Guest Columns

GALLAGHER: TAKE A SEAT, BUT NOT ANY SEAT

Where legislators sit in the chambers is a lot about politics

At the invitation of Anne O’Donnell, former volunteer in the office of Senator Claire Traylor, R-Wheat Ridge, with whom I served when in our Senate, I recently took a group of volunteers on a tour of our state Capitol. The volunteers were from Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science, the brander’s new name for what I still call the Natural History Museum. Anne volunteers there as well.

The House and Senate leadership kindly allowed the forty visitors and myself to sit on the benches around the floor of the two chambers. An eerie quiet echoed in the chambers on Friday afternoon. Speaker McNulty poked fun at the Senate when he quipped that I served in the upper chamber, the House, for 4 years and then went to the Senate, the lower chamber. Someone from Colorado School of Mines actually brought in an altitude tester and measured the altitude of the two chambers and they are both the same number of feet above sea level. But we remember the two different markers from Mines on the west steps of the building. The mark deeply carved in Trajan V-shaped letters in 1893 is below the brass-plated mark measured many years later with better altimeters. So much for science.

The tour occurred around the president giving his State of the Union speech. Senator Mark Udall of Colorado had caused a flurry with a good suggestion when he encouraged congressional members to sit mixed up, not in partisan camps with tribal clapping and dancing up and down. So with all this bipartisan fervor in the air in light of the assassination attempt in Arizona of Congresswoman Giffords, one Museum volunteer asked, “Do legislative members sit by alphabet or by party in the respective chambers?”

I answered that our legislative chambers in Colorado divide by party. In the House, the Democrats sit on the right and Republicans on the left side of the chamber. That’s as you look in through the glass windows in the back lobby to the Speaker’s chair. The Senate is just the opposite: the Republicans sit on the right side and the Democrats on the left as you look to the president’s chair through the back lobby windows. This perceptive question prompted me to remember the hours of debate that went into assigning members their respective seats for the session. The science of legislative seating assignments could fill text books offering lots of case studies for the JFK School of Government to discuss in their many classes. I imagine a doctoral dissertation has already analyzed this subject from the psychological view.

The general philosophy when I served in leadership hinged on party commitment and geography. Firstly, members selected their seats. Some wanted to be near the phones or the steno pool. Others selected a seat to be close to geographical colleagues so they could confer on bills as they came up for vote on the floor. Others wanted to be near the back windows so they could visit with lobbyists. Others did not want to sit next to other members because they simply did not like the other member. Still others wanted seats near the side benches so they could bring constituents onto the floor to watch debate. One time leadership assigned a rural Democrat from a marginal district to a seat right next to a true-blue Republican. The Republican would lean to the right on his plush arm chair and simply say “Your folks back home won’t be happy that you voted for this, friend!” The Democratic Party whip cursed through the session that the rural Democrat was “not sticking with the caucus positions.” I am not mentioning names to forgive the guilty and blame the innocent in this story.

So in future sessions, the outer edge of the floor seats assigned next to Republicans always went to the most liberal urban members in hopes they could pick up Republican votes. But like a game of chess, the Republicans always put their most rock-ribbed members on the edge of their circled wagons to avoid any temptation for crossing over. No rookies or rooks sat next to knights on this floor. And the closest we ever got to a bishop was Father Senator John Beno from Pueblo who never sat down much at all.

I have not studied the chessboard, I mean, the seating chart for this year. I am not sure in this age of texting and twittering, electronic voting, if the science of seating philosophy has changed. As my revered Democratic Captain from North Denver, Dolores Dickman, fondly said so often, “Politics is the only real game for adults.”

Dennis Gallagher, current Denver City Auditor, was first elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 1970. He served two terms, followed by 20 years in the State Senate.