Freshmen legislators hear from respected predecessors

By Marianne Goodland

The freshmen class for the 2011 General Assembly enters the state capitol on January 12 as part of a divided House and Senate, and two former members of that body pleaded with them to behave honorably and respectfully, lest they fail to get anything done.


As part of a full week of legislator orientation, newly elected lawmakers attended a luncheon on Nov. 18 at the University Club. The luncheon featured remarks and advice from former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown and former U.S. Rep. David Skaggs. The pair both represented Colorado in Washington from 1986 to 1996 (Brown in the Senate, Skaggs in the House) and later, briefly worked together in higher education; Brown, as president of the University of Colorado and Skaggs, as the executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

Rep.-elect Dan Pabon, D-Denver, chats with former U.S. Rep. David Skaggs at the new legislator luncheon on Nov. 16 at the University Club.
Photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman

Brown, a Republican, served in the Colorado Senate from 1972 to 1976, then went on to serve in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate from 1980 to 1996. After returning to Colorado, he was president of the University of Northern Colorado from 1998 to 2002, and president of the University of Colorado, his alma mater, from 2005 to 2008. Democrat Skaggs served in the Colorado House from 1980 to 1986, followed by six terms in the U.S. House. From 2007 to 2009 Skaggs was executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

Brown and Skaggs offered guidance on what it means to be a state policy maker, but also pleaded with the new lawmakers to consider what it means to work collegially in a divided Legislature.

Brown began by talking about relationships and the reputations that legislators will develop in the next session. “It is a delightful, creative experience,” Brown told the group. As to the rules, “you have to honor your commitments, period.” A legislator can always change his or her mind on a bill, Brown said, but part of that commitment is to inform the sponsor before the vote comes down. “The quickest way to lose influence is to get a reputation of not honoring your commitments,” he said.

Brown acknowledged that people have strong feelings about the issues, and that those on the other side will have equally strong feelings. Sometimes people will share their feelings about the issues and in sometimes-graphic terms. But legislators will do well to remember that the enemy on one issue will be “your greatest friend” on the next one. “Respect your colleagues, even if they’re dead wrong,” Brown said.

As to relationships with lobbyists, Brown advised the new legislative class to view them as resources, and to expect them to be honest. “A good lobbyist will respond honestly” on a question, Brown said, and should be able to identify both the positive and negative aspects of a bill.

Skaggs noted a story told at the U.S. Capitol about the early Congressional days of President Lyndon Johnson, who made hostile remarks about a Republican member of the House during a debate. According to the story, Johnson was called into the office of Speaker Sam Rayburn, who told Johnson not to be so hard on the Republicans in the House. “You have to remember,” Rayburn said, “They are just our occasional adversaries. The enemy is the Senate.”

Relationships with colleagues across the aisle are critical, Skaggs said. He noted when he was first elected to the Colorado House in 1981 that he was immediately struck by the amazing amount of wisdom of his colleagues. “You can learn so much” from them, Skaggs told the new legislators.

In his early days in the Colorado House, new legislators went on a weekend retreat to get to know each other. “It made us more effective. It made bipartisan cooperation the essence of good legislation,” Skaggs said.

Compromise will be very important in the next two years, Skaggs pointed out. “And you can’t do it if you don’t trust your colleagues, and you can’t trust them until you get to know them. Especially in a divided government for the next two years, nothing gets done unless you work it out together.”

John Straayer, professor of political science at Colorado State University and a long-time capitol observer, moderated the discussion. “When you make choices, don’t think about the base of your party or the next election,” Straayer told the audience. “Resist the caucus. Instead, think about 2020, 2025 and 2030 — the institutions we have now were not built by us. They were built by people who are taking ‘dirt naps,’” and if all they thought about were partisan issues the state would not be in very good shape, he said. Straayer also suggested that new legislators get to know the opposition. “Invite your worst suspicion to lunch,” he said. “Maybe they won’t be so bad.”

One new legislator asked about the difference between compromise and staying true to one’s values. “Most questions are about policy, not values,” said Skaggs. “What will kill you is not the vote, it’s not being able to defend it,” added Brown.

Skaggs lamented that term limits and restrictions imposed by Amendment 41 would hamper efforts to build relationships, saying that people are not making long-term investments into relationships with those on the other side of the aisle.

The new legislators also took the opportunity to throw out a few political footballs — like why Brown didn’t consider running for governor after the implosion of the Dan Maes gubernatorial campaign. Brown initially endorsed Maes in mid-August, but withdrew his endorsement barely two weeks later, after questions were raised about Maes’ law enforcement background.

In politics, Brown quipped “if you’re getting older you’re not getting better.” But he said he declined the opportunity because in order to seek the office “you have to want it so bad you can taste it. The world would end if you didn’t get it.” It requires every “fiber of your energy and focus — the fire has to be there or you won’t be a good candidate.”

Brown brought down the house, however, with his next response, to a question one legislator referred to as one of the most “pressing recent developments” in higher ed — CU’s move to the PAC-10. “They ought to think about the Ivy League,” joked Brown.

But on the subject of higher ed, Brown and Skaggs were in agreement: that higher ed should be a state priority. “It’s one of the highest priori- ties the state has,” said Brown, but “it has not been a priority of prior legislatures.” Both touched on the recent higher education strategic plan that suggests the state should go to the voters in 2011 to seek a tax increase for higher education funding. If the state goes to the ballot, Brown said, higher ed must come forward with a program that is responsive, cost-effective and efficient and that details how the institutions will educate students. “If you’re going to get people to pay more for higher education, it must be genuinely open and genuinely transparent” on how it operates, Brown said.