Minnesota House Speaker Melissa Hortman has been underestimated for the better part of two years.

Even as Democrats grew excited about their overall prospects in 2018 to keep the governor’s chair and sweep other statewide races, few politicos gave them much chance of winning the Minnesota House. Republicans held a 20-seat advantage.

Hortman put her head down, recruited strong candidates and raised money, quietly confident that the suburbs would turn against President Donald Trump and punish their Republican legislators for his antics.

Hortman, an attorney who lost twice before winning her Brooklyn Park seat, was proved right and became the state’s third female speaker.

She’s different from other politicians who have risen through the ranks because, well, she seems kinda normal. She often wears sensible tennis shoes and prefers sports metaphors.

“Politics is a part of who she is, but it’s not the only thing she is, and people appreciate that,” said state Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, who was part of the same House class of 2004.

Her district was at one time a true battleground, forcing her to be pragmatic and listen to the opposition.

Hortman lacks the plastic veneer of ambition that is so thick on some that you can smell it. (In this way she is like Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, about whom I’ll write a future column.)

Which is not to say Hortman doesn’t have sharp elbows. Maybe it comes from her upbringing at a family-owned junkyard.

In one of our first interviews, she referred to something I had written with a phrase I can’t repeat here, but it was very evocative, and funny.

In an interview last week, she predicted a potential breakthrough next year on paid family leave. After I expressed skepticism about Senate Republicans approving the tax to pay for the new benefit, she said opponents like the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce may look at the 2020 election and decide they’d rather deal with this Legislature than the next one:

“I think they might rather have it done now. You might want to get it while the gettin’s good,” she said, a less-than-subtle reference to what the bill might look like under an all-DFL Legislature after the 2020 election.

Hortman also reacted to the proposal by five suburban Republican senators that Gov. Tim Walz call a special session of the Legislature to deal with the problem of rapidly rising insulin costs for diabetics. When I say “reacted,” I mean she popped them in the nose with a swift jab:

“I think we absolutely should do that. But we should not do it to provide Republicans a fig leaf to cover up for the fact that they sold out to the pharmaceutical industry on the insulin issue.”

Garofalo lost his committee chairman’s gavel when Hortman led the DFL back to the majority, and he’s seen enough: “She should move out of state and help Democrats somewhere else.”

 

J. Patrick Coolican 651-925-5042 Twitter: @jpcoolican patrick.coolican@startribune.com