Vacancies bring newbies to the legislature

By Katy Schultz

Colorado Democratic Chair Pat Waak should be feeling like she has the state tied up with a bow for her party. After all, in 2009, Democrats have control of five of the state’s seven congressional districts, all but one statewide office and both houses of the Legislature.

Sen. Pat Steadman, left, and Rep. Daniel Kagan, right, are settling in as two of the four new legislators recently selected by vacancy committees.
Photo by Katy Schultz/The Colorado Statesman

But success has its challenges. Victory has offered Democrats new opportunities and the confidence that their seats will remain safe in their party’s hands if they move on. Since March, Democratic vacancy committees have replaced Reps. Anne McGihon in HD 3 and Gwyn Green in HD 23 and Sens. Jennifer Veiga in SD 31 and Peter Groff in SD 33.

The average vacancy committee has fewer than 200 party insiders as members, but the average House or Senate district has thousands of voters — and the four new Democratic lawmakers are only now starting to walk precincts for the first time to ask total strangers for their votes.

Waak said the changes leave her with “some concern” on a political level.

“It’s one thing to have served in office before and be coming back, but in almost every case, these are people who have never run for office,” Waak said. “They have a learning curve ahead of them. There’s a lot of work that’s going to have to be done on top of what’s going on at the Legislature.”

The Republicans held two vacancy committee elections in January, electing Kevin Lundberg, of Berthoud, to replace Steve Johnson in Senate District 15 and electing B.J. Nikkel, of Loveland, to replace Lundberg in House District 49. Johnson set that sequence into motion when he was elected to the Larimer County Commission in November.

But it’s nothing compared to what’s happening for the Dems, says state GOP Chair Dick Wadhams.

“It strikes me as extraordinary,” Wadhams said when asked about the four Dem vacancies by The Colorado Statesman. “It’s a very high number. It’s … the Democrats running out of gas.”

Kagan and Tyler learn the House rules

The two members of the House — Daniel Kagan, who was elected by a Denver vacancy committee on March 30 to replace McGihon, and Max Tyler, who was elected by a Jefferson County vacancy committee on May 27 to replace Green — both will face the voters in less than 18 months — on Nov. 2, 2010.

Kagan kicked off his campaign on June 22 — the same day the Colorado Legislative Council predicted that the state budget would fall short by $384 million in 2010.

“It’s a somber day when you see those figures,” Kagan told a group of 50 supporters at McGihon’s house.

McGihon, an attorney, announced March 16 that she would leave the Legislature to return to the Akerman Senterfitt law firm, in whose Florida offices she had worked 25 years earlier.

Her replacement, the son of Holocaust survivors, moved to the United States in 1975 from England and became a citizen in 1984. Now Kagan can add “Colorado legislator” to a resumé that already outlines his accomplishments as a businessman, lawyer and pilot — not to mention that he negotiated peace between the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama delegates at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver.

Kagan was sworn in by Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, on March 30, and was able to put in a month’s worth of legislating before the session ended on May 6.

“I’ve enjoyed it enormously. It’s endlessly intriguing,” Kagan said about his first few weeks as a Colorado legislator.

“Absolutely everyone has been helpful,” he said. “Everyone has been willing and keen to help me be effective.”

Kagan said he already has plans to push legislation regarding health care, employment and social services as soon as the chamber opens its doors in January.

“I want to arrive in January with well-prepared, meaningful legislation that will make life better in Colorado than it already is.”

HD 23 Rep. Green, 70, announced that she would resign on April 27, citing health issues and the desire to spend more time with her grandchildren.

Although Tyler, a businessman who was sworn in on June 4, is Colorado’s newest legislator, he’s no political neophyte. He has been registered with the Democratic Party in HD 23 for the past 20 years, has worked closely with Green on her campaigns and served as chairman of the Jefferson County Democratic Party for the past two election cycles.

