Contests for legislative leadership taking shape in tumultuous election year
Author: Ernest Luning - October 27, 2016 - Updated: August 25, 2017
There’s more than one election looming within the next couple of weeks in Colorado. Two days after voters finish casting ballots on Nov. 8, state lawmakers — including what could be more than a dozen newly elected legislators — are scheduled to gather at the Capitol to elect leadership positions for the 71st General Assembly.
While more than 2 million Coloradans could be voting in the upcoming General Election, on the Thursday after the election, no more than 100 of them will decide who leads the Legislature when it convenes in January. The campaigns for leadership in the House and Senate — from House speaker and Senate president through majority and minority leaders, caucus chairs and whips — have been conducted quietly, behind the scenes, but Capitol denizens say the results could have far-reaching impact on state government over the next two years.
According to interviews with lawmakers, consultants, operatives and lobbyists — all of whom asked to share their insights without attribution, in order to discuss the upcoming leadership elections frankly — here’s how the contests are shaping up a couple of weeks before legislators vote.
More positions than usual are open after this election because nearly all the top leaders in both chambers faced term limits, including House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, a Boulder Democrat, Senate President Bill Cadman, a Colorado Springs Republican, House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso, a Loveland Republican, and Senate Majority Leader Mark Scheffel, a Parker Republican. In addition, a number of other Democratic leaders in the House, including Majority Caucus Chair Angela Wiliams of Denver and Majority Whip Su Ryden of Aurora, ran for open Senate seats — Ryden lost in a primary to state Rep. Rhonda Fields of Aurora — leaving those positions open.
At the same time, the domino effects caused by the retirement this year of a rising star among Senate Democrats — Minority Caucus Chair Jessie Ulibarri of Thornton declined to seek another term, and Assistant House Majority Leader Dominick Moreno is running for his Senate seat — upended what many had assumed would be the natural progression of those two lawmakers.
House Democrats are likely facing just a pair of contested races, while their GOP counterparts could be jostling for positions up and down the leadership rungs. But in the Senate it’s a different story, with few clear candidates emerging yet for many of the positions because control of that chamber depends on the results in a few swing seats, and that outcome will determine who runs for what.
“Everyone in the Senate is keeping cards close to the chest,” more than one Capitol observer said, echoing the phrase practically verbatim.
Even though this election year has been nothing if not unpredictable — and nearly everyone The Colorado Statesman spoke with stressed that there could be plenty of surprises still to come — there’s one leadership outcome as nearly certain as can be: House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, will be wielding the speaker’s gavel in the next legislative session, the first Latina to run the chamber.
But beyond that, it’s up to voters in a handful of state Senate districts to determine whether Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, another Denver Democrat, shares a parallel distinction as the first Latina Senate president, or whether that chamber will be run by state Sen. Kevin Grantham, a Cañon City Republican.
If Republicans hold on to their 18-17 majority in the Senate, then Grantham appears to be the consensus choice as president, but if Democrats manage to run the table and win all the battleground Senate races — including the seat in Arvada held by Republican Sen. Laura Woods and a pair of seats in Adams and Arapahoe counties currently held by term-limited Democrats — then Guzman is poised to take over. (That’s assuming the Republicans hang on in a few other hotly contested Senate races, including the seats held by Sens. Jack Tate of Centennial, Randy Baumgardner of Hot Sulpher Springs and Larry Crowder of Alamosa, although two weeks before Election Day those seats appear to be leaning toward the incumbents.)
Democrats look certain to keep the majority in the House, however, setting up a battle for majority leader between state Reps. Faith Winter of Westminster, KC Becker of Boulder and Assistant Majority Caucus Chair Mike Foote of Lafayette.
Most of the House Democrats’ other leadership slots will be uncontested, Capitol observers say. State Rep. Alec Garnett of Denver is set to become assistant majority leader; state Rep. Daneya Esgar of Pueblo is the likely caucus chair; state Rep. Jeni Arndt of Fort Collins should be assistant caucus chair; and Majority Deputy Whip Rep. Brittany Pettersen is running unopposed for whip.
