By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Colorado legislators were stunned when House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, announced Friday that he will retire his HD 44 seat next month because he needs to devote full time to his hotel business during the economic crisis.
May’s decision “was completely unexpected,” said Rep. Kent Lambert, R-Colo. Springs. “I don’t think anyone thought that something like this could happen.”
“This isn’t just a legislator resigning. When you lose the minority leader, those are bigger shoes to fill,” said Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colo. Springs. “Mike has been a very effective leader.”
Before the shock wore off, Republican legislators began receiving calls from two candidates — Assistant Minority Leader David Balmer and Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch — who aim to fill May’s leadership shoes in an election sometime soon.
That sparked another round of “support me please” calls and e-mails from a few legislators vying for Balmer’s assistant minority leader position. They included Steve King, R-Grand Junction and Marsha Looper, R-Colo. Springs.
Several legislators said that Looper said she won’t run if Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colo. Springs, pursues the assistant minority leadership post. Looper and Gardner did not return calls from The Colorado Statesman.
“If Balmer wins House Minority Leader — and I expect he will win — McNulty can be nominated for assistant minority leader,” said one Republican legislator who has his ear to the ground. “McNulty doesn’t have the votes to win the leadership.”
McNulty supporters think Balmer is vulnerable because he offended several legislators last month at the election of minority party leaders.
Balmer supported Rep. Bob Gardner, in a failed bid to replace House Minority Whip Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, and Rep. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, who ran unsuccessfully against Minority Caucus Chair Amy Stephens.
“I think Frank McNulty has a good shot at House minority leader,” said Lambert, adding that Balmer might also be tainted by “Bob Gardner’s sour grapes speech” that alleged “arm-twisting” tactics were used to force votes for Cory Gardner and Stephens.
Both Balmer and McNulty were busy contacting fellow legislators for support over the weekend. According to one of Balmer’s supporters, the Arapahoe County Republican seems confidant that he has obtained 17 pledges so far, thereby ensuring his ascension to leader of the 27-member Republican caucus.
In Douglas County, Chris Holbert, Dustin Zvonek and Polly Lawrence have indicated their interest in filling May’s HD 44 seat. The 120-member Republican vacancy committee plans to schedule an election after May has officially tendered his resignation to the House.
“I intend to stand for election,” said Holbert, adding that May called him about an hour before he announced his resignation. “He offered his endorsement to me.”
Holbert said that he’d also received endorsements from Balmer, McNulty, and Senators Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch; Mark Scheffel, R-Castle Rock; Mike Kopp, R-Littleton; and Greg Brophy, R-Wray.
Having served as president of the Colorado Mortgage Lenders Association over the past eight years, Holbert is a registered lobbyist who worked closely with legislators. He is well known at the capitol.
“I’m honored by the extraordinary endorsements and support that I’ve received from Mike and a large number of legislators,” said Holbert.
Unimpressed by Holbert’s endorsements is twenty-something Zvonek, who managed Mike Coffman’s successful campaign for the 6th Congressional District seat retired by Rep. Tom Tancredo. He served as Tancredo’s deputy campaign manager in 2006, and later worked as a legislative aide in the congressional office.
“The endorsements that ring the loudest are endorsements from the vacancy committee,” said Zvonek, who is working on five potential bills to win support from the committee members. “The issues of importance are economy, energy, education and health care.”
Adding a little twist to the race to replace May, Holbert’s son is in the 8th grade language arts class taught by Zvonek’s wife, Stephanie.
“She laughed and told me, ‘This could be awkward,’” said Zvonek.
Lawrence could not be reached for comment, but indicated her interest in the HD 44 seat to the Douglas County GOP Executive Committee.
A member of the vacancy committee expressed concern about the economic stability of candidates to replace May. He plans to raise the question when the candidates call to ask for his support.
Under the gold dome, Republican legislators speculated that May is one of several citizen legislators whose businesses and finances are struggling in this economic recession.
“It has truly been an honor serving in the legislature, and serving as the Republican Leader these last few years. However, as the owner of a company, I have an obligation to the families that work for me,” said May in a brief press statement Friday.
“It has become increasingly difficult to balance my duties at the statehouse with those of keeping my business running in these difficult economic times,” he said. “This decision was one of the hardest I have ever had to make, but I wouldn’t have made it if I didn’t think it was the right decision.”
May works as the chief financial officer for a franchise of Holiday Inns in Colorado and Utah. He had handily won election since 2002 from HD 44, and was re-elected as House Minority Leader last month. May previously served on the Parker City Council.
“Mike May is the first casualty of the economy, but probably not the last,” said Lambert. “Some citizen legislators are living on pension plans or working to keep businesses afloat.”
When the choice is between $30,000-a-year as a citizen legislator and personal financial responsibilities, Lambert said, “You have to decide what’s more important to you as Mike did. You can’t sacrifice your family or the families who depend on you.”
May’s resignation drew public comment from both sides of the aisle.
“I greatly appreciate Mike May’s service to the legislature and to the people of Colorado,” said Gov. Bill Ritter. “We didn’t always agree on the issues, but I respect him and wish him and his business nothing but success in the future.”
House Speaker Andrew Romanoff said May had been “a good friend and an honorable colleague as well as an occasional sparring partner.”
“We’ve found common ground on a number of issues important to Colorado,” said Romanoff, whose term ends in early January. “I wish him well in his return to private life and I wish him success in his business.”
House Speaker-designee Terrance Carroll said, “Rep. May has been a great friend and colleague. I will miss the routine of our friendly banter each day before we begin the serious work of the House. I wish him the very best as he moves on to his next endeavor.”
The House minority leadership — Balmer, Gardner and Stephens — issued a statement commending May’s leadership and lamenting his departure.
“Mike May has been a true leader and we know that this had to be one of the hardest decisions of his life. The faltering economy has impacted many families, and the additional pressure just makes it that much more difficult to balance public service, your family, and a business.
“Today is not a day to speculate about who will emerge as the leader of our caucus, but instead to pay tribute to a great leader who has sacrificed much to serve our state.”
The leadership campaigns by Balmer and McNulty had emerged shortly after May’s announcement and before the press statement hit news desks. Their campaigns continued into the evening — and most likely won’t cease over the weekend.