‘Barack Obama Highway’ proposal sparks anger at the state Capitol

Author: Marianne Goodland - May 9, 2018 - Updated: May 10, 2018

Obama resolutionThen-President Barack Obama in a 2016 photo. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

Debate over a resolution offered in the Colorado legislature by House Democrats to rename a portion of Interstate 25 through Denver after President Barack Obama turned ugly late Tuesday.

It was another nasty episode in a legislative session marked by increased polarization over issues such as guns and race — tied to immigration, civil rights, sanctuary cities and civics education.

The 44th president was a target for legislative Republicans and the pride of Democrats during his eight years in office. So it wasn’t a surprise that House Republicans Tuesday tried to do what they could to prevent the renaming of the portion of I-25 that runs past the Denver Broncos stadium after Obama.

The section of highway was chosen by proponents because candidate Obama accepted his party’s nomination for president at the stadium, one of the Denver sites for the Democratic National Convention in 2008.

Democrat state Rep. Dan Pabon of Denver sponsored the resolution.

It’s not unprecedented. A section of I-25 in El Paso County was named after President Ronald Reagan the year before he passed away; a section of Interstate 70 in Eagle County was named after President Gerald Ford the year after he died; and a section of I-25 in Pueblo County is named for President John F. Kennedy.

On Tuesday, House Republicans tried to throw up one roadblock after another. Some claimed the move to rename the highway was unprecedented since Obama is alive and has only been out of office a little more than a year. And some questioned whether Pabon had sought Obama’s permission for the renaming.

Republican state Rep. Kimmi Lewis of Kim started off an explanation of her “no” vote on the resolution when it was before the House Transportation and Energy Committee by saying her no vote “wasn’t racial,” but said she objected to renaming the highway “after a president who didn’t work for us.”

Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar of Thornton scoffed at Lewis’ assertion that her vote wasn’t about Obama’s race. “We’re not fooled by qualifiers” like that, he told Colorado Politics, adding that when someone says something like that, the next thing is something racial in nature.

Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have been targeted by some in the Republican caucus, including Rep. Judy Reyher of Swink, who drew strong criticism for comments she made about the Obamas that surfaced when she was appointed to her seat last year, replacing Rep. Clarice Navarro-Ratzlaff of Pueblo.

Reyher’s Facebook page had several references to the Obamas, including one that called Michelle Obama “evil personified” and “one of the biggest racists ever to live.” She also said African Americans are “hatred filled beings,” questioned whether Obama was born in the United States, and posted another comment that said Muslims came to America to “make certain we stop enjoying … pork, beer, dogs, bikinis, Jesus and freedom of speech.”

She apologized when the 2016 posts became public.

Republican Rep. Justin Everett of Littleton proposed an amendment to the Obama naming resolution, proposing a committee of two members of the House majority and one from the minority to look at the issue of naming highways after “notable individuals” and return next year with a recommendation.

That was quickly rejected by the Democrats. Everett stated the amendment was about setting up a process that has never existed, and not about the merits of the resolution itself.

Republican Rep. Yeulin Willett of Grand Junction argued that the federal tradition is not to name things after people until they are deceased. But Democrats countered that tradition is repeatedly ignored, both in the naming of the Reagan highway in Colorado, a portion of highway in Texas after President George H.W. Bush, and the naming of the Reagan Airport in Washington, D.C., which happened in 1998, five years before Reagan died.

The renaming of I-25 for Obama would be “completely different and precedent-setting,” added House Minority Leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock.

That’s about the time when Democrats started getting mad, starting with Rep. Jovan Melton, Democrat of Aurora. “I don’t care how it’s done elsewhere,” he said.

Salazar, the Thornton Democrat, indicated Republicans have pretty short memories, given the Reagan and Bush renamings.

Melton argued that the stretch of I-25 proposed for the renaming is the first place an African American got the nomination of a major political party and that it’s historically significant for African Americans. “This is a monument to my people and my ancestry and my heritage,” he said.

Several sections of highways and roads across America already have been named for Obama, including a stretch of Interstate 55 in his home state of Illinois and a handful of streets in California and Florida, according to local news reports.

There was one humorous moment in the debate: a spot-on imitation of Obama’s speaking style by Democratic Rep. James Coleman of Denver. “I talk to him on a regular basis,” Coleman said, in Obama’s clipped speaking manner. “If he was here, he’d say he was grateful.”

But Willett’s suggestion that the resolution rename the highway but wait 10 years for the actual signage was a bridge too far for Melton.

“No, no, no, no! I’m sorry, I’m an African-American and we are always being put at the back of the line,” he said. “Waiting 10 years when we can do it now? No! I’m tired of that! He served his two terms. It’s not like we’re re-electing him by passing this resolution. We’re simply asking to honor him. As an African American, you expect me to be OK with waiting 10 years? No! Show the due respect that is deserved!” he said, pounding his hand on the podium in anger.

Melton later told Colorado Politics his reaction was a “back of the bus” moment.

The resolution passed on a voice vote but with a small chorus of “noes” from some in the House Republican caucus.

The resolution is now awaiting a decision from the state Senate.

Editor’s note: This story will be updated if the Senate takes action.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.