He’s going to need all the political savvy he can muster to keep the swing district, which Green first took from the Republicans by only 48 votes in 2004. He says he’s using his summer to knock on doors, talk to constituents and prepare for the 2010 General Assembly.

“I have six months to get ready for this job,” said Tyler. “It really gives me time to sit down and learn the issues. I’m the babe in the woods.”

As a new state legislator, Tyler has made sacrifices to serve his constituents and successfully tackle his new role.

“My time is a lot different. There are places I need to be and people I need to meet with most evenings,” said Tyler, who used to compete in the 5430 Spring Triathlon but this year only volunteered.

“You make trade-offs,” he said.

But Tyler isn’t giving up on being an athlete. He recently ran — rather than walked — one of the precincts in his district to see how it would feel.

“I might be running every precinct,” he said.

Tyler says he has found himself among friends under the golden dome.

“Lots of people have taken me under their wing,” Tyler said with a laugh. “That’s been a real joy.”

Tyler said Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, who represents neighboring House District 26; Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge, in Senate District 20, and his old friend Gwyn Green have been particularly warm and helpful.

Johnston, Steadman fill big shoes in the Senate

The Colorado Senate gained both of its newest members on May 29, when SD 31’s Pat Steadman and SD 33’s Mike Johnston were sworn into office by Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary Mullarkey in a joint ceremony.

Presiding at the ceremony was the first duty of Senate President Brandon Shaffer after he took over the Senate presidency vacated by Peter Groff.

In May, President Barack Obama selected Groff to head the faith-based-initiatives center for the U.S. Department of Education. That choice set into motion events that eventually made school principal Mike Johnston the new senator in District 33.

On May 11, Johnston was elected to replace Groff on the first ballot in a district whose population is nearly even divided among whites, blacks and Latinos. When the Vail native and principal of Mapleton Expeditionary School of the Arts (MESA) in Thornton was sworn in to represent SD 33, he overturned a tradition that has given the Colorado Senate its only black senator for as long as anyone can remember.

“I have been so impressed and welcomed with open arms,” said Johnston about joining the Colorado state Legislature. “From the security guards, the janitors and people on both sides of the aisle.”

Johnston — who studied philosophy at Yale and served Teach for America at an indigent school in the Mississippi Delta — is closely associated with Obama, acting as senior education adviser during the campaign. After the election and before the inauguration, he worked full time on Obama’s transition team.

Johnston also is closely linked with the success of MESA, where 100 percent of the 2008 graduating seniors enrolled in a four-year college.

Johnston said education is “a key issue that affects all of Colorado,” noting that education expenses consume 43 percent of the state budget. Johnston vows to focus on winning money for the state from Race to the Top, a component of the $5 billion allotted to education from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Race to the Top funds could provide millions of dollars in funding and countless resources, transforming Colorado’s lowest performing schools.

Steadman, Colorado’s other new senator, is also a political veteran, who worked with state lawmakers as lobbyist for progressive issues for 15 years. Steadman worked tirelessly to oppose Amendment 2 on the 1992 general election ballot and was a part of the legal team that challenged its constitutionality.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper appointed Steadman, who grew up in Westminster, to the Denver Women’s Commission and to the Denver Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Commission. He also chairs the Advisory Board for Denver’s Agency for Human Rights and Community Relations.

“My days are pretty full right now, and I don’t think that will change,” said Steadman, who is spending the summer working on the interim Early Childhood and School Readiness Committee and on a task force for the recycling of electronic waste.

Steadman’s biggest adjustment is his new yearly salary of $30,000. He says he had to sell his business, his car and his rental properties to raise enough cash to live on a legislator’s pay.

Steadman became one of three openly gay Colorado lawmakers when he replaced Veiga, the first Colorado legislator to make her homosexuality known.

“It’s all new and exciting, “ said Steadman about the brief time he has spent on the job so far. “I’m enjoying the invitations to meet new people and go new places.”