House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, talked to The Colorado Statesman on March 1 about learning to run the floor and the House; her relationship with the Speaker of the House, Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch; her treatment by the press, the women she admires in the Legislature, and how her job is helping her through one of a mother’s most important transitions. Our recent conversation was part of a series on women legislators for National History Month.
There’s a sign that’s becoming popular in some of the offices around the Capitol: “Keep calm and carry on.”
In the office of House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, you’ll find two of those signs: a poster-size one mounted on the wall, and another in a picture frame on a nearby desk.
It’s part of her philosophy of managing the House, the first Republican woman to do so since Rep. Lola Spradley, R-Beulah, had the job nearly a decade ago.
Stephens was first elected to the 2007-08 legislative term. She came in as one of 24 women in the House but as one of two freshmen Republican women elected in 2006 and one of six Republican women in the House.
Since that first year, seven more women have joined the Republican side of the aisle, many of them for the 2011 session, and while their numbers are slightly more than half the number of women on the Democratic side (15), they’re starting to catch up.
Stephens said that last year’s House Minority Leader, Rep. Mike May, R-Parker, began preparing her for the job during through the 2010 session, whether it was for being the majority leader or the minority leader. He wasn’t preparing her to be a committee chair. “I was fascinated,” she said. “I sat two seats behind Mike, and it’s very different when you run it.” During that training, May coached from the sidelines. “He’s like a father,” she said. “He’s there if you need the help, but you’re on the bicycle and on your own.”
Running the House floor during session is like a football game, she said: it’s about the process, what the rules are and how to play it. “I didn’t understand those intricacies at first,” and that became a lot clearer when she was first elected majority leader.
She also compared her job to that of House Minority Leader Sal Pace, D-Pueblo. “You’re going to employ different techniques when you’re the majority leader than when you’re the minority leader, and having been in the minority, I know where Sal is going” and the strategies from having now been on both sides of the aisle. That’s the football game.
In addition to preparing with May, Stephens also spent time talking to those who had gone before her. It didn’t matter whether it was a Republican or a Democrat — she tapped many from both parties. She spoke to those who had served in the majority position, but also to those who had been Speakers and Minority Leaders, because all of those positions are involved in running the House. That includes working with the Legislative Council, Legislative Legal Services and the State Patrol. “There’s numerous things about running the House that people don’t know about until you’re thrown into it,” she said, which can include discussing printing budgets, what goes onto legislative websites, or dealing with security delays raised by lobbyists, which she hopes to streamline in a manner similar to how it is done for businesspeople at Denver International Airport.
Stephens interviewed former Majority Leaders such as Republicans Norma Anderson, Keith King, Tim Foster, and Doug Dean, and Democrats Alice Madden and Paul Weissmann. “I wanted to know” what they wished someone had told them, and the things that make or break the job, she said.
From Weissmann, she learned about the rhythm of the floor calendar. It’s knowing what bills to schedule and what time people need to get off the House floor. On the day of her Statesman interview, Stephens pointed out that Gov. John Hickenlooper had an 11:15 a.m. bill signing that people on both sides of the aisle needed to attend. So for that day, she had to choose bills that could be done in a reasonable amount of time. The night before, she looked at what bills could get “pushback,” and what bills would sail through the House, and came up with a reasonable list, and “we were out exactly on time. I was thrilled. Now I know exactly what Paul meant by rhythm.”
Stephens got a different perspective from talking to Anderson and Madden. Anderson spoke about the importance of her relationship to committee chairs, who sit on the end of an aisle so they can defend the bills that come out of their committees. “I didn’t know that,” she said. Stephens said Anderson also was her go-to expert on the rules and the state Constitution. “She’s beautiful at it,” Stephens said. Anderson talked about making sure every bill gets a fair hearing and that committee chairs understand their roles and how they play into that, a lesson Stephens found fascinating. Anderson also went through the rules and even did some role-playing, which better suited Stephens’ learning style.
From Foster, Stephens said she learned about how to hold and move bills, and what to do when things get backed up in the Senate. “He was great in advising,” and also a good teacher on the rules. She said Foster told her “you have to be a good observer of the floor. You need to move fast sometimes” and see how things are moving — “where are your members, who’s speaking, who’s on deck, are your people ready to defend, and who’s working with your members on a bill.” She got that same advice from Weissmann, who added to it that on important bills, she needs to know where her members are when the tough votes are coming. “I hadn’t learned that in my first two years, you’re so panicked about your own bills, or if you’re going to speak on someone else’s bill,” Stephens said. “You’re more concerned about being knowledgeable about a bill as opposed to when you’re the majority leader, you have to be knowledgeable about the bill, where it was in committee, but also the broader [situation].”
