Linda Newell’s ‘Last Bill’ documentary depicts what government looks like from the inside
Author: Ernest Luning - March 23, 2017 - Updated: March 29, 2017
There were lights, more than a few cameras and plenty of action at the premiere of former state Sen. Linda Newell’s documentary film Saturday afternoon at a Littleton theater located in the heart of her old Senate district. There was also a massive, forbidding doorway to Skull Island lit by flickering tiki lights, and lots of little girls scampering around the lobby dressed in versions of Belle’s iconic yellow princess dress. It was, after all, the movie biz.
Amid all the hoopla — Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” was opening to record crowds and “Kong: Skull Island” was drawing fans of the giant ape in its second weekend — several dozen civic-minded current and former lawmakers, along with friends, family and supporters of Newell and members of the local film community gathered for the red-carpet treatment and two showings of “The Last Bill, A Senator’s Story,” a documentary about the Colorado Legislature premiering at the Alamo Drafthouse Littleton in the Aspen Grove shopping center.
Newell, a Littleton Democrat who faced term limits last year after representing the south metro area for eight years, produced the documentary in collaboration with the Colorado Film School and Indie Denver Media Productions. As it traces the path of two bills in the 2016 legislative session — one signed by the governor and the other meeting a more complicated fate — the film takes a tour of the legislative process and offers a glimpse behind the scenes on the Senate floor, in committee hearings and at town halls filled with concerned constituents.
“It’s been a real powerful eight years for me to be able to help children and families and people with all kinds of issues, whether it’s mental health, whether it’s poverty, whether it’s equality — I’ve been able to have a voice in that,” Newell says at the beginning of the documentary, filmed lasts spring in and around the Capitol.
What’s important, she adds, “is remembering we’re all just people, and behind this badge is a person who wakes up in the morning and puts her pantyhose on like anybody else.”
That gets a big laugh from the audience, but Newell isn’t done setting the documentary’s witty tone.
“Quick story,” she says, inviting the audience to lean in a bit. “We just finished a parade, I’m standing in the line for the restroom, and two women I’m standing next to — one turns to me and looks at my badge and says, ‘State Senate? State Senate? We don’t have a state Senate, do we?’ And I said, ‘Well, yes we do, and it’s similar to the federal in that we have a House of Representatives, and we have a Senate, and we have bills that go back and forth.’ And then the woman next to her puts her hands on her hips and says, ‘Well, we don’t pay for that, do we?’ And, so, I said, ’Well, poorly, but yes.’”
Before the documentary launches into the stories of the two bills it follows, there’s some scene-setting as Newell and the other prominently featured lawmaker, state Sen. Kevin Lundberg, a Berthoud Republican, address their Senate colleagues before taking a vote on another bill.
“I have received only opposition emails and calls on this bill, and I have not received one in support of it,” Newell says at the microphone in Senate chambers. “Why aren’t we doing it the Colorado way? Why aren’t we doing it the collaborative way? I would like to hear if there was some kind of stakeholder process, because maybe something can be worked out to accommodate these concerns.”
A quick cut later, there’s Lundberg at the same microphone, countering Newell.
“I come down in support of this measure, and, actually, in response to some of the questions that have been asked here, and statements made — I believe in the proper stakeholder process as well. It was established in 1876 when the people of Colorado put together what we call the General Assembly.”
After the film’s first showing on Saturday afternoon, Lundberg joined Newell and other members of the documentary’s production team — director Aaron Koehler and editor Matt Baxter, both of Indie Denver — in front of the screen to discuss it with the audience.
“I tell some people I’m the bad guy in the movie, but, in fact, I think we did work to make some good legislation,” Lundberg said, and he’s right — it’s complicated. At various points in the story, he throws curve balls and at one point outright thwarts Newell, but in the end, they’ve produced laws and, it appears, made the state a better place.
The dynamic established, the camera trails Newell as she steers her bills, occasionally stopping for interviews with Lundberg and Newell’s daughters, Kate and Brittany Newell — Brittany is also the documentary’s associate producer.
First, there’s Senate Bill 147, to create a suicide prevention plan, sponsored by state Sen. Beth Martinez-Humenik, R-Thornton, and state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood. It started, Newell says, with her work on Colorado’s Suicide Prevention Commission and suggestions to establish something called the Zero Suicide Model within the state’s health care field. It’s a big issue, Newell says, since Colorado has the seventh-highest suicide rate in the country, and it can be difficult to educate health care professionals on the subject.
But then, in committee, Lundberg basically rewrites the bill — “a strike-below,” Newell explains — to expand it from involving health care systems to a broader, comprehensive plan to reduce suicides in Colorado.
