By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Asked on Election Day who he thought would be the next speaker of the House in Colorado, Denver Rep. Terrance Carroll responded that it almost assuredly would be Grand Junction’s Bernie Buescher, who, Carroll believed, was about to be elected for a fourth term representing House District 55.
Outgoing House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, left, Majority Leader Alice Madden, center, and newly-elected Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll, right, enjoy some levity during their caucus meeting Nov. 6.
“He has the votes [within the Democratic caucus],” said Carroll, adding that he himself had an excellent shot at being elected majority leader at the House Democratic caucus on Thursday, Nov. 7.
The problem, however, was that — although Buescher had the votes to win the top position in the Democratic caucus — he couldn’t muster enough votes in Mesa County to keep his seat in the Legislature.
He was narrowly defeated by Republican Laura Bradford in an enormous coup for the GOP, and the news sent shockwaves through the Democratic caucus.
At the Democrats’ leadership election caucus, which took place a day after Buescher’s loss became official, some newly elected members begged for more time to sort the whole mess out. Finally, after much deliberation, Carroll was elected speaker, winning a three-way race against Denver’s Anne McGihon and Rep. Kathleen Curry, of Gunnison. Rep. Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, won the majority leader’s position by acclamation.
Before the dominos began falling, neither Carroll nor Weissmann had been expected to hold the positions they eventually took. Carroll was expected to beat out Weissman for the majority leader’s position, with Buescher as speaker.
Carroll and Weissmann are taking over the leadership positions from House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and Majority Leader Alice Madden, both of whom are term-limited.
When Carroll assumes his new post in January, Colorado will become the first state to have black lawmakers holding the top leadership positions in both legislative chambers. Democrat Peter Groff, of Denver, became Colorado’s first black Senate president last year.
In seeking the post, Carroll, a Denver lawyer, told caucus members about his mother, a sharecropper with a third-grade education, “who fought, and worked and cried and bled” for him. Carroll said he had made it out of a tough neighborhood in Washington D.C. and said, as speaker, he would “be a beacon … a shining light to the rest of the state.”
Carroll also asked his colleagues to remember his steady temperament, his ability to work with others and his effectiveness as last session’s assistant majority leader.
Carroll, whose House District 7 elected him to a fourth term on Nov. 4, reportedly wasn’t sure he should run for speaker in the wake of Buescher’s defeat, but finally decided to throw his hat into the ring.
McGihon, however, had no such reservations — she’d been angling for a run against Buescher for the past year and a half. McGihon, who is known for her fundraising abilities as a founder of the Democratic House Majority Project, had been traveling around the state trying to help lawmakers win re-election and building support for her leadership ambitions.
McGihon said before the leadership election that, although she thought she had the votes to win, she wasn’t sure. She described the preceding day’s political jockeying as “quickly shifting quicksand.”
Curry, the third candidate, said Buescher’s defeat had motivated her effort. She argued that — given that it’s so difficult for Democrats to win on the Western Slope (as evidenced by Buescher’s defeat) — the speaker’s position should go to another moderate from the area. She described herself as a “moderate Democrat, sometimes conservative.”
“The voters of Colorado gravitate towards the center,” Curry said. “We have to be aligned where the state of Colorado is.”
However, Curry also noted that she wouldn’t be able to work 24-seven at the House’s top leadership post because she must give top priority to raising her two children.
Her opponents, meanwhile, promised full-time engagement.
Curry was eliminated in the caucus members’ first round of secret ballots. No one took a majority, however, so McGihon and Carroll faced one another in a runoff.
When the dust had settled — and Carroll had won — McGihon left the crammed committee room, skipping votes on the remaining leadership positions.
The most emotional moment of the day came from Buescher, who made the trip to Denver to say goodbye to his former colleagues. His departure, however, may be temporary. At a press conference the day before, Gov. Bill Ritter had said Buescher “still has a future” in the party, describing him as a “steadfast leader.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Buescher said. “I do believe every time a chapter comes to a close, the good Lord opens up another chapter.”
Buescher also offered a warning.
“Take the threats and the challenges that show up in your elections seriously,” he said. “As you use the power of this majority, remember there are members with more vulnerable seats.”
Five days after the leadership election, on Nov. 11, the party made a concession to the Western Slope contingent by appointing Curry to the position of Speaker pro tem.
Curry acknowledged that Buescher’s defeat was a factor in her appointment.
“They took that [loss] to heart and a couple of other [Western Slope] election results,” she said of Democratic leadership.
Curry, who will remain as chair on the House Agriculture Committee, said she would be the “point person” in the caucus on oil and gas, agriculture, land use and other issues important to rural areas.
Before Curry was appointed to the role, the only rural Democrat in House leadership was Sal Pace, of Pueblo, who won the fairly minor role of assistant caucus chair. That led Democrats to tap Curry, Carroll said.
“I’m a city slicker, but I also understand agricultural issues are deeply important to this state,” said Carroll.
Asked why Curry was picked over other, more senior rural Democrats — including Rep. Buffy McFadyen, D-Pueblo — Carroll said it was important to have someone like Curry, who will not face term-limits in 2010 like he and McFayden will, gain experience in
Also, Carroll said, Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver and Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, will serve on the Joint Budget Committee.
Women take leadership roles in Senate Democratic caucus
Since former Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald left the Legislature to run for Congress a year ago, Democrats in the upper chamber have not had many women in high-ranking leadership positions. That changed this year, however, as Sen. Betty Boyd, Sen. Lois Tochtrop and Sen. Suzanne Williams all beat out male counterparts for leadership roles.
That reflects the changing nature of the caucus: If Linda Newell wins a recount in Senate District 26, where she is slightly ahead, the Senate Democratic caucus would have 12 women — over half its total membership.
To start off the meeting, Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, was retained by acclimation. Sen. Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, was elected Senate Minority Leader, replacing term-limited Sen. Ken Gordon, D-Denver.
In something of an upset, Boyd, D-Lakewood, beat out Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, for Senate pro tem. That was even though outgoing Senate pro tem Able Tapia, D-Pueblo, who is returning to Joint Budget Committee after giving up his seat to Morse last year, nominated Morse for the pro tem position. The two had agreed on switch positions — and thought they had the votes lined up to make it happen.
But many women in the Senate caucus apparently felt more female leadership was needed to reflect the changed demographics of the caucus.
Tochtrop, D-Thorton, also won a spot in leadership this year as assistant majority leader. She also beat out Morse.
Finally, Williams, D-Aurora, who last year held the newly created position of assistant caucus chair — created to keep a woman in leadership following Fitz-Gerald’s departure — slid this year into the caucus chair position. Williams beat out Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, who had held the position the previous two years.
That also was somewhat surprising considering the renewed emphasis the Democrats have supposedly placed on putting moderate representation from the Western Slope in leadership, following Buescher’s defeat. In the wake of his defeat, Isgar has expressed annoyance at the Denver-centric nature of the Senate Democratic leadership.
Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge, will chair the Joint Budget committee.