Aguilar picked to take Romer’s place in SD 32

By Ernest Luning

A Democratic vacancy committee on Monday picked a physician to fill the seat Denver Democrat Chris Romer is giving up to run for mayor. Dr. Irene Aguilar bested state Rep. Beth McCann in the final round of voting to represent Senate District 32, a sprawling district that stretches from Congress Park to Bear Valley.

Aguilar, who will be the only licensed physician in the General Assembly when she is sworn in next month, said her years as a primary care provider at Denver Health’s Westside Family Health Center helped her decide to become a lawmaker.

Dr. Irene Aguilar, center, is joined by her daughter Meg, right, and husband, Thomas Bost, on stage after winning a Democratic vacancy appointment to Senate District 32 on Dec. 13 at Denver’s South High School.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
State Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, accepts a nomination to run for the Senate District 32 vacancy on Dec. 13 at South High School in Denver. McCann came in second in the final balloting.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“When you talk to people about what the barriers are to making themselves healthy, a lot of them are outside what we can do in the clinic office,” she said after signing the papers that made her vacancy appointment official. “I’m hoping to change some of the basic public policies that make it hard for people to take care of their own health.”

Aguilar emerged the favorite through three rounds of voting at Denver’s South High School, where 123 members of the vacancy committee — made up of Democratic precinct committee people, party officers and elected officials who live in the district — gathered to decide between six candidates. In addition to McCann, who survived until the last round, the candidates included retired federal auditor Jeffrey Hart, Denver Democratic Party Secretary Owen Perkins, environmental activist Matt Royster, and late entrant Arthur Lewis, a recent Harvard graduate with years of campaign experience.

Among Aguilar’s priorities in the upcoming legislative session will be working to craft a referendum for the 2011 ballot to fix problems caused by the TABOR amendment, monitoring the implementation of last session’s controversial teacher performance bill, and taking another stab at setting up single-payer health care in the state. As president of Health Care for All Colorado, Aguilar helped shepherd a bill establishing the Colorado Single Payer Health Care System out of a House committee last year, though it didn’t advance further than that.

“There are not enough people in state to support a viable public option,” she said, “but I’d like to see a commission to explore establishing a single-payer system.” She added that lawmakers could “look at declaring health an essential service and having it paid for in that manner.”

When the Legislature sets out the rules for Colorado’s health care exchange — a component of the federal health care reform law passed this year — Aguilar said she wants to make sure state insurance regulations are strengthened “so the exchange doesn’t get gamed.” She is also eyeing a requirement that state residents who receive federal health care subsidies can purchase insurance only from nonprofit providers.

While she said she supports “the concept of holding teachers accountable,” she expressed reservations about Senate Bill 191. “It doesn’t get at the root cause of why our students are failing but, instead, tries to put the blame on somebody else,” she said, adding that she will be “following that closely” this year.

Aguilar led the pack in the first round with 44 votes, followed by McCann with 33 and Hart with 24. The bottom three candidates — Perkins got 20 votes, Royster got 1 and Lewis didn’t get any — were eliminated. In the next round, Aguilar polled just a single vote shy of an outright majority at 60 votes, ahead of McCann’s 39 and Hart’s 22, sending the contest to a final ballot. That round, and the Senate seat, went to Aguilar, who received 80 votes, while McCann held steady at 39.

After the results were announced, McCann congratulated Aguilar. “I think Irene’s going to do a great job,” McCann told The Colorado Statesman, praising Aguilar’s “passion and energy.” She added, “I wish her the best. I’ll be in the House still fighting!”

McCann’s House District 8 seat only overlaps SD 32 by a handful of precincts between Colfax and Sixth Avenue either side of Congress Park. But Aguilar — who lives in the southwest part of the district near the Teikyo-Loretto Heights campus — suggested that her margin had more to do with politics than it did with geography.

“The district is a very progressive district and a lot of precinct committee people were supporters of Andrew Romanoff,” Aguilar said after her win. “Rep. McCann was not a Romanoff supporter and I was a strong Romanoff supporter, and that gave me an edge.” She also noted that her other main opponents for the vacancy threw their backing her way after each elimination round.

Romer easily won a second four-year term in November, defeating his Republican opponent Tyler Kolden by a 31-point margin. Romer announced on Nov. 30 he would be resigning his seat at the end of the year in order to run for mayor in the May election.

A senator from SD 32 has the distinction of serving one of the briefest terms in legislative office in recent memory. Before Romer won the seat in 2006, the district was represented by Democrat Dan Grossman. Between the time Romer was elected and when he was sworn in, Grossman stepped down and Gov. Bill Owens named Grossman’s long-time aide Donna Johnson to fill out the remaining 14 days of his term.

Aguilar said she plans to retire after 21 years with Denver Health. She said she might return to work at the clinic between sessions “to keep myself firmly placed in reality.”