“And, so, some give-and-take, and, you know, some rejiggering with how the words work,” Lundberg says, “and we finally came up with some legislation that we were both happy with, and we brought it to the Senate as a whole, and it was accepted, and I believe that this will move forward. To me, that’s an example of bipartisan effort. Nobody set their principles aside, but we did put some particulars on the back burner in order to find that common ground.”
During a discussion about Colorado’s fiercely partisan politics and the opportunity for bipartisan cooperation, Newell points to Senate Bill 147 as an example that transcends the usual divides.
“Sen. Lundberg and I are very different in many, many ways,” she says. “We also come together many times on policy and have done bills together. So this bill, you could say we’re doing together but only because he jumped in and wants to have a bigger role in it.”
As the documentary nears its conclusion, Gov. John Hickenlooper signs the legislation — the film’s titular “Last Bill” — into law, and Newell has a few things to say about suicide.
“We need to do something about it. I’m so grateful to be part of this, and I’m grateful to be part of the solution that we can bring forward in Colorado,” she says. “When a fatal car accident happens, it’s all over the news, we are hearing about it on social media. But when a suicide occurs — at twice the rate — there’s silence. In fact, it’s often kept a secret. How can we possibly prevent suicides if we can’t even say the word?”
The second bill follows a more circuitous path that also hinges on Lundberg’s intervention.
After passing unanimously out of the House, House Bill 1308, legislation to make it a crime to represent a pet as a service animal, sponsored by then-state Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, meets its end in the Senate Judiciary Committee after Lundberg is shown asking some pointed questions about basic definitions in the legislation.
“There is a definite art to navigating through a committee,” Newell says, noting that as a Democrat trying to get legislation through the Republican-controlled Senate, it can be even trickier than usual.
“You have to have all of the details set in place to make sure you get the bill through the process,” Lundberg observes. “A skilled legislator knows how to put those pieces in place so, in the end, your principles are reflected in your policies.”
And then the Judiciary Committee votes to kill Newell’s bill. The documentary doesn’t explore the reasons behind this move, which could have had something to do with Kagan being the bill’s House sponsor. At the time, he was running against Arapahoe County Commissioner Nancy Doty for Newell’s seat, and it might have been that Senate Republicans didn’t want to hand him a win on a high-profile bill.
“It’s crazy hard,” Newell says after the committee sinks the bill. “It really hurts not only because some of the bills you work on, sometimes years to get through, so it bruises your ego, without a doubt. But it’s also emotionally hard when you know the people who aren’t going to be helped because that bill didn’t go through. For me, you go home that night, cry your eyes out, then, the next morning, you get back up, you get in that chamber, and you make other things happen.”
Lundberg is blunt in his assessment of the role political parties play in the General Assembly.
“In political systems where you’ve got to have 50-percent-plus-one more vote for anything to prevail, you have to find your friends,” he says. “And, so, the idea of two parties with different opinions is quite natural and appropriate for the system. But then you do run against the partisanship, and in Colorado, it’s particularly acrimonious.”
Nevertheless, as the documentary notes, the service-animal legislation found new life later in the session, incorporated into another bill sponsored by Republicans and a couple of Democrats who weren’t running in swing seats — state Sens. Jack Tate, R-Centennial, and Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, and state Rep. Yeulin Willett, R-Grand Junction, and then-state Rep. Dianne Primavera, D-Broomfield. Hickenlooper also signed that bill into law, title cards note.
As the lights in the theater came up, Newell, along with Koehler, the documentary’s director, and Baxter, its editor, appeared in front of the screen, and she thanked the audience for their interest in civic engagement.
“We have not had a more active time than, actually, in the last few months of people really wanting to know, on both sides of the aisle, all sides of the issues, they just want to know what does government look like from the inside,” she said. The production team was hoping public television stations would show “The Last Bill” — its running time was tailored to fit PBS’s half-hour slots — and planning to refashion it for schools, possibly adding curriculum guides. They also want to take their cameras inside other corners of government and make more documentaries, Newell said.
As the audience with tickets for the second showing started to arrive, Newell stopped for a moment, took a deep breath and reflected on seeing her production in a crowded theater for the first time.
“It was very cool to hear people laugh when we thought they might,” she said with an enormous smile. “That’s so heartening to see when you work so hard on the inside, you don’t have a clue if people on the outside are going to receive it well. Both from a public-service side and from a filmmaking side, it was very cool to see it all blended together very nicely.”
Newell gestured toward Lundberg, who was talking to audience members a few feet away in the lobby.
“Sen. Lundberg is so articulate, that’s one of the reasons I asked him to take part, so I’m very grateful for that,” she said and then broke into a mischievous grin. “Even though he claims to be the bad guy in the film, he’s really a good guy at heart.”