Politics: Whiplash at the Capitol

Having trouble keeping up with the Capitol’s mood these days? Eli Stokols sorts through the muck on how the Democrats and Republicans are doing.
March 2013

Last Friday morning, roughly two hours into an all-day marathon debate about gun laws on the Senate floor, a dull roar echoed throughout the state Capitol. It came from across the hall, from the House chamber, where lawmakers had just voted to approve legislation known as the ASSET bill, which will let undocumented students pay the in-state college tuition rate.

On any other day, all the reporters crowded around the Senate’s press table would have been sitting in the House to bear witness to a historic vote, a triumph a decade in the making that finally sends that legislation to the governor’s desk. We would have been in the Capitol’s west foyer moments later as a few dozen undocumented students gathered with the bill’s sponsors in a tearful celebration. But our focus, like the public’s, was on guns. It wasn’t the first time this year there was too much going on at once for the media to cover it all.

That the final passage of the ASSET bill was largely overshadowed by a critical Senate debate about the seven Democratic gun control measures is a fitting snapshot of what a historic week, and indeed session, this is shaping up to be. Last Friday was just the beginning. Monday marked the first-ever House debate on civil unions, which took place just as the Senate recorded its final votes on the five gun control bills that survived Friday’s debate. Like ASSET, civil unions will be on Governor John Hickenlooper’s desk by the end of the week—a week that will end Friday with the introduction of legislation that seeks to repeal Colorado’s death penalty.

The confluence of so many legislative flashpoints in one session, never mind a single week, paints a vivid picture of a strong Democratic majority that is flexing its political muscle and pushing an aggressive agenda the likes of which Colorado hasn’t seen in some time—if ever. To Rob Witwer, it’s the culmination of a decade’s work spent building a powerful Democratic infrastructure, first funded by a handful of wealthy donors, but now a well-oiled progressive machine that has out-funded, out-organized, out-messaged, and outperformed Republicans at almost every turn. “For a decade, Colorado progressives worked collaboratively to elect Democratic majorities,” says Witwer, who co-authored The Blueprint, a story of the Democrats’ recent political takeover of our heretofore reliably red state. “Now they’re reaping the policy harvest.”

The more progressive policy agenda is also representative of a state that’s changed dramatically in the last 10 years, with a major uptick in Hispanics and suburban growth fueled by migrants from more expensive and more liberal states like California. “The breadth of the Democratic legislative agenda is indicative of the change in the political complexion of Colorado,” political strategist Eric Sondermann says. “A Democratic-dominated legislature in a purple, highly competitive state might bite off, at most, one or two of these hot-button issues. Only a legislature in a state that party strategists now regard to be rather reliably and securely blue would pursue such an expansive agenda encompassing a seemingly endless string of controversial topics.”

The question now is whether the changes at the Capitol are coming too fast, but it’s a question voters won’t get to answer for another 18 months. Republicans, mostly powerless to prevent Democrats from pushing forward legislation, are getting over their post-2012 election blues. Suddenly, they are excited again about chances for resurgence in 2014 and certain that their Democratic colleagues have overreached. Late Friday night, after the marathon gun debate ended with five of the seven Democratic measures being narrowly approved, I stopped at the desk of an emotional Senator Greg Brophy (R-District 1), who was packing up his piles of notes and preparing for a long drive back to Wray. He gave me a parting shot: “Just as everyone is writing the GOP’s political obituary, the Democrats have gone and committed political suicide.”

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When House Democrats took back the Republicans’ House majority last November, they most certainly did not do it by campaigning on a promise to address gun laws, even after last July’s deadly mass shooting that killed 12 people inside an Aurora movie theater and injured 58 more. The push to tackle gun control, both nationally and at the state level, began in December, a month after the election, sparked by another shooting in Connecticut where 20 first-graders were gunned down inside their own school.

In Colorado, as lawmakers have moved ahead with legislation, they’ve stirred passions on both sides. Democrats, with emotional pleas from the relatives of Aurora and Newtown victims behind them, believe they have a public mandate on the issue. State Senate President John Morse (D-Colorado Springs), who was interviewed live on MSNBC by Rachel Maddow Friday night as the gun debate was taking place, isn’t alone among Colorado Democrats who take pride that the country now views Colorado as a vanguard on the issue. We’ve become a state-level test case that could impact the larger national debate. Conservatives, meanwhile, have hardly tempered their own outrage, organizing protests around the Capitol, showing up en masse last week when Senate committees were first hearing the bills, and, in at least a few instances, succeeding in putting Democrats on their heels.

