sen17Since Democrats wrested control of the state Senate in 2004 for only the second time in more than 40 years, they’ve often been hesitant to wield their authority.

But that might change next year, when Brandon Shaffer takes over as president of the Colorado Senate. Last month, Shaffer was unanimously elected by his Democratic colleagues to succeed Peter Groff, who’s leaving to take a job with the Obama administration.

Shaffer, a Longmont attorney, was first elected to the Senate in 2004–meaning that unlike Groff and his predecessor, Joan Fitz-Gerald, Shaffer has no experience being in the minority party. And those memories of serving under Republican control have sometimes restrained Democratic senators from taking action, he says.

“In the last couple of years, talking to some of the old-timers down here…they always warn you that this is a temporary thing; the pendulum swings back and forth and make sure that you’re not burning bridges, because you never know when you’re going to be back in the minority party,” Shaffer says. “I sensed a bit of reluctance to move forward on major pieces of legislation for fear that it was too ambitious and that it would upset the apple cart too much.”

Traditionally, Senate presidents are expected to maintain an air of bipartisanship. Presiding over the entire chamber, they serve as the public face of the Senate. Yet they also wield enormous behind-the-scenes control over the legislative agenda, and have the important job of handing out committee assignments to Democratic senators.

Next year’s agenda hasn’t yet been determined, but economic development, increased funding for higher education, and expanding health care (all longtime Democratic goals) are likely issues to make the list, Shaffer says.

As president, Groff was admired for his eloquence by senators on both sides of the aisle, even as Democrats advanced bold transportation and budget plans this year under his watch. Shaffer–by his own admission–isn’t an inspirational speechmaker. Still, several Democratic senators eagerly predict that he’ll be even more efficient at getting things (especially Democratic things) done. And some of their GOP counterparts agree.

“I think Peter is more conciliatory. Brandon’s a bulldog,” says Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry.

Shaffer has this reputation in part because he currently serves as Senate majority leader, perhaps the most partisan job in the Senate, since he’s responsible for guiding (Republicans might say “forcing”) the Democratic agenda through the chamber.

“I think it’s a tough transition for somebody whose job in leadership was to be partisan,” says Groff, who never served as majority leader. “And the president’s job, at least as I saw it, was to be president of the entire Senate. You’re not the Democrats’ president, you’re not the Republicans’ president.”

Shaffer, for his part, admits that he needs to reach out to Republicans and build “a level of trust” with them.

Some Republican senators are skeptical and fear Shaffer will unabashedly push for a liberal agenda–especially on education reform, an issue Groff is more sympathetic toward than Shaffer. But Penry calls Shaffer “an able floor leader” and says the two have been able to work together this year on resolving routine administrative issues that come up.

“He and I, we go at it at the microphone, but we’re also able to compartmentalize it,” Penry says.

Shaffer’s organizational skills may stem in part from having served four years in the U.S. Navy. Born in Denver in 1971, Shaffer graduated from Stanford University on a Navy ROTC scholarship before being shipped out to Japan and the Middle East as an anti-submarine warfare officer.

It was in Japan that he met Jessicca Clark, a third-grade teacher at a Department of Defense school. The two married, then moved back to Colorado in 1997 after Shaffer’s brother was diagnosed with cancer. Shaffer then entered law school and got involved with Democratic politics. Shaffer was re-elected to a second term in 2008, meaning that he could remain Senate president for up to three years.

If he hadn’t come back to Colorado, Shaffer says he’d likely be a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy and an executive officer of a ship.

Instead, he’s about to become executive officer of the Colorado Senate.

“Actually,” he says, laughing, “this time I would be the commanding officer.”