Minnesota Democrat Melissa Hortman, the minority leader in the state House, gained national attention this week when she called out her white, male colleagues in the Republican Party for not being on the floor while women of color were giving powerful speeches about a public safety bill.
“I hate to break up the 100 percent white male card game in the retiring room, but I think this is an important debate,” she said Monday.
At the time, the House was debating legislation that would increase penalties for protesters who block major roads. A number of women gave personal testimony about their experiences and the civil rights struggle.
Hortman’s comments hit a nerve with her white male colleagues. Rep. Bob Dettmer (R) said she should apologize and Rep. Greg Davids (R) called for her resignation.
“I have no intention of apologizing,” Hortman said in response to Dettmer. “I am so tired of watching Rep. Susan Allen give an amazing speech, Rep. Peggy Flanagan give an amazing speech, watching Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn give an amazing speech, Rep. Rena Moran give the most heartfelt, incredible speech I’ve heard on this House floor, as long as I can remember, watching Rep. Ilhan Omar give an amazing speech ... and looking around, to see, where are my colleagues?”
“And I went in the retiring room, and I saw where a bunch of my colleagues were,” she added. “And I’m really tired of watching women of color, in particular, being ignored. So, I’m not sorry.”
Hortman spoke with The Huffington Post Tuesday afternoon, explaining why she spoke up on Monday and what the reaction has been to her comments.
Why did you decide to call out your colleagues, and what reaction are you getting?
We were debating whether or not to increase penalties for protesters. And the women who were speaking were talking about how important protests have been in accomplishing social change, especially for communities of color ― and they were speaking from personal experiences as women of color. We were having a conversation that was very focused on civil rights and obtaining more rights for oppressed people, and that sometimes, protest is the only choice that people have to be noticed and to affect social change.
So it did seem particularly galling that under the circumstances of that debate, the women who were speaking and the people who were ignoring them, that they didn’t just come out and listen.
You talked about the white men who were in the retiring room. How many were there? When did you see them over there?
As leader of the caucus, members of my caucus come up to me and express concern about things that they think I should do something about. So various members of my caucus had come up to me and said, “They’re playing cards in the backroom, and you should do something about this.”
They were literally playing cards?
Yeah. I think it was after the third member who brought it to my attention and thought it was disrespectful to our members ― I went and took a look.
I was pretty irritated. Because it’s not very often we have a debate on the floor of the Minnesota House when during the debate, a hush comes over the body. And anybody who’s on the floor gets that we’re having a very serious discussion about something, and the member who is speaking is giving personal, compelling testimony on an issue that’s important to Minnesotans. It doesn’t happen very often. And that happened, and the floor got very quiet, and the people on the floor were moved by what Rep. Rena Moran and what Rep. Susan Allen were saying.
I texted one of my friends in the Republican caucus and I said, “I think you should really be out here hearing this.” He declined to come out and to bring his mentee out on the floor. And I just thought, “Well, there’s only one way I’m going to get them out here to listen to this, and that’s to call them out.”
I know that Rep. Dettmer called on you to apologize. What were your thoughts when he did that?
I really very considered seriously doing that. And I drafted what I would have said if I had apologized, and I talked about it with my husband this morning ― my white male husband. And he said, “No! You shouldn’t be sorry! You were right. You shouldn’t be sorry.”
And I talked to my leadership team, and I talked to my caucus. Their response is best summed up by one of the texts from my white male colleagues that came last night right after the incident, and he said in all caps, “NEVER APOLOGIZE.”
I represent not just me, I represent a caucus. The thing that made me want to apologize is that we have this thing in politics today that is so divisive and so polarized, and I didn’t want to contribute to that. I wanted to create ― and I still want to figure out how to create ― a healing moment for the Minnesota House of Representatives, where we get to a point where I accomplish what I was trying to do, which is get people to listen to each other and not just talk past each other. You can’t be moved by a moving speech on the House floor if you’re not on the House floor.
No plans to resign?
No, I thought that was a little crazy. I think Rep. Davids had a tough day.
Have you heard any words of support from any of your Republican colleagues?
No, not from any of my Republican colleagues. I did walk out to the parking garage with one of the Republican women, and she was very nice to me.
I think women just get it. They know that this happens. It’s happened to every woman. I don’t know if there’s any woman out there it hasn’t happened to. So I think they maybe had a different perspective. I don’t know how their caucus discussion went, but they certainly weren’t interested in pursuing it today. They certainly seemed to back down on demanding any sort of apology from me.
The only thing I would add is the whole point is I wanted to draw attention to the incredible women in our caucus. We have more diversity in our caucus than we’ve ever had. So what I was trying to do was draw attention to the members of that caucus and to the things that they said. I don’t want the attention to be on me. I want it to be on the things that they were saying that were incredible and compelling.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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