Lawmakers on both sides were quick to condemn an overzealous corporate executive, Franklin Sain, who sent a week’s worth of loathsome, racist, sexist, and violent threats to Representative Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora), the sponsor of two of the bills. (The Denver district attorney has filed charges.) But conservatives were successful in seizing on two boneheaded comments by Democrats who seemingly forgot about the serious risks of touching the political third rail that is the subject of rape.

In the House, Representative Joe Salazar (D-Thornton) made an incoherent and insensitive argument on the floor that college girls might not know when they were about to be raped and might overreact to a perceived threat with deadly consequences should they be allowed to carry concealed weapons on campus. Two weeks later as a Senate committee was discussing the same campus gun ban, Senator Evie Hudak (D-District 19) came under fire for citing research that contradicted a woman who’d been raped on a college campus in Nevada and her emotional testimony that she might have been safer had she been carrying a concealed handgun.

Those gaffes, in part, forced Senate Democrats late Friday to kill House Bill 1226, the campus gun ban. “Republicans will remind the public about these blunders as often as possible until 2014 elections,” former state Representative B.J. Nikkel (R-Loveland) tells me. While Salazar and Hudak’s rape comments will make prime fodder for political mailers against Democrats next year, Democrats countered with Senate Bill 197, which will take guns away from domestic violence offenders and anyone subject to a protection order. Advancing that bill and forcing Republicans to vote against it is key to Democrats’ own messaging on the issue of gun control heading into next year and, rest assured, coming soon to a mailbox near you.

Democrats can take heart in recent polling that shows strong public support for the two keystones of their gun control package: 83 percent of Coloradans support universal gun background checks, and 61 percent support the ban on high-capacity magazines. “The Democrats are doing what they were elected to do,” says Pat Waak, the former chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party. “It is true that a lot of the issues are controversial. But that is not different [from] last year. The Legislature is catching up to where Coloradans are. All the polling shows that.”

Republicans see the issue differently. “This gun issue is a total loser for the Democrats,” says former Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, who agrees with former President Bill Clinton’s assessment, based largely on his own adventures with gun control legislation in the 1990s, that these efforts would backfire come election time. “He calls it a voting issue. Guns are the predominant voting issue for a significant number of working-class and rural Americans, and there is no comparable block of Americans for whom gun control is the make-or-break issue. Clinton said that Gore lost Colorado in 2000 for supporting the Columbine gun-show-loophole initiative. It isn't that the initiative wasn't popular. It was. It passed easily. It's just that a lot of otherwise open-minded, undecided, generally working-class voters get very quickly close-minded when they find out a politician wants to ban guns or ammo or magazines.”

Democratic strategist Craig Hughes, who engineered Senator Michael Bennet’s and President Barack Obama’s successful efforts in Colorado in 2010 and 2012, respectively, agrees with Penry’s assessment that these proposals have awakened single-issue gun voters. But, he points out, those voters don’t decide statewide elections. “There is no doubt that there will be a fired-up base among RMGO members,” Hughes says, referencing Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, the state’s largest gun-rights advocacy group, headed by the controversial Dudley Brown. “But they aren't the swing voters. And it's my guess that swing voters will reward Democrats for actually tackling tough issues and moving forward a real agenda.”

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Polls have consistently shown that more than 70 percent of Coloradans also support the civil unions legislation, which would have passed last year had then-Speaker Frank McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch) not shut down the Legislature on the session’s penultimate day in a last-ditch effort to avoid a final vote on a bill that had already survived three GOP-controlled House committees and was certain to pass on the floor.

That measure, like the ASSET bill, has been part of the Democratic agenda for several sessions. Their passage this year, now that Democrats have majorities in both chambers, is merely unfinished business. “These could have passed last year,” Waak says. “Instead the Republican leadership failed by taking extreme positions and locking down action by the Legislature.”

“ASSET and civil unions passed with Republican support and have significant support among independents,” says David Fine, a Democrat who served under Hickenlooper. “I don't think either is particularly controversial for most Coloradans. These are all critical social issues, but they can't all be lumped together for political purposes.”

But they will be.

Hickenlooper, who faces re-election next year, will probably happily hold a public bill-signing for both ASSET and the civil unions measure, but the more polarizing package of gun control bills will likely be signed into law in a quieter manner inside the governor’s office. While the moderate governor may agree personally with some of the issues, the polarizing debate surrounding them jeopardizes the political consensus he prizes above all else.

