Minnesota Law Alumni Take Center Stage at State Capitol 

May 1, 2019

In January, when the Minnesota House of Representatives convened for the first session of the new biennium, the spectacle at the front of the chamber looked a bit like a Law School reunion.

At the center of the action was Rep. Melissa Hortman ’95, who, after successfully engineering the DFL takeover of the House in November, had just been formally elected speaker. When it came time for the eight-term representative from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, to officially commence the proceedings, it was Secretary of State Steve Simon ’96 who stepped to the podium to present her with the gavel.

And when the House finally got down to the business of the day—enacting a temporary set of procedural rules—there was Rep. Ryan Winkler ’01, assuming his new role as House majority leader. 

Lawyer, Lawmaker, Leader 

That a couple of attorneys might wind up in two of the most powerful legislative positions at the Capitol is hardly a shock. After all, the business of the Legislature is making laws, so legal training presents some obvious advantages for anyone trying to get ahead.

Still, Hortman and Winkler’s ascent marks the first time in more than three decades that two lawyers have simultaneously occupied the number one and number two posts in Minnesota House leadership. And it comes at a time when the number of lawyers in the Legislature (now 21 out of 201 total members) has dropped to its lowest level in more than a century.

In kicking off the session, Hortman, Winkler, and the new DFL House majority have unveiled an ambitious legislative agenda that includes potentially contentious bills relating to health care, gun regulation, and boosting K-12 funding. To advance these items, they have a daunting obstacle to overcome: Minnesota is the only state in the nation with a divided legislature, which means they’ll have plenty of opportunity to use their lawyerly skills of persuasion negotiating with their counterparts in the GOP-controlled state Senate.

It’s a tall order, but Hortman is hopeful that she and Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka will be able to find common ground. And she vows to avoid the sort of end-of-session partisan meltdowns that have many observers complaining about rising dysfunction at the Minnesota Capitol.

“As a litigator, I know that conflict is expensive and risky and that settlement can produce a more efficient and fair outcome,” explains Hortman. “I think Sen. Gazelka and I have similar personalities. We don’t desire to have a fight for the sake of having a fight.”

But can bipartisanship prevail in the current hyperpartisan political environment?

Winkler thinks Hortman has the right stuff to make it happen.

“She brings valuable personal skills to her role. She tends to be low drama, she sticks to the facts, and she doesn’t play games,” Winkler says. “Those are all qualities of a good lawyer.” 

Head of the House

Hortman’s rise to the upper echelon of power at the Capitol is testament to, among other things, dogged persistence. She made two failed bids for her House seat before a successful run in 2004. Since then, Hortman has steadily climbed the ranks of her caucus, serving as assistant majority leader, minority whip, deputy minority leader, and, last year, minority leader.

Hortman has always had an interest in politics and public policy. As an undergraduate at Boston University, she majored in philosophy, a specialty without an obvious career path. So, given what she refers to as her “save the world” ambitions, law school seemed a natural fit. She returned to her home state and enrolled at Minnesota Law.

After obtaining her J.D., Hortman worked for Central Minnesota Legal Services, where she focused on landlord-tenant and housing discrimination work. In 1997, she garnered a then-record-setting verdict in a housing discrimination lawsuit. But she also soon realized that there was only so much she could accomplish through such litigation.

“I represented mostly poor women with children, many of whom came from several generations of poverty. It wasn’t just cockroaches or inadequate heat or [landlord demands for] sexual favors that was the sum total of problems,” she says. “Their problems came from inadequate wages and inadequate education. I grew frustrated in my inability to address those economic and social problems.”

With two young children, Hortman also needed to make more money, so she made the leap to the storied (and now-defunct) Minneapolis-based law firm Rider Bennett, where she overlapped briefly with Gov. Tim Pawlenty ’86. After she was elected to the Legislature, Hortman switched up again and went to work for her family’s auto parts business, where she remained until her father sold the company in 2012. She then went to work for Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman ’74 for a few years, only moving on after she was elevated to minority leader—a position that, she says, is in effect a full-time job. 

