Outgoing GOP lawmakers share memories

The Colorado Statesman

Several Republican lawmakers will face term limits this year, exiting the legislature after many years of service, including a former House speaker and a former majority leader who both stood at the helm through one of the most tumultuous times in the legislature’s history.

Reps. Frank McNulty of Highlands Ranch and Amy Stephens of Monument came in together, built a majority together, lost control of the power structure together, and will now leave the institution together.

It was January 2007 when both McNulty and Stephens were sworn-in. McNulty was an assistant director for water with the Department of Natural Resources and Stephens was running a small consulting firm. They were both active in Republican politics, but this would be their first time holding elected office.

Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument and Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, portraying Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, brought down the house during a rendition of “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” during the 2013 Hummers, a spoof by the minority party of the majority party. The duo parodied a debate between Stephens and Duran in February over sex education.
File photo by Marianne Goodland/The Colorado Statesman

They saw an opportunity to transfer the balance of power in the House back over to the right. When Stephens and McNulty entered the legislature, they were still in the minority. But they vowed to change that power structure.

Joining with former state Reps. Cory Gardner of Yuma and Ken Summers of Lakewood, the Republicans formed an unofficial coalition to spearhead fundraising efforts for their caucus. Apparently it worked, because in 2011 Republicans took back control of the chamber after the 2010 election. McNulty was elected speaker and Stephens was named majority leader.

“On many different levels we just complemented each other so well as far as skills and talents, and we were all motivated with the same idea that electeds had just sort of become disconnected from the people that they represented,” explained McNulty.

“My legacy is having taken the House with Frank,” added Stephens. “We dared when very few people would have ever done that…

“Two people who went out and worked hard and got candidates and raised money… toppled this thing,” she added. “We made a pact early on when we were freshman, we said, ‘What else are we doing? We might as well try and do this.’ So we set about from the time we were elected to taking the majority…”

But things changed quickly. Democrats had been trying for years to pass same-sex civil unions. As the session was winding down in 2012, the left saw its best opportunity to finally pass the measure. A handful of Republicans had agreed to support the bill, which gave it the necessary votes to pass.

But as the midnight hour of the legislative session approached, Republican leadership under McNulty stalled the bill, killing it on the calendar.

The move caused an outcry among Democrats and many unaffiliated voters. The left was enraged and motivated, and that year they took back control of the House, in which Republicans only had a razor-thin 33-32 majority. Democrats elected gay Rep. Mark Ferrandino of Denver to serve as House speaker.

With the incident in the rearview mirror, McNulty has had time to ponder the events that took place in that turbulent year. He acknowledged that it could have played out differently, but he has no regrets.

“It was one of those situations where at the point that it went down, we weren’t in the majority anymore and the Democrats had the votes,” he said. “Ferrandino was absolutely locked into his position of hearing Senate Bill 2 at all costs and… we were trying to get some of these other bills through before the whole thing blew up.”

McNulty believes his hands were tied in the chaotic situation. While the Republican majority was attempting to hear other bills on the calendar, Democrats were able to use the rules of the House to attempt to force debate on the civil unions measure.

Despite the Democrats’ attempts, the civil unions bill wasn’t coming up for debate under the Republican-controlled calendar. Then-Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, marched to the well to move that the House “rise and report” in an effort to allow debate on the bill. The procedural move is almost exclusively used by the majority party, which infuriated Republican leadership.

The gavel hammered and the House went into recess. A meeting with the governor, a round of bourbon — nothing would get McNulty to budge. Leadership announced an “impasse” causing the governor to call a special session. Still, the civil unions bill died that year.

“Once Claire went down and made the motion to rise and report, which had never been done [by the minority]… it just set off a series of events that locked them in their corner and locked us in our corner,” explained McNulty.

But he does not believe that his strategy that night cost Republicans the majority. Instead, McNulty points to a well-oiled Democratic machine that was fueled by the re-election of President Barack Obama.

“Obama’s machine and his 5.5-point victory sunk us and there’s no other way to shred it,” opined the former House speaker.

That said, he acknowledged, “It could have played out with less animosity.”

Stephens also rejects the notion that the parliamentary games that night caused her party trouble in the election later that year.

“Anyone who remotely thinks that civil unions was any kind of a factor in win or loss is completely living not in this world,” surmised Stephens. “They’re living in that dream. Go on… put that little bubble on because that’s not where the real world is.

“That’s not the defining moment at all of my leadership…” she added.

Stephens has experienced her own special dose of outrage, but much of the anger directed at her came from within her own party. The root of the anger was a bill she ran in 2011 that created a state-run health care exchange.

A Republican introducing such a bill raised eyebrows within conservative circles since it was viewed as an endorsement of Obama’s health care reform law, known as “Obamacare.” Stephens’ effort was labeled “Amycare.”

But Stephens never took the backlash too seriously. She went on to easily win a primary in 2012 against former Rep. Marsha Looper of Calhan after the two were drawn into the same district because of reapportionment.

Stephens has always maintained that she backed the state-run health care exchange because she wanted to give Colorado the opportunity to run its own insurance marketplace. Without the state-run program, Colorado would have been lumped into the federal exchange, which would have been worse for the state, said Stephens.

She doesn’t take the attacks too personally, pointing out that she has developed a thick skin over the years.

“You put yourself in the arena and then you have people who throw peanuts who aren’t in the arena,” she said. “You’ll find a lot of that in politics, people who will take a shot at you…

“But the people who just want to throw peanuts, you’ll get that all the time, that’s just how life goes…” Stephens added. “But I have toughened up in this office, I have become wiser about things and wiser about how you try and communicate.”

Stephens isn’t exactly sure what’s next for her. She’s been weighing her options after recently deciding not to run for U.S. Senate. She backed out for U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner to challenge Democratic incumbent Mark Udall — the same Gardner who worked with Stephens and McNulty on building the House majority.

