InnerView: Amy Stephens

Author: Jody Hope Strogoff and Ernest Luning - March 23, 2012 - Updated: March 23, 2012

Stephens, Looper engaged in brutal battle

A Statesman InnerView with the GOP candidates in Colorado Springs’ contentious HD 19 primary

When Democrats drew legislative reapportionment maps that threw a number of incumbent Republican lawmakers into the same districts late last year, the House District 19 primary between Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, and state Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, might have been the kind of no-holds-barred, intraparty smackdown they were envisioning. With the primary election still three months off, Looper and Stephens have been hurling charges and counter-charges at each other in a bid to represent the eminently conservative district, which covers northern and eastern El Paso County.

House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, stands in front of a large wall filled with historic campaign buttons at The Colorado Statesman offices last week.

Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

While 27 legislative incumbents found themselves sharing a district with another incumbent — or two other incumbents in the case of a central Jefferson County House district — under the new boundaries adopted for the 2012 election, only Stephens and Looper are taking the rivalry to the voters. (Others are term-limited, chose to step aside or are running for higher office, leaving just one of the paired incumbents standing in the remaining districts.)

While the differences between the two candidates turn on questions they’ve raised about leadership, consistency and core political philosophies, the issue at the heart of the contest remains last year’s Senate Bill 200, a bipartisan, Stephens-sponsored bill that established a state health insurance exchange.

Stephens argues the legislation allows Colorado to set up its own rules, avoiding mandates it can’t control when federal health care reform takes hold in coming years. But Looper counters that the bill merely establishes a local version of “Obamacare,” dubbing the legislation “Amycare.” For her part, Stephens embraces the nickname and points to support from businesses and plenty of Republicans glad that Colorado got out in front of the question, though Looper isn’t ceding any ground and continues to point to SB 200 as a prime example of what she terms Stephens’ “liberal, left-leaning leadership.”

During a pair of wide-ranging discussions with The Colorado Statesman, Looper and Stephens talked about the legislative session, their political philosophies, and the primary campaign as this weekend’s House District 19 assembly and an anticipated June 26 primary election approach. Both are serving their third terms in office.

At the end of last week, Stephens and Looper joined Colorado Statesman editor and publisher Jody Hope Strogoff and political reporter Ernest Luning for separate, hour-long interviews in The Statesman offices. Stephens sat for an interview on the afternoon of March 15 and Looper joined The Statesman for a conversation on March 16. Stephens was accompanied by her campaign manager, Dustin Olson, who joined the conversation briefly near the end.

House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, points to a vintage Goldwater for President button among a large collection of political memorabilia on display at The Colorado Statesman offices on March 15 in Denver.

Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

The Statesman regularly conducts in-depth interviews with prominent political figures, including talks with Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont; House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch; Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs; and House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, as this year’s legislative session got under way. Find transcripts of The Statesman’s interviews with legislative leadership — along with dozens of other conversations with Colorado politicos — archived online at www.coloradostatesman.com/innerview.

Below are transcripts of The Statesman’s conversations with Looper and Stephens. They have been edited for length and clarity.

— Jody@coloradostatesman.com; Ernest@coloradostatesman.com

Colorado Statesman (CS:) How are things going?

Amy Stephens (AS:) They’re going well. Yeah, today — you know, crazy times. Tomorrow we have floor work and today we just did Senate amendments, so… And then we did thirds [third and final readings of bills]. And we’re moving on the calendar — there’s not much to the calendar, really. I mean, we’re moving that thing out and, again, budget comes in a week, Monday are the numbers. [Ed note: On Monday, the Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting projected that state general-fund revenue would be $164.5 million higher in the next fiscal year than was forecast in December, potentially easing some of the tension over this year’s budget cuts.]

We’ll have a lot of stuff done by Monday prepared for budget time so we have the time that everyone needs to just really go through. You know, (Joint Budget Committee Chairwoman and state Rep.) Cheri (Gerou, R-Evergreen), and those guys are plodding along. And they’re actually getting a lot more 6-0 votes, really coming to consensus, so that’s a good thing. [Ed. note: The JBC’s six members prepare the budget item-by-item before sending it to the full Legislature.]

CS: Do you think it’ll be as easy as it was last time? What was it, 80 votes? [Ed. note: In 2011, the Legislature approved the budget by large, bipartisan margins.]

AS: Well, I think we have to see how their negotiations start out after we get the forecast on Monday, and where people kind of put their priorities, and then we’ll have to, as usual, always negotiate it.

CS: Yeah?

AS: But, you know, I think we reached it last year, and I see a lot more 6-0 votes, which tells me, OK, there’s some building more of consensus, which I think is very important.

CS: Is it a little easier this year? The pressure’s slightly off from where it was last year, with better revenue forecasts.

AS: A little bit. I think the question is again going to be, philosophically, you know? We’re going to have to decide — Republicans are going to — the Senior Homestead issue is a budget issue and it’s a Constitution issue. [Ed. note: Republican legislators have said they’ll oppose budget proposals by the governor’s office to suspend the Homestead Exemption, a provision that uses state funds to pay for a $100 million property-tax break for older residents who have owned their homes for at least a decade. It’s a budget-balancing measure that has been invoked by both parties in recent years.]

We have really settled that issue; it’s not a matter of, ‘Oh gee, might we like to…’ We’ve said to the voters, this is it. And so it’s not, ‘Oh gee, do you think we should, I don’t know, maybe not go to bat?’ You know, we just are answering — we have to fulfill this obligation and we’re not going to balance that, we’re not going to sidestep that this year. So we’ll have some differences of opinion.

CS: Do you really think you’ll get that through?

