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It Was About Results: A Lawmaker’s Two-Decade Fight for Transit

Minnesota state Rep. Frank Hornstein, a 22-year veteran of the state House, will not run for re-election this year. Colleagues say he’s left an imprint on transportation policy and the culture of the Legislature.

Transit advocate Frank Hornstein, a Minnesota legislator, at the Mall of America in 2022
Minnesota state Rep. Frank Hornstein celebrates the opening of a bus rapid transit line at the Mall of America. (Jared Brey/Governing)
In Brief:
  • Frank Hornstein has served in the Minnesota House since 2003, after having worked as a community organizer.

  • A committed progressive, he built friendships with Republicans and Democrats and pushed for his priorities even when his party was in the minority.

  • Last year, the Legislature passed his transportation funding package, which included new climate policies and dedicated funding for public transit.

  • I hear Minnesota state Rep. Frank Hornstein does good impressions of Bob Dylan, so I call him up and ask if he specializes in a certain era of the singer's career.

    “If you have a particular request, I can do it,” he says.

    Does he have anything from the late 1970s?

    “The late ‘70s — that would be the Street-Legal era,” he says, and rasps into the best song on the 1978 album. “Sixteen years! Sixteen banners united, over the fields, where the good shepherd grieves … How’s that?”

    It’s pretty good. The song, coincidentally, is called “Changing of the Guards.” Hornstein announced last month that he won’t seek re-election this year, bringing to a close a 22-year run representing the densest parts of the state in Minneapolis. His career culminated last year in a transportation funding deal that included nearly all of the priorities he’d spent the previous two decades fighting for.

    Colleagues and advocates from different ideological backgrounds describe him as a legislator with a feel for the transactional aspects of politics and a gift for negotiating across party lines, while staying true to his own priorities. Not unrelatedly, they say, he’s unusually funny, kind and patient in his dealings with other lawmakers.

    “The amateurs who get involved in legislating — they make a shot, it doesn’t work out, they get frustrated, they may lose interest," says Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. "That wasn’t him. I think he reflects a period in Minnesota lawmaking that certainly had its partisan edges, but it was also remarkably practical. It was about results.”

    For Hornstein, 64, lawmaking is “relational” at its core. “It’s really important to build relationships with [political opponents]," he says. "You can do that without sacrificing your beliefs. I think even in these polarized times, treating people with dignity and respect is really important.”
    Frank Hornstein
    (Photo Courtesy of MN350 Action)

    Patience Pays Off

    Hornstein is a transit rider. He was born in Cincinnati and used to enjoy taking the bus downtown as a kid. Many years later, after his three children had grown up and moved away from home, he gave up driving altogether. He no longer has a driver’s license. He uses Twin Cities Metro service — an expanding network, thanks partly to his advocacy — to get from his home in South Minneapolis to the state Capitol in St. Paul and around the region. He showed up to the Mall of America for the opening of a new bus rapid transit line in 2022 looking like any other unassuming bus rider, in baggy pants and a big parka to block out the Minnesota chill.

    Riding the bus sets a good example, he says, but it’s also a less stressful way to live. “It’s really a personal choice,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about traffic and driving, and it’s really a positive experience for me.”

    Prior to the 2022 elections, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) had not held full control of the Minnesota government for more than a decade. Back then, Hornstein and state Sen. Scott Dibble, each about a decade into their legislative careers, helped put forward a big package of liberal priorities, including legalization of same-sex marriage in 2013. But they couldn't pass long-sought transportation policies, including dedicated funding for road maintenance and public transit service, which required annual allocations from the state’s general fund.

    “We hedged on a lot of stuff that we could have done under the premise that we’ll get it next time, " Dibble says. "We won’t risk too much. We won’t overreach. We won’t frighten the horses in the streets. And of course we lost the next election.”

    Even in the minority, Hornstein continued to push for dedicated funding, even in years when he knew there was no chance it would pass. Transit advocates say that strategy paid off in the long run. By the time the DFL regained power, everyone knew what the priorities were.

    During budget negotiations in 2021, Republicans pushed for a transportation funding package that included one-time funds, heavily skewed toward roads and without much support for transit. Jason George, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, thought it was a pretty good deal. It included lots of funding for the types of projects that would keep his members working, he says. But Hornstein wouldn’t agree to it and the deal didn’t pass.

    “I was pretty mad at him about it and he knew that,” George says. “What happened after that was they ran the table during the election, and he got to do his own bill. He held to his convictions and he won.”

