Cerbo On Cerbo: From Lawmaker To Union Boss

State Rep. Mike Cerbo would have preferred that the job of executive director of the Colorado AFL/CIO opened up three years from now, when term limits would have cut him off from running again.

But that’s not the way things work in life, and so it is that Cerbo, a Denver Democrat, found himself resigning this week from the legislature after five years to become a union boss.

Yes, it’s been quite a ride for Cerbo, who in a previous life was a bartender at Denver’s legendary Trader Vic’s, serving up cocktails to the likes of Fleetwood Mac, actor Hal Linden and billionaire Marvin Davis, in addition to a stint as the secretary-treasurer of Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Local 14.

On Monday, Cerbo, 53, the now-former chairman of the House Majority Caucus, sat down with Colorado Confidential to talk about legacies, one of the most terrible days he spent in the legislature, and the pain of giving up his killer parking spot at the state capitol.

Colorado Confidential: Do you feel like this weight has been lifted off of you?
Cerbo: No. No, no, no, no. I’m just exchanging one weight for another. I have real mixed emotions; I really didn’t want to leave the legislature, but there’s too much work to be done with the AFL/CIO and something was going to have to give.

Colorado Confidential: What are you going to miss the most?
Cerbo: My parking spot. They told me I had to turn that in today; it broke my heart. That was a great parking spot.

Seriously, the thing that I will miss the most is the work involved …  I hate to talk in generalities, but I’ll miss getting out in my district and I’ll miss moving the state forward.

Colorado Confidential: Which of your bills are you proudest of?
Cerbo: I would say House Bill 1008 from last year, the presumptive cancer for firefighters bill. It changes the burden of proof to make it easier for firefighters to show that they contracted cancer on the job for unemployment benefits.

Colorado Confidential: Why that one in particular?
Cerbo: There was a real inequity there. Firefighters are contracting certain types of cancer at higher rates than other people, from chemicals they breathe and ingest. The burden of proof was impossible to reach, and this bill reduces the burden of proof, and [installs a] certain presumption that it was caused on the job. It was getting more benefits to the people that deserve them, that earned them.

Colorado Confidential: Is there anything else that you carried that you’re particularly proud of?
Cerbo: Happy’s more like it. I’m satisfied about the overall picture. Referendum C passed and since then there have been changes in the legislature. It just feels good moving a positive agenda, moving the state forward. It was really difficult the first couple of years [in the legislature]. I was on health committee, and I sat there one day when a bunch of parents had to bring their severely disabled children down here [to the capitol] to make a case for why their child should continue to receive care in the home, which was going to be discontinued because of the budget crisis.

That was a terrible day, to have to make a case for a benefit when it was so obvious that there should be no question they should be receiving those benefits.

Colorado Confidential: So what happened?
Cerbo: We managed to find the money and keep the services. But that first year (2003) we had to make cutbacks that were just so small but so necessary in the big picture. It wasn’t a fun place to be; it was very politically charged back then.

Colorado Confidential: What do you mean?
Cerbo: My first year (2003) was the Karl Rove-inspired redistricting battle (that year the Republican-controlled House and Senate pushed through a last-minute redistricting plan in Colorado that was later struck down by the courts). It was a terrible waste of government resources, all so Karl Rove could play out his national machinations. That was really difficult and I didn’t feel like we were governing. We were arguing and chiseling, but we weren’t governing. Now I feel like we’re governing.

Colorado Confidential: So what’s the first order of business with the AFL/CIO?
Cerbo: To make sure I have the place staffed. I’ve got a lot of ideas and want to talk to people. I need to make the rounds to all the union affiliates – there are 70 to 100 of them. Denver’s got its largest convention ever coming to town next year (the Democratic National Convention). We’ve got a lot of work to do.

Cara DeGette is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential and a columnist and contributing editor at the Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at cdegette@coloradoconfidential.com

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