Jenise May vs. Kevin Priola – Republicans seek to claim a long-held Democratic seat
If Republicans have a shot of picking up the open Senate District 25 seat – and the odds are not in their favor – that hope lies in two places: with unaffiliated voters, the area’s dominant force, and with rural voters, the literal outliers of the Adams County district.
No Republican has won the seat in at least 20 years and its current occupant, Democrat Mary Hodge, who is term-limited, trounced her Republican rivals in her last two contests.
Fundraising in the district had favored Priola, who started out his campaign with more than $11,000 from his House campaign fund. He since has raised another $71,000 and had a little more than $64,000 on hand as of early last week. Priola’s biggest donors have been insurance companies and committees backed by oil and other energy companies.
But May has surged ahead in fundraising, according to last week’s campaign finance filings. She has now raised a little more than $101,000 with about $73,000 on hand. Among her donors is Tom Steyer, the California billionaire and environmentalist who founded NextGen Climate. Steyer put $200 into May’s campaign, less than the $400 maximum allowed under state law. Billionaire philanthropist and Democratic donor George Soros also kicked in $400.(Both are supporting Democrats in legislative races that could flip the Senate from red to blue.)
Unaffiliated voters make up the largest voting group in the district (more than 30,000), leading Democratic voters by about 2,000 registrations. Republicans are a distant third, trailing Democrats by more than 6,000 voters. But, the district is also noticeably rural, which tends to favor Republicans. It includes portions of Aurora, Brighton, Commerce City and Thornton in the west, but its eastern edge is the Adams County boundary with Washington County, some 45 miles east of Bennett.
Water and fracking are key issues there. The Brighton City Council in 2014 enacted a moratorium on drilling, but rescinded it just a month later after an outcry from residents. Water also is top concern because some of the state’s most productive farms are in the northern part of the county. Those include Sakata Farms of Brighton, whose owner, agricultural icon Bob Sakata, supplies corn and onions to many Front Range grocery stores. Sakata has endorsed Priola.
Both Priola and May have rural backgrounds. Priola formerly owned a family greenhouse with roots that went back more than 100 years. He now runs a real estate and investment company. He didn’t return multiple phone calls and emails seeking an interview. The Colorado Independent relied on his voting record and public statements for this article.
May points out she’s a fourth-generation Coloradan whose family comes from northeastern Colorado. “I’ve been exposed to the rural life,” she says. “I know how food gets to the table.” But her mother’s family came from North Aurora, and that gave her an understanding of urban issues, as well, she says. May has lived in northwest Aurora for the past decade, and now lives in her late grandmother’s house.
There’s another voting bloc that could come into play: Latinos.
Latinos make up 40 percent of residents, with most living in Commerce City, Brighton and Lochbuie, just north of Brighton. Most Latinos in the district are young – many either below or coming into voting age. Get-out-the-vote efforts will make a critical difference in a race that could determine control of the state Senate.
Republicans currently hold a one-seat advantage, and are looking for opportunities to either build on that majority or find a seat that gives them some breathing room. That means hanging on to the seats they have and/or winning the three open seats now held by term-limited senators – including the 25th’s Hodge.
May says she’s much like Hodge in her political views. “I work well across the aisle,” she says, noting that every bill she carried in her two years in the House was bipartisan, even a concealed weapons permit bill. (That 2013 bill blocked the use of online-training courses for concealed weapons permits.)
“I try to listen to all voices. You get a better policy when you have everyone at the table,” she says.
May says it’s difficult to identify just a few issues that stand out in the diverse district. “You can’t lump everyone together,” even among the district’s Latino population, which includes second- and third-generation Hispanics as well as immigrants from Mexico and El Salvador.
What are they looking for in their elected representative? “What every person looks for,” May says: an opportunity to grow, make a livable wage, and to do better than their parents did. “It’s pretty similar when you get down to it. It’s not about where you came from – it’s where you’re going.”
May served one term in the state House, but lost her reelection bid in 2014 by a margin of just 104 votes. The next year, she ran for state Senate and stirred controversy when she took a job as an advisor to the Democratic Speaker of the House Dickey Lee Hullinghorst after she filed her candidacy. Candidates for office can’t, under House rules, work in the legislature. The ensuing Republican outcry prompted May to withdraw from the race.
“It wasn’t dishonest. We just didn’t know,” she says, adding, “I’m human. Mistakes happen.”
May re-entered the race last September .
Republican Priola started his legislative service in 2008 with a solid record of bipartisan bills that were signed into law by Democratic governors. Many of those bills dealt with transportation regulations.
His record of working with both sides of the aisle hit a snag in 2013 when he ran bills to ease business and property tax regulations and to promote so-called “religious freedom.” The legislation was tied to several prominent cases in which business owners refused to serve same-sex couples, claiming it violated their religious beliefs.
This past session, Priola saw a half-dozen of his bills signed into law. Three were related to education, including a measure requiring school districts to post information about school board candidates on their websites.
Priola served as House Minority Whip during the 2014 session, and survived an attempt by more conservative Republicans to replace him after he voted in support of a Democratic measure on education funding. While the coup failed, he was stripped of his leadership position in the 2015 session and in this year’s session, his committee assignments were reduced from two to just one: education.