    The transportation funding package enacted last year included a three-fourths-cent sales tax in the Twin Cities area to fund Metro service operations. It essentially resolved the system’s budget gap, stemming from lost ridership during the pandemic, which is still haunting other big transit agencies. And it set the system up to grow.

    The bill was so significant that it caused Move Minnesota, a transit advocacy group, to totally reorient its attention away from state policy to agency operations. “In terms of funding at Metro transit, I think there is increasingly little work to be done at the state level,” says Sam Rockwell, the group’s executive director. “The transit improvements that need to happen need to happen at the agency level. Do they have the resources to get there now? They really do. That’s a big deal.”

    In addition to the sales tax, the bill included investments in bike and pedestrian infrastructure. It also included new rules requiring state agencies to measure the greenhouse gas emissions of proposed projects and find ways to mitigate them if they would compromise the state’s climate goals. “It was like winning the Super Bowl,” Hornstein says. “It was the pinnacle of a career, I think.”

    Decades of Collaboration

    In his early years in Minnesota, Hornstein worked as a community organizer on transportation and environmental issues. He volunteered on a 1982 state campaign for Paul Wellstone, the fiery progressive who went on to represent Minnesota in the U.S. Senate from 1990 until his death in a plane crash in 2002. In the 1990s, Hornstein worked with organizations like Clean Water Action and founded the progressive advocacy group Jewish Community Action in 1995.

    Dibble, the state senator, met Hornstein in the late 1990s. Dibble was also an activist at the time, working as a community organizer for a group called the Neighborhood Transportation Network, which opposed freeway expansions and backed investments in infrastructure for transit, walking and biking. Then in his late 20s, Dibble was organizing a fundraiser for the network and got a call, out of the blue, from Hornstein, whom he’d never met. Hornstein offered to attend his fundraiser and do his best impersonation of Wellstone for the guests; Dibble accepted. Soon after, Dibble was elected to the state House of Representatives. He served for two years, and then was elected to the state Senate. Hornstein won the election to succeed him in the House.
    Scott Dibble and Frank Hornstein
    Scott Dibble and Frank Hornstein. (Photo Courtesy of Frank Hornstein for House Facebook)
    The two have been working together on transportation issues ever since. Both have cited Wellstone as an inspiration in running for elected office. At the beginning of each legislative session they visit Wellstone’s grave together and say the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning.

    In 2008, when gay marriage was still illegal in Minnesota, Hornstein flew to California to celebrate Dibble’s marriage to his husband, Richard Leyva, and spoke at their wedding. Hornstein’s wife, Marcia Zimmerman, a rabbi at Temple Israel in Minneapolis, has described Hornstein and Dibble as “work spouses.”

    Dibble himself says, “What I say about Frank is he carries on the tradition of the happy warrior, which is kind of a Minnesota hallmark.”

    A Fair Hearing

    State Rep. Brad Tabke, the DFL vice chair of the transportation committee, likes to poke fun at Hornstein for regularly misplacing his glasses and not knowing how to use his phone. But he says it doesn’t matter because Hornstein has everyone’s phone number memorized.

    Political opponents are eager to claim Hornstein as a friend too. Republicans say Hornstein, as chair of the House transportation committee, goes out of his way to give hearings to bills introduced by members of the minority party, even when there is little chance of their ideas being passed. “He’s known in the Republican caucus as one of the fairest and kindest chairs of the other party. He’s very well liked,” says state Rep. Jon Koznick, a Republican who represents a suburban district in the Twin Cities metro area.

    Hornstein respects people he disagrees with, says state Rep. John Petersburg, currently the top Republican on the transportation committee after swapping the chair with Hornstein repeatedly over the last decade. “Back when my late wife passed away, he actually had someone drive him down to the funeral, which I’ll always remember,” says Petersburg, who is also retiring at the end of the year.

    Hornstein, expecting his first grandchild in April, says he’ll stay involved in transportation and climate advocacy. “It’s a good run, 22 years, and I feel like I’ve accomplished most of my goals as a legislator,” he says. “And as a community organizer … I think it’s also important to make way for new voices.”

    Colleagues say they’ll miss his impressions — not just of Dylan and Wellstone but Gov. Tim Walz, former Gov. Jesse Ventura and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. He pulls them out at tough times to break the tension. As another mark of his impact, Hornstein notes that his son, Max, performs as a standup comic in Brooklyn.

    “The job is serious,” Hornstein says, “but you can’t take it too seriously.”

    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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