In tune with Speaker McNulty
The relationship between the Majority Leader and the Speaker also was something Stephens wanted to learn about, so she went to people like Chuck Berry, Dean, and Mark Hillman. Sometimes the Speakers and Majority Leaders aren’t on the same page, she said, but “that’s not the situation with Frank. We’re good friends, we stand by each other.” Stephens noted some of the stories about friction between them that have surfaced on political blogs, stories she called fiction, that she said attempt to divide her and the Speaker. “It couldn’t be further from the truth,” she said.
“The Speaker and I decided early on, we would consult on most everything,” Stephens said. For example, late bills could only be approved when they’re both in agreement. “We try to keep each other apprised every day,” and while the House is a busy place, Stephens said she and the Speaker make it a point to connect and talk as a team. “My job, obviously, is to support him; his job is to support and back me up as well.”
Stephens said they don’t agree on everything. “We’re not every bit similar, that’s why you have two different people, but we agree on certain things. I really do support him and we get along very well.”
It’s not quite the same with the House Democrats. Stephens said that as a woman and Republican, she believes she gets questions that Democrats Madden or former Speaker Terrance Carroll never got asked, such as how she runs the floor. That’s part of what she learned from May, who she said picked his battles very carefully because he had a 7-seat deficit. “It’s different when there’s a 33-32 majority. Everything is questioned by the Democrats.” Stephens said that after a while, when those questions came, she began responding by asking whether Madden or Carroll ever got those questions. “I don’t remember those stories coming out about how they liked a bill.”
Stephens said she and McNulty are governing not only to be on task but to be fair, and that she believes people would agree that they’re doing a good job and at this point are ahead of schedule. “We’re on task and ahead of the game, and when that happens, your staff is relaxed, they feel confident that things are running well.”
Great friendship with and respect for Rosemary Marshall
Stephens said she appreciates the leadership of the women who have come before her, and one person appears to stand out: former Rep. Rosemary Marshall, Democrat. Stephens mentioned her several times during the interview, and how much she liked working with Marshall. “From Norma to Alice to Rosemary to Lola,” everyone’s given great advice, Stephens said. But on Marshall, she was specific, not only about her experience as a legislator but on their personal relationship. “She was a good committee chair, she’s good at her bills, I love drawing experience from that,” Stephens said. From Marshall she learned about preparation. “She was prepared because she knew her stuff. Whatever she carried, she was thorough with it and I always admired her level of commitment.”
Stephens mused that some people might not see the two of them as friends, but during Stephens’ first term, and Marshall’s last, they served together on the House Business Affairs and Labor Committee, and became friends, even despite their wide differences (“miles apart,” as Stephens called it) on things such as social issues. “But we’d come together on so many other things, and developed a friendship,” she said. “I enjoyed the time I got to serve with her,” and she’s happy Marshall’s back at the Capitol (as a lobbyist for the Department of Labor and Employment).
Stephens also is watching the new crop of legislators, and picked out some of the Democratic women who are making a mark early in the session. Those include Reps. Millie Hamner, D-Frisco; Angela Williams, D-Denver; and Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora. She called Williams an “upcoming star” who will be a very good legislator, and said Fields is bringing a level of experience and a compelling story to the Capitol. “To me, as a woman, that’s exciting and I hope they succeed and do well.”
Stephens sees the House as a family, and every day as a new day. “Every day I say, today’s a new day, I’m trying to be better at my job today than I was yesterday.” Her commitment is to serve her members better today than the day before. Some days are harder, especially when people are snapping at each other, but even in that way it’s like a family. It’s a conversation she has with Pace, whom she says she likes working with.
“I think that we both realize our challenges are unique. It’s an honor and a privilege and I hope I do right by my members and do right by the House as an institution.”
Stephens says no two days are the same, and that’s fine with her
Stephens said being legislator and Majority Leader has been a learning experience that she’s grateful for. “If you had told me that I’d love a job where no day’s ever the same,” and where every day she’d have to learn something new, this job fits the bill.
She’s found that experience of continual learning exciting, and said that term limits adds to it. “It forces you to learn quickly.” At the same time, however, she’s watching the freshmen legislators and trying to help them so that it’s not as painful an experience.
