Tough, but Practical, Fitz-Gerald Got the Job Done

The Democrats at state Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald’s retirement announcement Tuesday had plenty of things to say about her. But it was Republican Sen. Josh Penry who captured Fitz-Gerald’s essence in a single sentence.

“You could fight with her in the morning and cut a deal with her in the afternoon,” Penry said.That was the gift of the first woman to oversee Colorado’s upper legislative house. She was by equal measures tough and practical. She will now take both qualities into a primary whose winner will become a member of the U.S. Congress representing Colorado’s Democrat-dominated 2nd District.

The nickname St. Joan that you heard bandied about on the occasional PBS TV show never really fit feisty Fitz-Gerald. The New York transplant issued tart tongue lashings that sometimes left others with a bad taste in their mouths. In a symbolic protest, a few Republicans even voted against her for Senate president in what is traditionally a ceremonial show of legislative civility.

The saint label better describes Fitz-Gerald’s very likely successor, Senate president pro tem Peter Groff. He’s a preacher’s husband and decidedly more restrained.

“Peter is clearly up to the job,” said Penry. “I consider Peter a friend. He’s a gentleman.”

Fitz-Gerald didn’t do gentle. She did what it took to get the job done.

Job No. 1 was taking control of the Senate from Republicans, something Fitz-Gerald helped to engineer during her seven years in the legislature. But not before she made a few enemies as the general of the loyal opposition.

“Joan and I have different personalities,” said Groff, who almost certainly will become Colorado’s first African-American Senate president when the Democratic caucus meets Thursday morning to pick Fitz-Gerald’s replacement.

The Dem caucus likely will replace Groff as president pro tem with Democratic Sen. Abel Tapia of Pueblo. Tapia, who heads the Joint Budget Committee, will be replaced by someone with an interest and skills in budgeting, Fitz-Gerald said.

Penry said he’s heard Democratic Sen. John Morse mentioned for the post. Whoever it is, Fitz-Gerald and Groff promised a smooth transition.

The same should be true for relations between Senate Democrats and Republicans. “I don’t have the same amount of animosity built up that Sen. Fitz-Gerald did,” Groff said. He added that the Democratic takeover of the legislature in 2004 spared him some of the partisan ill will that clung to Fitz-Gerald.

“She was the minority leader. Her job was to be a pain in the backside.”

Mission accomplished.

Meanwhile, what Fitz-Gerald lacked in gentility, she more than made up for in pragmatism.

“She was true to her word,” said Republican state Rep. Cory Gardner. Often, Gardner and his GOP brothers and sisters didn’t like that word. But what Fitz-Gerald said was usually what she did.

Typical of her approach, Fitz-Gerald’s words explaining her retirement were unvarnished. She said it was “in the best interest of the Senate to have a full-time president” and in the best interest of her congressional campaign to have “a full-time candidate.”

Moreover, the law would have prohibited her from raising money for her congressional campaign during the January-to-May session of the General Assembly.

“Fundraising is critical to this race,” Fitz-Gerald said of her three-way primary against Jared Polis and Will Shafroth. “Critical and time-consuming.”

And so the woman who always resembled an iron maiden more than a saint headed off on the campaign trail with these words for her former colleagues:

“It has been one long, glorious ride.”