LITTLETON — Lisa Cutter starts her first town hall since the end of the legislative session with a breathless list of accomplishments.
Addressing mental health in schools. Full-day kindergarten. Holding steady on college tuition. Teaching media literacy. Adding money for road construction. And more.
When she finishes, the first-term Democratic lawmaker puts down her list, returns dark-framed glasses to the top of her head and asks if anyone in the crowd at a Littleton restaurant has a question.
They do. A lot of them. And not everyone is happy about what the new Democratic-led General Assembly did.
The first is a question about a bill regarding new requirements for sex education in schools. Then a prolonged and tense conversation with a woman about a bill regarding vaccine exemptions, followed by a complaint from a business owner about a paid medical leave program. And next, a question about the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in which a man suggests Cutter doesn’t have the “backbone” to ask voters for a tax hike.
For the most part, she manages to take each question in stride. “I don’t want to invite trouble,” she says later, “but it’s better for me to have town halls where people disagree and we can have honest conversation. I appreciate push back a little. I really do.”
The legislative session doesn’t end with the slam of the gavel at the state Capitol in early May. It continues for weeks as lawmakers like Cutter return to their districts and explain to their constituents what they did.
There’s little job-approval polling at this level of lawmaking, and the town halls serve as a tangible midterm report card. “I think it’s a good format and a good place to connect with people in the district,” says Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, a veteran Democratic lawmaker who holds monthly town halls. She adds: “I think it’s the best thing we do.”
This year at town halls, Democrats are celebrating the legislation that Cutter listed and other measures the majority party approved to address the opioid crisis, revamp oil and gas regulations and boost education spending.
The conversations are not easy in an era of partisan polarization, when political vitriol is the new norm. A number of lawmakers have faced fury from voters at town halls this year, either for going too far or not going far enough. And Republicans are fighting back with threats of recall elections against Democrats.
The experience is all new to Cutter, and amid the current atmosphere, she is looking to change the conversation.
Two years ago, in the lead up to the 2018 election, she became more interested in running for office — inspired by her work helping to organize the first Women’s March in Denver and her frustration about Donald Trump’s election as president.
In November, Cutter, 55, won a Republican-leaning district in western Jefferson County as part of a wave of Democratic women elected in Colorado. Her journey from the sidelines to the Capitol tested her idealism about the political system. She lost her “go big” legislative effort to reduce waste in landfills and address climate change, but she pledged to keep fighting. And in the final days of the session, she won a coveted prize: approval for a new interim committee that will allow lawmakers to study the issue ahead of the next session.
“It was a roller coaster. That is the most apt description,” Cutter says of her first year. “There were really, really high highs, where you are like, ‘Oh my gosh, everything came together, it’s beautiful.’ And there were (moments) like, ‘Holy cow, what just happened?’ Those were lows.”
The lowest lows, she says, come when politics overwhelms the lawmaking, which admittedly happens a good bit at the Capitol. It’s one of the elements that she didn’t expect to find so prominent when she decided to run for office. At one point this session, a Republican operative videotaped Cutter during a committee meeting, an apparent attempt to get footage to use against her in the next campaign.
“Sometimes the politics of it are really demoralizing,” she says. “That you can’t debate things on their merits all the time, there’s a lot of gamesmanship, that you have to be cautious. You figure out who you can trust.”
Her district, where more Republicans are registered to vote than Democrats, makes her an obvious target for opponents. So far, no one is threatening a recall election in House District 25, but Cutter expects a tough challenge in 2020, when Republicans seek to reduce the 41 to 24 Democratic advantage in the House.
The politics sat in her mind for much of the session, but Cutter says talk about recall elections didn’t affect the way she voted.
“I mean, that’s just abhorrent to me. We have two-year terms. We’ve been elected for a minute,” she says. “You vote on somebody who you think is going to represent your interests. If they don’t, you vote them out in two years.”
Next year at reelection time, Cutter says she’s ready to defend her record, and the broader Democratic agenda. “Thinking about it, I really don’t think anything we did was terribly extreme,” she says.
The “Civics and Stouts” town hall at The Flying Pig Burger Co. on the eastern edge of the district offers the first chance for Cutter to make her case.
She arrives late from a bill signing ceremony with Gov. Jared Polis for mental health legislation that she sponsored with Rep. Tom Sullivan, a Centennial Democrat facing a potential recall election.
“We have a lot of bills that we passed, so I’m doing my job,” she says at the start with a laugh.
The event attracts about 20 people, including Democratic supporters who helped elect her and others with criticisms to voice. The most vocal critics are a group of women who opposed legislation to make it more difficult for parents to exempt their children from school-mandated vaccines.
Gina DeRosa, who lives in Evergreen, thought the bill went too far. The measure failed in the state Senate, but DeRosa wants to know why Cutter supported the legislation.
“It’s difficult for me to get on board with the idea of you representing constituents when … there was literally 13 hours of opposition testimony,” she says.
Cutter explains that she listens to her constituents but decides based on her personal convictions, too. “You also have to vote your conscience, and what you believe is the best thing — because I feel personally so strongly … about vaccinations,” she replies.
Cutter understands that criticism comes with the job, and the fact she disappoints her constituents at times is a reality that all lawmakers must face.
“Oh my God, it’s terrible,” said Kraft-Tharp, a four-term lawmaker from Arvada. “It’s terrible because you go down there, and you’re trying as hard as you can, and you get these bills, weighing out pros and cons, then you make a decision and vote, and people just go after you.”
At the same time, Kraft-Tharp says she knows she can’t always convince people. “It’s hard to change someone’s mind,” she adds. “But for me, I just want them to know I’m thoughtful.”
Cutter takes a similar view. This town hall is the “spiciest” of her four this year, she says, and after it wraps up, she reflects on the tough questions.
“I hope they walk away and say, ‘We disagreed with her, but she listened to us and she’s a decent human,’” Cutter says. “Honestly, I can’t look at it in terms of this vote and that vote and doing everything to get that one person’s vote. You do the very best you can.”
She says she wants to open her mind to all ideas, and wants her critics and Republican colleagues in the legislature to do the same.
The reason “our society has gone off the rails,” Cutter says, is an us-versus-them mentality in politics that entrenches voters and limits dialogue. “And I want to be different. I want to show up differently, because if we don’t all show up differently, what the hell is going to happen to us as a society?”
During the town hall, she offers on example about her willingness to consider more ideas when it came to a question about how to address the STEM School shooting. Cutter says she would be willing to consider metal detectors in schools as a possible option, a statement that breaks from Democratic orthodoxy.
“What I’m saying is I can’t close myself off to anything if I’m having an issue with (Republicans) closing themselves,” she explains later.
Whether at the Capitol or a town hall, she says, “we have to break down those barriers — and that’s with every issue. We have to have honest good dialogue about things.”