AS: Yeah, I actually think we’ll —

CS: — and that the governor will — ?

AS: The governor, well … (laughs) You know what, I think it’s going to be about trade-offs, as always that a budget is. You know, last year it was about that too. Last year we put the software tax on the table along with the Ag tax, right, and said, “Look governor we have to grow business, we have got to do this.” In fact, it’s so interesting, the Tech Association’s annual huge conference is tonight, and this is where we heard so many stories from the industry. It really is quite motivating. So, I would say that you’re going to look at Senior Homestead, we continue to have the 4-percent reserve, and I have to tell you, I think this was the right decision. [Ed. note: Last year, at Hickenlooper’s urging, the Legislature built up the state’s reserve funds above recent levels that had dipped during the recession.]

The governor was very strong about it — he said, “There’s no way on a 1.25 percent reserve you could do —” I think everyone agreed, the Speaker (House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch) and I agreed this is wise, you have to build that up, 4 percent is where we’re at right now, I think that’s fair. We are not State Education Fund, we need to have in that and that’s not — I think we have to see about that and be serious, I think, on some level, about the State Ed Fund. We can’t see it as shopping tool, ‘Oh gee we might have some money, why don’t we see what we…’ Again, if we care about education, we really do need to. So those are some of the things.

You talk about, OK, so here are some of the gives-and-takes, right? What are we going to do with that? And I have every confidence Cheri (Gerou) and the team are working on that. They really have been doing, I have to say, a really good job. A lot of 6-0 votes, a lot. You know, the prison issue, going to be huge, right? We’re going to – CSP II (Colorado State Penitentiary II), we’re going to do that. [Ed. note: This week, the Department of Corrections announced plans to shutter a wing of the Centennial Correctional Facility in Canon City dubbed CSP II, citing projected savings that top $13 million after one year.]

CS: Do you expect some good news tomorrow from the —?

AS: I’m waiting ‘til Monday, meaning on Monday as we
have —

CS: Tomorrow Gov. Hickenlooper and (Attorney General John) Suthers are talking about the settlement? [Ed. note: On Saturday, Hickenlooper and Suthers unveiled plans to spend Colorado’s $51 million share of a multistate settlement with mortgage lenders, including spending some $5 million to establish veterans’ housing at the former Fort Lyon Correctional Facility in Bent County.]

AS: They are.

CS: There’s some speculation some of that might go towards Fort Lyon?

AS: Yeah I know, but you know what? I already am expecting decent — I’m just saying, any time you and I always hear decent, even — I think, and I think Cheri and friends are probably right — I don’t think we should expect some on-budget forecast Monday. I think you’re going to see it flat, I think you’re going to see us just inching along.

OK, so I have to remind you of this, that (leading regional economist) Tucker Hart Adams, in my first year in ’07, we went to lunch when all the new legislators — as part of our new legislator lunch, right? And (former House Majority Leader) Alice (Madden, D-Boulder) gave the intro, and then, I’d never heard Tucker Hart Adams, I had not heard her. I was so blown away, and all of it, upset, because it was doom-and-gloom. Tucker Hart called it, and I’m telling you, per year, she called it right. And I remember going under the table after calling my husband going, “Are we OK? Do we have our investments?” (laughs) Because she was right on. But Tucker Hart actually said that we would start to inch at the end of 2011 and said it’s going to be up to this economy what we’re going to do. And I think we’ve seen, actually, that happen, but I say that we have to continue to be prudent. We must be prudent about this — really, we do.

CS: May I ask what the tenor is like over there? It’s been kind of an interesting session…

AS: Yeah.

CS: We’ve had some kind of outside issues, such as (state Rep.) Laura Bradford (R-Colbran) [Ed. note: Bradford briefly threw the Legislature into a turmoil last month when she threatened to switch parties after McNulty established an ethic panel to examine a traffic stop near the Capitol when Denver police called Bradford a cab rather than detain her on suspicion of drunk driving, citing an obscure constitutional provision.] And the fact that you guys [Stephens and state Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan] have a primary is often mentioned. What’s your sense of the mood over there and the temperament of the caucus? Has it been a lot different this year?

AS: This year it’s different because you have freshmen who have a year under their belt and so they’re actually taking a breath and getting more feet on the ground and that’s both for the Ds and for the Rs. So it does mean that, I think, that people are a little more relaxed in their job, particularly as we talk about issues and voting. So I sense a more relaxed feeling, and I don’t think, I don’t sense a — We don’t feel, I don’t feel on my side contention, I don’t — even really on (House Minority Leader Mark) Ferrandino (D-Denver), and I talk with him a lot, I don’t sense a kind of contention. I sense people are focused on their bills and just kind of working those along.

So we continue to have some good humor. It’s probably been a more — I’m not going to call it muted, but a more prudent, maybe, session is the way — just because we’re really trying to clear through that calendar. We know we start the budget (in the House), and so we really spoke with Mark and their side about really moving our things through so that we all have time on budget negotiations. So I think we’ve been focused on moving these things along. Sure there’s disagreements on bills or — you know, those are still to come, right? We still have those, but that’s not different than any other year we’ve been here. I would just say, just more muted, it just feels a little — not as —

CS: Intense?

AS: Yeah, or just wild, or whatever. I just see it just very more muted.

CS: Is it a lot different working with Mark Ferrandino than it was (former Minority Leader) Sal Pace (D-Pueblo)? [Ed. note: Pace stepped down from the leadership position at the end of last year to devote more time to his congressional bid in Colorado’s 3rd CD.]

AS: No, actually. Both, for me, were very — were easy to work with. I think that Mark is different in that his budget background lends him, in a way — I think he has, not buyer’s remorse, but you know what, I mean, he misses the JBC.

