The Legislature was thrown into turmoil this week after an embattled Republican lawmaker who was stopped by Denver police last Wednesday on suspicion of drunk driving threatened to leave her party over frustrations with leadership.
Rep. Laura Bradford, R-Collbran, is at the center of the controversy and her decision whether to drop her Republican affiliation could have broad implications for her colleagues at the statehouse. Currently Republicans control the House with a 33-32 majority, and if Bradford switches parties — or more likely became an Independent — the balance of power could be in limbo.
House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, announced mid week that a legislative ethics committee would review Bradford’s recent entanglement with the law. At about the same time, the Denver Police Department revealed that it had mistakenly accused the West Slope Republican lawmaker of invoking a 135-year-old statute of “legislative privilege” which would have exempted her from being arrested. The law protects lawmakers from arrest “going to and returning from” the legislature except in cases of a felony or treason.
Bradford earlier that day apologized for her actions on the floor of the house, saying, “My statements were not intended to invoke legislative privilege.”
Bradford admitted that she had consumed three glasses of wine Wednesday evening at Prohibition, a local bar just a few blocks east of the Capitol that has become a popular hangout for lawmakers, lobbyists and reporters. Bradford reportedly arrived sometime before 7 p.m. for a casual get-together with lobbyists and stayed until around 10 p.m., after which she was spotted by a Denver police officer making an illegal left turn near East Colfax Avenue and Downing Street. The officer smelled alcohol on Bradford’s breath and suspected her of driving under the influence of alcohol, which led him to question her.
According to a Denver police department spokesman at a news conference on Wednesday, Bradford had actually twice during the traffic stop asked to “be treated like everyone else.” She apparently had never invoked the privilege and was willing to take a test to measure her alcohol level content.
The information came to light after the Denver police officer who had conducted the traffic stop came forward to superiors with a more accurate account. Police spokesman Lt. Matt Murray acknowledged that, “new information… dramatically changes the information we were provided.”
Bradford’s colleagues in the House had already pounced on the lawmaker’s seemingly unjustified abuse of power, with McNulty stripping her of her chairmanship of the House Local Government Committee, and reportedly telling the embattled Bradford that she was “toast.”
Republican leadership also cited several other concerns in establishing the ethics committee, including the fact that Bradford may be facing charges for being in possession of a firearm at the time of her traffic stop. Police say they found and “cleared” a firearm inside of Bradford’s car at the time of the incident. While one does not need a permit to carry a firearm in a vehicle in Denver, it is illegal to be in possession of a firearm while intoxicated. Bradford holds a concealed-carry permit.
Since no blood or alcohol tests were conducted at the time of the incident, it would be difficult for a prosecutor to prove Bradford had actually been intoxicated while in possession of the firearm. Plus, she’d already been granted immunity, so it would be unlikely that any new charges would stick.
McNulty said he was also concerned that he learned of the incident from reporters rather than from Bradford herself. McNulty also questioned Bradford’s contention that she was “leaving a legislative function” and therefore qualified for legislative immunity.
The ethics panel, which includes Reps. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, Claire Levy, D-Boulder and Judy Solano, D-Brighton, is scheduled to meet Monday.
“I certainly expect that the ethics committee will take into account what the Denver Police Department shared today, the revelations that they made, but the seriousness of this question to the House and the General Assembly requires us to move forward with an ethics committee,” McNulty told the media shortly after the Denver Police Department’s news conference.
Bradford remains livid over the decision to convene the ethics investigation. Furthermore, she said she hasn’t received any “warm or fuzzy” feelings of support from her colleagues, and that has contributed to the possibility of her leaving the GOP.
Speculation is that Bradford is demanding a change in Republican leadership in order for her to stay with the party, including removal of House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, from her leadership post.
Bradford accuses McNulty and Republican leadership of wanting her to suffer, noting that when she finally spoke to House Speaker about the incident, he responded, with the “You’re toast” slur.
“I told him I found that to be an odd choice of words,” said Bradford.
“What would have been so wrong with waiting 10 minutes?” she asked, noting that House leadership had announced the ethics panel at about the same time that police were apologizing for their misinterpretation of the situation. “They were expecting the news to be bad.”
“I thought it was crazy for Frank to do that because it was a perfectly legitimate and appropriate time to say, ‘In view of the findings in the police conference, it looks like Rep. Bradford is exonerated of abusing the legislative privilege,’” Bradford said. “It seemed to have been solved. Why didn’t he do that?”
Powerful implications to Legislature
The implications to the legislature as a whole, especially the House, could be significant if Bradford does end up leaving the Republican party. She told The Statesman that she is not considering a switch to the Democratic Party, but left open the possibility of becoming an Independent.
If that were to happen and Republicans lost their one-person advantage in the House, the first order of business would be to determine the speakership. A House member could nominate a new candidate for the top leadership spot, and call for a vote of the entire House. At that point, it could come down to Bradford. If she were to choose to back a Democrat — most likely Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver — then Democrats would claim control. Of course McNulty could retain his position, or there could be a show of support for another Republican to replace him.
The last time there was a change in House speakers mid-session was in 1891 when the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that members of the House can remove and replace a speaker through majority vote and declare the seat vacant, thereby electing a successor. In January 1891, the House ousted Rep. James W. Hanna as speaker and elected Rep. Jesse White as his replacement.
Perhaps even more significant, the political makeup of all the committees in the House could be altered by a switch of leadership in the House. There is no written procedure for how to address the complexity of the power shift. The majority of power in each chamber controls committees, but if there were a dead even split between Republicans and Democrats, it would be unclear how to assemble committees and other legislative bodies.
If the political makeup of House committees were to shift, Democrats would be in a position to control what legislation passes through to the House. It could mean that the Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow (ASSET) bill, which would provide tuition equity for undocumented students, might see a favorable vote by the committee, as well as a bill that would allow civil unions for same sex couples.
Bradford said she intends to uphold her conservative values, no matter what she decides to do politically.
“Nothing changes,” said Bradford. “The changing of the lettering by someone’s name doesn’t change their platform, it doesn’t change their value system, or their character.”
Ferrandino calls the discussion about a change in control of the House a “distraction.” He and Bradford have discussed the controversy, he acknowledged, but he affirmed that that there was no discussion about a change in party or leadership.
“There’s not much to make of it,” Ferrandino said on Thursday. “She’s got to figure out what she wants to do. We’re busy doing work and working on our bills, and I guess she’ll make her decision on what she wants to do based on the implications, but I don’t know what that will mean and what will happen.”
McNulty says he also is not seriously considering the implications. On his way up the West steps into the Capitol on Thursday, McNulty boasted, “I don’t get nervous.”