Soon-to-be DFL House speaker Hortman hopes to bridge differences with Republicans

State Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, will be elected speaker of the Minnesota House, the second-most-powerful office in state government, when the 2019 Legislature convenes on Jan. 8. Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — Democratic state Rep. Melissa Hortman’s rise to the top rungs of political power in Minnesota has been a sometimes-bumpy but persistent climb grounded on her family’s religious values and her youthful dreams.

Hortman, 48, an eight-term lawmaker from Brooklyn Park, will be elected speaker of the Minnesota House of Representatives, the second-most-powerful office in state government, when the 2019 Legislature convenes on Jan. 8.

Members of the newly elected House Democratic-Farmer-Labor majority chose her as speaker in November after she engineered an 18-seat election pickup that gave Democrats control of the chamber.

“I wanted us to win, not so I could become speaker. It was to do the work that we will do with (Democrats) in control,” Hortman said in an interview with the Pioneer Press. “I hope the focus is on the work of the team and not the leader of the team.”

The House DFL team’s platform calls for providing more affordable and accessible health care, paid sick time and family leave and more money for education and for roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Hortman said DFLers hope to work Democratic Gov.-elect Tim Walz to “build a Minnesota that works better for everyone.”

That includes Republicans, who control the state Senate by a one-vote margin that will enable them to block DFL initiatives. That’s a recipe for either compromise or gridlock.

Seeking a cooperative tone

Hortman, an attorney, and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka — the Legislature’s top Republican — have already set a cooperative tone. Shortly after the election, the two quickly agreed to revive a handful of noncontroversial bills that got derailed during the end of the 2018 legislative session.

Working across the partisan divide is the “secret sauce” for getting things done in the country’s only split Legislature, Hortman said.

For the new speaker, that will require pulling her caucus away from the Democrats’ most liberal checklists that could alienate moderate suburban voters. And to avoid getting voted back into the minority in two years, she must focus the DFLers’ attention on the bread-and-butter concerns of the middle class.

“I think Rep. Hortman has pragmatic instincts that align us with what the public wants right now,” said Rep. Pat Garofolo, a Farmington Republican who was first elected in 2004, the same year as Hortman.

But Hortman and GOP leaders will be challenged to bridge some major differences. Republicans oppose DFL proposals to raise gas taxes to pay for road improvements and to allow anyone to buy into MinnesotaCare, the state-subsidized health insurance program for the working poor.

Representing a swing district that has gone from deep red in the 1990s to leaning Democrat now, Hortman said she’s careful to take into account the concerns of her GOP constituents. Most of the newly elected suburban House members represent similar “50-50 districts,” she said.

Political at an early age

Hortman was born and raised in Spring Lake Park. Her family moved to Andover when she was 10.

She grew up working in her father’s used auto parts store in Blaine. Her parents are devout Catholics who instilled in Melissa and her brother a deeply held belief in the biblical adage that “to whom much is given, much is expected,” she said.

Hortman became interested in politics at age 10 during the 1980 presidential race between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. As an 18-year-old high school senior in 1988, she got elected as a DFL convention delegate and supported Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois for the presidential nomination.

As a high school student thinking about what career would provide the “best way to give back,” she learned that many of the nation’s leading government officials were lawyers and decided she would become one, too.

When Hortman announced that she wanted to go to Harvard, her high school guidance counselor told her, “You won’t get into Harvard.”

“Why not?” she asked.

“We don’t have the kinds of things they’re looking for,” the Anoka-Hennepin School District counselor said. They didn’t offer classes such as Japanese or Advanced Placement economics that wealthier suburban districts did.

“It seemed to me it was unfair that kids in Bloomington and Edina would have a shot at getting into Harvard just because of where they were born and grew up, and a blue-collar kid like me wouldn’t have that same opportunity,” Hortman said.

Informed that “Harvard wasn’t interested,” she enrolled at Boston University, majoring in political science and philosophy. As a senior, she landed a job as an intern for then-U.S. Sen. Al Gore.

After Harvard rejected her application to its law school, the University of Minnesota accepted her. She deferred enrolling for a year to work in the office of U.S. Sen. John Kerry as a legislative correspondent, which involved drafting letters to his Massachusetts constituents.

It was there that she started to dream, “but not very seriously,” she said, about someday becoming a U.S. senator and possibly running for president. Those dreams faded when she realized she would never be able raise the millions of dollars needed to run a viable Senate campaign.

Making her mark

At the U of M law school, Hortman settled on public-interest law. She landed a Legal Aid Society job in Minneapolis and began defending low-income tenants in disputes with landlords.

After marrying her husband, Mark, a manager at a computer programming firm, and having a son and daughter, now ages 23 and 21, Hortman opened her own small law firm and earned some attention by winning housing-discrimination cases.

In 1998, Brooklyn Park Democrats recruited her to run against Republican state Rep. Bill Haas. In her first election contest, “I got slaughtered.”

She ran for the House again in 2002 and once more lost by a wide margin. But by then, some prominent Democrats, including Congressman Bill Luther, took notice and encouraged her to try again.

Luther heard her speak at a candidate forum and was impressed. “She was smart, analytical, made an excellent presentation and seemed to have solid Minnesota values,” he said.

In 2004, Hortman was narrowly elected on her third try for the House.

“That tells you that she’s tenacious but patient,” said Secretary of State Steve Simon, a former law school classmate also was first elected to the House that year.

Rising thourgh party ranks

After the 2006 election, Hortman was elected one of eight assistant majority leaders, was chosen DFL minority leader in 2016 and ascended to speaker last fall after helping her caucus retake the majority.

Former Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher said she recognized Hortman’s leadership abilities early on. “She’s a quick study, is willing to work hard, and she has a lot of people skills and is fun to be around,” Kelliher said.

Some observers privately say Hortman is too nice, too willing to compromise and not fight hard enough for core progressive values.

In response, Hortman cautions: “People should not confuse the difference between weak and nice. I’m definitely a very nice person, but I’m an attorney and a competitor. … I know how to compete and win.”

She also can be a tough disciplinarian.

After the election, Hortman stripped Rep. Alice Hausman of St. Paul of her long-held post as chair of the House Capitol Investment Committee, which controls funding for state construction projects. Hortman said she did it because a House rule sets a three-consecutive-term limit on committee chairs — a rule Hausman said previous speakers had waived for others.

“I’m being punished for not following orders last session,” Hausman said. Although she was in the minority in 2018, she said she was able to negotiate a “really good bill” with majority Republicans that included many projects in DFL districts.

But when the bill reached the House floor, she said, Hortman told her to “take the bill down.” Hausman refused and instead rounded up the votes to pass it by a comfortable margin.

After losing her chair’s gavel last month, Hausman said of Hortman, “She’s a very top-down leader.”

Other lawmakers disagree. “She’s very good at letting everyone get a word in before she offers an opinion,” Republican Garofalo said.

Former Speaker Kelliher said Hortman showed her leadership chops the last time the state passed a gas tax increase. In 2008, she was the floor leader who helped devise and implement the strategy for overriding then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of the first gas tax increase in 20 years. She counts that among her biggest legislative accomplishments.

Hortman can also claim a non-political trophy that she rarely mentions. After Harvard rejected her for its undergraduate and law schools, the university admitted her to its Kennedy School in 2016 where she earned a master’s degree in public administration last year.

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