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Politics and Government

Colorado Senate Democrats, with their new majority, show early splits; statehouse Republicans search for a path forward

Democratic Sens. Leroy Garcia and Stephen Fenberg are picked to lead party’s new state Senate majority

Sen. Leroy Garcia, of Pueblo, was chosen as the state Senate president on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018 as Democrats chose leaders for their new majority in the chamber. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)
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The new Democratic majorities at the state Capitol picked their leaders in elections Thursday that showed early divisions between the moderates and more liberal lawmakers.

In the state Senate, where the party took control for the first time in four years, Pueblo Sen. Leroy Garcia unanimously won the job as the chamber’s president when it returns in January. He is considered more moderate and will face the challenge of uniting a Democratic majority with diverse political views.

“We should not let the small differences divide us because we all have same goal,” Garcia said.

The contest for Senate president pro tempore, the No. 2 job but a largely ceremonial role, sparked a divide.

Sen.elect-Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, made the case for Sen. Angela Williams, citing the need for more racial diversity and the need for “a champion for civil rights” in the leadership.

But Williams — who is considered a more moderate lawmaker and is from Denver– lost the vote to Denver Sen. Lois Court.

Senate Democrats choose their caucus’ new leaders on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (Jesse Paul, TheColorado Sun)

Democrats then picked Sen. Steve Fenberg of Boulder as the majority leader — giving men the two most important positions. But women lawmakers — who are the majority of the Democratic caucus — secured four total leadership posts.

Democrats now hold a 19-16 majority in the 35-member chamber. And Fenberg, who defeated Sen. Rachel Zenzinger for the job, struck a tone of cooperation. “We need to govern for all Coloradans, not just those who voted in a couple of swing districts,” he said, even as he pledged to put forward an agenda with “unabashedly progressive” values.

A similar split arose as House Democrats decided on their leadership amid drastically increased ranks.

House Majority Leader KC Becker of Boulder ran unopposed to become speaker and Assistant House Majority Leader Alec Garnett of Denver was picked to become majority leader without any opposition.

But the contest for assistant house majority leader split the caucus between Denver Rep. Leslie Herod, who is seen as being aligned with the more liberal wing of the party, and Lakewood Rep. Chris Kennedy, who is viewed as more of a behind-the-scenes lawmaker.

House Democrats ultimately went with Kennedy after he promised to help the large caucus better collaborate and communicate.

“We need to be courageous,” he added. “This is a time when we are going to face obstruction. There are going to be people accusing us of overreach. We do have to be thoughtful about that but we do have to be brave and we have to stand by what we know to be the right thing to do.”

House Democrats choose their caucus’ new leaders on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (Jesse Paul, TheColorado Sun)

That sentiment Kennedy was touching on, the balancing act Democrats face in holding a majority and keeping those seats the next election cycle, was also echoed by Greenwood Village Rep. Jeff Bridges, who was elected co-whip. Bridges said he wants to make sure that when House Democrats take votes on bills that might be difficult to explain to their districts that their message is clear on “exactly why it is that you’re standing the way you are.”

“There are some really good things we can do and they’re not always going to be perceived as the most popular things,” he said.

The 2018 election pushed Republicans into the Senate minority for the first time since 2014. The caucus picked Chris Holbert, R-Parker, to be the minority leader and Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, as assistant minority leader

There were no contested leadership positions in the Senate GOP.

One notable name missing from the Colorado Senate Republicans’ leadership was Jerry Sonnenberg. He was poised to ascend to Senate president if the party won the chamber. The party’s losses left the Sterling lawmaker without a top job.

House Republicans were more fractured as they chose leadership Tuesday amid questions about four down-to-the-wire races that had yet to be called.

House Republicans choose their caucus’ new leaders on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018. (Jesse Paul, TheColorado Sun

There was a split between whether House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, should keep his job in light of the party’s losses Tuesday.

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, highlighted the division within the House GOP as he backed Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain, for minority leader.

“If we don’t unite this caucus, we are dead,” Wilson said.

Landgraf, however, threw her support behind Neville for minority leader.

Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch, was picked to be Neville’s assistant, vowing to “be a stark contrast to the far-left agenda that is coming our way.”

“Let us, as a caucus, bind up our wounds and move forward together,” Van Winkle said, alluding to how Democrats in the House won an even larger majority for the next term. Democrats also took control Tuesday of the offices of governor, attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state.  

MORE: Democrats will control Colorado’s government for the first time since 1936. Here’s a chart showing historical trends

Van Winkle replaces former Assistant House Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, who lost his re-election bid. Wist was a moderate and Van Winkle is more conservative, setting up the House GOP to move more right as they navigate their sixth year in the chamber’s minority.

Those four close, outstanding races are:

  • In the Arvada area, Democrat Brianna Titone was leading Republican Vicki Pyne by about 200 votes as of 6 p.m. Thursday. It’s an open seat.
  • In Arapahoe County, Republican Rep. Susan Beckman was leading Democrat Chris Kolker by about 500 votes as of 6 p.m. Thursday.
  • In southeast Colorado’s District 47, Democrat Bri Buentello was leading Republican Don Bendell by about 50 votes at 6 p.m. Thursday. Bendell beat out incumbent GOP Rep. Judy Reyher in their primary over the summer.
  • In Greeley, Democrat Rochelle Galindo was holding a lead of about 300 votes over Republican Michael Thuener as of 6 p.m. Thursday. It’s an open seat.

It may be days before we know the final results, especially if a recount is requested or triggered under Colorado law. A recount is mandatory when the number of votes separating the top two candidates is 0.5 percent or less than the total number of votes cast for the leading candidate.

That’s complicated, we know. So here’s another way to think about it: If candidate X has 10 votes and candidate Y has 8 votes, the difference between the candidates is two votes, or 20 percent, so no mandatory recount. 

A look at the new caucus leaders:

Senate Democrats

President: Leroy Garcia, Pueblo

President Pro-Tem: Lois Court, Denver

Majority Leader: Stephen Fenberg, Boulder

Whip: Kerry Donovan, Vail

Caucus Chair: Faith Winter, Westminster

Senate Republicans

Minority Leader: Chris Holbert, Parker

Asst. Minority Leader: John Cooke, Greeley

Minority Whip: Ray Scott, Grand Junction

Caucus Chair: Vicki Marble, Fort Collins

(Of note: Senator-elect Dennis Hisey, of Fountain, was chosen at the party’s Senate representative to the Joint Budget Committee, which is significant because it’s unusual for newly elected members to be chosen for the important post.)

House Democrats

Speaker: KC Becker, Boulder

Speaker Pro-Tem: Will be appointed.

Majority Leader: Alec Garnett, Denver

Assistant Majority Leader: Chris Kennedy, Lakewood

Co-Whip: James Coleman, Denver

Co-Whip: Jeff Bridges, Greenwood Village

Caucus Chair: Edie Hooton, Denver

Deputy Caucus Chair: Dafna Michaelson Jenet, Commerce City 

House Republicans

Minority Leader: Patrick Neville, Castle Rock

Asst. Minority Leader: Kevin Van Winkle, Highlands Ranch

Minority Whip: Perry Buck, Windsor

Caucus Chair: Lori Saine, Firestone

This is a developing story that will be updated.


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