Are Colorado's Vacancy Committees Good for Democracy?

April 22 2009, 12:56 PM
This spring, the Colorado State Legislature will welcome at least five new members to its ranks. And none of them will have been elected by the general public. Instead, they'll be picked by a vacancy committee, composed of a handful of activists from their own political parties, to finish out the terms of legislators who have left their seats. It's a system that has sent anti-tax champion and blunder-prone curmudgeon Douglas Bruce to the Statehouse. It's also how House Speaker Terrance Carroll and well-regarded former state Representative Rob Witwer launched their legislative careers. Vacancy committees aren't unique to Colorado. Thirteen other states also charge members of an outgoing legislator's political party with choosing a successor. But Colorado, unlike any other state, doesn't always assign the job to a few local party leaders. Often, it's rank-and-file activists, elected at party caucuses, who get an opportunity to play king- (or queen-)maker. "Sometimes through a vacancy committee you'll get somebody in there that probably would not have been elected had it been a full primary election or a general election--Doug Bruce being the prime example," says Denver Republican Party chair Ryan Call. And since most vacancy candidates have so little time to talk issues and make a good first impression (if any), party veterans--the familiar faces seen at party meetings and events--often have an edge. But is it good to give partisan party loyalists the power to pick state legislators? True, the vacancy appointment itself only lasts until the next general election--but, especially in districts dominated by one party, the person picked by the vacancy committee often has a lock on re-election for the next six to eight years. "The Democrat in me feels like there's a little bit of concern that really the vacancy committee is not very representative of the people of the district," says Democratic Party of Denver chair Cindy Lowery. Still, vacancy committees don't draw the ire of most Colorado politicos. Lowery herself admits that vacancy committee members often have a firmer grasp of the issues within the political landscape than the average voter. And the prospect of playing such an important political role, she says, helps entice Obama volunteers from last year to stay involved with the Democratic Party in the future. Kevin Lundberg, a Republican who was appointed to the state Senate by a 128-member vacancy committee in January, thinks vacancy committees "are the best thing we can put in place for an election between the general elections"--it helped him reach out to people who previously he hadn't paid much attention.