At press time, it appeared that two Democrats, state Reps. Jovan Melton of Aurora and Paul Rosenthal of Denver, were both in the running for deputy whip.
(The speaker pro tem position, currently held by Denver Democrat Dan Pabon, is appointed by the speaker and is not subject to leadership elections.)
On the Republican side, the election for minority leader could either be fiercely contested or fizzle out. Until recently, Assistant House Minority Leader Polly Lawrence of Roxborough Park appeared to be locked in a down-to-the-wire contest with state Rep. Patrick Neville of Castle Rock, although the momentum appears to be shifting Neville’s way.
Still, anyone with a memory at the Capitol cautions that leadership elections can turn on a dime and are subject to numerous factors, including personality clashes and favors owed, rewards or punishment for election results, in addition to anything resembling leadership qualities.
House Republicans also appear to be coalescing around a plan to expand the number of leadership positions, adding assistants and deputies to the roster, so that more lawmakers can participate. (Beyond speaker and majority and minority leader, various leadership posts are a matter of tradition rather than House rules, so the caucus could easily add an assistant caucus chair and deputy whip if members agree, a Republican noted.)
With that in mind, state Reps. Dan Nordberg of Colorado Springs and Cole Wist of Centennial have been floating the notion of running for co-assistant leaders of their caucus.
State Rep. Jon Becker of Sterling has recently emerged as a potential wild card in the House GOP leadership contests, some observers said, although it’s unclear what post, if any, he might seek.
Minority Whip Perry Buck appears likely to hold that office again. Minority Caucus Chair Lois Landgraf of Fountain and state Reps. Lori Saine of Dacono and Yeulin Willet of Grand Junction have also been talking about running for posts, although Republicans with knowledge of those conversations said it was up in the air who might run for what.
In the Senate, it appears that only some contests for party leaders have emerged while lawmakers await the results on election night.
It’s important to remember, observers say, that leadership positions aren’t the only way lawmakers can wield power at the Capitol, and that winning a committee chair or a seat on the powerful Joint Budget Committee could be preferable.
“Particularly if you’re in the majority,” one Capitol veteran said, “it’s less about who gets slated into leadership than who gets what committee. If there’s a fight, that’s often how it’ll be won, by promising committee assignments.”
On the Republican side, Assistant Senate Majority Leader Kevin Lundberg of Fort Collins and state Sen. Chris Holbert of Parker will probably both be seeking votes for either majority leader or minority leader. Likewise, Minority Whip Matt Jones of Louisville and state Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood, both Democrats, are set to duke it out for either majority leader or minority leader, again depending which party can swear in at least 18 senators.
It could hinge on which lawmakers can boast more success electing fellow members, potentially boosting — or cutting short — leadership ambitions for Democrats or Republicans buffeted by national waves, as has happened in recent years when the legislators in charge of campaign committees were either rewarded or punished.
“In sports, if you don’t win, they bring in somebody else,” said one Capitol observer. “Politics is very results-driven and can be a very mean and cold-hearted business.”
Republicans Baumgardner, the majority whip, and Majority Caucus Chair Vicki Marble of Fort Collins are likely to put themselves forward for leadership positions again, although down the ballot in the Senate the prospects appear murkier, as lawmakers seem to be waiting for the election to see which party controls the chamber before deciding whether or not to make a leadership run.
Among Democrats, state Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail has said she’s interested in running for caucus chair, even though her race is likely to be among the top-targeted elections in the state in 2018. State Rep. Lois Court, the Denver Democrat who won the nomination for an open Senate seat, has also said she’s interested in the position but appears to be willing to defer to Donovan — seniority doesn’t transfer between chambers, observers note, and leadership positions are seldom won by newcomers to either body.
While the jostling and vote-counting is already well underway for many of the pending legislative leadership contests, Capitol veterans from both sides of the aisle made one thing clear: Ultimately, it’s up to the voters to set the terrain, and if they’ve made anything clear this election cycle, it’s that lawmakers would be foolish to take anything for granted.