The Colorado Senate on Wednesday approved the nomination of Ellen Golombek to head the state Department of Labor and Employment over strong objections from Senate Republicans, who charged the appointment of the former union boss and political organizer smacks of the divisive partisanship Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has said he wants to avoid.
The 21-14 vote in the Senate fell almost entirely along party lines, with only Sen. Jean White, R-Hayden, crossing over to vote with majority Democrats.
The Golombek nomination has so far been the lone Hickenlooper pick to raise the ire of Republicans in a cabinet filling up with several of their own, including White’s husband, who resigned his Senate seat to take the state’s top tourism post.
Two Republican senators — Ted Harvey of Highlands Ranch and Shawn Mitchell of Broomfield — grilled Golombek on Monday during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee. The relatively brief hearing — some observers said they’d brought snacks, preparing for a marathon round of questioning — ended after about 30 minutes with a favorable recommendation on a 5-2 vote to the full Senate, with Sen. White voting with the majority Democrats.
Harvey and Mitchell pressed Golombek on a series of questions GOP senators sent her three days earlier and made clear they felt her union and partisan political background would get in the way of carrying out her mission.
Golombek was president of the Colorado AFL-CIO a decade ago and served as national political director for the Service Employees International Union. Most recently, she has been state director for America Votes, a liberal political group headed by former Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald.
“It seems Ms. Golombek and the Administration had no intention of putting any effort in to answering our members’ questions,” Harvey said after the hearing. “This appears to be an attempt to stonewall the people of Colorado by not giving them any insight into Ms. Golombek’s philosophies or plans for the department.”
Mitchell questioned an earlier position taken by Golombek — when she was a frequent visitor to the Capitol representing labor interests — on a Republican governor’s nominee for the same job.
“Ironically, we weighed in on the nominee for the Department of Labor and Employment,” Golombek acknowledged in response to Mitchell. She said she had opposed Gov. Bill Owens’ nomination of Vickie Armstrong to head the department. Her opposition was based on a prior political job Armstrong had held, not on specific qualifications.
Mitchell expressed surprise that Golombek had reached a decision in using the very same rationale he was attempting to apply to her own nomination.
“Senator,” Golombek replied, “I appreciate the conundrum that that puts you in. There have been many times that I have agreed with appointees, cabinet staff, in my previous jobs. And many times that I’ve disagreed. I commit to you that I am here today to do the job that I was appointed to do, in the non-partisan manner that I’ve committed to do.”
After the hearing, Mitchell summarized his concerns.
“Ellen Golombek is an impressive and professional person,” he told The Colorado Statesman. “I think she is at the far end of the spectrum on labor and employment issues and not in the mainstream of Colorado or of the governor’s campaign representations. She’s clearly capable of doing the job, I’m just afraid of the job she’ll choose to do.”
Mitchell said he shared frustration with Harvey that Golombek didn’t seemed to have come prepared to answer the slew of questions submitted several days earlier.
“They were well scripted answers,” Mitchell said, “but everything at this point is so vague and general, they really don’t commit her to do or not do anything.”
He acknowledged that Senate Democrats would approve her nomination and added, “We’ll do our best to exercise proper legislative oversight.”
For her part, Golombek promised senators she planned to check her ideology at the door and would follow Hickenlooper’s lead promoting “jobs, jobs, jobs.” Pressed to defend unions, she answered, “Organized labor works well in the industries in which it’s prevalent. It provides a clear pathway for business and labor to work together to try and resolve issues they face.” Pressed further, she declined to comment on the effect of unions on the auto industry, saying she didn’t have experience in that field.
Two days later, noting that he had seldom cast a “no” vote on a governor’s nominees because “it is indeed the governor’s prerogative to make such appointments,” Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, said on the Senate floor he was making an exception in Golombek’s case.
Kopp said he was “disappointed in Ms. Golombek’s evasiveness in committee” and concluded by saying he hoped “to eat crow” over his opposition but remained skeptical. Mitchell and Harvey also spoke in opposition to Golombek’s confirmation.
Hickenlooper talked about his cabinet and office appointments Thursday, pointing out that more than half have come from rural Colorado and he has “hired the best people we could find.” But the appointment he got criticized for was Golombek. Hickenlooper said he didn’t care about the criticism, saying she will “surprise a lot of people.” He said she recently visited the Colorado Restaurant Association, and characterized the reaction she got from their members as one of pleasant surprise, that she was quite different from how she’d been written about in the newspapers. “She’s a smart, talented woman” who knows her job is to “get the economy going and to create jobs,” he said.
In one of her first official acts, Golombek put an optimistic face on Colorado unemployment numbers released Tuesday that showed a two-tenths of a point jump in the state’s December jobless rate to 8.8 percent.
That compares with a 7.3 percent unemployment rate a year ago and a current national unemployment rate of 9.4 percent for the month of December.
“Despite the rising unemployment rate, we’ve had over the year wage and salary employment growth in Colorado for the first time in almost two and a half years,” Golombek said in a statement. “And, we’ve added jobs four consecutive months.”