House GOP coup against Rep. Priola fails

Frustration with caucus whip exposes rift as GOP talks unity 
The Colorado

Just two days before Republicans head into the State Assembly with a message of unity, conservative House Republicans on Thursday attempted a coup against Minority Caucus Whip Kevin Priola in an effort to oust him from leadership.

The effort — led by Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker — failed due to confusion over caucus rules. But an initial vote by the caucus during the 30-minute meeting indicated that a majority of House Republicans were willing to oust Priola as whip.

The dust-up became clear on Wednesday during debate on the House floor over the Student Success Act, which would add money to K-12, including reducing the negative factor by about $110 million.

Priola had declined to support a Republican amendment by Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida that would have addressed a website disclosing how school districts spend public money.

Instead, he supported a dueling amendment by Democrat Millie Hamner of Dillon that would also address transparency. Hamner’s amendment would ease some of the measure’s original mandates for school financial reporting. It passed Wednesday by a narrow vote.

Several Republicans suggested that Priola’s job as whip is to align support for Republican proposals. But Priola failed to do that by supporting Hamner’s amendment, according to several party members. They say Priola should have at the very least excused himself as whip and shown Wilson the courtesy of informing him that he wouldn’t be supporting his amendment.

Holbert, outraged by Priola’s actions, called a caucus meeting of House Republicans just as the House was adjourning on Thursday morning. He nominated Rep. Polly Lawrence of Centennial to serve as the new whip.

Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, appeared irritated by the caucus meeting, and made a motion for the meeting to adjourn. But 18 House Republicans compared to 10 voted down the motion to adjourn, indicating that a majority of Republicans were ready to see Priola ousted.

“The majority of people, at least 18 here today, felt that a whip should have at least let us know what’s going on,” Holbert said following the meeting.

But later in the meeting, Caucus Chairwoman Kathleen Conti of Littleton became concerned by the motion to replace Priola. She pointed out that a vacancy had never been declared and that Priola had been elected by the caucus to serve two years as whip.

She called a recess and leadership went into the hallway of the basement House committee rooms in the Capitol to discuss strategy. Some met off to the side in private rooms. All the while, Priola walked around speaking with colleagues.

When the meeting was called back to order, Conti and leadership decided that the motion to elect a new whip was out of order because there wasn’t a vacancy declared.

A new motion to adjourn was made and it passed widely, with the only “no” votes coming from conservative Reps. Holbert, Justin Everett of Littleton, Stephen Humphrey of Severance, and Janak Joshi of Colorado Springs.

Priola, however, indicated to colleagues during the meeting that he was still willing to consider resigning the leadership position.

“It’s unfortunate we’re here today,” he said. “I did what I thought was best for transparency yesterday concerning education reform. I apologize if I offended or upset any of you…

“I sat down with the minority leader today and had a conversation offering to resign if he would accept because I don’t want our caucus to be put in a bad spot or bad light, but he felt that it wasn’t appropriate at the time because he didn’t want to be in this position that we’re in now,” Priola continued. “I would at least like to have time to put some thoughts on paper.”

Rep. Frank McNulty of Highlands Ranch came to Priola’s defense, pointing out that the caucus had elected Priola for two years.

“If your analysis were to hold true, then there would be mass chaos and I don’t think that benefits any of us…” McNulty addressed Holbert. “We need to make sure that the precedent that we’re setting here is one that can hold through time and not lead to other challenges for this caucus down the road. This is not something that has happened in recent history.”

Holbert responded by pointing out that there was a scenario with Senate Republicans in 2010 when then-Minority Leader Josh Penry of Grand Junction was replaced by then-Sen. Mike Kopp of Littleton. Penry stepped down at the end of the legislative session to run the campaign for then-GOP U.S. Senate candidate Jane Norton.

McNulty used the opportunity to jab Holbert, pointing out that Holbert is running for the Senate to replace Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch.

“Rep. Holbert, I can understand your affinity for the Senate rules given the fact that you’re running for the Senate and that you won’t be here next year to deal with the situation that has been brought forward here…” quipped McNulty.

Following the meeting, Holbert defended the need for the caucus, acknowledging that he had originally sought the position of whip in 2012 when the caucus elected Priola.

“I put my name in the hat to run for caucus whip when we did our original elections but even at that point I withdrew understanding that my future was probably more running for the Senate seat that I’m running for,” explained Holbert.

He takes issue with the decision by leadership not to bring the motion to replace Priola up for a vote, pointing to the initial 18-10 vote by the caucus not to adjourn.

“I think the majority of our caucus is what defines our rules, that’s why we don’t have rules, it’s what the majority believes at the moment…

“I had certainly hoped that with the prevailing vote on the motion to adjourn that Rep. Priola would have just recognized that the majority of the caucus doesn’t support him…” added Holbert. “There’s frustration in our caucus and Rep. Priola has seen that. I wished that he had resigned, but that choice is his.”

Holbert is not worried about the message the attempted coup might send to the Republican Party as it heads into a State Assembly that will encourage party discipline and unity.

“There’s a lot of grassroots folks who are looking for leadership,” he said. “I hope that is what I demonstrated today, because I know that this is a conversation that people in my caucus wanted to have and I’m not afraid to stand up and do what I believe to be right, and I think this was the right thing to do.”

House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso of Loveland and Priola both declined to comment following the meeting.

Wilson, however, said he wasn’t overly worked up about the fact that Priola opposed his amendment. The larger concern to Wilson was whether Priola should have vocally supported the dueling Democratic amendment given his role as whip.

“I’m just as passionate about my amendment as he was on the other side, so as colleagues if he and I are arguing a point, we both have the right to do that. That’s not an issue,” surmised Wilson. “The real key there is what is the role of the whip and how does that fit into the process? I’m not sure anyone knows that.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com