Freshmen orientation has tips for legislators’ spouses and partners

By Marianne Goodland
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

While life will be changing dramatically for 25 new members of the Colorado General Assembly, their families were learning what to expect during the 120 days of the next legislative session.

As part of the legislators’ orientation, one day was devoted to helping spouses, partners and other family members get accustomed to the state capitol and to what life will be like in the next two years.

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The Nov. 16 orientation session featured a tour of the capitol, an overview of the legislative process, what to expect on the first day of the session, and a panel discussion on the expectations and challenges that face legislators’ spouses and companions.

Cheri Scheffel, wife of Sen. Mark Scheffel, shares highlights of Capitol life during a Nov. 16 session.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman

That panel included advice from seasoned spouses and partners of current legislators, ranging from the philosophical (don’t defend your spouse or partner’s political positions) to the practical (get them to take Vitamin C every day to avoid the “capitol crud”).

The panel of family members featured Tammy Kerr, wife of Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood; Barb Nash, partner of Rep. Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge; Sandi King, wife of Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs; Phil Gerou, husband of Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen; and Cheri Scheffel, wife of Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker.

Family life will be different during the session, said the panelists. “The longer you’re here, the less the family does,” said Kerr. At the beginning of the session, expect long hours when the legislator will be reading bills; toward the end, it’s late nights.

Several said they don’t expect their spouses or partners to keep set schedules for family meals, especially during the week. Scheffel said that when her husband is available for dinner or other weeknight family events, “it’s a celebration!”

Panelists also advised the new legislators’ families to be careful that they don’t lose their own identities during this time and wind up as “second fiddles. Your self-esteem can take a beating if you let it,” said Nash, who said that she and Schafer have a calendar meeting every Sunday night, which includes what Nash is doing. Nash and Schafer also have a scale that rates the social events that make up much of the legislators’ time during the session. The events are rated from 1 to 10, and Nash said she mostly goes to the “9s and 10s.” Gerou noted that most of the events are for legislators and lobbyists and he doesn’t feel a need to be at every event.

King said she loves meeting new people at the social events, but “I have my own things,” she added. And to those who come to social events, King advised them to wear comfortable shoes, because they’ll be on their feet the entire time.

Gerou spoke to the loss of identity; he said that he and Cheri had an architectural firm in Golden for 25 years. When he would meet people, they’d say they recognized the name, and he’d reply that it was from one of the many buildings they’d been involved in designing. But that wasn’t it — they recognized the last name because of his wife.

Gerou said one of his other roles is to find time to get his wife out of town; otherwise, the meetings take over, he said. And that includes when the session is over. The workload lightens up but “it’s a year-round job,” he explained. “Taking control of the times you have and making them count will mean more than they ever know.”

“The time we have down here is short,” said Scheffel. “Enjoy it, embrace it.” But she also said that if “you lower you expectations of your spouse during the session, you’ll be much happier. That way, no one is disappointed.”

So how do legislators and their families handle things like communication during the session? Most of the panel said the legislators should have cell phones; Kerr said their home phone number is unlisted to avoid “crazy calls at 10 p.m.” And if the family members don’t know how to send text messages, now is the time to learn, said several panelists, because legislators do communicate that way during the day.

Many legislators, like Kerr and Scheffel, have children at home and have gotten creative about finding ways for them to spend time with the legislative parent. One way is to take advantage of the internship program at the capitol for high school or college students, which can be a way for a legislator’s children to spend time at the capitol.

Opening day at the capitol will be a family day, said several. Nash advised them to get to the capitol early and not to be afraid to nose out photographers for seats along the sides of the House floor. “You have to be aggressive to get your family seated, and spouses are there to be with their representative or senator.”

Outside of the capitol, spouses and partners should not take on the role of defending a legislator’s positions, said Gerou. “You will be asked to defend your spouse’s positions. Don’t do it.” Gerou said the legislator is the one who holds the positions, not the spouse, and a spouse can pass along the message without getting defensive. “They’re big boys and girls and they can handle themselves,” he said.

Coming off a busy election season, for most legislators’ families, life during the session, won’t be a “180 degree change,” said King. But families should always feel free to visit the capitol, according to Katey McGettrick of the Legislative Council staff. “You are an integral part of them being successful.”

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com