A Similar Pathway

Winkler, who grew up in Bemidji, Minnesota, followed a somewhat similar trajectory. He had an active interest in politics from an early age and, like Hortman, headed to Boston for his undergraduate degree—in his case, Harvard—and then returned to his home state for a legal education at Minnesota Law.

Winkler says he knew that a law degree would be useful for the two careers he was interested in, business and politics.

“The Law School was a great setup for what I wanted to do,” Winkler says. “A lot of schools offer a great legal education. But if you plan to have a career in Minnesota, there’s no better place to go than the University of Minnesota, because the legal community is pretty small and people tend to know each other. You can’t replace the fact that you’re going to school in the community in which you will practice.”

To this day, Winkler says, the connections and friendships he made at law school are among the most enduring of his adult life.

After getting his law degree, Winkler went to work for a small Minneapolis firm, Smith Parker, before moving on to a succession of in-house counsel posts at tech companies. Winkler says he chose the jobs in part because they allowed him the luxury of pursuing a career in the Legislature. At many large law firms in town, serving in the Legislature is not an option. (Winkler notes that Walter Mondale ’56 had to resign from Dorsey when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 2002).

First elected to the House in 2006, Winkler quickly garnered a reputation as a sharp-tongued progressive. After his wife accepted a job overseas, Winkler resigned his seat midway through his fifth term to move abroad with his family. Last year, he flirted with a run for state attorney general when the then-DFL incumbent, Lori Swanson, jumped into the gubernatorial primary. But in the end, Winkler opted to run for his old House seat, which was vacated when his successor, Peggy Flanagan, joined Tim Walz’s successful gubernatorial campaign and was elected lieutenant governor.

In the end, it was another Law School alum—former Congressman Keith Ellison ’90—who stepped into, and won, the election to replace Swanson as attorney general.

While Hortman, Winkler, and Ellison are the most publicly visible Law School alumni to step into prominent roles at the Capitol this year, Minnesota Law grads also are well represented in the new governor’s cabinet.

Gov. Tim Walz tapped Rebecca Lucero ’07 as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and Nancy Leppink ’85 as the commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry.

In the Room Where It Happens

Chris Schmitter ’13 Takes on New Role: Governor’s Chief of Staff 

Chris Schmitter ’13

Almost immediately after being elected governor, Tim Walz tapped longtime friend and aide Chris Schmitter ’13 for what is probably the administration’s biggest behind-the-scenes job, chief of staff.

Schmitter’s connection to Walz stretches back to his undergraduate days at Georgetown, when he took off a semester to work on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign. It was there that he met Walz, then a Mankato, Minnesota, high school teacher. 

Walz and Schmitter stayed in touch, and when Walz decided to run for Congress two years later, Schmitter signed on as his field director. Walz won, and Schmitter became his legislative assistant. Schmitter later managed Walz’s successful re-election campaign and became his deputy chief of staff and legislative director. 

Schmitter returned to Minnesota in 2010 to go to Minnesota Law, where, he says, he was “trained by some of the best professors in the world.” He was editor-in-chief of the Minnesota Law Review and graduated first in his class. 

Like Ryan Winkler, Schmitter says the connections he made during those years have proved invaluable, as have the experiences of clerking at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit and, later, for Chief U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim ’80. 

Schmitter also worked at the boutique Minneapolis law firm Greene Espel, where his practice consisted of a mix of private- and public-sector litigation. “It was a great training ground for a lot of the legal and policy issues I face in this job,” he observes. 

Since signing on as Walz’s chief of staff, Schmitter says he’s bumped into plenty of fellow Minnesota Law alums. “The Law School is well represented at the Capitol, and that’s not surprising,” he adds. 

Minnesota House of Representatives Speaker Melissa Hortman ’95 and Majority Leader Ryan Winkler ’01
Minnesota House of Representatives Speaker Melissa Hortman ’95 and Majority Leader Ryan Winkler ’01

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