Melissa Hortman brings consensus-building background to House speaker’s job
DFL state Rep. Melissa Hortmans fight to put her party in control of the House required a sharp tone in St. Paul and a relentless campaign to get Democrats elected across the state.
Now poised to become House speaker, Hortman will hold the second most powerful position in state government, one that will test her political skills like never before.
She must quickly figure out how to work with the new Democratic governor and Senate Republican leaders and navigate the demands of emboldened House DFLers looking to make big changes after four years of GOP legislative control.
The stakes could not be higher for Hortman, who will hold a fragile eight-seat majority when legislators convene in January. Failing to deliver for Democrats, or pushing too far and alienating suburban and rural swing voters, could send her party back into the minority in two years, when President Donald Trump will likely be on the ballot.
House DFLers are placing their faith in a suburban DFLer with blue-collar roots who is striking a conciliatory tone in early meetings with influential Republicans, like Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa.
Why not start getting in the habit of doing things together? So later, when we get to the hard stuff, we have a track record, said Hortman, 48. We have a pattern of having accomplished some things together.
But signs of fresh division are already emerging as legislators prepare to begin writing the $50 billion, two-year budget and renew the debate over whether to raise the gas tax for road and bridge repair.
The incoming House GOP leader, former Speaker Kurt Daudt, said Hortmans retooling of the committee structure caters to their activist base and special interests.
That first flash of conflict is only going to make it harder for Hortman to advocate for House Democrats agenda, which includes expanding MinnesotaCare to allow anyone to buy into it, making sure all children can attend prekindergarten programs and requiring that all employers provide workers paid sick time and family leave.
Hortman, an attorney from Brooklyn Park, said relationships are key to achieving the complex goals. The first thing she did after she won was to call Gazelka.
At their first dinner, she said, We made our first deal, actually.
They agreed to quickly pass a menu of less controversial items soon after they convene in January, like allowing the state to accept federal money for election security, which got snagged up at the end of last session.
Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, who served with Hortman in the House, said he is expecting a change in how the House operates. He said the chamber has grown increasingly rancorous and divided.
Deep down, she is fair-minded, he said. I think she might be a healing influence.
Lawyer, senator, president
Hortman will be the third woman to preside over the Minnesota House.
While she has risen steadily in the House DFL ranks, her political path has not always been straight.
She interned and worked in Washington, D.C., for then Sens. Al Gore and John Kerry after she graduated from Boston University. She became turned off by the crazy exercise of fundraising and negative campaigning.
She came away feeling she lacked the background and connections to succeed in D.C.
She grew up in a blue-collar family and spent school breaks working at their used auto parts company in Blaine.
I figured I could do a lot of good in the world by being a lawyer, Hortman said.
Her career included a decade as a lawyer and vice president of her familys Johns Auto Parts. More recently, she worked in the Hennepin County Attorneys Offices civil division. But one of her most consequential jobs was with Central Minnesota Legal Services, which provides free legal help to low-income residents.
Attorney Jay Wilkinson, who worked with her at the time, said Hortman was looking beyond the immediate needs of her clients and showed interest in how the broader system failed them.
She ... came from a business-oriented family in the suburbs and grabbed on to some passions for social justice and making things right, and we see that still, he said.
At Central Minnesota Legal Services, Hortman represented a Minneapolis woman and her three daughters in a housing discrimination case. Her clients were awarded nearly $500,000, setting a record in that type of case. It also drew the attention of Democratic activists, who encouraged her to run for the Minnesota House in 1998.
It took three tries before Hortman ended up at the State Capitol.
In 2004, she finally convinced her suburban swing district that her message of seeking its share of state funding for north metro schools and transportation corridors was the right one.
At the Capitol, she often aligned with a bipartisan group of north metro legislators. In her first year, she was one of a trio of Democrats who broke with their party to support a Republican-backed K-12 education bill.
Former Rep. Kathy Tingelstad, R-Andover, said Hortman did not approach legislation from a political angle, but by asking how the laws would help people.
Former DFL House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher said she and Hortman quickly connected when the newly elected freshman joined the House. Her advice for Hortman is to maintain a healthy relationship with the House minority leader.
Incoming DFL House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler is expected to spar most with Daudt, allowing Hortman to focus more on policy. Winkler called his legislative style more aggressive, whereas Hortman has an instinct for consensus-building. But, he noted, Hortman is smart, irreverent and shes got guts.
She drew national attention in 2017 for a comment on the House floor in which she called out a 100 percent white male card game being played during a debate over increasing penalties on protesters, a proposal many DFLers strongly opposed.
At the time, some Republicans publicly demanded she apologize for the comment.
Hortman steadfastly refused.
Jessie Van Berkel 651-925-5044