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INSIGHTS: Red flag bill shows need for a white flag in partisan litmus tests

Author: Joey Bunch - May 14, 2018 - Updated: May 31, 2018

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Close to midnight on one of the final days of the legislative session, Colorado House of Representatives Republicans met in a caucus to discuss removing one of their rising stars, Cole Wist, from his leadership position as assistant minority leader.

His offense was sponsoring a bill to disarm people authorities deem to be a threat to themselves or others — a bill that his fellow Republicans later killed.

Wist wasn’t the only Republican backing the bill. Aurora theater prosecutor George Brauchler and Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock — each a gun-rights advocate — also supported the bill to disarm, at least temporarily, those with mental health issues.

Colorado is one of 23 state legislatures that considered or passed the so-called “red flag” bills this year. The National Rifle Association hasn’t yet found its footing on “red flag” confiscations, but Colorado House Republicans have found theirs.

Cole Wist
House Assistant Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, left, speaks on beahlf of House 1432 with House Assistant Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver. (Photo courtesy of the Colorado Channel via YouTube)

A motion to remove Wist never came to a vote, but the message to him and other Republicans was clearly delivered, if not in the statehouse, then definitely on social media.

The  fuss was described by those in attendance as a family squabble. Most families squabble at the dining room table, especially if the belt comes out. This was more like a front-yard brawl, one that eventually involved the cops.

Three nights later, Wist left the Capitol to go home in the middle of Judiciary Committee meeting. In case he didn’t get the message from fellow Republicans in the statehouse, others delivered it in tweets and posts considered “hostile and intimidating,” as Wist put it. Colorado Politics broke the news of the meeting and the threats.

Wist got a political spanking for not following the partisan flow farther to the right on an issue close to his heart. Others on the right or left might not be as foolish to go up against their party. We live in a political time when you’re either 100 percent with your party or you’re a 100 percent out.

The real family in question was all on one side of the squabble. Gun rights course through the blood of House Majority Patrick Neville, who you might recall was summoned to the White House in March to tell President Trump why he believed teachers should carry guns in schools. Neville and his father, Sen. Tim Neville, carry most of the gun bills Democrats love to vote down. Patrick Neville’s brother, Joe, is a lobbyist for gun interests and serves as the president of Advancing Colorado, which used its Twitter account to call Wist and Brauchler traitors to the party.

“Everyone knows where the Nevilles stand on this issue,” Patrick Neville told me. “We’re passionately against the bill, but Cole and I are still friends.”

On the motion to remove Wist’s from his leadership position,  he said, “Look, I had nothing to do with that.”

Wist said on the House floor he was sorry he didn’t listen to his caucus, but still sounded resolute in his conviction about his bill and his principles.

Wist listened to the people in his district. He also listened to his own heart and the feelings of society’s shared responsibility for Matthew Riehl’s arsenal, the one he used to wound four officers and two civilians, while taking the life of Douglas County Deputy Zackari Parrish, a 29-year-old father and namesake of Wist’s legislation.

“The loss was felt by our entire community,” Wist said. “It caused me to do some pretty deep thinking about whether we might have missed something.”

Rep. Lang Sias, a Republican from Arvada, has been on the losing end of a fight with the gun lobby. In 2014, he ran unsuccessfully in the Republican primary against Laura Woods, the favored candidate of gun activists, to fill a vacant seat. A former Top Gun fighter pilot, Sias was viciously attacked as a liberal Republican and “a long list of sins that indicate he couldn’t be trusted.” Seriously. Woods lost her race for a full term two years later.

“He and Patrick have been a good team,” Sias said at my suggestion of a caucus split. “At the meeting, Patrick certainly made it clear that he opposed the bill, but he also went out of his way to compliment Cole on the work they’ve done together and his desire to continue that partnership. We have a caucus of really good, decent people. Although our views on particular issues may differ a bit, we generally work very well together and have a lot of respect for each other.”

Sias voted against the red flag bill. Wist and Rep. Dan Thurlow of Grand Junction were the only House Republicans who voted for it. Who could blame others for not falling in line? Who could not respect Wist and Thurlow for their political courage, a rarity in this day?

The lack of a split might be good for House Republicans and the Nevilles, but it’s not so good for Republicans headed toward the fall election.

It could help Wist politically. In his fast-changing south metro district, his general election opponent is likely to be Tom Sullivan, whose son, Alex, was killed in the Aurora theater shooting.  Brauchler is the only Republican in the attorney general’s race, but if November turns into a Democratic wave, he will benefit from nuanced stand on the red flag bill.

Democrats have their own partisan litmus tests. Three-term state Rep. Paul Rosenthal, a Democrat from Denver, was squeezed out in the caucuses this year partly because he was deemed to be not loyal enough to Democratic principles, mainly because he wouldn’t support new rules on fracking.

House Democrats were slow to cast just enough votes to pass a compromise on the dangerously underfunded state pension fund on the last night of the session, because the teachers’ union opposed it.

Unaffiliated voters are the state’s largest bloc — and for the first time, they will vote in the June primary this year. They have been requesting Democratic ballots at an almost 2 to 1 rate over Republican ballots.

Politicians use calculus, but elections are shaped by geometry: As the GOP and Democratic establishments recede farther to the right and left and apply these partisan purity tests — from guns to abortion — the middle grows larger.

Unaffiliated Coloradans represent a growing electorate the parties love to ignore — at their own peril.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.