Where’s Leroy Garcia?

Supporters of Colorado’s Senate president tout his hands-off leadership. Others say you can't lead at arm's length.

Senate President Leroy Garcia during a budget debate on March 27, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)

When one of your first jobs involves collecting several dead bodies every day for six months in the 110-degree heat of an Iraqi war zone, says Leroy Garcia, you return home with a clearer perspective on what’s important and what’s not.

Garcia — the 37-year-old ex-Marine, Pueblo Democrat and first-year president of Colorado’s state Senate — says he has learned to pick his battles. That perspective, as he and his allies tell it, helps him see beyond the daily dramas that pervade the legislature and makes him the ideal person to lead a chamber that’s been mired in partisan and occasional Democrat-on-Democrat squabbling that has marked this legislative session.

But to describe Garcia merely as above the fray does not fully capture how he is seen as he leads a state Senate in Democratic control for the first time in five years. He has — in public, anyway — removed himself so far from the policy debates and power dynamics at the statehouse that he has seemed invisible, conflict-averse and, to some, ineffective.

When Garcia last month broke from his party and voted against the landmark “red flag” gun-control bill — now state law, it will allow judges to order guns be seized from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others — he chose to announce his position in a news release rather than telling his caucus members in person. He opted not to explain his vote during a debate on the Senate floor, and would not speak with a reporter who dogged him after that debate.

Garcia decided not to hold the weekly press conferences that Colorado Senate and House majority leaders traditionally lead during the legislative session. Journalists were frustrated by his elusiveness, and Garcia recently reversed that decision.

Lobbyists often complain that they can’t get five minutes with Garcia. Unlike most of his colleagues, who ask that people who want to meet with them give their business cards to Senate staffers to put on their desks, Garcia is the only senator who doesn’t accept cards.

Democrats, who now control every branch of the state Capitol, have held more than a dozen public events this session to announce major legislative efforts — from an oil-and-gas regulation rewrite to an effort to abolish the death penalty to the gun law Garcia opposed — and each has been attended by a throng of Democratic lawmakers and their supporters. Garcia, who doesn’t crave photo ops, stays away.

Bri Buentello, a first-year Democratic state representative from Pueblo, says Garcia gave her some advice before she took office: “He told me I could be a workhorse or a show pony,” said Buentello. “He said, ‘Bri, do the work.’”

By the accounts of those who know him, Garcia is the anti-show pony. He logs 12-hour days, holding meetings and presiding over the work of the Senate and assigning bills to committees. Several times a week, he has dinner or drinks privately with Senate colleagues — not to twist their arms, but to discuss Capitol affairs as equals.

“My job is not to throw around my weight and use, if you will, the executive authority,” he says.

“Let’s think about this: George Bush sent us to Iraq to establish a democracy and oust Saddam Hussein, who was a dictator. I’m there three days after the war starts. And now my task is to pick up fallen Marines and process their bodies, in the name of democracy. And then I’m going to come back and, several years later, forget all that I learned and I believe in, to say, well, I’m the Senate president so I just feel like I should strong-arm you?”

Garcia walks that talk. A charitable review of his performance would suggest he leads by example and lets his caucus members be themselves, without interference.

A more critical analysis of Garcia’s performance leading the state Senate questions whether his style is so lax as to constitute an absence of leadership.

Some Capitol Democrats privately say the answer to that question is yes. Sources close to Senate Democrats say there’s a handful in the caucus openly wondering whether anyone is driving the bus, whether there’s a plan for the Statehouse’s most powerful chamber, which Democrats won back in November after four years of Republican control.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg insists his caucus is not rudderless and that Garcia is far from absent. But Fenberg acknowledged some have the opposite perception and that Garcia’s lead-from-behind style may not work for everyone.

“His approach is not to speak for the caucus,” said Fenberg, of Boulder.

“I think folks who criticize that or say that’s odd —,” he adds, pausing. “Maybe that’s odd. I don’t know. But he doesn’t have a big, bold Leroy Garcia agenda.”

“I’m glad it’s Leroy”

One might wonder how someone who shies not only from public attention but also from unifying and championing his party’s platform could rise to lead the state Senate — and now be eyed by the Democratic Congressional Candidate Committee, among many voters and politicos, as one of a few hopes to take down Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton in Colorado’s 3rd District.

Garcia’s ascension was unusual in its rapidity and circumstances.