Stephens said she will actively campaign for that race, as well as other statewide races such as the gubernatorial election. She is also helping to lobby for Denver to be home to the 2016 Republican National Convention.

“The party is still a work in progress in terms of how you win elections and how we as a party overall micro-target, and how we reach people,” said Stephens. “To my mind, that’s still a work in progress. We still have things to get better at.”

McNulty is also evaluating his options, though he said he will go back to working as an attorney and raising his baby girl. He isn’t ruling out another stint in elected office, though he doesn’t have much desire to move over to the Senate.

“The House is where the action is,” he said.

McNulty will let history write his legacy. But as far as his personal growth goes, he added, “I am less vindictive, more realistic and more passionate than ever about conservative ideals and fiscal responsibility being the direction we need to go as a state and as a nation.”

Has the legislature become more contentious?

Also exiting the legislature is Rep. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs. Sworn in January 2007, Gardner has watched as tensions in the legislature have escalated.

He believes part of the problem is term limits. With constant election cycles, lawmakers find themselves pandering to their political bases more.

Also, strict ethics guidelines have caused problems, including limiting gifts to lawmakers, said Gardner. Happy hours and other events that lobbyists used to throw have gone away, and lawmakers have had less opportunity to socialize with each other across the aisle.

Colorado Springs Rep. Bob Gardner, Republican, right, talks to Democratic Rep. Pete Lee, also from Colorado Springs, after the two were sworn in to serve the state’s second largest city in January of 2011.
File photo by The Colorado Statesman

Gardner said last year was his most contentious session yet. With Democrats in control, bitter fights took place over gun control and elections reform, among other issues.

“Legislatures are reactive institutions, they’re seldom proactive,” explained Gardner. “People might want them to be, and sometimes we are, but more often than not we react to the newspaper, to the TV, to things that are going on.”

Sen. Ted Harvey of Highlands Ranch has also watched as tensions have flared, but he believes part of the problem is that respect for the institution has diminished.

Harvey is in a unique position to comment, having spent the majority of his adult life under the Gold Dome. He started as a House reading clerk before serving six years in the House beginning in 2001. He was elected to the Senate in 2006.

“When I worked down here as the House reading clerk under [former House Speaker Carl Beverly] Bev Bledsoe, the institution was held in the highest regard. I think over the 13 years that I have been here, I have seen the disrespect for the institution of the legislature degrade substantially.

“You have through term limits a bunch of new people who have no understanding of the institution and the honor by which we should uphold it because every year you’re having 20, 30 new legislators walk in the door,” he added. “And then you have leadership quickly changing that don’t have a long endearing appreciation for the institution either.”

Looking back with fond memories

But despite the tensions, both Harvey and Gardner said they will miss their time in the Capitol, though they believe it is a bit bittersweet because they are confident that Republicans will take back control after the election this year.

Harvey is not exactly sure what’s next for him aside from continuing his professional career and staying active in Republican politics. He is a mortgage broker.

But wherever he ends up, Harvey said his memories will serve him well as he continues the journey.

Katie Frost from Highlands Ranch and Gillian Hardy of Florence, two of 35 girls participating in the “Girls with Goals Day” at the state Capitol on March 4, 2011, observe a conversation on the floor between Senators Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, and Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch.
File photo by John Schoenwalter/The Colorado Statesman

One particular moment that clearly sticks out for him was watching the rise and fall of Erin Toll, the former chief of the Real Estate Division. Harvey had sought to limit her regulatory authority. After a confrontation at a committee hearing in 2010, Toll alleged that Harvey and the company he worked for were under investigation by her office.

The problem was, it was never proven to be true at the time Toll made her comments. Toll’s boss, Barbara Kelley, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies at the time, placed Toll on paid leave and said there would not be an investigation into Harvey.

Toll subsequently filed a lawsuit and received about $55,000 in a resignation settlement in exchange for her dropping the complaint.

But Harvey felt vindicated since there was no ongoing investigation at the time the comments were made.

“I’m a hero in the mortgage industry and the real estate industry, I was the day she got removed from her position…” said Harvey. “People who meet me for the first time in the industry say, ‘Oh, you’re Ted Harvey, thank you!’”

Another shining moment for Harvey was in May 2006 when he invited a woman who had survived an abortion onto the floor of the House to sing the national anthem before Democrats pushed a resolution honoring Planned Parenthood. He received more than 6,000 emails from people praising him for inviting the abortion survivor onto the floor.

“She told her story about how she got cerebral palsy from her procedure that she had before she was born. That had an incredible impact,” explained Harvey. “It was probably the most powerful thing I’ve ever done in my 13 years at the state legislature.”

Gardner has similar warm memories, though he’s also not sure what’s next for him. He is considering running for mayor of Colorado Springs in 2015, as well as a run for Senate when Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs is term limited in two years.

Gardner hopes that his dedication to issues surrounding developmental disabilities, victims’ rights, and his ability to work across the aisle to get things done will serve as his legacy.

“I did some of my best work in the minority, not that I like to be in the minority, and I liked it in the majority a lot better, but I’ve been able to accomplish things… that have made a lot of difference for citizens,” said Gardner.

His legendary ability to make longwinded but cohesive arguments from the House floor has earned its own phrase, known in the legislature as “Bobbing.” But Gardner said he never spoke just to hear himself speak. In fact, he believes all lawmakers should work harder to keep themselves grounded and remember that they are there to serve the people.

“There are moments that I know that I have let my ego perhaps get ahead, and when I do, I catch myself,” he said. “I hope on the whole, and I believe on the whole, that my legislative record would show that I kept the interest of my constituents ahead.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com