Despite his outrageous antics during a short tenure in the Statehouse, Douglas Bruce remains a hero to many Colorado conservatives. But with a reelection bid looming, is his act wearing thin?
John Andrews was right. In December, after his friend and fellow conservative Douglas Bruce was appointed to fill an open seat in the state House of Representatives from El Paso County's District 15, Andrews was quick to offer his congratulations. Writing on his blog, Andrews, the former president of the Colorado Senate turned commentator, praised Bruce for authoring the 1992 Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, and called Bruce "just the man" to fight "secular progressivism" in state government. "[He] is going to be quite a spectacle, no doubt about it," Andrews added. "Stay tuned for the fireworks when he takes his seat and the session opens next month."
Even Andrews couldn't have anticipated how quickly the chaos would begin. Bruce started by announcing his intention to skip the 2008 session's opening day, shrewdly calculating that by delaying his swearing-in, he could theoretically serve an additional two-year term in office while still abiding by the term-limits law. (He faces a primary in August and, if he wins that, the general election in November.) A frustrated Andrew Romanoff, speaker of the House, accused Bruce of cynically gaming the system.
Bruce then kicked off the Statehouse's new session in shockingly literal fashion. Not yet sworn in, he was on the House floor as a guest of Rep. Kent Lambert when he booted Rocky Mountain News photographer Javier Manzano in the knee for taking his picture during the morning prayer. Lawmakers lambasted Bruce, but he refused to apologize, instead demanding his own apology from Manzano. (Bruce still refers to the alleged kick as a "nudge.") Ten days later, in a 62-to-1 vote, Bruce became the first member of the Colorado General Assembly to be formally censured. Andrews, who had previously predicted that Bruce's influence during his first term in the House "will weigh more in the plus column than in the minus," quickly changed his tune. "My endorsement of Bruce's candidacy for this House seat," he blogged, "and my congratulations to him upon winning it, are on extreme probation and rapidly approaching termination."
On a dreary mid-March afternoon, Douglas Bruce, in the office he shares with several other House members, is perched behind a desk that seems a little too small for his burly frame. Dressed in a gray business suit, he's munching on peanuts and sipping from a can of root beer. He spent the morning trying unsuccessfully to get several "safety clauses" removed from bills. Bruce doesn't like the clauses, which lawmakers frequently add so the bills will take effect sooner than the standard 90 days, preventing the public from petitioning against them. Bruce thinks lawmakers add them without justification, and he has vowed to vote against every bill with such a clause unless there's a legitimate reason, which for Bruce is pretty much...never.
This morning, he's failed to convince his colleagues to remove a safety clause from a bill that would make it a felony to make threats against judges or their families—a concept Bruce supports. The bill would pass in the House one day later on a 59-6 vote, with Bruce voting against it, as promised. Some might view his decisions as having a foolish, often pointless consistency. Bruce prefers to portray himself as the only honest man in a roomful of hypocrites; for him to vote for such a bill would be, in effect, a lie. "And I'm not going to lie to the public, anywhere, anytime, for any reason," he says.
I've come prepared with questions, but one doesn't interview Bruce so much as listen to his imperious monologues. My attempts to interrupt and sneak in a question or two are often greeted with, "I'm not finished!" Yet he knows what I want to discuss. Without prompting, he launches into a defense of nearly everything he's been criticized for. His decision to delay his swearing-in, he insists, was "very straightforward—nothing devious about it." He says he never should have trusted photographer Manzano, who, according to Bruce, "said twice he would not take photos during the prayer and the pledge." (Not true, according to Manzano's testimony before a six-member bipartisan House panel.) "He set me up," says Bruce, using one of his favorite accusations. The formal censure against him was "a lie." And so on.
Bruce seems to be in a permanent state of testiness. He seethes at the size of government, the hypocrisy of his fellow lawmakers, and the actions of his perceived enemies. He cites conspiracies when talking about being listed as a cosponsor of ceremonial resolutions honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Colorado 4-H Day. (He has long considered such resolutions a waste of time, and nearly always opposes them.) "That's all they do around here, try to set people up, especially me," he says. I ask him why it is that many Republicans, and not just Democrats, have turned against him. "Because I'm a conservative!" he bellows. "Because I'm not the establishment! I'm here to reform government, and most people don't like it."
Rep. Kevin Lundberg, a Berthoud Republican who cast the lone dissenting vote against Bruce's censure, admits that Bruce's hard-line approach and propensity for controversy—combined with his aggressive personality—don't always make for easy relations under the dome. "He is a perfectionist about the legislative process," Lundberg says, "with fewer 'negotiables' than the rest of us."
Bruce's appetite for controversy has reached across both sides of the aisle. After being elected to the El Paso Board of County Commissioners in 2004, he repeatedly clashed at meetings with his colleagues—all Republicans. Commissioner Sallie Clark, a frequent target of Bruce's acid comments (he once compared her to the Wicked Witch of the West), told the Colorado Springs Gazette, "It's like anybody who doesn't agree with him or gets in his way ends up a target, and that's unfortunate."