CS: That’s kind of his expertise and his forte.

AS: It is, it is, as opposed to maybe this particular — But so he likes his fingers in a lot of… You know he’s always looking at fiscal things. So that’s a difference, that’s a big difference. Mark really loves those things.

CS: Likewise, how would you say it is this year working with Speaker McNulty?

AS: Mmm. (smiles) Well, Frank and I go back a ways, so we have a long history of friendship together. And I think he has tried to be sensitive too, of kind of the reality of our situation in terms of, yes that I’m thrown in a primary, obviously, and, yes, that we have a lot of our freshman members who also need my time, and a lot of my committee chairmen that I meet with regularly. So, I think, we’ve been fine and single-minded — We never — we get along that way, united in purpose, so to me, as long as things are running more smoothly and that he actually — we feel the same way: We have got to move this calendar so that everyone understands when budget comes around, all of our freshmen once again are informed, that they know what’s going on.

So we’re very united in purpose on that. He’s not as much how you get there, in terms of, are the trains on time, right? However the trains get there? I think the speaker feels good, do your job, and I also rely a lot on our team — BJ and Carol and Mark and Kevin (Majority Whip B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland; Majority Caucus Chair Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock; Assistant Majority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs; and Speaker Pro Tempore Kevin Priola, R-Brighton) all have played bigger roles this year, because all are in their job with a year under their belt. And so everyone is quicker, and so, I think, Mark has been a tremendous help to me, BJ counting votes. You know, really, people are off doing their jobs and it’s — I think much smoother to me this year and it’s much more helpful. Really makes life better.

CS: Do you feel that sometimes the speaker or the Republican caucus gets labeled as — I mean, the assessments by some in the media that the leadership isn’t this or it isn’t that, do you feel a little bit that the speaker is taking the brunt of some criticism that isn’t really fair?

AS: Well, I feel protective of the speaker because I know his motives and I know his heart and I know his commitment to this job. I’ve always found it rather interesting that we’ve had (former House Speaker) Andrew (Romanoff, D-Denver) and Alice (Madden) as speaker and majority leader and we had (former House Speaker) Terrance (Carroll, D-Denver) and (former Majority Leader) Paul (Weissmann, D-Boulder) — and no one ever — I never received that kind of question like you’ve just asked me. In other words, we never asked it of them, and I’d love to know why. And I would suggest it’s because, I think, it’s always, in a governance situation, sometimes easier to try to criticize Republicans.

We never heard criticism of Andrew of Alice, you never read anything like that. You never read any criticism of Speaker Carroll. And I find it really outrageous of the press to almost, in my mind, in some cases, be overly or unfairly critical. And I’d like to say, show me two other people who brought a majority for Republicans to Colorado, and at the heart of it you will see Frank McNulty.

And lest anyone doubt Frank’s agility or ability and his smarts and his ability to get things done, he can run circles — he’s smart, he’s capable, he just is. And I actually think in some cases he has been unfairly — you know, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t some days and I actually will say to you I never saw The Post do this to Andrew or to Alice or to Speaker Carroll or to Paul Weissmann, and I’d love to ask why. And I think, inherently, you will find a bias. [Ed. note: The Denver Post Editorial Board criticized McNulty in recent editorials.]

CS: Well, you’re not the first to say that.

AS: (Laughs) Well, I will be the first and last to say it, because, seriously, I think it’s outrageous, and I think that when you can’t think of anything else, people resort to the petty. And I find it petty. And I’m just saying, for the speaker, he has better things and a lot of things to do. But I think, sometimes I watch and some of that seems a bit juvenile to me.

CS: You know, you now have a year under your belt too as House majority leader. What have you learned from last year to this year?

AS: Well you guys did a really kind, I would say, more historic interview with me in my first (year), and I actually thought you captured the essence of the history of majority leader. And I feel a great sense of history about that because, as you know, when I prepared for the job or got the job, I didn’t just rely on my — I relied on both Ds and Rs to learn from. I called Alice and I talked to Paul, I called Norma Anderson, I called Scott McInnis, I talked to Tim Foster, I talked to all majority leaders prior to me. And I actually feel a greater sense, to me, of being dedicated to our members to make sure that — again, I’m big on mentoring, as is the speaker — and I think to the degree that you can be there for people, you know?

In other words you’re there to listen, you’re there to help them if they need it, you’re there to also just pat them on the back and encourage them. In my mind, I think that, to me, has become so important: To lead your caucus in a manner that speaks to the broader Republican issue across the state. So, in other words, the principles, right? Ferrandino’s the voice on his side, I’m the voice on our side, right? So that we speak to those issues. And I feel a greater sense of responsibility for that and also, at the same time, even a greater sense of responsibility to and for our caucus. And you know, remember, the speaker’s over both (sides of the chamber), speaker’s over all, a voice from my side means a voice on his side. And I just feel a greater responsibility for that.

CS: Does it make a difference in the primary that you’re the majority leader?

AS: Well I guess we’ll see on the 24th (laughs). [Ed. note: The Republican House District 19 Assembly takes place on March 24 at Liberty High School in Colorado Springs. Both Stephens and Looper are vying to get the support of at least 30 percent of the delegates to that assembly, which would move them onto the June 26 primary ballot.]

CS: Is that an argument that you’re making?

AS: I think, really, the issue of leadership to me, is a really strong question because it’s really, Jody, in a way what you brought up. In other words, are some things unfair or whatever? Listen, I’ve had to make a lot of tough decisions with the speaker. And I think in this new district — I have 75 percent of this new district, Marsha has 19.8 percent of this district. Marsha’s never been in a leadership position, not considered a leader by — you know, the peers didn’t elect her to that, she’s a vice chair of a committee… I’ve got freshmen who are vice chairs of committee. I mean, there’s quite a bit of difference.

