Meet the “Mod Squad”: centrist state Senate lawmakers who don’t always toe the party line

In July 2012, Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, citing his Christian beliefs. The couple filed a discrimination complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which ruled in their favor. Phillips appealed to the state Supreme Court and lost, and the appeal is now awaiting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on whether to review the appeal.

In response, a proposed law was introduced in the current legislative session by Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud, a frequent sponsor of conservative “message” bills. He asked the Senate to approve his measure to “clarify” the difference between state laws on discrimination and the right to disagree with the law as it applies to businesses that offer services to the public.

“Message” bills are those that lawmakers carry that have almost no chance of passage in the other chamber but convey an ideological message to that lawmaker’s base of support.

The bill cleared the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, a group that includes some of the more conservative members of the Senate.

It was another matter when it got to the Senate floor. Democrats railed loudly against the bill, claiming it would create a license to discriminate.

Quietly listening to the debate, the Senate’s “Mod (as in ‘moderate’) Squad”: senators who don’t always vote along party lines. The bill failed on a 17-17 tie vote (18 is needed to pass) with 14 Democrats voting “no,” joined by three Republicans.

In 2017, the bloc of Republican centrists grew from its steady two (Sens. Beth Martinez-Humenik of Thornton and Larry Crowder of Alamosa) to five or even six.

Crowder has been notable for his support for a bill reclassifying the hospital provider fee, a favorite of Democrats in 2016. He’s expected to be a “yes” vote on the 2017 version, if and when it reaches the Senate floor. Martinez-Humenik was the deciding “no” vote on an anti-abortion bill in 2015 in a Senate health committee. She’s still on that committee this year, as is Crowder, and coincidentally, some of the bills that might have gone through that committee have ended up elsewhere, such as the bill to repeal the Colorado health benefits exchange and an anti-abortion bill, similar to the one killed in 2015.

Martinez-Humenik represents a swing district in Adams County where unaffiliated voters outnumber Democrats by almost 6,000 and outnumber Republicans by more than 10,000 voters. She’s up for reelection in 2018, in a district that likes either moderate Republicans or moderate-to-conservative Democrats, who had represented the district for the previous 20 years.

Joining the Republican centrists this year: two rural Republicans, Sens. Don Coram of Montrose and Kevin Priola of Henderson. Capitol observers also point to Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial as a centrist, depending on the issue.

Other bills that bit the dust in this session with “no” votes from the Mod Squad:

• The bill to allow businesses to withhold services from customers based on views they don’t agree with: Coram, Tate and Martinez-Humenik voted with the Democrats to kill the measure on a procedural vote.

• An anti-abortion bill that would have required a one-day’s delay for the procedure so that doctors could provide information on abortion risks, including information that isn’t scientifically-based. Voting against on the Senate floor: Coram and Martinez-Humenik.

A bill that opponents characterized as an “anti-Sharia” measure died in the Senate Judiciary Committee, with Coram casting the deciding “no” vote.

• A measure that would have allowed parents to write a letter to their children’s school when opting them out of immunizations, instead of using a state form, died on a procedural vote in the state Senate last week, with Martinez-Humenik voting with the Democrats.

It’s a marked difference from the 2015 and 2016 sessions when the Colorado General Assembly was rated the most polarized in the country, based on lawmakers’ ideology.

Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City says he doesn’t see anything different from the last two years. Any shift, he says, is coming from prior Democratic Senate presidents who “locked down” the caucus on certain issues.

“The shift for me, we allow our members to vote their conscience, their position,” said Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker. “It’s been my view since I came here in 2011. You answer to your constituents.”

The Senate is considered to be the more thoughtful and deliberate body, and one usually more suited to compromise than the House. But that changed in 2013 when Democrats, who controlled both the House and Senate, pushed through a slate of gun control laws and a renewable energy law considered unfriendly to rural Colorado.

The summer after the 2013 session, Republican activists launched recall efforts that led to the removal of two Senate Democrats, including the Senate President. A third Democratic senator resigned rather than face a recall.

In the 2014 elections, the chamber switched from majority Democrat to an 18-17 Republican advantage. With the House controlled by Democrats, it meant that to get anything done, lawmakers had to compromise and they were in no mood to do so on some of the state’s biggest issues: transportation, hospital provider fee and the budget. Sen. Vicki Marble of Fort Collins named the eight most conservative Republican lawmakers in the caucus as “the Hateful, Dissident Eight.”

Seven of the “Hateful Eight” are still in the Senate, but some of the bills they have put up this year aren’t even making it out of the Senate, due to the slim one-seat majority Republicans hold and Republican lawmakers whose views lean toward the center on some issues.

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans have long been able to count on at least one Democratic vote on business issues, from Sen. Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge. This year, she’s joined by Sen. Angela Williams of Denver, a pro-business Democrat. Also joining to support Republican business measures: Sen. Rhonda Fields of Aurora. All three voted in favor of the Senate Republican’s top priority bill for 2017, which sought fiscal relief from state rules for small businesses. The bill later died in the House.

Another bill where Republicans have picked up Democratic votes in the Senate: repealing the state’s 2013 limit on the size of ammunition magazines. While it was destined to fail in the House, three Democrats (Jahn, Sen. Leroy Garcia of Pueblo and Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail), joined with Senate Republicans and the measure passed 21-13 with one absent.

The centrists also have helped move bills that wouldn’t normally pass a more conservative Senate, including a measure adding physical or mental disability and sexual orientation to the categories in the state’s bias-motivated harassment statute. The bill passed the Senate on April 11 and is headed to the governor for signing. Coram and Democratic Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City carried the measure in the Senate. Among the other four Republicans who voted for it: Crowder, Tate, Martinez-Humenik and Priola.

Coram’s votes stand out, to the point where some have referred to him (some as a compliment, others not so much) as the 18th Democrat. But Coram says his votes reflect his Senate district, which includes more moderate locales like La Plata County and its largest city, Durango. This is Coram’s first year in the Senate, after serving three terms in a more conservative House district.

The senior Republican of the Mod Squad is Crowder, who handily won reelection last November and whose district is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, with unaffiliated voters a distant third.

Crowder makes no apologies for his moderate votes. “I’m an issues guy,” he said. “We’ve had some people come over from the House, from rural Colorado, who see things a little differently (referring to Priola and Coram). It’s incumbent on us to vote on the issue rather than on ideology” and represent the people of the district.

Jahn also acknowledged that there are more centrists on the Republican side of the Senate, but indicated that there may be a price to pay for those centrist votes: seeing their bills sent to unfriendly committees, such as the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, aka the “kill committee,” for example.

Williams said what’s on the minds of lawmakers is the 2018 election, but “we are more focused, as much as we can be with opposite ideologies, on policies. I’m really enjoying that, voting on policy and I think the Republicans do the same. We can walk across the aisle, have the conversation,” and she said she sees the environment as being “not so partisan.”

Photo credit: Jeffrey Beall, Creative Commons, Flickr.