Raised in Pueblo, married to a former classmate and deeply loyal to Pueblo’s brand of pro-union, pro-liberty, moderate Democratic-leaning politics, he joined the state House of Representatives in 2013 after thrashing Republican Jerry Denney by 23 points. That same year, former Pueblo state Sen. Angela Giron was recalled after voting for a bill limiting ammunition magazines to 15 rounds and another requiring universal background checks. A committee to recall Garcia registered with the Secretary of State before the magazine bill came up for a vote. He split from his party and voted against the measure, leaving the recallers no reason to try to oust him.

Garcia, after just one term in the House, beat Republican George Rivera by 10 points in the race for Senate District 3. He took over Giron’s seat.

He quickly became a favorite of former state Sen. Lucia Guzman of Denver, who groomed him for leadership. He was her assistant minority leader, then became minority leader last session when Guzman stepped down from that post.

Democrats flipped the state Senate in 2018, turning a one-seat Republican majority to a three-seat Democratic one. Garcia ran for Senate president, he says, because he cares “deeply about preserving the institution and having it operate in a way with decorum, that’s respectable.” State Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail flirted with a run against him, then thought better of it, and Garcia was unopposed in his bid for the Senate’s top job.

In just five years, he’d gone from state representative to assistant Senate minority leader to Senate minority leader to Senate president.

Republicans, suddenly facing the reality that Democrats control both chambers of the legislature and the governorship, were more than happy to see Garcia take over the Senate. With Boulder Democrat KC Becker as speaker of the House, Boulder Democrat Jared Polis as governor and Boulder Democrat Steve Fenberg as Senate majority leader, the election of Garcia — a moderate who neither hails from nor represents the values of the liberal Denver-Boulder corridor — came as a relief to the GOP.

“Things could be much more frustrating for my caucus if a member of the (Democrats) who was further out on the left was holding that gavel,” says Sen. Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican and the Senate minority leader.

“There are some folks there who are proudly progressive,” Holbert added, and if the Republicans can’t wield the president’s gavel, Holbert says, “I’m glad it’s Leroy Garcia.”

It’s not as though Garcia has held back Democrats from advancing a slew of priority bills this session. The legislative floodgates opened when the previously split General Assembly turned solidly blue, and Democrats saw a path to passage for their long-stalled priorities.

But as they’ve attempted to move state laws left on oil and gas, guns, sexual education, criminal justice and voting rights, among other issue areas, Garcia has hardly been a participant, much less a cheerleader.

His colleagues frequently praise him for all the things he doesn’t do as Senate president. But in more than a dozen interviews around the Capitol, few remark in the affirmative about what he does do as a leader.

He’s “definitely not a tyrant,” says Sen. Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village.

He’s “not a dictator,” says Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada.

He doesn’t pressure people to vote his way, doesn’t force his ideology on others, says Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver.

He’s not “pushing an agenda,” adds Fenberg.

Holbert says he admires that Garcia doesn’t play politics or misuse the bully pulpit to speak only for Democrats.

Garcia says that’s all by design. The approach he touts as hands-off and others deride as passive became apparent on opening day of the legislative session.

In the House, Becker’s opening day speech was a laundry list of priorities Democrats would push. In the Senate, Republican Holbert warned of “overreach” and hinted that recalls, like the one that claimed Giron in 2013, could be in the offing if Democrats got too comfortable in power.

Garcia, by contrast, spoke for just a few minutes and made only scarce reference to policy matters. He spent most his time stressing bipartisanship, noting the increased diversity in the chamber and talking about how lawmakers should avoid squabbling and strive to collaborate.

It would be more than two months before Garcia would speak again from the Senate well. When he did, it was to call for peace after Senate Republicans used stall tactics — they invoked a rule that allowed a behemoth, albeit non-controversial, bill to be read aloud at length — in order to thwart the sweeping oil and gas reform and to protest the general pace of Democratic legislation. Garcia responded by having the behemoth recited by five computerized readers at hyperspeed, simultaneously. Holbert and Sens. Bob Gardner and John Cooke sued Garcia, and a Denver District Court judge sided with the Republicans.

“Everybody wants him to run”

When colleagues do speak in the affirmative about Garcia’s leadership, they describe him as even-handed, loyal and as having high integrity.

It’s the same way Republicans talk about Garcia’s predecessor, former Senate President Kevin Grantham. Like Garcia, Grantham was seen as being relatively hands-off — though not as much as Garcia. Grantham declined to comment for this story, but when he was in office he did hold weekly press conferences to shed light on his and his party’s legislative agenda.