I think that in this district, comprised of so many leaders, retired military, former JAGs, Special Ops, Marines, you know, entrepreneurs, heads of companies — this is a very unique district in that they don’t take things at face value. These are people that, when you meet them, they don’t just take the card that you hand out, they go online and look it up and they go online and look and see if what you told them —

CS: They’re engaged?

AS: Oh my goodness, they’re engaged. They fact-check you, and here’s the other thing, not only do they fact-check you but then they don’t like it they will speak, they will e-mail you. And, I mean, you remember, this district is the highest voter turnout in the state. These are people who are not passively just waiting for you to come up with something then they go, “Wow, hmm.” And our experience has been so tremendous, Jody, about this. I had a woman who was (an Air Force Academy political science) teacher, retired. Darling woman, came to a coffee. She asked a lot of questions. I mean, she didn’t want to dominate the group but she was Miss “I’d like to know about — I would like to know about — I’d like to —” Well OK, well, fine, talk.
And at the end of the coffee she told our team, “I’m with you. Not only did you answer every question,” but apparently she’d gotten some mail — Marsha’s done a lot of mail, she’s gotten a lot of mailers. She fact-checked. And she went, “This is the biggest ruse —” She was a poli sci teacher (at the Air Force Academy), but she really didn’t take kindly to wrong bill numbers, wrong years, but then just a mischaracterization. And so, to us, that was rather interesting, but she’s one of a number that really in that district, they don’t take it at face value. They really do research and look and they want to know, are you straight?

They also value leadership. And, really, in their minds as someone who brought us a Republican majority, keeping someone who will work with their caucus, with their party moving us forward, they really care about that, they really do. Now we’ll see, this is the man here. (Stephens gestures to her campaign manager, Dustin Olson.) I mean, we will see with the — you know, the perfect storms, right? Campaigns are all — you’ve outlined this all here, they’re all perfect storms. We’ll see how that lines up. But what we believe is that the support for us has been so tremendous, I just think that, we’ll just see.

CS: Part of your job that you touched on there is helping maintain a Republican majority in the House.

AS: Yes.

CS: What are your thoughts on that? It’s a completely different map in a number of respects this year. A lot of seats up for grabs that weren’t in previous years.

AS: Yes it is, I know.

CS: And a one-point majority?

AS: And a one vote majority.

CS: And a presidential year, where the turnout’s going to be a lot different than it was in 2010.

AS: It will, it will. Now, I think you and I know, that in our caucuses were filled to overflowing again. We weren’t sure, we really didn’t know — But I tell you, I mean we were at Falcon High School, seriously, room full of people out the door, everyone angry, “I came here…” You know, it was just amazing. In my mind, that’s going to be very big. Again, you’re talking the ticket and how I think in my party people realize we’re getting behind, you know, the guy that’s on the top of the ticket. We’re not going to take our toys and just — So, I think people are dedicated this way.

Secondly, new maps. The speaker and I think we have — we’ve got a number of good seats. I think that we will have some fights ahead because some were reduced, right, to slight margins, but then we got better in other districts — (state Rep. Daniel) Kagan’s (D-Cherry Hills Village) district, right? So that’s going to be important. But I will tell you, we’ve worked hard. I know The Post did this story of course, on all the Dem money, and I don’t think in any case you can ever outspend that. I mean unions and (the Colorado Education Association). Frank and I knew this in 2010 going into it. But there’s other things, like really good candidates, right? Good candidates and people who get out and ground game. But — knocking on the doors, I mean, who’s going to do the work? That, to us, is really key, and I think again you will see that key in this election.

CS: Do you see some prime pickup opportunities in some of the seats?

AS: Well of course. You know, we do have the extra seat in Douglas (County), right, so just start with one there, right? I do see that the Kagan seat, in terms of that one, changed significantly. But then again so did (state Rep. Don) Beezley and (state Rep.) Bobbie Ramirez’ seat (Republicans from Broomfield and Westminster, respectively). So you know, you have to see where it’s all going to shake out, right?

And I think that with the new maps there are pickup opportunities as long as people — as long as your current seats stay well and stay strong. And I don’t mean that for El Paso, I do mean — El Paso you’ll have Jennifer George in against (state Rep.) Pete Lee (D-Colorado Springs). Now, that district changed. Jennifer George is well known down there and an attorney and sharp as a whip. That could be — But, again, I think the candidates themselves and, again, the perfect storm with the presidential and who turns out, there’s a lot of factors at play. We feel good, we feel good. We’re focused.

CS: So you’ve probably got a map somewhere that’s color-coded. (Stephens laughs.) Are you willing to make a prediction and we’ll check back in November and see how you did?

AS: (Laughing) I think I’ll wait, I think I’ll wait. Let’s wait ‘til session’s over, you know? But I think that we feel good. I will tell you, the speaker and I don’t take anything for granted, so we believe that hard work and the work on the candidates is really critical, and I think that’s critical.

CS: You’ll be losing some members because of reapportionment?

AS: Yes.

CS: Some folks have stepped aside rather than going to a primary.

AS: Yes.

CS: A question that comes up: why is there a primary in (House District) 19 when all the others manage to avoid one?

AS: You’ll probably have to ask Marsha that. You know, it’s terribly unfortunate. I’ll go back to the leadership issue — when you have 19.8 percent of the district, you might want to think about that and might want to think about what that entails. I think our other members are far more open to try to speak together. We attempted — I think there was no — you know, we’d asked, I think, for her to be considerate of the Supreme Court and what they might look at on maps, and then all of a sudden she’s out in the paper the next day putting her stake in the sand.

