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Money and labor credited for Statehouse switch

Dems take the lead in the House and the Senate

By Leigh E. Rich

Less than two weeks after the election and it’s almost as if there hadn’t been a contentious battle for the presidency waged in the Rocky Mountain state. Colorado’s post-election analysis has focused almost solely on the regime change in the statehouse.

For the first time since 1960, the Democrats have secured majorities in both the House and the Senate.

Though the Dems tasted brief control in the state Senate after the 2000 election, they lost it to the Republicans two years later. Democrats in the House, however, haven’t headed the majority there since 1974.

Nothing less than “jubilant” best describes the atmosphere among the Dems last week during their leadership caucuses, when the new majority elected by acclamation Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald, SD 16, and Rep. Andrew Romanoff, HD 6, to head the state Legislature in the 65th General Assembly.

With a narrow 18-17 majority—turning tables on the Republicans who lost their 18-17 lead—Fitz-Gerald will become the first female president of the Colorado Senate. And when Sen. Peter Groff, SD 33, is sworn in as president pro tempore, it will mark the highest office an African American has reached in statehouse history.

Other Senate principals will include Sen. Ken Gordon, SD 35, as majority leader; Sen. Jim Isgar, SD 6, as assistant majority leader; and Sen. Ron Tupa, SD 18, as caucus chair.

As speaker of the House, Romanoff will supervise at least a 34-31 majority—though that number could change to 35-30, depending on the outcome of the Gwyn Green-Ramey Johnson race in HD 23. Election officials are currently counting provisional ballots in incumbent Johnson’s district and, if the race is still close, a recount could be next. But to date, the Colorado Democrats picked up six seats in this election and a possible seventh with Green.

Alongside Romanoff will be Rep. Alice Madden, HD 10, as House majority leader; Rep. Michael Garcia, HD 42, as assistant majority leader; Rep. Angie Paccione, HD 53, as caucus chair; and Rep. Dorothy Butcher, HD 46, as caucus whip.

Since Nov. 2, the new Democratic leadership has been deeming the 65th General Assembly the “Colorado comeback.”

Not everyone is happy, however.

Rumor has it the leadership caucuses across the aisle were as somber as their counterparts’ were euphoric.

In the new minority, Sen. Mark Hillman, SD 1, will take over as Senate minority leader; Sen. Steve Johnson, SD 15, as assistant minority leader; and Sen. Norma Anderson, SD 22, as caucus chair.

The House GOP principals will include Rep. Joe Stengel, HD 38, as minority leader; Rep. Mike May, HD, 44, as assistant minority leader; Rep. Bill Cadman, HD 15, as caucus chair; and Rep. Diane Hoppe, HD 65, as minority whip.

The Colorado Republicans also lost control of the Joint Budget Committee for the first time since 1960.

Members of the new JBC will be Democratic Sens. Maryanne “Moe” Keller, SD 20, and Abel Tapia, SD 3; Democratic Rep. Tom Plant, HD 13, and Rep.-elect Bernie Buescher, HD 55; and Republican Sen. Dave Owen, SD 13, and Rep. Dale Hall, HD 48.

The decisions of the 65th General Assembly’s fiscal and budget review agency “will be different decisions,” Fitz-Gerald said, “when the balance is 4-2.”

The labors of labor

The Democratic triumph, however, wasn’t just unusual in the Centennial state that’s tended to lean red in the Legislature for some time now. The Colorado statehouse was the only one in the nation to have switched from Republican to Democrat.

Regardless, “it’s clear that the 2004 election (creating Democratic majorities in the statehouse) did not happen by serendipity,” Fitz-Gerald said Wednesday at the Capitol at an AFL-CIO press conference acknowledging labor’s part in the turnaround.

The Senate president-elect explained the election results as due to the fact that “this building forgot about the bread and butter issues. … We forgot what our purpose was under Republican leadership.”

That’s all going to change with the next Assembly, the new Dem leaders say, who have been reiterating to working families since Election Day that they will focus on jobs, health care, education, the environment, TABOR and the state “fiscal crisis.”

“This state has fallen farther and faster” than many others, Romanoff said Wednesday, particularly in terms of job growth. “We were second in the nation three years ago.”

According to the Economic Policy Institute’s JobWatch report, Colorado has seen a growth of less than 32,000 new jobs since July 2003, far below the Bush administration’s projection of almost 93,000.

The middle class “is shrinking,” Rep.-elect Morgan Carroll, HD 36, told the AFL-CIO representatives. “It shrinks not by accident and not by fluke,” but by “bad policy.”

The AFL-CIO meeting at the Capitol was a chance for the labor organization to remind the legislators—whom it helped win campaigns—that it will be “asking things of you” in the upcoming session, said Paul Mendrick, the secretary-treasurer of the Colorado AFL-CIO.

Colorado’s working families want affordable health care and prescription drugs and good paying jobs “that are not Wal-Mart style,” Mendrick told the gathering of majority legislators.

And members of the 65th Assembly promised to listen.

“Everybody needs to work. Everybody gets sick,” Romanoff said, explaining why jobs and health care will garner primary slots on the legislative agenda.

The AFL-CIO also will likely have the ear of legislators because it played a critical role in the election. Linda Mulligan, a national field representative for the organization, said the group and many unions “started back in 2003 and strategized about what this election looked like,” developing goals and a timeline to make certain their members were registered and educated on the issues. Then they made sure they got out the vote, Mulligan added.

