Dems increase ranks, take control at State House

The Colorado Statesman

Democrats retook control of the Colorado House by a wide margin and kept their majority in the Senate on Tuesday, smoothing the path for legislation stalled by Republicans in the last session when the GOP ruled the House by one seat.

Democrats increased their share of House seats from 32 to 37 seats, leaving Republicans with 28. In the Senate, Democrats will continue to hold a 20-15 edge. On their way to majorities in both chambers, Democrats evicted four House Republicans: Reps. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora; Mark Barker, R-Colorado Springs; J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio; and Robert Ramirez, R-Arvada.

A triumphant Mark Ferrandino — the Denver Democrat serves as House minority leader but will preside as speaker of the House when the General Assembly convenes on Jan. 9 — admitted that he was “a little shocked” by the extent of his party’s statehouse sweep on election night.

“Colorado has said, ‘We want responsible leadership here in our state, we want people who are going to roll up their sleeves, solve the problems for people and not be beholden to ideological beliefs. We want people who are practical, pragmatic problem-solvers.’ That’s what the Democrats have been selling and that’s what we’re going to show the people of Colorado for the next two legislative sessions,” he said.

Democrats insisted the results reflect a repudiation of the GOP’s heavy-handed tactics and ideological extremism, while Republicans maintain that it was the other party’s superior organization and fundraising that made the difference.

Pinning blame for Republican losses in part on the way House GOP leaders killed a civil unions bill in a tense procedural standoff at the end of the last session, Democrats said the fiasco energized volunteers and donors and drew a stark contrast between the parties for voters.

While several of the victorious Democratic House candidates told The Colorado Statesman that civil unions wasn’t an issue they heard raised on the doorsteps of undecided voters, Ferrandino nonetheless suggested that what he called the “debacle” that capped the last session characterized the choice faced by voters.

“It mobilized the Democratic base and the LGBT community to be active and engaged in a much bigger way than we’ve ever seen before,” said Ferrandino, who was the primary House sponsor of the civil unions bill. “When you talk to voters, they might not have known all the details, but they knew something was wrong with the leadership in the House. That laid the tone for this election as people were talking about it. They felt that you wanted a democratic process to work, and they didn’t feel that happened last session.”

Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs — fellow Democrats this week elected him to serve as Senate president starting in January — said that voters had clearly picked the Democratic agenda.

“I do think that voters sent a very clear message that they want Democrats with their hands on the machinery of government,” he said. “The voters realize that when you put some of the power in the hands of the Republicans, bad things happen. That’s not how we want the state to be run, we want the state to be run by Democrats because they’ll put things on course.”

But House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, begged to differ, proposing instead that Democrats simply outmaneuvered Republicans on the ground.

“It really is hard to dispute the fact that the Obama machine really is very good,” he said. “There’s no way we can get around that. As energized as our grassroots were and as hard as people worked — and they worked so hard — the Obama machine is alive and well. They’re just good at it.”

Likewise, Republican National Committeeman Mike Kopp, a former Senate minority leader, contended that Democrats won because they have more favorable maps and donors with deeper pockets, not because they have better candidates or stronger policy proposals.

“You can’t overlook the fact that we have more Republicans in the state and yet we have districts that have been drawn in a difficult fashion for Republicans to win,” he said. “Also, the funding disparity has been a significant barrier. It just has. The Democrats routinely have had much greater resources.”

Democrats reaped the rewards of a contentious reapportionment process that landed in court after Republicans challenged the initial map drawn by a bipartisan state commission. The replacement map, Democrats said, created an unprecedented number of competitive districts — where neither party held sway by more than a 5-percent margin among registered voters — but also drew numerous incumbents into the same districts, leading Republicans to charge their rivals with “decapitating” the GOP’s ranks. In the end, Democrats prevailed in nearly every competitive district, losing only Senate District 35 in southeastern Colorado and House District 47 in rural Pueblo and surrounding counties.

Ferrandino said that, while the civil unions measure might get the most attention, it was just a piece of a “practical, pragmatic problem-solving” agenda Democrats intend to pursue.

“The first bill we’re going to be working on is around economic development and job creation,” he said, pointing to legislation intended to foster small business development and spur entrepreneurism in the state. “But as Sen. (Pat) Steadman and I said when civil unions died last year, we are going to bring it back. We were going to bring it back every year until it passed. We had a majority in the House to pass it, but the speaker wouldn’t let it come up for a vote. Civil unions will get to the governor’s desk sometime during the 2013 session. But we have other issues that are important to people in Colorado, like jobs, the economy and education of their kids — those are just as important as civil unions.”

Morse made a similar point about Democratic proposals aimed at jobs and the economy.

“Business does best when Democrats are in control,” he said. “It complains more, but it makes more money. And right now, that’s what we need, is we need very successful businesses, and that happens under Democratic regimes so much more than it hap-pens under Republican regimes, and we need to figure out how to make sure that that’s true this time too.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com