The lavish oak paneling, fireplace and antique furniture of the exclusive room just off the House floor, inside the State Capitol, evoke an earlier era: Men — and only men — sipping brandy and discussing important Minnesota matters as smoke twirls to the high, decorative ceiling.
Politics has changed since the State Capitol opened in 1905, most notably in the eventual addition of women to the Legislature. But the “retiring rooms” that grace the House and Senate chambers remain physically preserved and functional. In the House, that includes a mural of a bucolic Minnesota wilderness spanning the entire room, and wood carvings of gophers and cherubs.
The rules of the rooms, both written and unspoken, remain inviolate. The House retiring room is reserved for members, their families and employees. Admission in the Senate is restricted to senators only.
And, what happens in the retiring room stays in the retiring room.
This week, that decorum was breached during a House floor debate about increasing penalties for political demonstrators who block highways and airports.
As DFL lawmakers — including several women of color — made impassioned speeches that invoked their families’ experience of oppression and liberation, the floor of the 134-member House thinned out. Some lawmakers made their way to the retiring room for a break, common behavior during long floor sessions.
House Minority Leader Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, rose to demand that members be called back to their seats. “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.
Republicans expressed outrage. Majority Leader Joyce Peppin, R-Rogers, said Thursday they would file a protest against Hortman.
“We just think it’s inappropriate to single out a group and a gender of people on the floor,” Peppin said. “It’s not what we do in the House. Members were very angered by it.”
Hortman’s comments arose from her own frustration, she said, that lawmakers would play cards in the retiring room while their colleagues debated an important issue.
When Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL- Crystal, arrived at the Legislature in 1973, the retiring room doubled as the meeting space for the House Rules Committee. It was members-only and completely out of public view. And it had no restrooms for women in those days.
Rep. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, is a first-term lawmaker who rose during the debate about civil disobedience to tell the story of her father getting slapped by his own father for using a water fountain reserved for whites in the Jim Crow South. She said she does not spend much time in the retiring room because “when there’s debate going on, my job is to be on the floor.”
As a new lawmaker, Maye Quade said she has much to learn from colleagues, but said the same applies to others: “We need to be paying attention to each other and actively listening to each other.”
Carlson suggested the retiring rooms should be called a “multipurpose room,” even if it sounds inelegant.
Especially during debates, which occasionally run 10 hours or more on a single bill, the room is a place for members to eat takeout at one of the two long tables, grab a coffee, make a phone call. Although the sound from the floor is piped in, they can watch the Senate, or a ballgame. Or play cards.
They can also cut a deal.
Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, was House speaker in 2013 when he cut a deal with Rep. Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, who’s now the speaker. They had to nail down the votes to approve state money for the nearly finished, $330 million Capitol renovation project. Memories differ somewhat, but Thissen said they hatched the deal in the retiring room as the session wound down.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, can hardly imagine life in the Senate without the retiring room. He said he’s used it to make countless agreements with fellow senators away from the meddling of staff, lobbyists and, yes, the public — none of whom are allowed, a rule that goes back to at least 1965.
Bakk explained the importance of the Senate retiring room in a quiet, almost reverent voice, as he stood just outside it. (He also boasted of its aesthetic superiority to what he believes to its more chaotic House counterpart, a frequent feature of Senate-House relations.)
“It’s an important part of the relationship-building,” Bakk said. “It’s only members, and there are no distractions.”
Hortman’s remarks broke an unspoken rule of the House, that goings-on in the retiring room not be discussed publicly. But Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, predicted the special room would return to its antique roots as a private space for building relationships.
“People are asking if this is a new era, where we’re going to see photos of people in the retiring room,” Garofalo said. “But I think that’s not going to be the case, and that what you saw this week was a one-time aberration.”