocation.

    2. I’m not sure it’s necessary to listen to speeches from the floor if you understand the issue being discussed and understand both sides. Again, were they absent from the room because they (a) had more pressing business and (b) already understood the matter being discussed? I’m guessing that happens frequently. I’m not sure I’d jump to the assumption that it was done out of a blatant show of disrespect.

    3. How does a white woman calling out white men based on their race make her a racist? That one baffles me.

  8. Submitted by DENNIS SCHMINKE on 04/26/2017 - 06:03 pm.

    Won’t Apologize

    Political grandstanding.

  9. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 04/26/2017 - 09:03 pm.

    Fess Up, Snow Flakes

    Just who are these snow flakes, these tender foots, who are such delicate creatures? If they are so offended, they will out themselves.

    Come forward, and advocate for yourselves. Because as it is now, none of them have identified themselves.

  10. Submitted by Richard Callahan on 04/26/2017 - 11:13 pm.

    The issue isn’t about card playing,

    the issue is about Hartman’s going out of her way to disparage white men. For being white men.

    All she is doing is driving more and more potential white males to vote Republican. Why don’t the Democrats understand this? How many elections do they have to lose?

    • Submitted by Matthew Steele on 04/27/2017 - 09:48 am.

      How are we being disparaged?

      Don’t speak for all of us white men, plz.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 04/28/2017 - 09:20 am.

      Potential White Males

      I thought the concern was for actual white males, but never mind.

      Rep. Hortman* was not disparaging white men “for being white men.” She was “disparaging” them, if that’s the correct term for calling out bad behavior, for their disrespect to women and women of color. The special snowflakes who had their self-esteem damaged were all white males, hiding in their safe place. If that’s “disparaging” them for being “white men,” too bad.

      *Speaking as a white man, I can tell you that it’s not hard to show the minimal respect of spelling her name correctly, given that it is at the top of the page.

    • Submitted by Nick Foreman on 04/29/2017 - 07:15 am.

      It is about card playing

      They should be paid less, not receive more money for wasting time playing cards. Do regular employees get paid for card playing? Should only white men be allowed? What a joke!

  11. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/27/2017 - 11:04 am.

    Rep.Hortman called out these white men (I believe all were Republicans?) not for being white men–actually, I think she’s white and married to a white male (oooh! you guys are touchy!).

    She called them out for deliberately ignoring what several female representatives of color had to say about an issue of racial justice. They were actively “dissing” these women, by refusing to listen to them and occupying the taxpayers’ time with card games and ball games on TV.

    That turning of the shoulder and ear away from any differing opinion on an issue is called living in an ideological bubble. Too many Republicans do that: they listen only to views they already agree with. In this case, they were not about to listen to arguments about free speech, the right to protest, etc. Because they’d already made up their minds. Their closed minds.

    That’s not criticizing white men for being white men. It’s criticizing legislators for not listening to each other, for having closed minds and pre-judging issues of racial justice and human rights.

  12. Submitted by Bob Wold on 04/27/2017 - 12:55 pm.

    Is an apology required? I don’t know, I wasn’t in that room. If elected officials were engaged in a card game while they were supposed to be representing the people of their districts during session they should apologize for not fulfilling their duties.
    House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman’s, comment “I hate to break up the 100 percent white male card game in the retiring room, But I think this is an important debate.” Was found offensive by many legislators, what are the reasons those legislators found this to be so offensive? These reasons should be reviewed and understood in context.
    There were legislators missing from the house floor during session, why were they missing? They had a higher priority, making a protest, against the person speaking, lack of interest, an endless list could be created. If they were playing cards instead of working for shame on them. If there were women and people of color playing cards, Hortman, should not have singled out just “white men”. If all the women were playing Scrabble or other games, she should have not singled out “the card game” or the “white men”.
    If they were playing a card game, they owe her and the people of Minnesota an apology, If the card game was 100% white males, they cannot claim racism. What the truth is or was we will never really know. Why they feel they have a right to privacy while they goof off play and hooky during session, shows lack of character they need to serve our state. I think many apologies are required.

  13. Submitted by Bill Willy on 04/27/2017 - 02:54 pm.

    Dear Almanac (w/copies to MPR’s K Miller and T Weber)

    Consider running a “special” in which House Minority Leader, Melissa Hortman and Speaker of the House, Kurt Daudt, are given a full 20 minutes (if not the entire hour) to discuss their perspectives on this and other pertinent issues related to how the MN House of Representatives has been striving to make a contribution to the overall well-being of Minnesotans over the past three years.

    While at it, I would also recommend including Constance Sullivan and either Bob Petersen, Dennis Schminke or Richard Callahan to represent Minnesota Citizen’s questions and points of view on this topic in particular.

    I, for one, would be glued.

    (P.S. Once again, nice work Ms Bierschbach)

  14. Submitted by Alice Gibson on 04/27/2017 - 04:52 pm.

    Brilliant political maneuver

    By drawing attention away from the issues at hand, and making it about white males, Hortman has provided a Get Out Of The DFL Free card to 43% of the voting public. Now she’s busy explaining, and in politics, if you’re explaining, you’re losing. Best guess is that a mess of those “cards of support” are from the Minnesota GOP. They should be.

  15. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 05/02/2017 - 03:01 pm.

    Poor things

    Poor, delicate white males. They got caught playing cards. And now they’re upset for being called out on it. Their feelings are now hurt because they got noticed in a negative light for being white males, behaving in a stereotypical white male way. Had they been behaving outside the stereotype–stereotypes are negative and not necessarily true, by the way–they might not have been identified as white males. And they’ve got their knickers in a bundle because that’s Just Not Fair. Except it is.

    I don’t care if the comment was racist (it wasn’t), and I don’t care if the foolishness was bipartisan (it was?), if there’s a session going on and you don’t have a good reason not to be on the floor, paying attention, you deserve to be called out. And a card game, even a bipartisan card game, just doesn’t cut it. Play cards after the session is out. Get a beer–it would be good for everyone. But not during the session.

    By the way, unless you’re a minority in this country, you really have no idea what minorities face from intentional or unintentional negative behavior toward them. I’m not a person of color, except to the extent that pinkish is a color, but as a woman, a professional woman, I get treated in demeaning and frightening ways that men will never experience just because of their gender. You don’t get it. And going out to play a game of cards was so insensitive that it’s quite possible that the activity was a blatant display not just of laziness, but racism and sexism.

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