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Politics and Government

How do Republicans stay relevant in the Colorado legislature? It depends who you ask.

Democrats control the Colorado Senate, House and governor’s office, meaning the GOP has little power in the statehouse -- but options on how to navigate through being in the minority

From left: House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, and Assistant House Minority Leader Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch, listen to Democratic Gov. Jared Polis deliver his first State of the State address at the Colorado Capitol on Jan. 10, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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It’s been four years since Republicans have been at such a political disadvantage at the Colorado Capitol, struggling for relevance against a majority so deep there are more Democrats in the House than GOP lawmakers in the entire legislature. And the party is split on how to regain traction.

“Republicans are in an unbelievable pickle,” said former state Sen. Greg Brophy, an Eastern Plains Republican who was in the minority during 10 of his 12 years in the Colorado legislature. “And what do you do? Do you make everything a fight to the death? Or do you draw some very clear lines and spend the rest of the time working to make things better for the people of Colorado? You have almost no tools at your disposal when you are in the minority.”

So far, Republicans appear willing to fight. The House GOP leader, Castle Rock Republican Patrick Neville, is threatening recalls over a proposal to allow a drug-injection sites even before a bill has been introduced. And Senate Republicans last week mounted an unusual day-long debate — a filibuster, some would say — on legislation from Democrats to fix a law the courts deemed unconstitutional and which centers around school choice.

The path GOP lawmakers choose will determine the tenor of the state’s political dialogue as well as the party’s influence over what ultimately becomes law.

“I think that’s the question each legislator has to answer for themselves,” state Rep. Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican, said of how GOP lawmakers can operate effectively. “Is what you’re doing pushing back in a way that your citizens need to know about and respond to?  

The Colorado House of Representatives in January 2019. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Republicans last found themselves in a similar position in 2013 and 2014. In that first year of total Democratic control, Republicans felt Democrats went too far with their bold agenda. Some waged political retribution, sparking recall elections in vulnerable districts where Democrats could be cast as having overstepped by backing gun-control measures.

The two recalls were recorded as a win and some Republicans have said they will use them as a roadmap for 2019 if their Democratic colleagues overstep — or at least that they plan to use the memory of those recalls as a way to keep Democrats from going too far.

Other Republicans see a danger in being too vocal for fear of alienating Democrats to a point beyond any possibility of collaboration in areas of common agreement.

“Do you threaten recalls? I don’t know,” McKean said. “We saw that in 2013, but those were some pretty huge issues. I don’t know that you do that all the time.”

House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat. (Handout)

From the Democrats’ viewpoint, the 2013 policies they pushed into law were a policy success — regardless of the recalls. House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat, has largely dismissed concerns of overreach by her party, arguing that the GOP is going to complain no matter what happens.

“I look at 2013 and so many of the policies where folks screamed overreach they’re now saying, ‘actually, that was a really good idea,’” she said. “… People are going to scream overreach no matter what we do. But the track record on what is exhibit A for overreach, actually let’s look at all those policies: It doesn’t look so bad right now.”

MORE: The top 10 issues to watch in Colorado’s 2019 legislative session

The confrontational approach

Republican lawmakers who have decided to take a more fiery approach have wasted no time.

Less than 24 hours after Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold was sworn into office earlier this month, Republican Sens. Jerry Sonnenberg, of Sterling, and Vicki Marble, of Fort Collins, sent out a news release blasting Griswold’s staff picks as being too political. Specifically, they blasted the appointment of Jenny Flanagan as deputy secretary of state, citing her previous work at the government reform group Common Cause, and the decision to hire on Shad Murib and Serena Woods, who had worked on the gubernatorial campaigns of Democrats Jared Polis and Cary Kennedy, respectively.

It was an example of the vocal faction of the statehouse Republicans at work. And the fact it didn’t come from the Senate Republican leadership shows the divide in the Senate GOP caucus.

“For me, yes, I think it’s important that our voice be heard,” said Sonnenberg, who has been among the Senate Republicans most critical of Democrats so far this year. “The people can listen to both sides and make their own decision. If I don’t speak up, they’re only hearing one side. Or if we don’t speak up.”

Sonnenberg recently called out Democrats in a committee hearing for “hijacking” a bill mandating all Colorado students are informed of the state’s law that allows a newborn to be dropped off at a fire station for adoption without consequence. Sonnenberg said they took over the measure when Democrats on the committee tried to pair the language to their own bill on sex education.

Partisan differences on legislation are typical, but the bombastic language from Republicans on the measure elevated the debate into something that drew buzz around the Capitol. Democrats eventually advanced the measure without strings attached, to the delight of the GOP.

“What is the quote down here?” Sonnenberg asked in explaining why he plans to be so vocal this session. “The minority gets their say and the majority gets their way.”

MORE: Read more politics and government coverage from The Colorado Sun.

Senate Republicans also launched a rare early-session filibuster-like protest Wednesday against a Democratic bill surrounding school choice. Such lengthy and partisan debates are usually reserved for later in the term, leaving many Democrats feeling the display was a sign of things to come.

“Whatever they want, whatever agenda they want to pursue more than likely is going to pass,” said Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican known in the Capitol for bringing some of the most conservative measures of any lawmaker. “They have the House, they have the Senate, they have the governor’s mansion. That’s just a fact of life. As we all know, elections have consequences. I think the role of the minority, at this point, is to act as watchdogs.”