House Minority Leader Mike May, ostensibly a Bruce ally, has squabbled with Bruce and even ousted him from the State Veterans and Military Affairs Committee after Bruce refused to cosponsor a joint House-Senate resolution honoring Military and Veterans Appreciation Day. When Bruce pointed out to May and other members of the Executive Committee of the Legislative Council that staffers have larger offices than lawmakers, May reportedly admonished Bruce for wasting the legislators' time. "I was looking at a map of the Capitol, and I just don't think there's an office big enough to contain [Bruce's] ego," May later joked. "Maybe there's space in the dome."
His delayed swearing-in wasn't the only time Bruce toyed with House protocol. On the April day that his opponent in the August Republican primary, Mark Waller, was visiting the Capitol, Bruce placed his own campaign fliers on the desks of House Republicans. May has said that no one was sure whether Bruce had broken any rules "because nobody else would be dumb enough to do it." (The action wasn't a violation, but Romanoff asked Bruce not to do it again.) A few weeks later Bruce made headlines again when he stood at the House podium and referred to Mexican migrant workers as "illiterate peasants." Kathleen Curry, a Gunnison Democrat running the debate, quickly cut off Bruce and sent him back to his desk. Once again, Bruce refused to apologize, and the next day he boasted of receiving hundreds of supportive phone calls and e-mails. Meanwhile, Curry asked for extra security from the Colorado State Patrol after receiving death threats.
Bruce faced another controversy in May when an unnamed female legislative staffer accused him of sexual harassment. Bruce has claimed that he didn't know the woman who filed the complaint and told one reporter that the accusation was political. "The complaint simply says that I looked at her and smiled," he said. "This is preposterous. I'm tired of being set up."
Though he's the Colorado House's most notorious conservative, Doug Bruce actually hails from the liberal mecca of Los Angeles. Born in 1949, he attended Hollywood High School, famous for its celebrity graduates. After graduating at 16, he attended Pomona College, where he majored in history and government, skipped the campus anti-war demonstrations of the day, kept his hair unfashionably short, and convinced the student-run radio station to let him play classical music on Sunday mornings because, he later explained, he wanted to have something broadcast besides hard rock.
Bruce earned his law degree from the University of Southern California, and was a deputy district attorney in Los Angeles county by age 23. He resigned in 1979 to run for a seat in California's state assembly—as a Democrat. He lost and later switched parties. He moved to Colorado Springs in 1985 because, as he told the Rocky Mountain News, "I did not fit in in Los Angeles." He invested in real estate, "restoring neglected and abandoned buildings to good condition, despite governmental and political interference," according to his website. Though Bruce has received numerous citations over the years for failing to maintain properties in Colorado Springs, Denver, and Pueblo, most fines and charges against him have been overturned.
Beginning in the late-1980s, the self-employed Bruce led a six-year campaign to get TABOR added to the state constitution, writing and rewriting the amendment until voters finally approved it in 1992. TABOR established a constitutional formula for limiting government spending; voters must approve any override of it, a process known as "de-Brucing." In 2005, they approved Referendum C, a five-year suspension of some of the bill's restrictions, but TABOR lives on, despite attempts by some Democrats to emasculate it. In early 2008, House Speaker Romanoff—who declined to comment for this article—proposed a referendum that would remove some of TABOR's spending limits, but he couldn't muster the required two-thirds support to get it on the November ballot. He now plans to take the idea directly to voters via a citizens' ballot initiative.
The power of TABOR is such that Bruce's conservative cred hasn't been tarnished by his boorish behavior. The bill has become his legacy. It's had an undeniable effect on just about everyone who lives in Colorado and has spawned numerous copycat initiatives around the country. Colorado College political science professor Bob Loevy, a longtime Bruce observer, says, "No governor of Colorado, no U.S. Senator, no member of the U.S. House, no legislative leader has had the impact on politics and government in Colorado as Douglas Bruce has had."
Mark Waller, a Colorado Springs attorney, is challenging the incumbent in next month's primary because Waller sees an opening as wide as Academy Boulevard. Like Bruce, Waller is a conservative, but he's pushing personality and "effectiveness" over politics in his campaign to de-Bruce District 15. "[Bruce has] done a lot of great things as a private citizen, especially TABOR," Waller says. "But maybe somebody like him is more effective on the outside, as a watchdog of government."
The blogger John Andrews acknowledges this possibility, but he hasn't quite given up on Douglas Bruce the legislator. Even though Andrews says Bruce should have tried to work within the customs of the House, and he could have avoided being censured by making a "simple apology" for kicking the Rocky photographer, Andrews says it's too early to write Bruce's political obituary. The 2008 session, Andrews says charitably, was "a learning experience" for Bruce that "sets him up to now go home and make his case to the people he represents." To many of the voters in District 15—which has a more than 2-to-1 ratio of registered Republicans to Democrats—Bruce, warts and all, will always be the man who stuck it to Big Government. Colorado may be trending purple in its politics, but that doesn't necessarily mean a feisty, hard-right conservative like Bruce can't get reelected or maintain a fervent base of support. "Douglas Bruce is a hero among Colorado conservatives," Andrews says. "And that's not the same as being a saint."