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Shortly after the November 2018 elections, Republican Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert drove from Parker to Pueblo to meet Democratic Senate President Leroy Garcia and his wife for dinner. A blue wave had just swept the Centennial State, flipping both men’s leadership roles in the Colorado Senate. But on this night, says Holbert, they were simply Leroy and Chris.
In the restaurant, many diners recognized Garcia and came over to say hello—that’s a feature of a citizen legislature, where lawmakers typically do other work in their districts during the May-to-December recess. Politics is only a part-time job. “We don’t get disconnected from our communities,” says Holbert.
In a legislature of ordinary citizens, strong local connections and real-world experience promote accountability and collaboration, Holbert says. Case in point: Even during the highly contentious 2019 legislative session, the Senate passed 96 percent of its bills with bipartisan support. “We recognize that good work happens through consensus,” Garcia says. “That is one of the things the Senate is called to do.”
But that doesn’t mean legislators stop politicking while they’re off the clock. As national campaigns for the White House and Colorado’s U.S. Senate seat have captured voters’ attention recently, a state-level battle is also brewing in the Colorado General Assembly. Republicans are taking aim at Democrats’ state government trifecta in 2020, and the Senate—and its leaders—are at the epicenter of the fight.
Between staggered four-year terms that place a different slate of lawmakers on the ballot in 2020 and Democrats’ slim 19–16 lead in the chamber, the Colorado Senate offers the best opportunity for Republicans to recapture at least one majority in state government next year. Senate Republicans are targeting five battleground districts (19, 26,25, 27, and 35) to recapture or defend in 2020, Holbert says.
Republicans hope the Senate’s shifting battlefield will create fresh opportunities to woo unaffiliated voters with a tale of Democratic overreach. “I’m confident we can flip it back,” says Holbert. “I think some unaffiliated voters are disenchanted with one-party control.”
For the first time in Colorado, unaffiliated voters cast the most ballots in the state’s 2018 midterms, and this voting bloc’s aversion to partisanship is expected to shape the battles to come. Polling firm Magellan Strategies projects that unaffiliated voter turnout will hit a record high of 37 percent in 2020, which is why it’s critical for both parties to target this group.
Garcia points out that Senate Democrats swept all their seats in 2018 with double-digit margins, thanks in no small part to unaffiliated voters. “We had a clear message sent to us by the voters, and we’re here to do their work,” he says.
A Rocky Beginning
While the 2020 legislative contests are just beginning, Republicans are off to a rough start. Over the summer, Colorado Republican party leaders backed efforts to recall six state-level Democrats ahead of next year’s elections, including Garcia and two other senators who aren’t on the ballot in 2020. With Republicans needing to win two extra seats to recapture the Senate next year, any successful recalls would boost the party’s odds of reaching that goal.
But Coloradans had little appetite for the partisan-tinged tactic and five of the recall attempts fell flat (one lawmaker resigned over a separate conflict). The recall petition against Garcia—a moderate Democrat who secured reelection with nearly 74 percent of the vote in 2018—failed on October 18, when organizers turned in just four signatures (they needed 13,506).
Garcia, who went door-to-door over the summer to talk to Pueblo constituents, says the recall efforts presented new opportunities for Democrats to reconnect with voters ahead of the 2020 session. “It was a positive thing to be reminded about where our priorities are,” he says.
Now Colorado lawmakers from both parties are pushing for reforms to the recall process. In September, Sen. Jack Tate (R-Centennial) announced that he’s introducing legislation in the 2020 session “to create ethical standards and good-government reforms for Colorado’s recall process.” Separately, Rep. Tom Sullivan (D-Centennial), who survived a recall attempt in June, is looking at ways to make recalls less partisan by requiring specific grounds for the action. Colorado law currently allows recalls for any reason.
The failed recalls are a reminder that, despite the state’s recent blue wave, partisanship is still a tough sell in Colorado, where a changing electorate and unique legislative rules strongly promote collaboration. “Sweeping changes to our Constitution affect how our legislature works,” notes Holbert, who did not participate in any recall efforts. “It’s very, very different here.”
Colorado’s rise in unaffiliated voters may be a recent trend, but the state’s affinity for bipartisanship is longstanding. Thirty years ago, for example, over 70 percent of Colorado voters approved the GAVEL (Give a Vote to Every Legislator) Amendment. Unlike the U.S. Congress, GAVEL requires legislators to give every bill a full hearing and a vote. The transparency simultaneously exposes party rifts and creates openings for bipartisan alliances, which according to one study, reduces polarization in the Colorado General Assembly. “The best solutions for Coloradans will be made in collaboration,” says Garcia. “That is one of the fundamental beliefs that I have about how we should approach leadership.”
Leading The Charge
When they’re not officially leading the Senate, Garcia serves as a paramedic and teaches emergency medical services in Pueblo, while Holbert was a Parker-based business consultant who advised nonprofits until he closed the business in 2017 to focus on Senate leadership. Their shared challenge in the upcoming session is to preserve the Senate’s role as a deliberative body amidst a fiercely competitive election year and increasing political polarization. Partisan animosity has deepened and become more personal since the U.S. 2016 presidential campaign, according to a new Pew Research report, with more than 80 percent of adults expressing concern about the divisions.
