Getting to yes, just saying no: Lawmakers Everett, Hansen and Kennedy talk session votes
Author: Ernest Luning - May 25, 2017 - Updated: May 26, 2017
By one measure, state Rep. Justin Everett, a House Republican serving his third term in the Colorado General Assembly, and state Reps. Chris Hansen and Chris Kennedy, a pair of Democrats in their first terms, stand as far apart as any lawmakers at the Capitol, based on the votes they cast in the just-completed 2017 regular session.
Considering all the bills that made it to final, third-reading votes in the session — 494 in the House and 459 in the Senate — between them, these three legislators cast the most ‘no’ votes and the most ‘yes’ votes, respectively, according to an analysis prepared by bill-tracking service Colorado Capitol Watch.
Everett, who lives in Littleton and represents House District 22, voted ‘no’ on third-reading votes more times than any other legislator this year — even voting ‘no’ more times than he voted ‘yes,’ although just by a single vote — while Hansen, who lives in Denver and represents House District 6, and Kennedy, who lives in Lakewood and represents House District 23, voted ‘yes’ on every bill that came before them on the House floor for third-reading votes.
Everett voted ‘no’ 248 times and cast 245 ‘yes’ votes, with just one absence on third-reading. (He says he doesn’t keep a running tally through the session, so it’s merely happenstance it turned out that way.)
Hansen and Kennedy, for their part, each voted ‘yes’ 494 times, with neither missing a third-reading vote all session.
All three lawmakers say there’s nothing reflexive about their votes and that the results would likely be quite different if the chamber’s majority changed hands.
None of the three ran away with their distinctions, either, although Hansen and Kennedy just barely edged numerous House Democrats who only cast ‘no’ votes once or twice, while Everett cast 10 more ‘no’ votes than his nearest competitors, state Reps. Steve Humphrey, R-Severance, and Kimmi Lewis, R-Parker, who each voted ‘no’ 235 times.
It’s a familiar crown for Everett, who announced last month he’s running for state treasurer in next year’s election. He’s been known for his ‘no’ votes for almost as long as he’s been in the Legislature, and it’s part of the image he cultivates. Former state Rep. Max Tyler, D-Lakewood, first called him “Dr. No” several years back, Everett recalls, although he adds that he immediately shook his head then and replied, “No — it’s ‘Justin Neverett.’”
While he acknowledges he’s generally skeptical about the need for new laws, Everett maintains that he decides every vote based on a bill’s merits, and he says he takes a rigorous approach to deciding what those are, including reading every word of every bill before voting on it. He also reads nearly every bill without letting himself know who the sponsors are in order to avoid being swayed by any preconceptions or loyalties.
“I read the bill to see if it’s something we should be doing, or, if it’s something we haven’t been doing, why should we spend money on it? It’s all those ‘why’ questions,” Everett says. “And especially after being down here five years, you’re seeing a lot of repeat offenders and a lot of recycled ideas, or something that couldn’t pass last year and got pushed into a study, they built coalitions and now they’re pushing an agenda item. I think somebody has to stand up and say ‘no’ and make those tough decisions, even if you’re going to catch heat. If you’re willing to do the right thing and do your job and catch some heat, I think that’s leadership.”
Hansen and Kennedy, in turn, say they didn’t set out to vote ‘yes’ on every bill but, because of their own approach all session long, they wound up with bills they could get behind by the time they made it to final votes.
“We tried to work really hard in committees to improve bills before they got to the floor, so by the time we were here on third readings, we would have had a chance to amend pre-introduction, a chance to amend in committee — perhaps two committees — and make second-reading amendments,” Hansen says. “So, we tried to really put in a lot of work at the early part of the process so, by the time we got to thirds, we had something we could support.”
Where their colleagues scored
The size of the majority in each chamber matters. In the House, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nine seats — and hold larger margins on committees — it’s substantially easier for the party in control to determine what makes it to the floor than it is in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority by just a single seat.
For that reason, the legislators say, the gulf between nearly all Democrats and nearly all Republicans in the House is wide. Not a single Democrat voted ‘no’ more times than a Republican, and there are only a handful of outliers in either caucus who voted much different from their colleagues. It’s a different story in the Senate, where there’s sometimes as much division within the Republican caucus as there is between the majority and the minority parties.