If that means going so far as to threaten recalls, he says, so be it. Besides, the strategy worked in 2013, Williams said, when then-Senate President John Morse, a Colorado Springs Democrat, was recalled after a bill passed limiting the capacity of gun magazines.  A recall election is a special election in which voters decide whether or not to remove an elected official and then who to replace that person with.

Republican lawmakers, Colorado Springs Rep. Dave Williams among them, listen as Gov. Jared Polis delivers his State of the State address. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In 2013, Republicans recalled two Democratic state senators — including Morse — and triggered a third to resign to avoid a recall contest.

“Fast forward to now where we are talking about letting people have a place to actually shoot up heroin,” he said. “It’s not that much of a leap to suggest that people are willing to revolt against Democrats because of it.”

Williams is referencing the yet-to-be-introduced legislation that would allow Colorado cities to OK sites where people could inject heroin or other drugs under the supervision of medical professionals. “It’s a desperate political tactic that they’re using,” state Sen. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat and the policy’s prime backer, said of Republican noise about the idea. “…  This is trying to bring fear and misinformation around an issue where we need to embrace these people with empathy and support in a public health crisis.”

Democrats had a massive sweep of state government in November — their most substantial since 1936 — including races they didn’t expect to win. But it’s not clear whether voters were responding to Washington, D.C., politics or validating the Democrats’ promising a bold agenda on health care, education and the environment.

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

That’s why Republicans are continually pointing to the 2018 election results on ballot initiatives — where voters rejected tax increases and stricter regulations for the oil and gas industry — as a sign that voters don’t want everything Democrats are pushing for.

“If they go over the edge, then we’re going to be there to remind the (voters) that they went over the edge,” said Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican who is the Senate’s No. 2 GOP member. “We won on policy during the election. We won on the policy so we’ll hold them accountable to what the voters voted for.”

He added: “We’re not going to compromise on our core values or our core principles. If there’s a really bad bill, we have to be vocal and we have to hold them accountable. Now, we can work together. And we do, I think, quite a bit.”

Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, laughs as he chats with Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, on the opening day of the 2019 legislative session in Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat”

There are moderate Republicans who feel the flame throwing is problematic, however, and could drive a wedge so far between Republicans and Democrats that it’s impossible to work in a bipartisan way.

“I believe it’s difficult for anybody to feel like they can work with you comfortably if you poke them in the eye,” said Rep. Jim Wilson, a Republican from Salida.

Wilson is one of Democratic Gov. Jared Polis’ strongest allies in the legislature on funding for full-day kindergarten, a $227 million ask that has drawn concern from both parties because of its cost.

“Staying relevant in this building, I don’t believe, ever depends on your party affiliation,” he said. “It depends on your body of work. On the Republican side of the aisle, we tend to look at Ronald Reagan as the great God in the sky, the one who did everything right and was totally perfect in everything he did. And actually he raised taxes. One of the things he said was, ‘You take what you can get and you come back and take another bit of it in another time.’”

Wilson thinks there are also political reasons to not lurch to one side or the other.

“Colorado has changed, and I will tell you this: whether you are an R or a D: the Rs and the Ds of Colorado are irrelevant,” he said. “The unaffiliateds of Colorado are going to determine which way that pendulum swings. If you get way out there on one side, those people in the middle will bring you back to some form of reality. I think when you’re talking about making threats, or jamming things through, that if you’re out there on the fringes you’re not reaching the people in the middle. Those are the ones that will determine the political future of Colorado.”

State Rep. James “Jim” Wilson on the opening day of the Colorado legislature on Jan. 4, 2009. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican known for bipartisanship, echoed that sentiment.

“I don’t care if you’re Republican or Democrat, your whole success here is based on relationships,” he said. “I’ve never met a person in my life that I was in total agreement with on every issue. And I’ve never met a person that I’m in total disagreement with. So you take the issues that you can agree on and you work together. You take the issues that you are opposed to and you work to try to get a win out of it. I think it’s very simple: I think it’s a matter of honesty, integrity and courtesy.”

He called threats of a recall against Democrats who back a safe-injection site bill “very unfortunate.”

“You understand there’s a lot of people, Republicans on my side of the aisle, that could never be elected in my district,” he added. “I could probably never be elected in their district. Our first obligation is to our district, not our party.”

House Minority Leader Neville declined an interview for this story.

A middle ground?

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert on the opening day of the 2019 legislative session in Colorado. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, says the difference of opinion within the statehouse GOP signals the party’s acceptance of a variety of ideas and that there is a middle ground between between loud opposition and bipartisanship. Or at least that the two can coexist.

“I think that’s a strength. If you see a divide, that’s because we allow Republicans to be Republicans,” Holbert said. “We are not required to all the see the world in exactly the same way.”

In his speech to open the session, Holbert urged bipartisanship but also laid of specific policy disagreements with Democrats. That echoes his plans of going about being in the minority in a more measured way: working with Democrats where appropriate but being vocal and clearly presenting opposing viewpoints when necessary.

“We have the voice but not the vote,” he said. “In our process, which is based on the rule of simple majority, if the Democrats hang together there isn’t a way for me to stop them. Does that mean we will just keep our mouth shut if we don’t like something? No. Maybe stylistically I’m less frustrated by that. It’s just reality.”

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