Nearly one in four lawmakers in the Colorado legislature last session had at some point landed in a statehouse seat thanks to a vacancy appointment, a Colorado Sun analysis shows.
The side-door entrance to the Colorado General Assembly will remain equally open next year as at least five — and possibly as many as eight — lawmakers plan to depart their seats at the start of the 2019-20 legislative term.
The replacements won’t get picked by voters, but rather by a vacancy committee of activists from the party that holds the seat. Colorado is one of only five states to use this kind of partisan process, which gives appointment panels outsized influence in shaping the legislature and public policy.
The result: while voters picked their favorite candidates more than a month ago in the 2018 election, the lineup at the Capitol for next year remains anything but set.
An appointment from a vacancy committee gives the person selected incumbent advantage against challengers in the next election. The lawmakers who first entered the legislature through this process include incoming House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, and outgoing state Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, who was chairman of the Senate finance committee.
“These committees have tremendous power,” said Dick Wadhams, the former head of the Colorado Republican Party. “I mean, think about it: A fairly small group of people elected two state senators this week. A lot of times it creates a domino effect.”
In 2019, at least 16 lawmakers from the 100-member legislature — eight in the Senate and eight in the House — will have entered their posts through the vacancy committee process rather than a vote in the primary or general election.
In many cases, the lawmakers in that group later were re-elected.
How vacancies are filled in Colorado
For the 2018 term, 24 members gained their seats through the vacancy process — 10 in the Senate and 14 in the House — sent by committees made up of members of the departing lawmakers’ political parties.
There isn’t a uniform process for how the committees are convened. It varies depending on the bylaws of the outgoing lawmaker’s party leadership in their specific House or Senate district.
The vacancy committees typically range from 10 to 100 members, although there can be more, depending on the bylaws the in the district’s assembly. The committee can be made up of just leadership — a handful of people — or an entire central committee of dozens.
The committee members are active party members or insiders, such as volunteer precinct captains, who are chosen by their fellow party members.
“It can be as big as small as what the assembly wants. It can be three people or it can be the entire assembly or it can even be the entire central committee,” Wadhams said. “There has been a tendency in the last 10 or 20 years to make these committees bigger rather than smaller — in other words putting more people with the responsibility of appointing somebody to be a candidate or an elected official.”
These de facto power brokers vote on the candidates who put their name forward for the job in sometimes fierce political battles.
Often current lawmakers run for promotions from the House to the Senate. It happened in 2017, when Montrose Republican Don Coram was chosen to fill a Senate seat vacated by Durango lawmaker Ellen Roberts. He was a state representative at the time.
The vacancy committees convene when lawmakers resign their post or when the party’s nominee for the general election drops out. The latter example is how Sen. Rhonda Fields was appointed in 2010 as the Democratic nominee in an Aurora House district after the candidate selected by voters in the primary election, Karen Middleton, declined to run in the general.
Other states are split on how to fill vacated legislative seats. Half use appointments and the other half use special elections, according to an analysis by the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. Colorado is one of just five states that handle appointments by partisan committee.
State Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Longmont Democrat who was appointed to the legislature by a vacancy committee in 2012, said the appointment process makes the most sense because the General Assembly is only in session for 120 days a year.
“There just isn’t time” for a special election, he said. “I think it works pretty well, but also I’m under no (false impression about) how I got here in the first place.”
Here are the vacancies being filled for the 2019 session
When the legislature convenes on Jan. 4, it will include two lawmakers appointed to their seats after the election. Three more will be appointed after the start of the session.
The replacements for two lawmakers were finalized in recent days:
- Mike Foote, a departing state representative, will replace Democrat Matt Jones in the state Senate. Jones was elected to the Boulder County Commission in November.
- Rep. Joann Ginal, a Fort Collins Democrat, will move to the Senate to replace John Kefalas, who was elected Larimer County Commissioner.
Vacancy committees still must consider appointments for three departing lawmakers:
- Ginal’s move to the Senate leaves her House seat open
- Sen. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, announced his resignation effective Jan. 11.
- Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, announced his resignation effective Jan. 21
The openings are expected cascade into more vacancies. For example, Rep. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, is in the running, along with against at least three other candidates, for Kagan’s seat. The vacancy committee is set to choose a replacement Jan. 5.
If Bridges moves to the Senate, it would create a vacancy in the House. (Kagan himself was appointed to the House by a vacancy committee in 2009.)
The same thing may happen on the Republican side in the wake of Baumgardner’s departure. Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, is considering a run for the job. And if he gets it, his wife, Joyce Rankin, a state education board member, would likely seek to fill his House seat.
Other candidates for Baumgardner’s seat include former state Rep. Gregg Rippy, a Glenwood Springs Republican, and Debra Irvine, a Breckenridge Republican, according to The Grand Junction Sentinel.
The uncertainty in the legislative roster extends to Sen. Jack Tate’s seat. The Centennial Republican recently announced he wouldn’t be seeking re-election in 2020, and there’s speculation he may not finish out his current term, which would guarantee his seat goes to a Republican.
Another vacancy could be created if a challenge to the residency of Rep.-elect Matt Soper, R-Delta, is successful. A Palisade resident alleges Soper did not reside in his district for 12 months prior to the election, and on Monday filed a formal complaint with the secretary of state’s office. If it moves forward, the challenge would take place in a House committee that would determine whether to seat him, according to the secretary of state’s office.
2019 lawmakers appointed by a vacancy committee
Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose; Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora; Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial; Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada; Sen.-designate Mike Foote, D-Boulder; Sen.-designate Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins; replacement for Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphr Springs; replacement for Sen. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village; Rep. KC Becker, D-Boulder; Rep. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora; Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose; Rep. Kim Ransom, R-Douglas County; Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Eagle; Rep. Shane Sandridge, R-El Paso County; Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont; replacement for Sen.-designate Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins.
The timing of a vacancy can be important in the Senate. If a senator steps down after they are elected, but before they are sworn in, then their replacement would serve their entire four-year term. If they have been sworn in, the replacement would serve only two years and then another election for the seat would be held.
If a lawmaker leaves before the end of the halfway point in their term, their replacement would be barred from running for two full, four-year terms later. That’s why senators departing during the upcoming session are doing so after the session actually begins.
In the House, a timing of a vacancy matters less because representatives are elected every two years.
Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.
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