In the Colorado Senate, it falls to leaders to navigate the push and pull between competition and collaboration. “You have to call on your own values,” Garcia says. “Specifically, for me, I lead with integrity and with a sense of purpose. I know how to get the job done.”
For his part, Holbert focuses on facts—and relies on patience. “First, I need to know our laws and statutes and the legislative rules,” he says. “One of my strengths is helping people understand what’s true and how our process works here.”
During the six years he served as a Marine, Garcia was deployed to Iraq, where his job as a mortuary affairs specialist was to pick up his fallen comrades and ship them home to Dover Air Force Base. Today, Garcia’s history strongly influences his leadership style: With a firsthand understanding of the cost of defending democracy, he is resolute that legislators are duty-bound to engage in governing over gamesmanship. “I believe so much in the fact that this democracy is wonderful and great and beautiful—and sometimes it’s also complicated, messy, and has passion points,” Garcia says. “It’s a good, healthy thing in the legislature.”
Garcia is elected by the entire chamber, rather than his party, and he takes the distinction seriously. Literally and figuratively, Garcia holds himself above the partisan fray, rarely coming down to the Senate floor to join debates, and keeping his personal positions closely held. “My job is to preside over this institution,” he says.
As a veteran, Garcia also embraces the philosophy of servant leadership. “In the Marine Corps, they say that you serve a purpose greater than yourself,” Garcia explains. “In this institution we have the privilege of serving people who elect us to do their work.”
Despite strong pushback from conservatives during the 2019 session, Garcia ultimately led the Senate to pass over 450 bills in the 2019 session which were signed into law over the summer, most with Republican support. His continuing mission is to uphold honor in the Senate, and he revived a tradition of signing a pledge with Holbert to maintain decorum in the chamber. “Those things matter to me, they matter to the institution, and they matter to the people of Colorado, because that’s how you do the best work,” Garcia says.”
Playing A Long Game
While Garcia’s mission to reform the Senate reflects his broader focus, Holbert has a different objective: Amplifying his party’s voice. After 16 years of working under the Gold Dome as a lobbyist and then as a legislator, Holbert is a pragmatic strategist who takes political differences in stride. Bills are ultimately a collection of numbers and words on paper, he says, many of which can be negotiated.
“My life has brought me this perspective that it’s OK if we disagree,” Holbert says. “When I sit down with someone who agrees with me, that’s easy. And when I sit down with someone who disagrees with me, I don’t find that to be impossible.” For inspiration, Holbert keeps a well-read book on his desk about the leadership philosophies of President Abraham Lincoln. “One of Lincoln’s sayings is that he doesn’t want to do anything out of malice or [spite],” says Holbert. “I have tried to live by that.”
Holbert is realistic about the limited power of Colorado’s citizen legislature. “We are term-limited, we are part-time, and we don’t make a lot of money,” he says. But Holbert’s humble assessment belies his ability to play a long game, using his in-depth knowledge of Colorado’s legislative rules to advance his party’s goals. The year before he was elected to leadership, Holbert says 93 percent of the bills on which he was a prime sponsor passed into law. “This is something I know how to do,” Holbert said at the start of 2019 legislative session.
By the time the session ended four months later, Holbert won his top priority of approving $300 million in the budget for transportation (a figure he quoted to the dollar before the session began). “We used the tools available to us to represent our party and that gave us the opportunity to negotiate changes to bills,” he says.
Checking The Boards
Perhaps no tactic raised more ire among Democrats this year than when Republicans repeatedly used a state constitutional requirement to read bills at length on the Senate floor, effectively delaying debate on more contentious issues. An ensuing court battle temporarily upheld the rule, which Democrats are currently appealing.
Despite their many differences, what ultimately defined the Senate in 2019—and will be tested vigorously in 2020—is what Garcia and Holbert have in common: A deep commitment to the institution they serve and strong respect for Colorado’s collaborative traditions.
“We definitely know at the national level that politics can be very divisive,” says Garcia. “My effort this year is to renew the call to my colleagues to stay focused on the priorities and tasks we have at hand.”
While the rivalry can be fierce, and the debates heartfelt, Garcia says the legislative bickering often gets overdramatized. “All of us are people who really want to get along and work hard and represent our districts,” he says. “We agree to disagree and move on to another day.”
Holbert compares the legislative process to a game of ice hockey, a favorite sport. “Sometimes President Garcia needs to check me into the boards and sometimes I may need to check him into the boards,” Holbert says. “That’s the way this process works.”
“Leroy and Chris can be friends,” he says, adding in true Colorado fashion: “If Sen. Garcia and Sen. Holbert need to be adversaries for a time, at the end we shake hands and maybe go get a beer.”
Editor’s note, 10/18/19: This article has been updated with the results of the recall petition against Sen. Leroy Garcia.