CS: Were you surprised?

AS: I was disappointed, I was very disappointed. It’s just, you know, again, I think it’s a difference in leadership. People ask you come to the table and let’s talk, versus stick a — “I’m just, off I go.” And you know, when someone’s like that I really don’t think there’s, there’s really not much one can do. I think if you look from the outside in, you kind of ask, “Why?” Because when you have a team that has actually brought your majority together and actually moving in the leadership manner…

But you know, you’d have to ask. Really, to be quite honest, I don’t spend my nights thinking about that in terms of — I’m focused on bringing us a majority. I’ve brought us a majority and that’s where my goals are, and really sticking with us moving Colorado forward.

CS: One real quick follow-up. Before you were in a primary — this is a question that’s kind of nagged at me — did you know that you and Marsha had so many things to disagree about?

AS: Well you know, I didn’t.

CS: There seems to be quite a bit now that’s at issue between the two candidates. Until there was a primary and had you thought of each other as particularly on opposite sides of a lot of issues?

AS: I think if you do the research you’d see that, again, I think most people don’t know, 60 percent of what goes on at the Capitol people just vote through, right, and it’s the 20 percent that becomes contentious or all you hear about. So I guess if you were to do a look at votes you might see per-year, per-year differences. Maybe not hugely — my own district can tell you (laughs), because they check. Well, you’ll see some striking differences on certain bills of opinion and then pretty much you’ll see a lot that perhaps isn’t. I don’t challenge Marsha’s conservatism. I’m surprised at her new conservatism, so to speak — these are all new things I’m rather — who knew, who knew some of these? I’m amazed because, given my background at Focus (on the Family), of having —

CS: Right. The way that you are portrayed in some arenas is that you’re a moderate — ?

AS: Yeah.

CS: Or a RINO (Republican-in-Name-Only), which is — I don’t think we’d have heard that before last year.

AS: I mean, no one’s buying that. No one’s buying it. I mean, it’s not passing the smell test and people — and it’s almost become laughable, right? And these are the people that I guess there are some who you’ll never — you’re never pure enough, never whatever. I think a lot of it’s just hyperbole to throw out, to see if it sticks.

CS: You don’t think it is sticking or hurting you?

AS: No. You know, here’s at thing: it’s so funny because I’ve run in so many conservative circles, even through Focus for so many years and Marsha Looper’s never been a part of any — if I’m going to know people in circles, believe me, I see them, right? She’s just been nonexistent so I’m just amazed that suddenly she was out in front of Planned Parenthood she says, years ago? Boy, this is amazing — these are all new revelations to me and new revelations to all the conservatives that we — because it’s a small town in the sense of you know really who’s in the game and who isn’t. So I’m rather amused by it all.

CS: Are you surprised that she’s allowed her campaign to do some of those things and make some of those charges, take it in that direction?

AS: I think when you will say or do anything to get elected — I mean, remember, you know, elected is at the end of the day, do you win — I think anything’s possible. And if they feel that this is the tack they must take as a campaign, “Wow, OK (sighs). Wow.” I don’t think — people that know me — this is why I think when you read some of these things, people in the largest part of that 75 percent or whatever that know me, and they’ll go — (makes dismissive noise) (laughs), you know? It’s a shocker, right, because seriously it’s so off the rails that people are having — they don’t believe it, they’re not buying — it’s not passing.

I find that, particularly in regards, as you’ve said, to (Senate Bill 11-200) and some of the other issues, that when they hear really the protections and what is going on, they, “OK, thank you, settled. OK, we get it,” right? And remember that last year there was not that opportunity in the middle of session, right? I mean in terms of an education campaign, right? You couldn’t be out every night going, “Here’s the…” And again depending on how the media treated all of that, again, there wouldn’t be enough days, right? But again, when you’re with delegates it’s far more one-on-one, it’s a different thing.

I think we have been successful at the end of the day with many voters to say, “Look, here is the issue,” and I think as time goes on today’s story — Mississippi creating an exchange, protect the state, built-in things through — [Ed. note: Last week, Mississippi moved ahead with the creation of its own health insurance exchange, similar to the one adopted by Colorado last year, even as the state continues to fight implementation of federal health care reform.] I think that as we see the Obamacare mandate, you know, slips and surprises about that, more people go, “Well thank God for Senate Bill 200,” because we did put our own Colorado protections in place. And I thought it was amusing that Mississippi said, “We’re going to do Mississippi Solutions and Mississippi Answers because we know healthcare better than the federal government” (laughs). That’s what we said, obviously, that’s what we said, and I’m very sure (Mississippi Gov.) Haley Barbour probably looked and went, “OK, I’m going to be looking at what Colorado did and then I’d better get going.” Because, you know, Barbour believed the same as, I think, many of us, is we’d better do something for us specific for Colorado.

CS: Right. I saw your op-ed was in The (Denver) Post a couple of weeks ago.

AS: Yeah.

CS: Were you trying to backtrack any part on that?

AS: No.

CS: Because you were very critical —

AS: Well I’m highly critical of Obamacare and stand with Suthers to defeat it. I mean, I wrote, I did a bill last year to opt us out of Obamacare so we could do some block grants to be able to handle that. And remain an even worse critic of it now that rules and regs and other things seem to be coming out and you say, this thing’s just going to blow up. We need reforms that don’t take 1,200 pages on one reg and then 2,000 (pages) for the bill. I think even to talk to our health carriers and businesses, it’s just become so convoluted. We will see — I know Suthers is fighting hard on that and I support him every step of the way.

