The GOP leadership quietly had the button installed on the back of the rostrum after the 2015 session came to a particularly raucous end. Labeled "chamber mute," it silences the microphones at all of the other lawmakers' desks simultaneously. Democrats became aware of it when Speaker Kurt Daudt pushed it during an acrimonious debate in 2016. They've been stewing ever since.
After Democrats retook control of the House in the November elections, the incoming speaker, Melissa Hortman, said the button must go. "Every other speaker in the history of Minnesota has been able to govern the chamber with a gavel in his or her hand, and you have a mute button?" Hortman said in an interview Friday. "It's just a total violation of the culture of the Minnesota House of Representatives. But more fundamentally it hits at the fundamental principles of democratic government."
Daudt didn't respond to an interview request Friday. But he poked fun at his power to silence in a video last spring. Produced for an annual fundraising roast for the nonprofit online news site MinnPost, the video shows Daudt being given an "upgraded" supersized portable mute button that can silence anyone. The video shows him roaming the Capitol, using it to silence a pesky reporter, an overly chatty former Speaker Steve Sviggum, a coffee slurper, and finally Senate Democratic leader Tom Bakk. At the end, Bakk shiftily pockets the button after Daudt forgets it on a table.
Sviggum, a Republican, said he had no problem keeping order by banging his gavel when he led the House from 1999 to 2006. But he added that there were times when a mute button might have been tempting.
"I won't say there weren't times I wished I would have had one, as much for my members as the Democratic members," he said with a laugh. Angry Democrats last winter moved to ban the button. They lost on a party-line vote. Ryan Winkler, who's now the incoming majority leader, had megaphones made last spring that said, "We will not be muted." He handed them out to every representative, Democrats and Republicans alike.
"The ability to speak out is fundamental to any notion of democracy meaning anything," Winkler said. "I thought that if the speaker tried to use the mute button, bullhorns would be an effective avenue by the minority to have their voices heard."
Daudt isn't the only presiding lawmaker in the U.S. to kill a microphone to silence opposition. In Rhode Island, Rep. Patricia Morgan recalled at least three times when her microphone was shut off in recent years. She was one of the few Republicans in the state's Democratic-controlled Legislature.
"You're cutting off the sharing of ideas and information and alternative opinions," Morgan said. "And that is just absolutely the antithesis of what our democracy should be about." In the Ohio House last month, GOP Speaker Ryan Smith cut the microphone of Democratic Rep. Stephanie Howse during a debate on a "stand your ground" gun bill that got personal. She refused to be gaveled silent as she argued that the legislation threatened people of color. Smith thought Howse insinuated that he and some bill sponsors were racist.
In California last year, Democratic Majority Leader Bill Monning shut off the microphone of Republican Sen. Janet Nguyen after she refused to stop criticizing the late Sen. Tom Hayden's role as a leader of the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s. Sergeants-at-arms eventually removed her from the floor.
Political history is littered with lawmakers who might have benefited from being muted. Witness the case of California Assemblyman Michael Duvall, a Republican and married family values champion. He didn't realize he was near a hot microphone in 2009 when he started bragging to a colleague during a break in a hearing about how he was carrying on affairs with two women, and how he liked spanking. He resigned after recordings of his whispered comments spread online.
AP reporter Jennifer McDermott contributed to this story from Providence, Rhode Island.