Senate Democrats on Wednesday chose Morgan Carroll of Aurora to lead them as their next Senate president after a bitter recall election ousted their former chief.
The caucus election was free of political fireworks as Carroll was elected unanimously without other nominations offered. There had been rumors that Sen. Mary Hodge of Brighton would also be nominated, but that never came to fruition.
Carroll leaves her post as majority leader to take over for John Morse of Colorado Springs, who was recalled from office in September after supporting a package of gun control measures. Also recalled was Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo, who did not hold a leadership position.
Longtime legislator Rollie Heath of Boulder was elected by the caucus to take over for Carroll as majority leader. He was also the sole nominee and elected unanimously.
Recall proponents are now targeting Democratic Sen. Evie Hudak of Westminster over similar issues. Hudak only won her seat by 584 votes in 2012 against Republican Lang Sias.
Proponents are in the process of collecting at least 18,900 valid signatures by early December to place a recall election on the ballot in Jefferson County.
If they are successful with that effort and earn the votes to recall Hudak, Republicans would likely take control of the Senate and could force a parliamentary vote to change leadership.
The full Senate must still vote to approve Carroll when it reconvenes in January. Usually the minority backs whomever the majority nominates, but the tables could turn later in the session if Republicans take over the majority.
But for now the focus is on Carroll, an attorney who is considered by many to be liberal. She will become the second woman in state history to lead the Senate.
In the wake of the recent recall elections and the potential for another, some political insiders speculated that the caucus would look to a more moderate legislator to lead them. But Carroll said that’s not what the election was about.
“The bigger takeaway we have right now… is people are frustrated of government not working, and so I think it’s important to remind people that Colorado is a counter example and we’re basically ready to get to work,” explained Carroll, referencing the recent government shutdown by Congress.
“Everybody is in a very pragmatic place where we’re interested in just sort of cataloguing what the needs are of the state and what we can do to get them done… people are in problem solving mode,” Carroll continued.
All eyes, however, will be on the tone of the Senate as Carroll takes over for Morse, who had been criticized by the GOP for a liberal over-reach as president. In addition to gun control, Democrats pushed a sweeping elections reform bill, increased regulations on the oil and gas industry, and a renewable energy standard for rural electric cooperatives, among other divisive measures.
A focal point of the recall elections was grassroots organizers claiming that lawmakers, especially Democrats, had been ignoring their constituents. Carroll said her caucus plans on plenty of outreach before it determines an agenda for next session.
She said voters can expect a focus on jobs, education and the recent devastating floods that wrecked parts of the state.
It was originally believed that Democrats would tackle oil and gas regulations in the upcoming session because many of the proposals last year failed, such as creating mandatory-minimum fines for the industry.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, had raised concerns about some of those bills. He is facing re-election in 2014. Carroll said her caucus wants to first go back to voters before deciding to introduce such measures.
“Our caucus is committed to doing very robust outreach to the constituents in our districts and not having a top-down agenda,” she said. “What we want to do is make sure we’re doing a good job reaching out before we start the session, that we’re getting input from the people in our districts on what they want us working on. And so to the extent if a platform changes from there, it’s going to be based on doing outreach into our districts.
“It’s possible there might be a changing dynamic, it’s possible that things that were a priority before aren’t,” she continued. “It’s possible there are new priorities.
“The message we sent today is that we’re ready to get to work,” Carroll added.
Republicans, however, may try to push the Democrats’ buttons, especially on gun control. Several GOP lawmakers are already considering pushing repeals. But those bills stand little chance in a legislature where the House is comfortably in the hands of Democrats, as well as the governor’s office.
The Senate, however, is a different story. Democrats maintain control by a razor-thin 18-17 count after losing Morse and Giron.
Several of the controversial bills last year passed by only one vote, as more moderate Democrats like Hodge, Lois Tochtrop of Thornton and Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge did not always agree with their caucus. Add the weight hanging over Hudak’s head into the mix, and Senate Democrats are facing a burdensome dynamic.
“We all come from different districts with different beliefs, so I think there’s always been some nuances of differences of opinion on a lot of issues, but I don’t think there is anything different,” opined Carroll. “I think those variations within different communities exist now, they existed then.”
She shrugged off any attempts at repealing recent gun control.
“When you’re out there in the community asking people what they primarily want us working on right now, it’s not moving backwards,” explained Carroll. “It isn’t a series of ‘can we move backwards on this or that.’ It’s more or less ‘how do we move forward from here.’”
