Election 2016News

Contests for legislative leadership taking shape in tumultuous election year

Author: Ernest Luning - October 27, 2016 - Updated: August 25, 2017

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A legislator's chair bearing the state seal sits empty in the Colorado House of Representatives chambers during the 2016 legislative session at the state Capitol in Denver. Even while the topsy-turvy 2016 general election enters its final days, legislators in the House and Senate are already preparing to take part in a smaller election of their own — for leadership positions. (Photo by Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)
A legislator’s chair bearing the state seal sits empty in the Colorado House of Representatives chambers during the 2016 legislative session at the state Capitol in Denver. Even while the topsy-turvy 2016 general election enters its final days, legislators in the House and Senate are already preparing to take part in a smaller, but equally important, election of their own — for leadership positions. The results of that election could impact the policy focus for the next two years in Colorado. (Photo by Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)

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.

Outgoing Senate President Bill Cadman (R-Colorado Springs) and Majority Leader Mark Scheffel present a bill during the 2016 legislative session as a determined onlooker monitors the situation. Cadman and Scheffel will be creating a Republican leadership void that will need to be filled in the Senate due to term-limits. (Photo by Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)
Outgoing Senate President Bill Cadman (R-Colorado Springs) and Majority Leader Mark Scheffel present a bill during the 2016 legislative session as a determined onlooker monitors the situation. Cadman and Scheffel will be creating a Republican leadership void that will need to be filled in the Senate due to term-limits. (Photo by Brennan Linsley/Associated Press)

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.

Democratic Colorado state House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran and Republican House Assistant Minority Leader Polly Lawrence share a bipartisan moment at the Colorado Remembers 9/11 VIP reception Sunday, September 11, 2016. Duran is all but assured the speaker's gavel during the 71st General Assembly. (Photo by Pat Duncan/The Colorado Statesman)
Democratic Colorado state House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran and Republican House Assistant Minority Leader Polly Lawrence — who is vying for House minority leader in the 71st General Assembly against state Rep. Patrick Neville — share a bipartisan moment at the Colorado Remembers 9/11 VIP reception Sunday, September 11, 2016. Duran said to be all but assured the speaker’s gavel during the 71st General Assembly, which would make her the first Latina speaker of the House in state history. (Photo by Pat Duncan/The Colorado Statesman)

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.

Michael Feeley, former state legislator and lobbyist for Brownstein Hyatt Farber and Schreck and state Sen. Kevin Grantham — who is the likely new state Senate president for the 71st General Assembly should the Republicans hold their majority, have a friendly laugh during the Senate Majority Fund's 4th Annual Reception held at the Brown Palace Hotel Tues, Oct. 4. (Photo by Patricia Duncan/The Colorado Statesman)
Michael Feeley, former state legislator and lobbyist for Brownstein Hyatt Farber and Schreck and state Sen. Kevin Grantham — who is the likely new state Senate president for the 71st General Assembly should the Republicans hold their majority — have a friendly laugh during the Senate Majority Fund’s 4th Annual Reception held at the Brown Palace Hotel Tues, Oct. 4. (Photo by Patricia Duncan/The Colorado Statesman)

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.

Reps. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, and Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, confer during a discussion on a house bill during the 2016 session. Foote is one representative interested in a leadership slot. (Photo by Ramsey Scott/Colorado Statesman)
Reps. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, and Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, confer during a discussion on a house bill during the 2016 session. Foote is one Democratic representative interested in a leadership slot in the House — majority leader. Those interested in challenging him for the role are Reps. Faith Winter and KC Becker. (Photo by Ramsey Scott/Colorado Statesman)

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.

State Rep. Paul Rosenthal, D-Denver, listens as Dave Montez, executive director of One Colorado, testifies in support of Rosenthal's HB 1210, a bill to that would effectively ban the practice of gay conversion therapy on minors in the state. The bill passed the House Public Health Care and Human Services committee on a party line vote. (Photo by Rep. Jessie Danielson)
State Rep. Paul Rosenthal, D-Denver, listens as Dave Montez, executive director of One Colorado, testifies in support of one of Rosenthal’s bills. Rosenthal is said to be planning a run for deputy whip in the House against Rep. Jovan Melton an Aurora Democrat. (Photo by Rep. Jessie Danielson)

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.)

State Rep. Alec Garnett, D-Denver, speaks on behalf of one of his bills at the state Capitol on April 22. 2016. Garnett is currently said to be unchallenged for assistant majority leader in the House for the 71st General Assembly. (Photo by John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)
State Rep. Alec Garnett, D-Denver, speaks on behalf of one of his bills at the state Capitol on April 22. 2016. Garnett is currently said to be unchallenged for assistant majority leader in the House for the 71st General Assembly. (Photo by John Tomasic/The Colorado Statesman)

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.

State Rep. Patrick Neville (R-Castle Rock) with his father state Sen. Tim Neville (R-Littleton) at an event. The younger Neville is in an open race for House minority leader with current Assistant Minority Leader Polly Lawrence (R-Roxborough Park).
State Rep. Patrick Neville (R-Castle Rock) with his father state Sen. Tim Neville (R-Littleton) at an event. The younger Neville is in an open race for House minority leader with current Assistant Minority Leader Polly Lawrence (R-Roxborough Park), though discussion of a wild card candidate has been swirling around the Capitol for weeks.

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. Cole Wist and his Republican colleague Rep. Dan Nordberg (R-Colorado Springs)
State Rep. Cole Wist (R-Centennial) and his Republican colleague Rep. Dan Nordberg (R-Colorado Springs) are said to be in talks to potentially share the assistant leader position of the Republican caucus in the House, running as a ticket.

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.

HD 44 Chris Holbert
State Sen. Chris Holbert (R-Parker), one candidate interested in the majority or minority leader position in the state Senate, depending on what happens to a handful of Senate swing seats this election. Sen. Kevin Lundberg is also in talks with colleagues, showing interest in running for the role.

“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.

Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, answers a question at a town hall meeting. Donovan is said to be pursuing the Senate Democrat's caucus chair position during the 71st General Assembly. She is in a targeted seat in 2018, but if she choses to run, her only known appointment to date, state Rep. Lois Court, has said she will defer to the Vail Democrat. (Statesman Photo)
Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, answers a question at a town hall meeting. Donovan is said to be pursuing the Senate Democrat’s caucus chair position during the 71st General Assembly. She is in a targeted seat in 2018, but if she chooses to run, her only known opponent to date, state Rep. Lois Court (soon-to-be Senator from Denver), has said she will defer to the Vail Democrat due to Donovan’s seniority in the Senate chamber. (Statesman Photo)

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.

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. Since 2009, he has been the senior political reporter and occasional editor for The Colorado Statesman.


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