While Hansen and Kennedy scored perfect records voting ‘yes,’ several House Democrats lagged them by just a single vote: House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and state Reps. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora, Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, and Dave Young, D-Greeley. Another four members of their caucus — state Reps. Jim Coleman, D-Denver, Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, Susan Lontine, D-Denver, Dafna Michaelsen Jenet, D-Commerce City — voted ‘no’ just twice in the session’s 120 days.
The Democrat who voted ‘no’ the most times was state Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, with 32 ‘no’ votes, followed by state Reps. Steve Lebsock, D-Thornton, with 22, and Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, with 12. Only one other Democrat’s ‘no’ tally even crept into double digits — state Rep. Mike Foote, D-Louisville, with 10.
The Republican House member who voted ‘no’ the fewest times was state Rep. Dan Thurlow, R-Grand Junction, who pressed the button 91 times. It’s a long stretch to the next two GOP lawmakers by that measure — state Reps. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, cast 105 ‘no’ votes, and Phil Covarrubias, R-Brighton, was next with 127.
It’s a much more jumbled picture in the Senate, where a handful of Republicans, for instance, voted ‘no’ many more times than any Democrats. State Sens. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, and Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, each cast 92 ‘no’ votes, followed closely by state Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, with 91 ‘no’ votes. The Democrats who voted ‘no’ most often were state Sens. Lois Court, D-Denver, and Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, each with 40 ‘no’ votes — that’s fewer than 10 Republican senators.
The Republican senator who voted ‘no’ the fewest times was state Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Brighton, who did it 13 times, followed by Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, with 15 ‘no’ votes. Across the aisle, the Democrats who voted ‘no’ the fewest times were state Sens. Angela Williams, D-Denver, with 20 ‘no’ votes, and Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, with 20.
How they set their records
In interviews the week after the 2017 regular session wrapped, Hansen, Kennedy and Everett discussed how they came to land on the extremes of the legislative votes, pointing out that numerous times it was a close call — until it wasn’t.
Discussing the twists and turns legislation can take, Kennedy — a Capitol veteran, he worked as an aide to legislators and on the policy side before running for his Jefferson County seat last year — says there are times when a bill benefits from the back-and-forth from committees, through floor work and to the other chamber.
“To some extent,” he says, “it’s trusting that your colleagues have done the work. Sometimes there are things that are not all the way done in the House, but you know they’re close, and with a little more stakeholder work they can get there.”
He cited as example House Bill 1220, sponsored in the House by House Majority Leader K.C. Becker, D-Boulder, and Assistant House Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, and in the Senate by state Sens. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, and Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora. The bill limits the number of medical marijuana plants that can be grown at a residence to 12, taking aim at the state’s pot “grey market.”
“My vote for that,” Kennedy says, “was ultimately based on the promise that they’d keep working on it. They kept working on it and ultimately got a deal where it passed the Senate unanimously.”
It was almost a ‘no’ vote for him, Kennedy says.
“But everyone was on board once we worked through it. It’s hard with these bills with so many diverse stakeholders. Ultimately on that bill, we got the patient and care community, local law enforcement and local government all on board, so it was an easy vote when it came back (from the Senate with amendments). The first time, I was very close to voting ‘no’ in the House, but I had a commitment from the bill’s sponsors that they were going to keep working out the kinks.”
Hansen recalls working on some oil-and-gas bills in the House Transportation and Energy Committee to get them in shape.
“I’m of the opinion that’s exactly how the process should work, especially with your own caucus, where I’m going to dig in extra hard with my caucus members to come up with a package where we can be successful on the floor,” he says. “I feel like that’s part of my job as a representative. There was so much that was done pre-third reading to get us to a place where we’ve got something we can support.”
Everett says that arriving in the House in 2013 — the year Democrats retook the House majority from Republicans, giving them complete control of both the executive and legislative branches — “was a pretty major tectonic shift in where we were going as a state, it was pretty much sink-or-swim, trial by fire, and trained some of us who came in as freshman — your Steve Humphreys and Lori Saines — to be ready for things like that. The longer you’re in here, the more you’re, ‘Been there, done that, seen that.’ You always get some curve balls, but you have to read the language to understand that and make decisions. I feel very comfortable with my votes this year, as I have over the last five years. I think I made a good decision based on the information I had.”
