Here is a story that pretty much embodies state Rep. Michael Merrifield‘s approach to politics. Two years ago, Merrifield’s conservative colleague Dave Schultheis announced he was forming a Bible Study at the state Capitol. Not to be outdone, Merrifield organized his own, four-week long bipartisan Bible study in another room at the Capitol.
“I’m not doing it to make a swipe at the ultra right,” Merrifield said at the time. “One of the things I decided when I decided to run for office is that I would not let the Christian right abrogate from me my Christianity or patriotism; those are not owned by the far right.”
Merrifield’s a retired high school music teacher. He’s strident, energetic and rambunctious. It’s almost been a prerequisite for the job. For the past six years he’s been El Paso County’s lone elected Democrat in a 13-member legislative delegation. He has never forgotten the insult of Rep. Keith King, asking him at the start of one session years ago, when the Republicans still held the majority, how it felt knowing that every single one of his bills was going to be killed. Merrifield gets the last laugh. Headed into his third term in office, the chairman of the House Education Committee is in the majority – and now he’s got a second Democrat from El Paso County, Senator-elect John Morse, watching his back.
Now that the Democrats have taken over the governor’s office, as well as the House and Senate, what are you planning to do?
I’m looking forward to taking over the world and turning it into my own personal liberal-leaning globe. Seriously, it’s kind of scary being in this position; what if we screw it up? I’m really excited and nervous about the next couple of years. We have the opportunity to do some positive things for Colorado and really get some things done in education and the environment, health care – it’s really time to put up or shut up.
What can we expect from education, specifically online charters? (NOTE: A host of problems, including lack of accountability, massive overhead costs, dismal student test scores and tax dollars funding religious instruction have been exposed in recent weeks targeting Hope Online Learning Academy.)
I look forward to addressing the obvious shortcomings of online education in Colorado. I’ve never been particularly fond of online charters – look at the amount of money they use that doesn’t go into educating kids. It’s a total misuse of the original charter school legislation. It’s one of the methods that the neocons and the public education detractors and haters are using to gain entry into the system, and we are going to address it in legislation this year.
In addition, we might try to see if there’s a way to administer CSAPs earlier, and get results back earlier to make it more user friendly.
I’m also interested in establishing a restorative justice system for schools, so kids have an alternative to being expelled or suspended. Basically they agree to sit down with the group and face the victim of whatever act it was, and work out restitution, and apologize and understand the negative effects of what they’ve done.
What else is on the agenda?
I’m going to bring back my tenant-landlord bill, probably with stronger tenants’ rights than in the past. I’m looking forward to sitting down with Governor Ritter, to hopefully come up with something that’s good for tenants and landlords. Governor Owens vetoed the bill two years ago, and then last year I asked for it to be killed. I had thought we had an agreement between tenant and landlord groups, but it didn’t work out. It did a number of things – changed the cap on late fees, changed the date that landlords have to return damage deposits, required renters to be given a copy of lease. It was a pretty minor bill compared to what other states have. But Governor Owens was convinced by the realtor’s association that it would be a terrible catastrophe – the winds would come in fury, and the locusts would descend upon us…
So have you heard from the conservative Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, which declined to endorse either you or Democrat Senator-elect John Morse?
They haven’t been calling me and beating on the door. I can’t understand. No Christmas cards, nothing.
Seriously, though, the majority party wants Senator Morse and myself to do well – Democrats have established a beachhead in El Paso County and if John and I can show that Democrats from a place where the vast majority is Republican can get things done, it will help in the coming years.
Have you reached out to the similarly-conservative Colorado Springs City Council or the El Paso County Board of Commissioners?
I did send out feelers. I think it would be a good policy if we met on a regular basis – I’ve put out the offer and I’m hoping they respond positively. I’m really looking forward to meeting with [county Commissioner] Douglas Bruce on a regular basis… you know my tongue is firmly in cheek, right? But it does need to be done.
Which new Republican lawmaker from El Paso County are you most excited about joining you at the Capitol?
That’s a tough one – they’re all so exciting. Kent Lambert and Bob Gardner are sort of the Bobbsey Twins of humor – both are such great, fun guys. (Gardner, a former GOP chairman and longtime political operative in Colorado Springs, replaces term-limited Rep. Keith King; Lambert replaces Senator-elect Dave Schultheis, for whom Lambert previously worked as a legislative aide. Geographically speaking, Merrifield’s district in central/western Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs is sandwiched between the two incoming freshmen.)
The first thing I plan to ask [Bob] Gardner is, “How does it feel to know none of your legislation will pass?” Ha, ha, just kidding.
One final question: Did you hook Ted Haggard and Mike Jones up? I mean, this campaign you were being challenged by Haggard’s junior pastor, Kyle Fisk…
That’s even past the limits of my political strategic intellect – that sounds like a Karl Rovian thing, really.
Cara DeGette is a longtime editor and columnist at the Colorado Springs Independent.
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