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Colorado lawmakers meet in the state Senate on Thursday, May 28, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Democrats in the state legislature debated over including women and people of color in their leadership Thursday, just two days after the party affirmed its majority at Colorado Capitol.

Identity politics defined a four-way race for majority leader in the House, as lawmakers made the case for certain candidates based on race, gender and geography.

“What may be good for Democrats in Denver may not be good for Democrats in Durango,” said Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Democrat from Pueblo and member of the LGBTQ caucus, as she successfully pitched herself as House majority leader, the chamber’s No. 2 position. 

In the Colorado Senate, some Democrats were concerned about the decision to remove Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, from the powerful Joint Budget Committee and replace her with Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat who served on the panel when he was in the House.

“We need women and we need to trust women to lead,” Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, said during leadership elections. “We need to trust women to be on JBC.”

The debate in both chambers reflected the heightened importance of diversity within the Democratic Party following a summer of social unrest around race and police abuse. It also comes after the 2020 election delivered a Democratic majority with the most diverse legislative caucus in its history and, once again, more women than men in the House.

In 2018, three of the four top leaders when Democrats took control of Colorado legislature came from Boulder and Denver, the party’s strongholds. And only one was a person of color.

“It is important when the majority of the (House) is now women that there is a woman on the leadership team helping make decisions,” Esgar said in an interview with The Colorado Sun.

State Rep. Daneya Esgar speaks at the governor’s mansion in Denver. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The representation shifted during the leadership elections Thursday. In the Senate, Pueblo’s Leroy Garcia returns as the president and the Majority Leader is Steve Fenberg from Boulder. In the House, the speaker is Alec Garnett from Denver and Esgar is the majority leader.

Fenberg was uncontested in seeking a second term in his role. Sen. Rhonda Fields, of Aurora, was selected as his deputy. Kerry Donovan, a state senator from Vail, was chosen as Senate president pro tempore, a largely ceremonial role. 

Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, was picked by his colleagues to be majority whip in a contested election with Sen. Robert Rodriguez, D-Denver. But not before Sen. Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge, pitched Rodriguez because he would add more diversity to the leadership team.

“He’s a member in the Latinx caucus, and that’s something that’s really important to me,” Danielson said. “Not only will he stand up and fight for all of the ideals that made each and every one of you run for office, but it’s important to have a diverse member of the Latinx caucus moving up as well.”

Fenberg said that despite the debate about diversity, he feels the Senate leadership team is reflective of his caucus overall. He pointed to the fact that Donovan is now in a leadership position and Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, was selected as caucus chair.

Democrats had contested elections for all their leadership positions except speaker, where Garnett, the former majority leader was selected without debate.

But the question of whether the chamber’s other leaders would reflect the level of diversity in the caucus became a point of contention just as it did in the Senate.

MORE: Democrats hold their majorities at Colorado Capitol but GOP blunts a second blue wave

In the race for majority leader, Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood lawmaker who served as assistant majority leader for the past two years, stood in the natural line of succession for the post but he faced competition from more diverse candidates.

Kennedy, who is white, acknowledged his race was an issue.

The colleagues who nominated Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat and the first Black openly LGBTQ lawmaker elected in Colorado, for the job noted both the need for diversity and Herod’s work pushing for racial justice in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. 

The other candidate was Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, another Denver Democrat and member of the Latino caucus.

With four contenders for the job, it took three ballots before one emerged with more than half the votes. The contest came down to Herod and Esgar, with Esgar winning.

State Rep. Leslie Herod , D-Denver, held a Voter Celebration Social with an outdoor event at Improper City. The event included drinks, Denver local performers and social distancing. (John Leyba, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Four more women, including two women of color, won other Democratic caucus leadership posts.

State Rep. Alec Garnett, D-Denver. (Handout)

After the elections Garnett said in a statement: “With a diverse caucus that is 68% women, we will fight for all our communities, regardless of party, and advance justice for those who too often have seen it denied.” 

Esgar added: “I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and bring my southern Colorado values to the leadership table and to continue fighting for our essential and hardworking state employees.”

An advocacy group that helps elect women to office was pleased with the results in the House.

“Voters elected the most women to the state House in Colorado’s history, and we’re grateful the Democratic caucus is recognizing and elevating the leadership of women in their ranks,” Michal Rosenoer, executive director of Emerge Colorado, which advocates for and trains women in politics, said in a written statement. “Women voters are the backbone of Democratic electoral wins across Colorado, and women deserve to be at the top of the leadership team for the caucus.”

In the Senate Republican caucus, lawmakers made only one change to the leadership team. Sen. Jim Smallwood, a Douglas County Republican, was selected as minority caucus chair, a role previously held by a term-limited lawmaker who is a woman. 

Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Douglas County, remains minority leader. John Cooke, a Republican senator from Greeley, remains assistant minority leader and Minority Whip Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, will continue in his position. 

House Republicans will pick their leadership team on Monday and there’s expected to be a competitive race for minority leader. House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, announced recently that he won’t seek reelection to the post.

John Frank is a former Colorado Sun staff writer. He left the publication in January 2021.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....