Turmoil in Democrats’ own caucus

Keeping everyone corralled is hard with a majority of only one
The Colorado Statesman

As the gavel came down Wednesday and sine die was declared on the 2014 legislative session, Democrats continued to squirm over bad blood within their political family after several lawmakers on the left battled it out over controversial bills.

The contention was first highlighted in the Senate last month when Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, and Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, sponsored a measure that aimed to protect reproductive health care rights.

Kerr said he had the votes to pass the bill. But at least two Senate Democrats appeared concerned, including Sens. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada and John Kefalas of Fort Collins.

Rather than bring the bill up for a vote, Democratic leadership in the Senate decided to lay the bill over until after the session, thereby killing it.

The friction between Democrats spiraled from there, escalating at the end of last month with a measure that would have provided in-state tuition to Native American students. Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, voted against the Democratic-sponsored bill during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on April 29, bucking her own party.

It’s not unusual for Hodge, a member of the Joint Budget Committee, to vote against bills sponsored by her fellow Democrats. Hodge is a bit of a maverick widely known for her moderate legislating.

She raised concerns over cost, pointing to the bill’s $6 million estimated price tag. Hodge was the swing vote that killed the bill.

But then Hodge told Indian Country Today Media Network, “I don’t know how long we can make reparations [to Native Americans] or how far we’d have to go back. I guess my point is we can’t fix what we did.”

A week later, Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, remained furious over Hodge’s comment and her vote killing the bill. Salazar was the prime sponsor of the legislation, introducing it in the House.

“It disgusts me that she would make that comment,” said Salazar, who pointed out that Hodge has supported other in-state tuition bills in the past, including those for undocumented students and military families.

“How come she never said we’re giving reparations to kids whose parents moved to Colorado?” he asked. “How come she didn’t say we’re giving reparations to military family members? Her statements were a pretext for wanting to kill the bill.”

Salazar is not worried about a hangover from the incident on a statewide level. But he said the issue has raised eyebrows within Adams County Democrats. Hodge represents the district in which Salazar resides.

“There’s big fallout on this because she has not apologized for her comments, and she has not given any cogent reason whatsoever for voting ‘no’ against the bill, and that’s why I say this is political reprisal,” declared Salazar.

He believes the political motivation revolves around Senate Bill 93, which would have expanded right-of-way authority to pipeline companies. Hodge co-sponsored the bill, which died in the House. Salazar opposed the measure.

The vast majority of Adams County Democrats have contacted me saying, ‘What was that?’ And they’re very upset about that,” Salazar said of Hodge’s actions on the in-state tuition bill.

“How could we have anticipated that Sen. Hodge would have pulled something out of thin air?” he asked. “She’s my senator. She certainly didn’t call me up to let me know that she had problems. I don’t know what more could have been done to have prepared for this. It was out of the blue.”

For her part, Hodge said her vote should not have come as a surprise. She said she contacted Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, who co-sponsored the in-state tuition bill with Salazar.

“I told the Senate sponsor it’s going to happen,” explained Hodge. “Lois absolutely knew it was going to happen. So, it was no surprise to the Senate sponsor.

“I don’t think you can count my vote one way or the other most of the time,” she added. “I come from a mixed marriage. My mom was a staunch Democratic teacher, and my dad was a staunch Republican farmer. So, I have all sorts of weird ideas in my brain.”

Hodge declined to elaborate on the “reparations” comment, adding only, “I thought that this was over and done, and here we go.”

Tochtrop said she was not surprised by Hodge’s vote, acknowledging that she expected the bill to fail.

“She said, ‘I have crunched the numbers and crunched the numbers and crunched the numbers,’” explained Tochtrop. “She said, ‘We are in a bind about this. We don’t have money…’ She said, ‘I am going to have to PI your bill, I’m sorry.’

“This is the process,” continued Tochtrop. “And the process is that way. We all think we have good pieces of legislation. We all work very hard on them in one chamber and then they go to the other chamber and things happen.

“It’s not just that she went willy-nilly and decided to kill a bill, there was nothing behind it,” she added.

Tochtrop is outraged that Salazar has turned the debate into a conversation on race, suggesting that he has blown it out of proportion.

“The only reason it’s caused family fighting is because he created it, and I am absolutely 100 percent appalled and upset with Rep. Salazar for calling Sen. Hodge a racist when she’s not,” said Tochtrop. “She is one of the most thoughtful, levelheaded, considerate people that I have ever worked with in the Senate.

“To call somebody a racist because they have to do their due diligence around the budget is ludicrous,” added Tochtrop. “It’s wrong and he should have never done it.”

Front Range Oil and Gas Study

Hodge was also caught up in a bill that would have approved a study of the health and quality-of-life impacts of oil and gas production along Colorado’s Front Range. She and fellow JBC member Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, killed the measure in Appropriations, despite many Democrats pushing hard for passage of the bill.

Hodge again explained her vote as being about money and practicality.

“I feel very comfortable with the way we ended up having CDPHE [Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment] do a review of all current literature and all current studies, which will give us an unbiased opinion of where things stand,” she said.

Hodge added that members of her own party rarely pressure her on votes, pointing out, “I’ve been here for 14 years, and left field’s always been there, as has right field.”

Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, who co-sponsored the bill that would have approved the study, said that she is disappointed that the measure failed with Democrats voting against the bill. But she is not taking it personally.

“I knew that that was going to happen,” said Aguilar. “I amended the bill quite dramatically in the Senate health committee to make it as unbiased as I could. But at the end of the day, the industry felt that there was so much paranoia that they were concerned that any results that they got would not be legitimate.

“I knew that there were other people in my caucus who were going to be trouble on third-reading votes, and if I couldn’t convince Mary, I probably couldn’t get it out,” she added.

Photo red light

Over in the House, Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, faced his own trouble locking his caucus down on a measure that would have prohibited cities from using cameras to enforce red light laws and speed limits.

The bill, co-sponsored by Ferrandino, was amended to turn the measure into a study of whether the cameras are effective in stopping traffic violations, or used more as revenue generators.

The measure died in Appropriations, with seven Democrats voting against sending the measure to the floor for a vote. When the bill was in House State, Veterans and Military Affairs, a substitute motion sent it to Appropriations rather than directly to the floor. Three Democrats voted against sending the bill to Appropriations, which would have killed the bill then.

One of those Democrats was Rep. Angela Williams of Denver. Several Capitol insiders alleged that the office of Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who had concerns with the bill, had contacted Williams. But Williams said that was not the case.

“We had concerns… since there are really no statistics that prove that red lights improve safety, there’s a lot of concerns around that. There was concern about what was occurring in Denver County…” explained Williams. “When it was being lobbied, from Denver County what you heard was… we’re going to lose $7.8 million in revenue. It wasn’t about the safety factor.”

Hickenlooper laughed when asked whether he helped to kill the bill. “I wish that was true,” he joked.

“I think the speaker has done a remarkable job, and I think he has shown himself again and again to be a pragmatist who is willing to hear the other side of issues even when he’s got an investment,” said Hickenlooper.

“I am a supporter of more local control on this, I was concerned, as I think a lot of people were, that people were being given tickets in various municipalities for entering an intersection on a yellow light. That’s not against the law in Colorado.

“There were aspects of it that I was very, very sympathetic to, but to a certain extent, the local voters should be the ones who call foul,” the governor added.

Ferrandino acknowledged that he lost control of his caucus when it came to the photo red light issue. But he took it in stride.

“Here’s the thing,” explained Ferrandino. “Just because I’m speaker doesn’t mean I always get my way…

“I also think there are some people who are very gleeful to be able to kill the speaker’s bill, or gut it,” he continued. “I think they are having a little fun. But also in a place where they disagree with me on a policy issue.

“What’s my recourse?” the speaker added. “Not much. I’ll be gone in a year and there will be another speaker. Power wanes and influence wanes as the days of my hitting that gavel wanes as well.”

Drug-endangered child

Democrats also couldn’t unite around measures that would have clarified the definition of a drug-endangered child. Opponents had claimed that the measures would have criminalized parents who legally smoke marijuana.

Co-sponsor Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, tried to ease concerns. She amended the legislation to state that all remedies must be exhausted before law enforcement could step in. Marijuana was also specifically listed among legal substances.

Newell thought she had the support on second reading, and had even been offered assistance from Senate President Morgan Carroll of Aurora, who helped with amendments.

But other Democrats expressed concern, including Steadman and Sen. Jessie Ulibarri of Commerce City. Carroll also remained nervous about the bills. But Newell was confident that the amendments would be enough to pass the legislation.

“We absolutely had the votes,” she said.

In addition to a handful of Democrats, many Republicans opposed the bills because they felt like it would have resulted in an intrusion of government into family business.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, called for a roll call vote, despite Newell feeling assured that she had the votes. Newell said that as Cadman called for the roll call vote, he raised his finger and pointed to the Republican side of the aisle.

“He got all his people on lockdown and pointed to his people and looked at them and all of the Republicans flipped their votes,” Newell said of Republicans who were at first going to support the legislation.

After the roll call vote, the legislation died.

But then Newell went to Ulibarri, who had been on the fence. She said she was able to convince Ulibarri to support the legislation after explaining the amendments.

Having originally voted on the prevailing side, Ulibarri offered a motion to reconsider. Newell again counted votes and thought she had enough to pass the bill. But when it came to the vote, Aguilar flipped on the Democrat’s side, and the legislation was lost.

“This was really tough,” Newell said of working with her own caucus on the bill. “I truly believe that it’s because of the optics of it. It’s hard for people who are in real blue districts who probably voted 90 percent for Amendment 64, and so they were getting lots of pressure from their own constituents.”

Steadman offered his perspective for not supporting his fellow Democrat’s bill, explaining, “People were really torn. I was not a fan. We already have enough laws.

“People that read the bill said, ‘I don’t really see language that tightens things up and guides the exercise of discretion,’” Steadman continued. “Then you start having amendments flying back and forth… Any time a bill lays over and lays over and people start writing all kinds of amendments, that’s a problem.”

For her part, Carroll said it has been difficult this year keeping track of her caucus, especially facing an 18-17 majority.

“The hard thing about 18-17 is some of it is procedural…” explained the Senate president. “It gets really tricky… I’ve learned a lot.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com