Colorado’s 2019 legislative session kicks off with Dems in power and record diversity

Democratic leaders in House, Senate strike different tones in opening-day speeches

State Rep. Janice Rich, a Republican from Grand Junction, is seen giving a hug during a jubilant opening day at the Capitol. Rich is one of a record 45 women who were sworn into office in Colorado on Friday. (Photo by Alex Burness)

Colorado’s 72nd legislative session, distinguished by a record number of women and Latinos in the ranks, kicked off Friday morning with a new, blue energy.

Voters in November ended Colorado’s politically divided legislature of last session by sweeping Democrats to historic victories, handing the party majorities in both the state House and Senate, as well as the Governor’s Mansion and all of Colorado’s other constitutional offices.

Milling about outside the Senate floor just before the 10 a.m. opening, lawmakers, staffers and citizens who’d rolled in for the show couldn’t contain their glee over Democrats’ newfound power.

“You ready for this?”

“I really can’t believe it!”

“Gonna have some fun, huh?”

When the election results were certified and the winners’ names were read one after another — “Jared Polis, Democrat; … Phil Weiser, Democrat,” and so on — gasping and chatter were audible in the House gallery, in a sign that many are still relishing the power shift.

Now, for the Democrats, it’s time to lead. And in their respective speeches on Friday, House Speaker KC Becker and Senate President Leroy Garcia offered very different sorts of visions for this session. Becker reeled off a laundry list of policy goals, while Garcia stressed bipartisanship.

Becker, from Boulder, said the legislature’s work in recent years is “not enough.”

She said that the Capitol this session should work to allow for paid family leave from work, more money in the state affordable housing fund, more renewable energy, limits on carbon emissions, stricter oversight of the oil and gas industry and tighter gun regulations, among many other initiatives.

Some of those priorities were reflected in the dozens of first-day filings Friday, which included bills concerning tax credits for child care and early childhood educators, campaign contribution limits in county-level races, gender identification on the identity documents of transgender people and the importing of drugs from Canada for use by Colorado residents.

“This is a new and diverse group of lawmakers who will all bring influential ideas and renewed energy to this chamber and it’s on all of us to problem-solve for the next 120 days,” Becker said.

Indeed, there’s never been such diversity at the Capitol. There are, as of Friday morning, 45 women serving between the House and Senate — a state record, and a 25 percent increase from the total a decade ago. The General Assembly now features 14 Latino members, also a record, as well as Brianna Titone, the first transgender legislator in the state’s history.

Becker, the fourth female speaker in Colorado history, was measured in her remarks but made clear, as she has in multiple interviews leading up to Friday, that Democrats will welcome Republican support and input, but won’t let the absence of either get in the way of “good policy.”

Tomorrow, Iman Jodeh could be tapped to fill the vacancy created by the recent resignation of Daniel Kagan in Senate District 26. She would be the 46th woman lawmaker this session, and the legislature’s first-ever Muslim.

In his speech, Garcia, of Pueblo, noted the increased diversity in the building and the fact that a majority of Democrats in the Senate are women. Among them are five longtime friends — Faith Winter, Kerry Donovan, Tammy Story, Jessie Danielson and Brittany Pettersen — who won critical seats in November and helped erase what had been a one-vote majority held by Republicans.

Garcia’s speech ran only about 10 minutes. He made a couple brief mentions of areas in which Senate Democrats plan to advance legislation — health care and education, notably — and dedicated most of his time to talking about how legislators should avoid squabbling and strive to collaborate.

“Unlike Washington, D.C.,” Garcia said, “this Senate must bring a new energy that will yield a standard of trust and respect.”

“Coloradans did not elect us to engage in gamesmanship. They elected us to work,” he added. “While we may disagree and debate about the solutions to the issues facing our state, we cannot allow our political differences to get in the way of our shared goals.”

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert of Douglas County, by contrast, offered a calm but firm warning to Democrats: Don’t overreach.

He spoke about cooperation and the importance of working across the aisle, but he spent most of his half-hour speech identifying a series of Democratic policy objectives, from stricter gun laws to transportation funding to paid parental leave at work, and indicating he and other Republicans in the minority are prepared to fight back. It might have functioned better as a response to Becker’s speech, given that Garcia hardly fired shots.

“Mr. President, you know better than any other current member of this body the risk of alienating constituents, of pushing too far,” Holbert said to Garcia, in a nod to the fact that two Colorado Democrats, including Garcia’s predecessor in Senate District 3, were recalled from office in 2013 after lending support to a package of gun regulations. “For Senate Republicans, we remain open to the possibility that government should not, in certain cases, presume to be the solution; that sometimes, the private sector deserves space to be the solution.”

Holbert knows, of course, that there’s only so much his side can now do in Colorado. The Capitol’s right wing, he said, “can have our say but not our way.”