Stephens and the press… and the blogosphere
When asked, Stephens said she does believe she’s sometimes treated unfairly by the press, but she reserved most of her criticism for blogs. She didn’t name any specifically, but referred to pieces she’s either seen or heard about on ColoradoPols.com.
“Part of that is that you want to be heard, to be portrayed fairly, and that’s all I can ask for,” she said. But she also said it’s different for the “vicious blogs,” and she pointed to a recent piece (on ColoradoPols) that had taken an image of her and altered it in a short video. Stephens said she didn’t see it but someone had written to her about it. “I chose not to [look at it],” she said. “Blogs like that, hate blogs, it’s unfortunate that you have people like that.” When a blog abuses someone who’s a public person, “it’s a form of bullying and abuse” and “a viciousness that on some level at some point we should speak to.”
As to misuse of her image, she said it borders on hate, and it has an unfortunate impact — not only for herself, but for her son. “It’s unfortunate more because I have a son in high school who sees it or hears about it.” She said her son understands about these things. But she finds such attacks “sexist, bigoted, and hate-filled.”
As to her treatment with the mainstream press, Stephens said she’s generally been happy, except when she gets asked questions that were never asked of her Democratic predecessors. “Both Frank and I find it biased in some ways,” she said. That includes questions about how they govern, and she thinks the Republicans are being held to a different standard. She also gets annoyed when she has to deal with stories planted by the Democrats, such as the day when a pro-labor rally took place at the capitol and Democrats complained they were being held hostage on the House floor so that they’d miss the rally. “In some ways it’s not fair,” she said. “It can get wearying, but that’s the job… I’m sure everyone thinks they’re not treated fairly.”
But where the press has been great is when “we dialogue on an issue like taxes, when we really explore those things and get into budget. I’ve found our TV and print [people] to be recep- tive, and that’s all I can ask. I’m not asking you to print the story I want, but to listen and reflect.”
Long days and long hours can create landmines for any legislator, but as a leader Stephens has learned to watch out for them.
When she works long hours, which are most days, she avoids sending e-mails after 9 p.m., for example. “I’ve learned when I’m tired, I don’t email after 9. I might review and think on them. But when you’re tired it’s not the time to be doing a major inter- view.” Instead, she reads on her Kindle, usually something that’s not work-related, so that she can sleep in “some sort of peacefulness.”
Stephens is also very aware of her public persona, and living life in a fish- bowl that includes cellphones and Facebook. “You have to take care of yourself. You have to be very careful to have control over yourself. Some days you feel like crying from the stress of the job, but you just don’t.” To relieve the stress and to prepare for the day she spends time on a treadmill, some- thing she started doing during the summer. “It’s one of my protectors,” and just a few minutes a day helps her stay more balanced, she said.
Another landmine is in avoiding harsh words. She acknowledges her nickname — the Velvet Hammer — but it’s one of the things she works to avoid. “It’s easy to be tough on people when things go awry,” but Stephens said she tries to use an uplifting word with people instead of the hammer. “We get hammered all the time, by the press or by constituents,” and it’s tempting to hammer back on those days. But “you can keep or lose someone on how you react. I’ve learned it’s better to have an uplifting word, because you don’t know what someone’s going through.”
But one of the biggest landmines is to “understand that this job is not who you are,” Stephens said. “I’ve seen a lot of depressed former legislators, and they come back and look forlorn — like these were the best days of their lives [when] they were in power, when everyone was kissing up to them, saying they were the greatest, and they believed it for a moment.”
It’s tempting to believe, she said, especially in the majority. “But you have to remember that this is the job you’re doing, you have to do it well and be fair and hopefully do right by your constituents…This is a temporary thing you get to do, and enjoy it for what it is, love it, learn it, embrace it and then you’ll move on to something else just as good and your best days were not just here. I always think our best days are ahead of us. Today is a great day but my best day is ahead.”
Being majority leader appears to be helping Stephens with one of her biggest life moments — watching her only child, 18-year old son Nick, as he gets ready to go off to college. “I cried all last year about that,” she said. But she’s doing better this year, she said, and knows her son is grateful and proud of what she’s doing. Being the majority leader “gives him the ability to leave and say ‘she’s doing what she loves.’” Her son will graduate 10 days after the end of the session, and they’re looking at a number of colleges and universities for him, including the possibility of an appointment to West Point.
Former Majority Leader Madden has a son about the same age, and it’s a subject on which they have common ground, and a subject that Stephens said they talk a lot about. “Women gather and manage and govern on different ways, it’s through relations and relational,” and it’s an important part of the balance at the Legislature,” Stephens said.