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Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Center, chats with a colleague Monday. Her comments several hours later about breaking up a “100 percent white male card game” going on outside House chambers led Taxes Committee Chair Greg Davids, R-Preston, to call for her resignation as minority leader. Davids later revised his comments, saying Hortman needs to apologize to the body. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Protester penalties spark fiery House debate

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Anoka (standing), addresses the House on Monday. An attempt to strip from the House Public Safety omnibus bill his provisions to increase penalties against transit-blocking protesters sparked a 4½-hour debate. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Anoka (standing), addresses the House on Monday. An attempt to strip from the House Public Safety omnibus bill his provisions to increase penalties against transit-blocking protesters sparked a 4½-hour debate. (Staff photo: Kevin Featherly)

A House floor debate over increased penalties for protesters became so heated Monday that a leading GOP House member called on Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Minneapolis, to leave her leadership post over inflammatory comments.

A debate meant to scrub so-called “anti-protester” provisions from a massive House omnibus public safety finance bill lasted four and a half hours and suffused the session with the angry politics of law and order, race and gender.

The protester provisions in the bill would make it a gross misdemeanor for protesters to block freeways, airports or railways during demonstrations. Conviction could carry a year in prison.

Proponents say keeping protesters off freeways will protect the public’s right to safety and unobstructed travel. Opponents say it’s meant to quell free speech during a period of increased political agitation.

The amendment by Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, to strip out those penalties ultimately failed, 56-75. The full two-year, $2.28 billion public safety bill then passed the House overwhelmingly, 94-37—with substantial DFL support.

Shortly afterward, Rep. Greg Davids, R-Preston, was quoted calling on Hortman to resign as minority leader. He was upset, he said, by comments Hortman made midway through the debate, while calling for House members to return to their seats.

“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.”

Davids, temporarily presiding over the chamber at the time, did not react verbally in the moment, but could be seen shaking his head in disgust.

Speaking Tuesday, Davids acknowledged Tuesday that he had stated after the session that Hortman should resign her leadership post. He has since softened that stance.

“That’s not my call,” Davids said Tuesday. “I think she needs to apologize to the body. She was way out of line with what she said.” However, he invited DFL leadership to take up the question of her possible resignation as minority leader.

Calls for Hortman to apologize came almost immediately after she spoke, from both House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, and Rep. Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake, a member who rarely speaks on the floor. Peppin called Hortman’s comments “racist” and “totally inappropriate to the House of Representatives.”

Hortman, noting the large number of House members who were absent from the floor during impassioned speeches against the amendment by several DFL women, defied those demands.

“I went into the retiring room and I saw where a bunch of my colleagues were,” Hortman said. “I am really tired of watching women of color, in particular, being ignored. So I am not sorry.”

‘Black Lives Matter on the highway’

One of those speeches was given by Rep. Susan Allen, DFL-Minneapolis, an attorney and Native American. Allen, who grew up in Northfield, said that as a child she was sometimes stricken with fever and seizures. When her father took her to her a hospital emergency room, she was refused medical service, despite her father’s valid medical insurance.

The family was told instead to travel to an Indian Health Services clinic miles away, she said.

“You get this anger from being marginalized, being discriminated against, being second class,” Allen said. Later, she added: “Do I just not explain that anymore? It’s not my job for you to understand.”

Rep. Rena Moran, DFL-St. Paul, said she ran for office to help create laws that lead to more fair policies toward her community. She said she has come to know what her African-American ancestors understood long ago—that laws are not always fair or just.

“That is what I see about this bill—it is about Black Lives Matter on the highway,” she said. “It is about a community of people raising their voices up about injustices that they felt.”

But injustice can be felt on both sides of the aisle. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, described an incident during the Public Safety committee meeting weeks ago where the protester penalties were being discussed before an agitated crowd of opponents.

One testifier there complained that no one of color sat on the committee. In fact, both Lucero, a Latino, and Becker-Finn, a descendant of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, are on the committee.

After Lucero corrected the record, someone shouted at him, “Indigenous brother, you should be on our side!” Another screamed, “Put your white hood back on!” Lucero called it “a pretty negative experience.”

“I’ve often said that those who preach tolerance the loudest are sometimes the ones who are the most intolerant,” he said.

In the bill

When the long debate over the amendment finally ended, the bill’s author, Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Vernon Center, spoke in frustration.

“I would have like to have had a bipartisan bill,” he told Democrats. “But now I really don’t much care if any of you vote for it.” In the end, however, many Democrats did support his bill.

Among those who did not were Moran, Allen and Hortman, joined by Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis; Rep. John Lesch, DFL-St. Paul; Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Brooklyn Park; Rep. Mary Kunesh-Podein, DFL-New Brighton; and Rep. Peggy Flanagan, DFL-St. Louis Park, all of whom spoke out against various provisions of the bill. Becker-Finn, however, sided with the majority.

Earlier, while introducing the bill on the floor, Cornish highlighted several of its components:

  • $20 million for increased inmate health care costs
  • $15 million for police crisis-response and cultural awareness training
  • $5.7 million for enhanced sex offender sentences and supervision
  • $4.1 million to replace predatory offender registry at the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension
  • $3.2 for technology upgrades to allow peace officers to access and serve harassment restraining orders
  • $2.2 million for a federally mandated rape prevention program at the Red Wing juvenile correctional facility
  • $2 million to replenish a the state’s disaster assistance fund
  • $1.7 million for two new district court judges and support staff
  • $1.5 million for expanded Corrections Department mental health services

The bill does not, however, include provisions extending gun owners’ rights to carry firearms without a permit, or expanding “stand-your-ground” defenses in the state, Cornish said. It does include a provision allowing off-duty cops to carry guns in public places, and another that paves the way for the Corrections Department to re-open the Appleton prison on a lease-to-own basis.

The bill now moves with its Senate counterpart to conference committee, where major differences need to be ironed out.

The Senate bill included only a $50 million budget target compared to the House version’s $112 million target. Several provisions funded in the House bill—including all agency employee salary raises—are unaddressed in the Senate version.

In a press conference before Monday’s floor debate, Cornish admitted that the low Senate targets likely will complicate negotiations. But he is confident the differences will be worked out, he said.

“It is Republicans versus Republicans, which is a good deal,” he said. “So we won’t have to be arguing, basically, on theory and philosophy. It’s just numbers.”

About Kevin Featherly

Kevin Featherly, who joined BridgeTower Media in mid-2016, is a journalist and former freelance writer who has covered politics, law, business, technology and popular culture for publications and websites in the Twin Cities and nationally since the mid-1990s.

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