State Rep. Debbie Stafford says back-room decisions and good ol’ boy politics drove her out of the Republican Party. Is there room for dissent in the state GOP? Since 2000, Debbie Stafford has been serving House District 40 in Aurora as a Republican. Now, as she announced last week, Stafford is a Democrat. Her party switch isn’t likely to change the outcome of many votes at the Capitol, but it does shed some negative light on the state GOP and how its leaders deal with dissidents.
During her seven years in the state House, Stafford has been a moderate member of the Republican Party. During the 2007 session, she voted against a bill to legalize second-parent adoption and against a resolution opposing the escalation of the Iraq War. But, she also sponsored bills relating to health care, animal cruelty and juvenile justice, and five of her nine bills had Democratic Senate co-sponsors. According to Colorado Confidential’s end-of-session Legislators’ Report Card, Stafford was the sixth most successful Republican in the House in getting her bills passed.
But Stafford’s status as an accepted member of the Colorado Republican Party began to change last spring with her support of House Bill 1338, known as the Homeowner Protection Act of 2007. The bill was designed to make homebuilders responsible for fixing construction defects. Stafford said her constituents spoke up in support of the bill with stories about problems resulting from such defects.
“You’ve got these families where it’s the biggest investment of their lives and they have horrific problems,” she says.
When Stafford expressed support for the bill, she was pressured by fellow Republicans to change her mind, she says. According to a March Rocky Mountain News article, some of her colleagues warned her the Colorado Association of Homebuilders would get in her way if she ran again for office.
But, Stafford says, “I have to go with what I believe in my heart is right and what I believe is right for my district. My votes are not swayed by who has given me money.”
When she voted for the bill, she became the victim of “back-room good ol’ boy politics,” she says.
A campaign finance complaint that Stafford claims was frivolous was filed against her along with seven Democrats. She was ostracized from some GOP circles. Eventually, she says, it was made clear to her that she was no longer listened to nor respected by her Republican colleagues.
State Republicans have denied bullying Stafford, but she said the tactics made her begin thinking of switching parties.
“I’m just not interested in being beat up because I didn’t toe the party line,” she says.
Asked if she would have been treated differently by her party had she been male, Stafford was unsure.
“Maybe,” she says. “But I’ve seen other men be really beat up down there.” One in particular, she says, was in a similar situation and would deal with the harassment by throwing chairs.
“They make it very clear,” she says. “You toe the party line or you become their whipping post.”
As a newly minted Democrat, Stafford won’t be changing any of her views or votes, she says. She now considers herself a conservative Democrat, and she’s likely to break with her new party at least as often as she votes with it. But, when she disagrees with party leadership, she expects a very different reaction from the Democrats.
“They accepted me coming in as I am,” Stafford says. “And I have been reasonably moderate, so I would suspect they might not always be thrilled with me — But I don’t think they’ll beat me up.”
While recognizing that politics is sometimes dirty on both sides of the aisle, Stafford thinks Democrats have a different outlook on dissonance in their party.
“There are those in the Republican Party that want a purist party,” she says. “I believe there is a greater level of inclusiveness in the Democratic Party.”
Stafford says being a Democrat, not to mention being in the majority, will help her better serve her district. She is adamant that her decision to switch parties was not about retaliation against Republicans.
But by speaking out about what drove her away from her party, Stafford is painting the party as not unfriendly to voters, but to its own lawmakers.
Since she will still vote somewhat conservatively, the biggest impact of her party switch, Stafford says, is that “the light will be on the impact of good ol’ boy politics.”