As House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat, called the roll on Tuesday for the first time since Colorado’s legislative session went into recess due to the coronavirus pandemic, Rep. Janet Buckner waited patiently to hear her name. A lawmaker since 2015 and the speaker pro tempore, she knew what to expect.
Except instead of listening from her seat in the first row of the House chamber, she was watching her colleagues on her computer from her home office in Aurora. When her name was called, the word “excused” echoed through the chamber.
“I just wanted to scream out and say, “I’m here! I’m right here!” Buckner said.
Buckner, who is immunocompromised, was among a handful of at-risk Democrats in the House and Senate who stayed home, as the legislature got back to work this week after a two-month pandemic pause, fearful of catching the disease that has killed more than 1,000 Coloradans. For them, an infection could be fatal.
On Wednesday, a new policy was enacted that allows for remote votes to be cast during chamber floor debates –– but only when a public health emergency has been declared by the governor. Legislators and members of the public still must show up in person to participate during committee meetings.
The Colorado Sun spoke with the three House Democrats who were absent –– all members of the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus –– and found themselves at the center of a heated and lengthy discussion about remote participation, which became a partisan fight at the Capitol.
“I knew there was going to be a debate, just around more like the logistics,” said Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat, who is recovering from pneumonia and has had heart complications. “But, I didn’t expect it to be so personal.”
Melton was a part of a group of lawmakers who tested the video conferencing system being used to allow legislators to participate from home.
As the legislature debated Wednesday whether to allow senators and representatives to participate remotely, Rep. Larry Liston, a Colorado Springs Republican, said lawmakers must make sacrifices on behalf of their constituents.
“They expect us to be here and that the voting should be a matter of conviction not just a matter of convenience,” he said. “And yes, we have to make sacrifices even in difficult times, even if it puts us in a dangerous situation.” During the discussion, Rep. Richard Holtorf, an Akron Republican, worried about members voting while drunk at home. And he compared absent lawmakers to soldiers who were “absent without leave.”
Melton was shocked listening to the discussion while he paced around his living room. “I was like, ‘You know what? There’s no better voice than your own.’ And I threw on a suit jacket and raced down to the Capitol.”
Rep. Dominique Jackson, an Aurora Democrat, who was also listening from home, was equally stunned by the direction the conversation took.
“To insinuate that in any way shape or form that I’m not fighting tooth and nail for my constituents … it was just incredibly hurtful,” said Jackson, who chose to stay home because she is immunocompromised. She receives a transfusion of plasma every two weeks to treat an autoimmune disease.
“I want to get down there and fight for absolutely everything that my constituents deserve and to have their voices represented,” she said. “But when your doctors are telling you, ‘Be careful. Don’t do that. Don’t go there,’ it feels like my back is up against a wall.”
Still, Jackson plans to go into the Capitol, but only when absolutely necessary. She chaired the House Energy and Environment committee in person on Thursday.
“I’m going to be there for the budget. I’m going to be there for my bills. But when I don’t have to be there, I’m not going to be,” Jackson said. “I don’t want to die. My husband is a cancer survivor. I don’t want him to get sick.”
Three lawmakers representing Aurora — a hot spot for the coronavirus
Buckner has stuck to her routine during the legislative pause. She wakes up, makes coffee, meditates and prays in the flower garden behind her house, then starts wading through emails, voicemails and meeting requests. Her grandchildren frequently drive by to say hi and tell her about their days.
She doesn’t expect too much to change while the legislature is in session. She is disappointed that she won’t be able to participate in committee meetings, though she said she will be listening closely.
“I’m not gonna be able to be a part of the appropriations decisions. I’m on the Education Committee. I cover for KC when she’s not in the well. I am her trusted confidant. So it’s hard. It’s hard to watch from afar,” Buckner said.
The decision to steer clear of the Capitol was difficult, Buckner said. But she’s acutely aware that she is especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. She has a rare form of arthritis that makes her immunocompromised. She’s over age 65. And she’s African American.
“Black people are dying at a much higher percentage than the rest of the population,” Buckner said. “And I’d be putting my family at risk — my kids and my grandkids. I’m not taking this lightly.”
State health officials have shown that black people make up approximately 7% of COVID-19 deaths, while making up just 4% of the population –– a trend that’s been seen across the country.