Next year, Republicans will target Hickenlooper and U.S. Senator Mark Udall, who are both favored to win re-election at the moment (to date, neither have an opponent). Republicans will also be defending three other statewide offices and attempting to win back majorities at the Capitol. It’s a heavy lift for a party still licking its 2012 wounds. But conservatives have moved on. Suddenly, they’re licking their chops as they watch a composite picture come into focus: Colorado’s Democratic officeholders advancing an aggressively liberal agenda.

“It wasn't that many years ago that minority Democrats pummeled majority Republicans for spending too much time on social issues at the expense of ‘real’ issues,” says former Colorado GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams. “So what have this newly minted Democratic majority and Governor John Hickenlooper spent their time on since January? Passing feel-good gun control laws to punish law-abiding gun owners for the crimes of a few, being seduced by ‘free’ federal money to dramatically expand the Medicaid burden on Colorado taxpayers, imposing politically correct sex education requirements on parents and schools, declaring women are not capable of using firearms to protect themselves, and putting a one billion dollar tax increase on the ballot to bail out PERA and increase funding for a mediocre education system.”

“So which party is obsessed with social engineering?” Wadhams continues. “A clear portrait of legislative overreach is being painted by their hands.” The comprehensive sex education bill, which has already passed the House, is up for debate on the Senate floor this Tuesday. As for the Medicaid expansion, file it under: “more stories this reporter and most others haven’t yet had time to seriously cover.”

“Their overall agenda has helped bond together the often quarreling Republican and Libertarian factions within the state GOP, who have now united against their common political enemy,” Nikkel says, adding that, realistically, that “could change when primary season chips away at their bond.”

In a session already packed with so many emotional, divisive issues, there has been a lot of behind-the-scenes discussion about whether to even introduce legislation to repeal Colorado’s death penalty. But that bill is now likely to be introduced before this wild week is over. Why move ahead with it this year? The looming execution of Chuck E. Cheese’s killer Nathan Dunlap,scheduled for later this summer, adds some urgency to death penalty opponents who want to push ahead now. As does next November’s election.

Politically, the thinking goes—and this can be said for all the controversial issues being brought up this year—it’s better to do the heavy lifting, to have the emotional fights now, rather than just months before a major midterm election. As Brophy, who may yet decide to take on Hickenlooper himself, alluded to, Colorado Republicans have been written off following 2012’s round of losses, which marked a full decade without a GOP top-of-the-ticket win here. And, despite the unifying effect of this advancing Democratic agenda, Republicans have a long way to go—and, again, just 18 months—to channel their newfound enthusiasm into real results. “Is Hick vulnerable? No,” Penry says. “But if he signs all these gun control bills, his Republican support will crater. If he gets sucked into the next progressive jihad de jour too—getting rid of the death penalty in the middle of the James Holmes trial—then people en masse around the state will start to scratch their heads and say, ‘What in the world happened to Hick?’ ” But Penry tells me he’s not among the Republicans hoping that the governor gets ensnared in such a trap. “I like Hick,” he says. “I hope he doesn't let his know-nothing base eviscerate the really enviable brand he has built over the last decade.”

Hickenlooper and his party, even as they move ahead with bold legislation on multiple fronts, are increasingly wary of overreaching, no matter how battle-tested the Democratic infrastructure is or how much the state’s demographics appear to be tilting in their favor. “If, over time, the Democrats govern from the middle, and given the favorable legislative map, they will likely retain their majority,” Fine says. “But, as Karl Rove learned, there is no permanent majority. At some point, the Republicans will figure it out so the Democrats will have to keep their eye on the ball and do their best to govern for the majority of Coloradans.”

Waak has less faith in the GOP’s ability to get it together and notes that the proposed abortion bans and other extreme bills Republican lawmakers have introduced—even when they’re swiftly killed by Democratic majorities—show that Democrats are far less ideological by comparison. “[Republicans] will continue to fail unless they move away from ideology and into what's good for the majority of the people,” she says. “As long as the Democrats run the best candidates for office, they will continue to provide responsible leadership. In the end, citizens want commonsense approaches to the tough questions we are facing.”

But Witwer, hardly a conservative ideologue, thinks that the Democratic majorities at the Capitol now are making a real impression on voters, possibly a lasting one. “They run the risk of making voters wonder, Whatever happened to those Democratic candidates who presented themselves as such moderates in their election campaigns?" he says.

—Images: Colorado State Capitol: Shutterstock; John Hickenlooper: Beelde Photography/Shutterstock.com; Colorado House of Representatives Chamber: Andre Nantel/Shutterstock.com

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on March 12, 2013.