During an important debate in the Minnesota House of Representatives on Monday, April 3, on a controversial bill on whether punishments for protesters should increase for blocking roads and airports, several Representatives were giving passionate speeches on their position, including several Representatives who are racial minorities.  The main problem, several of their colleagues, also elected Representatives, didn’t listen to those speeches.  Representative Melissa Hortman (also the DFL Minority Leader in the MN House) called out those Representatives in a floor speech saying: “I hate to break up the 100% white male card game in the retiring room, but I think this is an important debate.”
She was asked to apologize by Representative Bob Dettmer (R), who stated that he was offended, as he is a white male.  An apology was also demanded of Hortman by Majority Leader Representative Joyce Peppin (R).  Hortman declined saying that she is “really tired of watching women in particular being ignored.  So I’m not sorry.”  Representative Greg Davids (R) called on her to resign and claimed, in an interview, that it created a “hostile work environment.”  Later that week, in a process overseen by Peppin through her position as majority leader, a formal protest was filed for the legislative record against Hortman.
The work environment analogy fails to justify the on-the-record protest.  Let’s start first with the attempts to paint Hortman’s calling out of the card game as discriminatory.  This characterization doesn’t take into account the context of the comments themselves, which is relevant to a discrimination claim under the Minnesota Human Rights Act and Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act (neither cause of action is being contemplated here, but these are two examples we can use as an analogy).  The GOP has a history of using legislation and legislative rules to silence its opponents, be they activist organizations advocating for the rights of minorities or their own colleagues in the legislature.  A bill was being debated seeking to increase punishments for certain protesters amidst a backdrop of recent protest for rights of racial minorities.  While Representatives of a racial minority gave floor speeches discussing that bill, a group of white representatives are playing cards in the retiring room.  In this context, Hortman’s comments are attempting to stop ongoing racial inequity, rather than creating it.  To interpret the MHRA, Title VII, or any other law or rule in a manner to make Hortman’s comments a “hostile work environment” would stifle frank discussions about diversity in the workplace, and hurt important diversity training.
Furthermore, the work environment analogy fails, because if anyone was caught playing cards in a meeting, when their colleague was giving a presentation, they would be fired.
What’s even more insidious about the card game and the on-the-record protest is, that while many Minnesotans may not like the protest tactics at issue in the bill, most Minnesotans at least understand that the tactics are being used because many feel that lawmakers don’t listen to the voices of minorities.  The card game and on-the-record protest only proved that narrative to be correct. This fact clearly hasn’t sunk in to Peppin, Davids, and Dettmer, and shows they are out of touch with Minnesotans.
No protest, or any repercussive action has been filed against any of the representatives in the card game.  It should be noted that one of the representatives is a member of the DFL, and I sincerely hope he feels ashamed.
To the members of the GOP who were offended by Representative Hortman’s comments: don’t ever call us “snowflakes” again!
An opportunity to support Representative Hortmann on Tuesday April 18 can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/events/320149501737325/?ti=cl
Michael Vogel, J.D.