CS: OK. You were talking about the difficulty last year with educating voters about SB 200. Do you wish you’d done it differently and gotten out there, so that it wasn’t so easy to caricature and didn’t turn into such a tempest in El Paso County? [Ed. note: Strife over the Stephens-sponsored bill led to a rift in the El Paso County GOP, including the very public resignation of a party officer last fall.]

AS: I think if you’re going to lead and you’re elected to be the leader, then you’re going to take some hits and you are going to — nothing is going to be easy. If you are the general, so to speak — maybe Frank’s the general, I don’t know (laughs), we’ll let him think he’s the general. Anyway, if you are, though, you’re called — you know, I could have used my position to pressure, right? I never once did, ever, because to me this was an issue of vote your district and vote your conscience, right, for members.

I understood the pressures people were under. I also understood at the end of the day the way this was written was in a manner that would so protect Colorado. And at the end of the day, instead of having the small business market and individuals thrown into some federal exchange that they have no control over, if that was to be their option, right, to me was unconscionable. And I think even when we had votes as far back as ’08, when we were looking at the Centennial Health choices that would have been universal healthcare, remember, which my opponent voted for — which would have been a mandate —

CS: Marsha’s Mandate? [Ed. note: The day of the interview, the Stephens campaign sent an email to supporters blasting the 2008 vote as “Marsha’s Mandate.”]

AS: Marsha’s Mandate, which would have been on every person — your eyes begin to open and go oh my gosh, what does that really mean? And I will tell you if it meant us not being thrown into — I would do it all over again. Now was it painful? Is it hard because of the human side of you to be caricature or when people — really, I think, some people lost all sense of, just, propriety and I think we would probably say some people got really a bit crazy I think. That’s a fair — On the other hand, the business community was so fabulous and the healthcare rallied and said, “This is the right thing. We do not want to be thrown into something like this, and we want choice for Colorado, we don’t want to be told how we’re going to do it.”

You know, I actually think my mistake, Ernest, was in assuming that it was common sense but that not in assuming that the word “exchange” could have been so politicized and volatile that it lost reason in the argument. Had I called this The Small Business Connector (laughs), we might have been better off. I think there are some ways that one could actually educate at the same time and I think that because we were under the pressure, in terms of states need to have something looking and in place so that by 2013 you’ve a reasonable amount of time to get something done. I actually think a lot of people didn’t know, they didn’t understand, which was why it was so easy to mischaracterize.

So we — I think, yes, on those ends probably you could have had a parallel track, as I think some people do. But on the other hand, I do think that I’m elected to lead — that’s my job. I don’t shy away or shrink away from it, I would do it again. Because, politically you could take the easy way out. People begged, “Sit on your hands, do nothing, take the easy way out. This’ll politically hurt you, this will kick —” You know, Jody, I mean you’ve known me for how long?

CS: Yeah.

AS: But this is not my style and that’s not who I am. And if I believe that if this is the course of action we had to do, then I will do it and I would do it and that didn’t mean it was easy or fun (laughs) or painful or difficult. It tests every bit of leadership skills, or, even, it tests you in ways you probably didn’t think it could. But I don’t think anything worth it, at the end of the day, when I read some of the things that are coming out and then I hear (state Rep.) Bob (Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, who chairs the legislative oversight committee concerned with implementing the exchange), or the Exchange people say, “Not us. Thank you very much, not us, because we will choose for Colorado what is the best thing to do. Thank you very much but we’ll determine what we’re going to do.”

And when I hear that from the board members or the governor or my caucus — then I go — And Bob Gardner has been, as you know, he voted no. That he has said on more than one occasion, thank God, because he really, he has seen the wisdom of the way we set this up. And I just have to say, it’s a great question and I think at some point — I’ve had people from D.C. come to me and say, “We’ve watched you, we’ve watched what you did, it’s a story unto a story. We actually have encouraged other states to model you.” I think Mississippi’s answer today is kind of funny, but I do believe that they saw what took place here and said, “Under every opportunity you did what was the right and the best thing we could do.” So “Amycare” is “Amycares” (laughs).

CS: Are you embracing the term?

AS: I always actually did. I kind of always laughed about it, actually, because Frank and I would always say, “Yeah, Amy cares about Colorado. Amy cares about small business.” And, you know, listen, I just again, Dustin and I can only go by what we’re seeing now with people going — They check it out, and when they learn they just go (shrugs), you know? And then all the other stuff seems so ridiculous, right? You know, rationed healthcare, abortion — it’s so ridiculous to people that, once you understand what we did, that they just shake their heads and it kind of just rolls off. It just rolls off.

CS: The dust is going to settle in another year or two?

AS: Yes.

CS: Everything, the exchange will be up and running and we’ll see how it’s working, be able to fine tune?

AS: Right.

CS: Whatever happens, is this going to be an important part of your legacy?

AS: Boy, that’s a good question. Well you know, yes, I — with or without, I guess so. I didn’t think that at the start of the year (laughs). When I ran the bill, understanding that I knew it was important, I didn’t see that it would go as big as it did.

But I also will tell you that I think part of that legacy too will have been school safety, with Safe2Tell, it’s huge to me. It’s impacted me just with kids and teens, that school safety’s going to be, I think, for me. I think you’ll always see the software (tax repeal), the Amazon (tax), the Dead of the Night, [Ed. note: Stephens worked to undo a set of tax and fee hikes put in place by the previous, Democratic-controlled Legislature] — all that stuff as very big and trying to have done something. And having reversed the software tax, in my mind, carrying that bill was huge. Because of all the software people I spoke with, in my mind, them saying, “Look this is the difference between us moving here or not,” or, “We’ll sign a contract over here with my entrepreneurs and start up.” In my mind, why would we not, right? I mean that’s huge. And the other one, which I think is very important also, was my first — remember my Illegal Crime Bill? That people were victimized but never got their day (in court)?