“Members and their families stepped up in record number … in Colorado,” she said, something that didn’t necessarily happen in other states. “Whether they were Democrats, Republicans, affiliated with another party or unaffiliated … working families came together to support candidates … and they won.”

Like Mendrick, Mulligan also encouraged the legislators to keep issues affecting workers in the forefront throughout the next session.

“Every union from top to bottom got involved with this election,” said Steve Adams, president of the Colorado AFL-CIO, including more than 5,000 people over a four-month period “hitting the streets at record levels” and more than 50,000 pieces of mail being sent to union members.

Campaign currency

The GOP minority has emphasized a different explanation for the statehouse switch. In a press conference the day after the election, Gov. Bill Owens spoke to the disparities in resources.

“In some cases, the Democrats had better candidates. In most cases, they were much better funded. And that is something that is unique. Almost every Democratic candidate had a significant fund-raising advantage over almost every Republican candidate.”

Owens also said the Democrats were better organized and had more people on the ground.

“We could have done a better job of organizing,” Owens conceded, though adding that the opposition party benefited from the support of individuals such as businessman George Soros, who donated several million dollars to and other efforts to unseat President Bush.

“The George Soros effect and had a lot of people on the ground in Colorado that normally wouldn’t have been. We have the 96-hour program, which we also had two years ago. That was very effective. But they had George Soros and national groups … and they also had Colorado-specific interests, and these would be the Jareds and Rutts and Pats and Tims”—referring to local activists Jared Polis, Rutt Bridges, Pat Stryker and Tim Gill who donated a combined total of $1.6 million to Colorado campaigns.

“We didn’t have the ability to match that money. … We just simply ran out of resources,” Owens explained. “They had more rich people willing to reach into their pockets for hundreds of thousands of dollars than we did.”

AFL-CIO’s Adams doesn’t quite see eye-to-eye with the governor, however, stating that the Democratic victory was because the labor movement “brought together constituency groups around the table and salted a few millionaires in there. … We were united.”

Rep.-elect Carroll agreed. “Of all the people out there who picked up the torch and carried it for us, it was labor.”

But despite the local victories, Adams added that “it was a struggle to smile” the morning after Election Day. “We didn’t win the presidency, and the fate of the labor movement is really going to hinge on what happens in Washington.”

He is already looking ahead to the next election. He told the General Assembly’s new majority that “we have got to win that governor’s mansion in 2006 and we’ve got to continue to hold the House and Senate.”

Colorado’s working families and its middle class, Mendrick added, are “tired of the right-wing (agenda) of the governor.” Mendrick responded to recent statements made by both Owens and President Bush about reuniting America and being willing to work across the aisle by asking, “Where have you been the last four years?”

For his part, Owens has reiterated his bipartisan abilities. “What I’m going to do is work with both parties. I understand my role as governor, and I understand that I’m going to deal with the people that Colorado has sent to the Capitol.”

Elbow room and elbow grease

And while many of the Democrats have tempered their victories with talk of fixing the fiscal crisis, respecting their GOP colleagues and working amiably with them, they’ve also peppered their speeches in the past two weeks with a few jabs aimed at the former Republican majority.

During the previous General Assembly, Romanoff half-jokingly said Wednesday, one would have thought “the biggest problem in Colorado … has got to be gangs of gays and lesbians” adopting children “without the benefit of a firearm or the Pledge of Allegiance.”

And Sen. Gordon promised the new majority will focus the upcoming session on TABOR, health care, education and the environment—“not a right-wing agenda, which is why I think the Republicans lost this election.”

But “Democrats aren’t godless creatures,” Rep. Terrance Carroll, HD 7, emphasized during the House leadership caucus last week—a sentiment repeated by Rep. Liane “Buffie” McFadyen, HD 47, on Wednesday.

During this election, “we were challenged over and over (by critics) saying we don’t have family values,” she said. “Nothing keeps a family together better than a good paying job.”

And that—along with the budget shortfall, health care and other issues—is what Romanoff and Fitz-Gerald pledge will drive the next Assembly.

After being elected the new House speaker, Romanoff spoke to the “big mess” the Dems have inherited, a theme reiterated by Fitz-Gerald at the AFL-CIO press conference and at a meeting with Groff and reporters on Nov. 3.

“We stand on the precipice of doing something about the fiscal crisis in this state. … We will do it because we must do it,” she said Wednesday.

The day after the election, Groff added that the previous session was “paralyzed by partisanship.”

“We have the chance to bring civility back to this chamber … (and) do away with this paralysis to move this state forward.”

But regardless of the subtle criticisms tossed in the GOP’s direction, the Democratic leaders say they look forward to working with their Republican colleagues, including the governor.

Speaking in terms of “all seriousness, all soberness” about the problems facing the state, Fitz-Gerald emphasized that no matter who is in the majority, “We can’t do it alone, they can’t do it alone. It’s a political hot potato.”

“The Golden Rule does not mean do unto the Republicans as they did unto us,” Romanoff told his leadership caucus. “I hope you will all be gracious in our hard-won victory.”

Yet “the glow is still on the rose,” an elated Fitz-Gerald said.

“Let me put it this way: I am now looking forward to meeting with the governor.”

Rich, L. E. (2004, November 19). Beliefs ripen into reality in Statehouse: Dems take the lead in the House and the Senate. The Colorado Statesman, pp. 1, 6–7.

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