Other recent former Senate presidents, including Democrat Morgan Carroll and Republican Bill Cadman, were known for being much more involved in trying to win the Capitol’s chess game for their parties.

Though Cadman declined to comment, Carroll — who’s gone on to become chair of Colorado’s Democratic Party – said that being Senate president is something of a choose-your-own-adventure situation, with ample opportunity to put one’s thumb on the legislative scales.

“The president has an exceptionally powerful role in the policy decision on over 800 or so bills, because the president decides which committee each bill gets assigned to,” Carroll explained. “You have a really good chance of deciding the fate of any given bill depending on where you assign it.”

She added, “Style-wise, everybody exercises that power very differently.”

Garcia refuses to wield that power. Whereas some previous party leaders have set up “kill” committees specifically designed to receive and then reject certain bills before theirs merits can be debated in earnest, Garcia insists on letting his members push their own bills, even when — as in the case of the “red flag” bill — he doesn’t agree with the policy. And Democrats generally say they appreciate that he doesn’t force senators to become players in a grand partisan scheme, acting instead as a passive supervisor who’s always willing to advise.

He’s held true to this approach even during times of turmoil, such as earlier this month when Democratic senators openly feuded over the demise of a bill to abolish the death penalty in Colorado. Even though he co-sponsored that bill, he didn’t attend its kick-off press conference, made no public statements on the matter and didn’t crack a whip when his members publicly admonished one another over how the measure was handled before it died because it lacked support within the party.

Asked how he tries to manage his members in tense moments like that, Garcia bristles at the word “manage.” That’s not something he’s there to do, he says.

Democratic infighting, he adds, is “part of life.”

“I never want to find myself mitigating the responses of members,” he says.

His live-and-let-live approach, many political observers say, is part of what could make him a strong candidate to oppose U.S. Rep. Tipton in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, which covers not only Pueblo but the whole western half of the state.

Tipton is vulnerable, the Democratic Party believes, but they’ll need the right kind of Democrat to take him down in a congressional district with 26,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. Garcia, a proudly Catholic and Latino Marine veteran with a record of keeping an arm’s length from the state’s hot-button issues, certainly seems a contender.

“Everybody wants him to run,” says Buentello. “I want him to run.”

Garcia brushes all that talk aside. He’s not one to ever get caught speculating or talk in hypotheticals.

There was at least one notable exception: when, shortly before his military deployment, Garcia wrote a letter to be read by his loved ones in the event that he might die in Iraq.

That letter is sitting in his safe, still unopened. One day, he says, his sons will read it.

The experiences of having to write that letter and of having to collect dozens of soldiers’ bodies to be sent home in coffins taught Garcia not to waste his time or sweat the small stuff. That, for better or worse, is how he leads at the Senate.

“I’ll leave it to a lot of the historians to grade (me),” he says. “I want to be confident in the decisions I’m making for not only me, but my constituents.

“I feel absolutely confident that my colleagues support and appreciate me. … I’m just not going to feel insecure about what my role is.”

4 COMMENTS

  1. This absolutely begs the question, “why is he still the senate president?” We need leaders who will lead. Saying that picking up the dead gave him perspective about what is important is a slap in the face to those who uphold [and have died] fighting for the principles of democracy. Our democracy is only as good as those who choose to actively participate.

  2. This article tries to paint Garcia as some type of moderate leader who is trying to stay above the fray and be the adult in the room. This is the same guy who has already been taken to court twice and lost for his decisions as senate president costing the state money. I thank him for his service but he is not the leader we need in the senate.

  3. If Garcia’s effort is to diminish partisanship and urge collaboration, how many bills have NOT been clearly decided by a partisan vote? Has there been any evident increase in comity and good will?

  4. Saying Garcia is “conflict averse” is just funny. He’s a Marine and a paramedic! There are times when hand-off leadership is better, and having seen the end-result of trying to force a point of view upon another person, (war, homicide, assault), Garcia has the experience and wisdom to know what a lighter touch is better.. Knowing Marines as I do, the Republicans probably do not want to provoke him into a fight, because Marines find a way to get the job done and fight to win. And yes, Mr. “justathought,” picking up the dead WILL give you a perspective on death. It is not a slap in the face to those who died to want peace so no more people die.

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