CS: Exactly.

AS: And in my mind, for crime victims, this was — and that was my first year in a hugely Democrat-controlled legislature and signed. And remember we called it — oh, what — I think (former Rocky Mountain News and current Denver Business Journal reporter Ed) Sealover called it, like, the Little Bill That Could, or, you know, in other words I was sent to committee to committee to committee and Ed would meet me there and go, “I can’t believe you’re on the third committee.” And for some reason that thing just kept passing out, there was no rhyme or reason. But we laughed at the end, but I will tell you now that people can get, on some level, a day in court, that were victimized, in my mind, is huge. So I think on those three levels, that’s what you’ll see.

CS: Part of your public persona is someone who has come to the Legislature with a career at Focus on the Family before that, and you’ve got Men of Faith, Women of Faith coalitions put together for your campaign. The story of how you came to your faith has always been a fascinating one, and I’m wondering, are you getting the chance to tell that to a lot of people on the campaign trail?

AS: You know, I do. Someone reminded me the other day that a generation has gone by, because I left Focus in ’01 or 2000, I don’t even know. (Stephens’ son) Nick was 8, now he’s 19. OK, so… And I did, because I traveled so much and Nick was, we felt, at a really critical age. And you know how moms, at the time, I mean I had a lot of great work and I loved my work but I love, obviously, my son more. And I really supplemented a lot of my time with — I did outgoing soldiers at Fort Carson on family issues and went with Air Force Academy on some of that and then I did juvenile justice federal grants and then some non-profit grant writing. And so you know, like all moms that want to spend some time, you kind of supplement and do that and that to me was one of the most — being with Nick and actually getting through those middle school, those times to me was huge. It was very, it was just great, because then he got to start to know who he — you know, middle school for kids is so hard, right?

And so I got to transition him then into high school and that’s the time (former state Rep.) Lynn Hefley was termed out and talked to me about thinking about running. And I was not sure, I was conflicted at first because Nick was 12, going to be 13, going in to — But we really, (husband) Ron and I felt that was super important. And I actually think that I had a great opportunity.

Let me switch for a second. When I was at Focus, I always encouraged us to get outside four walls because I think people are always where it’s at. So if you are just impacting or being with people — and I have a lot of people — my office is a revolving — people come in all the time and they trust you or they share with you. I just had the best opportunity to love on people, to be kind, to help. If they say, “Look, I need some time off,” or, “This is happening in my family,” well, that’s fine, OK. And that, to me, is more important than — what is it, do your thing privately, not for show, so to speak?

In other words, this has been a really great place no matter what side of the aisle you are on to meet and to be with people because, to me, humanity has no R or D beside it, it’s humanity. And it’s people’s humanity that make this job to me so exciting. And that you meet all kinds of characters, right? And really some decent people, right, and some people that you just kind of — I always find it amusing, I’m sure all of you say you’re going to write a book some day about it all, right? Because Jody, you’ve seen enough where, I’m sure no one would believe it, and they would think — You say, I couldn’t make this up, right?

CS: Yeah, yeah.

AS: And so what the interesting thing about that is that it’s for a snapshot in time. I’ve always understood that this is what this snapshot is in time. And your ability to enjoy, to be with, to encourage — whether they’re lobby people or whether they’re my own members, you know, “Where are you in life?” “Oh, I don’t know.” “Well have you ever thought about going back to school? You should really do that and get…” And being able to live one’s faith just maybe on a practical (level) without — You know, I’m part of the Prayer Caucus and until, well, until I became majority leader, I mean, I would go to the Bible study. I wasn’t always there, but I enjoyed, you know, just talking, learning your faith, whatever. But to me that’s not to me the essence about faith because faith, to me, is what I said to you about, it’s amazing grace.

You know, for whatever people thought about George Bush II, the one thing I always liked about George Bush No. 2 is that guy understood where he was from, you know? That he needed a savior, needs a savior and feels grateful every day to be waking up going, “Hey, I’m here today.” And in my mind that, to me, is just so important, right? To me, it’s amazing grace and I’m just so glad to be on board. And I have no illusions of — I might be criticized, I’m a realist about what we are doing in our Legislature, I think I’ve tried to be prudent with bills that will go to both houses. But, you know what, people are always armchair quarterbacks, but it’s different when you’re here and you live it, right? And so anyway, that’s where I’m at. Actually, maybe it’s getting older and —

CS: Wiser?

AS: (Laughs) Exactly. Well, let’s hope wiser, on some level.

CS: Has your schedule been really crazy? I don’t know how you do the Legislature and your leadership role and then the campaigning. And your family?

AS: Ask Dustin. (Laughs)

CS: How does that all work? Plus the fact that we have all this stuff going on during the session, which we haven’t had before in terms of the moved-up calendar. Is it crazy? I’m sure you’re busy?

AS: (Choking back tears) I tear up because I think the loss of my father was so huge, you know, this February — was really a huge loss. He was my hero, he was everything. But we knew he was going downhill, so if I’d say, what was the hardest, obviously, you know, losing your hero, who was every day such an encourager. You know, he would call me when he lived in D.C. and — oh, you’ll laugh about this, but you know he was in the FBI, so he was always worried about security at the Capitol (laughs). It was always on his mind. But he would call me so many days and just talk and laugh and just say, “Just get out there and get it going.” You know, he was just such a — so amazing.