She said it’s important that the lawmakers who represent Aurora stay as healthy as possible to continue to represent their districts. She said when she realized that the only House members missing during the first two days of the season were representatives of Aurora districts, and were all African Americans, “It really hit me between the eyes.”
“We are seeing more cases here than anywhere else,” Melton said. “So, if we’re not there to at least have some voice in this, then that’s ignoring probably the hardest-hit community in the state.”
As of May 28, about 42% of the 8,055 coronavirus cases reported by Tri-County Health Department –– which is the public health agency for Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties –– have been in Aurora. Denver has reported 5,434 cases.
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On May 28, 2015, Buckner’s husband, Rep. John Buckner, died from a respiratory disease. Buckner was selected by a vacancy committee to represent his southern Aurora district.
“He kept going to the Capitol every day, even though he was struggling,” she said.
“And that’s why it was really offensive, some of the things that were said — that we’re not working hard,” she added, referencing the House discussion related to remote participation. “It was just really sad to hear that from my colleagues. I know they were talking to their base, but that does not make it acceptable.”
When Melton arrived in the House chamber, Buckner shot up from her desk chair.
“I just stood up in respect for him,” she said, “for what he was saying, knowing how difficult that was for him and knowing how sick he’s been. It was so moving.”
Melton has been sick on and off since December. He was diagnosed with pneumonia, and for the first few weeks of the legislative session, he kept a tank of oxygen in his office and used it regularly. In March, he started to feel worse. “I just started feeling really tired all the time. And I started retaining a lot of water.”
In early April, he was on a short walk and nearly collapsed. “So I called my doctor and we did a bunch of tests and determined that I was also going through heart failure,” he said.
On Tuesday, he got his coronavirus antibody test back. It was positive. He doesn’t know where or how he got the virus. The last time he traveled was in December, when he went to Kansas City and had a layover in St. Louis.
His doctor doesn’t want him at the Capitol because he is especially vulnerable to infection at this time. “It could be just a common cold and it could be really severe,” he said.
Watching from afar earlier this week, he felt invisible.
“I could see them. I knew everything that they were doing and was able to keep up,” Melton said. “But without being able to speak or even vote, and seeing my name in yellow, which means excused, it did make me feel a little invisible. So I think now that we’re able to do remote participation, it will feel like we’re more a part of it.”
“A different kind of chaos”
Jackson said she expects working remotely to go smoothly because lawmakers have had two months of practice.
Every morning she woke up to dozens of voicemails, text messages and emails. She said sometimes the messages were about legislation, but a lot of times they were from constituents feeling the pressure of the coronavirus. “It was somebody who’s calling me and saying, ‘I don’t have enough food to eat. And I can’t feed my kids. Is there any place that I can go to eat today.’”
From hosting virtual town halls to helping constituents figure out their unemployment or find out where their stimulus check was mailed to, Jackson said she’s been working “every day, seven days a week, from sunup to sundown.”
Melton’s experience was similar.
“It was a different kind of chaos,” Melton said. “Some days it was pretty much eight in the morning till eight in the evening, just things back to back to back.”
He said lawmakers have been testing out the remote system for a little over a month.
“We stress tested the system with full-on debates and amendments and everything, so the system does work,” Melton said. “We understood that there was going to be some resistance from Republicans.”
The lawmakers are using Webex, a web conferencing and videoconferencing application similar to Zoom.
“You can do hand raising and things like that. We were able to do things like send a link or an amendment through the chat,” Melton said. “We have the video so you can see that it is the member and it’s not someone else voting.”
Melton plans to avoid the Capitol until he has clearance from his doctor.
“There is one bill that I have in a committee that I’m trying to figure out if I’m just going to kind of do what I did today — come in, present it and leave right away,” he said Wednesday. “But other than that, being able to keep up with everything that’s going on and participate isn’t going to be a problem.”
Melton is term limited so this is his final lawmaking term.
“It’s a little more bitter than it is sweet to leave this way,” he joked. “I’ve appreciated the years I’ve been down there and it’s been great. I did kind of expect more of a normal session. This has been memorable, for sure.”
“I’m hoping that maybe in the last week or so, my doctor will say, “You know what? You’re doing well enough to go back.’ And then I’d be there in a heartbeat.”
Though he expects remote lawmaking to run smoothly, Melton said he will miss the camaraderie and the organized chaos of the Capitol.
“There is something about being in person,” he said. “You do lose that. Just that face-to-face interaction and being able to look somebody in their eyes. It helps.”