Here’s a look at how Priola and May line up on some key topics likely to resurface in next year’s session.
Hospital provider fee
As The Independent explained earlier this year, hospitals are required to pay the state an annual fee based on how many patients stayed in hospital beds overnight and how much outpatient care the hospitals provided. That fee is matched by federal dollars and all that money – nearly $700 million last year – is spent to expand Medicaid, provide health coverage for Coloradans who are using emergency rooms for non-emergency treatment, and reimburse hospitals for care.
The hospital provider fee counts as a big chunk of state revenue, which is a problem in a state that has limits on how much money it can bring in before it has to start giving it back to taxpayers.
Democrats and some Republicans in the legislature want to sidestep that limit by reclassifying the hospital fee as a government-owned business or enterprise. Doing so would allow the state to bring in hundreds of millions of dollars more in revenue before hitting thresholds under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR. May supports reclassifying the provider fee.
“Our economy is booming, the fourth largest in the nation,” May says. “But we have mandatory things we need to do,” including funding for public education and transportation.
Priola supported the provider-fee bill when it was originally introduced in 2009. Though the University of Colorado Hospital and CU medical campus are in his House district, he hasn’t recently supported reclassifying that fee to an enterprise. He voted against the 2016 effort, saying the proposal didn’t lower the state’s revenue threshold accordingly, a move supported by Republicans who want to keep a tight leash on spending. He offered an amendment to the 2016 bill to do that, but it was voted down.
May says she stands by her 2013 vote to require people who sell or give firearms to others to run a background check through the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. “It’s a safety issue,” she says. “You don’t always know everything in a person’s background,” adding that background checks are a quick and easy way to promote safety.
She voted in favor of the 2013 bill establishing a 15-round limit on ammunition magazines, but leaves the door open for discussion. “The problem with undoing it is where you draw the line” on the number of rounds, May says.
Priola has been a reliable “no” vote on all of the 2013 gun control measures, which include background checks for transfers, limits on ammunition magazines and charging gun buyers for the cost of a background check for transfers. He hasn’t cast a vote on the issue since 2013 because Republican efforts to repeal those measures never made it to the full House.
Republicans floated six bills in 2016 on the abortion issue, including personhood (defining life as beginning at conception), mandatory ultrasounds and tougher standards for abortion clinics modeled on the Texas law recently thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court. None of the bills made it out of committee hearings.
May says it isn’t the government’s role to dictate a women’s health care.
According to his website, Priola indicates he believes life begins at conception. He’s a regular co-sponsor on House bills that attempt to ban or place more restrictions on abortion, including personhood bills that Republicans have attempted during the past several legislative sessions.
Priola was one of 30 Republican lawmakers to sign onto a letter last year calling on the state Department of Public Health and Environment to investigate Planned Parenthood for alleged illegal sales of fetal tissue.
Equal pay for equal work and minimum wage
May cheers the equal-pay bills brought forward by Democrats in the 2016 session. “I’ve been waiting for them my whole life,” she says. “I’m a woman with daughters and granddaughters” who believes everyone should be paid equally when they do the same work.
May also favors raising the minimum wage and supports the ballot measure that would raise it from its current $8.31 an hour to $12 an hour by 2020. The issue gets murky beyond that, she says, raising concerns that a minimum wage above $12 may hurt low-income workers who rely on subsidized child care.
For his part, Priola voted against two of the three equal-pay measures supported by Democrats – a bill requiring state contractors to follow equal-pay laws and a bill blocking employers from asking potential employees about salary history. He did support one bill, now law, that allows employees to discuss salary history with each other.
Last year, Priola was the major House sponsor of a failed bill to repeal portions of a 2013 law that expanded job protection and civil rights remedies for discrimination. That law allows employees to pursue compensation and punitive damages in state court, as well as with the Colorado Civil Rights Division. Priola’s bill, sponsored with conservative Republican Sen. Laura Woods of Arvada, would have eliminated the option of going to court, and would have limited the awards made by the Colorado Civil Rights Division.
Priola made fun of the minimum wage issue in the most recent vote by the General Assembly in 2015. He offered a House amendment to raise it to $1,000 per hour, stating: “It would let the poor eat lobster instead of ramen.”
Priola did not vote on the bill. He was excused from the House that day.
Single-payer health system
May doesn’t support Amendment 69, the ballot measure that would put Colorado under a single-payer health care system. “I’m not for anything that puts that much detail into the state Constitution,” she says, adding that such amendments are difficult to change if something goes wrong.
May pointed to the example of marijuana taxes. Voters last year approved a ballot measure allowing the state to keep excess tax revenue generated by marijuana sales. The state had underestimated the amount of revenue that could be obtained from marijuana sales, and that excess revenue pushed the state’s pot of tax revenue over its revenue limits. It was the third time the state had to go back to voters for permission on that issue.
“That’s not an effective and efficient way to run government,” May says. “We need to let the legislature do its job.”
Priola is also opposed to universal health-care initiative, having signed onto the “No on 69” campaign.
Photos via campaign websites of Jenise May and Kevin Priola
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