And then he moved back to Hong Kong, Hong Kong was his love, and I said, “Dad, are you sure?” He said, “I’m sure. I’m freer in Hong Kong than you guys are here.” “OK dad, whatever makes you happy.” But you know, he lived his life, he just had a fabulous life. More fun than I think a human’s allowed to have, but he did, had more fun. And to me — I will tell you, and I don’t know if your parents have, if you’ve lost your parents, but in a way — so you’ve asked me, “Well how’s session?”

There may be my view on session and then there may be everyone else’s, but time stops sometimes, and you go, “Whoa, I’m in slow motion.” But when I came home I was so much more focused because I could be at peace with how we buried him, that it was honoring and all the people that turned out were so lovely. The legacy he left. And I guess it’s why I say to you why people are so important to me and, like him — there was a family with a boy, a young man in a wheelchair, I did not know them. I’d heard about him, he was going to go to University of Scotland, 19, just like my son’s age. He was at a going-away party for him, tripped over something and broke his neck and is in a wheelchair. Didn’t want to live, didn’t want to — My father flew to Thailand, where he was in rehab, a couple of times, met with him, said, “Look, you are brilliant. This isn’t going to keep you. You need to get in the FBI, you need to do these things.” And this boy rebounded, and I met him at the funeral.

And to me — so when we talk about a snapshot in time and how one impacts people, oh my gosh why not, right? To me that was the most of humanity, and this boy was so kind about him and just said how much that meant — and his parents. I really am taking vitamins, mega vitamins (laughs), I am. I take vitamin B, I try to take a lot of vitamins, I try to get sleep, although, as you know, you’ll wake up in the middle of the night going, “Oh, this bill…” you know? I juggle a lot of things anyway, I always have, but I think that, if anything’s worth it, you should do it.

And it’s ironic, I think — and I don’t know if it was a sign — you asked about why did you get in? Well, the last thing I got from my dad was a card and a campaign donation from him. And after he had passed away, it showed up in my mailbox. He had mailed it and then passed away. And, he just wrote the sweetest note. And it just, to me, it said, “You know what, you’ve got to just give it your best.” And really, I think Dustin and I, we talk about that, you give it your best. You work hard, you do what you do.

Listen, I think people get leadership they deserve and what they want and so I really am — I don’t know, Dustin, I guess we’re more at peace with things, aren’t we? I mean I really have no — I really — I mean, honestly, I just don’t worry about things. I just know that life goes on, and I’ve seen a lot of people that – oh, you’ve seen this. People that just put all — this was everything, and I think that’s kind of the hardest — You have to really have a very balanced approach, I think, about what’s real and what isn’t. I’ve met fabulous people here and throughout the nation, I feel grateful but if this ended, this isn’t the end for me. I mean, there’s life (laughs), there’s things to do. And I learned that from my dad, no matter where he was, just a character. So it’s always still — God, we’re not even a month away from the funeral, but it is very fresh to me and very tender and so I think I had a few weeks there of slow motion. But coming back, I think, the sense of just who met and the peace with which we buried him was good.

CS: Is there anything else that you want to mention that — It looks like you’ve got a good campaign person here.

AS: (Laughs)

Dustin Olson (DO): Yeah, I’ve been doing campaigns. Actually, we first met in 2002, I was doing some campaigns in El Paso County, so it’s been 10 years ago.

AS: And we know his sister, his sister was always a precinct person, and then her husband — I met them. We’d always be doing the phone calls together over at — You know, their family’s had a long history of involvement in the party.

Well, you know, I think at the end of the day this really is — I’ve certainly been surprised by some of that, you know, the mudslinging to the point of really, we think, outrageous. People do not have that kind of appetite. You see it even in Santorum, you know the Gingrich/Romney, people just are, “Look you know really, come on. Now I know we have some differences here…” But at the end of the day, I think people see, how do you carry yourself, how do you lead, do you flip-flop on things? You know, are you for something before you were against it, right? Or do you pull your name off bills because (whispers) “I’m in a primary,” you know? “Got to look conservative!” (Chuckles and sighs.)

CS: When you see Marsha at the Capitol, is it strange? Are things tense?

AS: Well I don’t speak with her, you know? In terms of, I’ve not had the opportunity nor do we have to really. I don’t worry that Marsha’s off on the rails on — you know, everyone’s voting, right? When I’m looking at 33 votes and what’s important, I understand. She’s a professional, one behaves professionally on our floor and does what you do. You know, I’ve seen it with Democrats to, it’s either side — we have a job to get done, we need to get the job done. And certainly we have very different people that surround us in our campaigns and I’ve got a real group of happy people around me — they’re happy, they’re positive (laughs), they’re forward-thinking. They go to a coffee, they meet me, they’re like, “Hey, can I come to the office and go volunteer?” These are people that you know, we have food, we laugh.

I have to tell you, we’re not in angst, OK? I’m not — we really are not. What we want to do is make sure our guy gets to be president and that we grow the majority and that we help the Senate grow theirs. And you know, that’s where we’re at. And the people that are in my district, really, I mean, when we talk leadership, they feel the same. They’re very forward-thinking and you know, a county assembly’s so different from a primary.

CS: Absolutely.

AS: I mean, it just is — and so I just believe and have to believe. But again, we could all be surprised. So, like I say to you, if angry whatever is the mode of the day, well, fine. You know, I think the truth of Senate Bill 200 will be very clear and is becoming more clear by the day. And with guys like Gardner and others that are engaged in it, it’s so clear. So, anyway, I want to thank you.

CS: Thank you so much.

*Marsha Looper InnerView also on the website*

Jody Hope Strogoff and Ernest Luning