Everett credits a more aggressive House GOP leadership — led by Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, a close ally — with changing the tenor of the chamber.
“Especially being in the minority party this year, you’ve seen legislators paying more attention to bills, being more thoughtful as a caucus, because I think you have to solve problems within your own house before you can really solve problems beyond that,” Everett says. “I think you’ve seen the Republican caucus transform into a caucus that has ideas and solutions and not just saying ‘no.’ Definitely, we’re critically evaluating what we’re doing down here, it’s not just what the lobbyists told me.”
He chuckles somewhat ruefully at the memory.
“It pissed me off the first year — ‘Well, the lobbyist told me it was a good bill.’ ‘Did you read the bill?’ ‘Well, no.’ ‘You might want to read the bill.’ ‘Oh, it’s a horrible bill.’ ‘Well, OK, your basic responsibility as a legislator, even though you may not get any sleep is to read something before you vote on it and represent your constituents and do the right thing.’ I think that’s changed a lot since I’ve been down here,” Everett says. “If you look at the trend line with Republicans, they’re saying ‘no’ more to bad policy. If you want to be an agent of change, you’ve got to try to change things.”
Still, there will be times Everett is the only lawmaker pressing the red button, but he says he’s fine with that.
“I don’t feel uncomfortable being the lone ‘no’ vote, because I came to that decision,” he says. “Knowing when I was 64-1 there was never any question whether I was going to go with the herd and hit the ‘yes’ button. ‘No — I think that’s a solid “no” vote,’ and I feel comfortable with it.”
Kennedy and Hansen both say they anticipate opportunities in next year’s session, even as lawmakers turn attention to the November election.
Hansen says that going into next session having built relationships with Republicans — starting at the freshman legislator retreat he organized — will help legislators from both parties put together successful, bipartisan legislation. “That’s an advantage we’ll have in Year Two that we didn’t have in Year One,” he says.
“If you just run a bunch of heavily partisan stuff,” Hansen says, shaking his head and letting the thought trail off. “We each, at times, get involved with message bills — that’s part of our job, but that’s not why I ran, that’s not why I’m here. I’m trying to spend the vast majority of my legislative time on substantive policy.”
Even though he’s spent years in the building, Kennedy says it’s been a revelation the kind of close, working relationships he’s been able to build across the aisle in just his first session
“It takes a while to get there,” he says. “Getting past that trust barrier — that’s how partisanship really manifests itself. It’s not like Democrats and Republicans hate each other down here, but you trust the people on your own team a little more until you start to understand what the other team is all about.” Kennedy says he got to know Sen. Jim Smallwood, a Douglas County Republican, at the retreat Hansen organized, starting a relationship that led to the two being able to work together on some legislation this year. “And I feel like I made some breakthroughs with (Rep.) Lois Landgraf this year, where I know where she’s coming from.”
Circling back to his initial point — that all the ‘yes’ votes resulted from attentive, hard work — Hansen muses about the chambers’ partisan divides.
“Doing the homework early in the process is of vital importance, so by the time you get to third reading you have good policy and good bills,” he says. “I think when you’re in the minority, you have less control over that process. Things are coming to third reading that you’re going to disagree with more often. I totally get that — that’s part of a partisan legislature, that’s the system we have.”
Everett makes a similar point about fostering relationships in the building, including across the aisle.
“Even though I do vote ‘no’ a lot and am considered one of the most conservative members — maybe to have ever served — still, I have good working relationships, because when you treat people fairly and honestly and build up that trust, where they can trust you, it helps make you an effective legislator. Even if you vote ‘no’ all the time, I think you can be very effective just by being prepared,” he says. Then, referring to state Rep. Jeni Arndt, a Fort Collins Democrat, he adds, “Jeni Arndt, I think, says it best when she tells her caucus, ‘Everett might vote “no” a lot, but he knows why he’s voting “no.”’ In a nutshell, that sums up how I go about things and what I’m doing.”