Another issue that Republicans are looking to re-examine is elections reform. A variety of concerns have popped up, including a conflict between state statute and the Colorado Constitution that resulted in a court challenge that has effectively made certain all-mail elections impossible, despite a recent Democratic-backed law that requires mail balloting.
There is also an assumption that the new elections law allows voters to cast ballots in districts in which they do not reside.
Many believe that the bill is flawed and might result in lawsuits this fall following the November election. Some have called on the governor to call a special session to address the issues, but he has not done so.
Democrats argue that critics are not properly interpreting the bill, and that some of the issues predate their elections reform measure. But Republicans maintain that the bill was introduced late in the session and rushed through without being properly vetted.
Carroll acknowledged that the legislature might have to take another look at elections issues, but stopped short of saying that Democrats would specifically change House Bill 1303.
“We’re committed to making sure that everybody who is eligible to vote can vote…” she said. “To the extent that they’re left with a decision that is blocking eligible voters who have a constitutional right to vote from voting, yeah, I think that’s a problem.”
The overall message from Senate Democrats on Wednesday was that the caucus remains united.
Hodge, who acknowledged that she had been considering pursuing a nomination for Senate president, said she does not regret changing her mind.
“We need to go forward with strong positive leadership, and we will,” said Hodge, who sits on the powerful Joint Budget Committee. “We’re leaving here Democrats united.”
Hodge said no members of her caucus approached her to pull back on her pursuit.
“This is just Mary Hodge sitting in her living room thinking, ‘You know the best thing forward would be as one body,’” she said.
She does not believe that with Carroll as president that Democrats will attempt an overzealous platform next year. Hodge believes the 18-17 split is reason enough to stay moderate.
“I don’t think we’ll do anything other than moderation to get things done,” she said. “It’s time that we did the work of the people of the state of Colorado, and that means that we work together with Republicans, we work with Democrats and we move forward.”
Jahn, who has also expressed a desire to pursue a moderate agenda, said she does not believe Carroll’s nomination changes the tone.
“I am a moderate and that will not change,” she said. “I am who I am and I vote how I vote. We still can do that, I’ve done that for all the years I’m here, and I think we can do that now.”
Heath, who has three years left in the legislature, also does not believe that Carroll’s election as Senate president offers a more liberal dynamic.
“Morgan is a person who is extremely bright and caring and I’m really looking forward to working with her,” he said.
As for his new role as Senate majority leader, Heath said, “It’s a chance to serve, maybe at a little different level, but I’ll continue to do the same things that I always do, which is to try to pull people together and get legislation passed that will serve the people of the state.”
For his part, former legislator Morse said he is optimistic about Carroll as his successor. Morse is currently working to start an accounting firm since his tenure at the legislature was cut short.
“Morgan is an outstanding choice and will do a spectacular job, and I am extremely happy for her,” said Morse.
“Running the Senate is difficult every minute of every day, so you just have to keep your eye on the ball all the time, and she has shown a knack for doing just that,” the ousted former Senate president continued.
He does not believe the recent recall elections sent a message to Democrats that should change any direction.
“When you run elections where 80 percent of the people don’t turn out, anything can happen,” explained Morse. “But that shouldn’t encourage you to deviate from your principles.”
Hudak declined to speak with the media on Wednesday about the recall she could be facing and the impact it might have on Senate Democrats.
She offered a statement earlier in the week saying, “A small group is seeking to undo the will of voters, who re-elected me to the Senate last November. Unable to defeat me then, they are now attempting a political power grab using a low-voter-turnout, no-mail-ballot recall election strategy.”
Despite what Democrats say about Carroll’s nomination, Republicans are outraged, convinced that it sends the wrong message.
“It’s clear that Senate Democrats did not learn anything from last month’s recall elections,” said Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. “Instead of putting forth a leadership team that has a record of working with Republicans and representing the people of Colorado, they elected two of their most radical and partisan members.
“Both Sens. Carroll and Heath have run legislation to increase the regulatory burden on small business owners, to raise taxes on Colorado’s working families and senior citizens and to take away our Second Amendment rights,” he continued.
“Senate Democrats had the opportunity to elect fresh new leaders who would have moved their caucus in line with the people of Colorado,” added Call. “It’s unfortunate that Senate Democrats unanimously voted to keep the status quo, instead of moving forward.”