The return of Colorado’s legislature to the Capitol this week brought lofty talk from legislative leaders about the need for civility. It also came with a harsh reality: the acrimony and vitriol that marred last year’s proceedings have done anything but fade away.
Simmering tensions have built up for several years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say, and were only exacerbated by flareups during November’s special session on property taxes and housing relief. It’s now an election year — a dynamic guaranteed to heighten political differences.
“The path that we’re on has to be disrupted,” said Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican. “It has to change. We somehow have to go back to the state that we were in even 10 years ago, or even at the beginning of my tenure, which was six years ago — (it) was a much healthier place than it is today.”
A pessimism has taken hold among many legislators, lobbyists and political operatives about how the next four months of the annual session will unfold, even as both chambers’ Democratic majorities lay out ambitious legislative plans.
And it’s not just about fighting between the political parties. Disagreements among Democrats have become more public as the party’s power in the Capitol has grown, with the expanding majority caucuses — now at historic numbers — revealing divisions within a broad ideological spectrum. That’s especially so in the House, where progressives and more moderate Democrats sometimes clash.
“Now, because the Republicans are somewhat irrelevant in terms of getting stuff passed, we’re fighting with each other,” said Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat.
Though the Democrats’ internal battles have drawn attention, House Republicans have been no strangers to infighting — Soper acknowledged it was typically his caucus that was making headlines for internal division.
Several lawmakers said in interviews that the overall environment has deteriorated for years, well before recent resignations and the fighting that accompanied the end of the November special session. But it’s hit a new low.
They pointed to past incidents as underappreciated warning signs about the Capitol’s fraying fibers of civility. Among them were a 2021 episode in which Republican Rep. Richard Holtorf called Democratic Rep. David Ortiz “Buckwheat” and another last year when six House Democrats, most of them women of color, faced death threats after Republicans publicly accused them, falsely, of boycotting a pro-police resolution.
“From the vantage point of somebody who has been serving here since 2017, it wasn’t always how it’s been (now), in terms of how things are said, how words are chosen and tenor,” said Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora Democrat entering his final session in the House. ” … In a way, you could say, it’s been building for a long time, arguably for years.”
House speaker hopes for a “reset”
It falls on the leaders of each chamber, House Speaker Julie McCluskie and Senate President Steve Fenberg, to set the tone and, if needed, keep the members in check — or at least try.
In an interview this week, McCluskie voiced optimism about how the session will unfold. When it comes to internal debates among Democrats, she argued, her fellow legislators represent the ideological diversity of the state, so disagreement is normal and can even be a strength. The House has a 45-19 majority that will grow when a Democrat caucus fills a remaining vacant seat.
McCluskie, a representative from Dillon, said three Democrats — Reps. Jennifer Bacon, Chris deGruy Kennedy and Weissman — were working on a guiding document to help set expectations for what constitutes out-of-bounds speech on the House floor.
That’s been a growing source of contention among House Democrats, some of whom feel that last year, their Republican colleagues at times crossed the line in their bid to slow progress on Democratic bills and to force concessions on major legislation. McCluskie faced internal criticism for how she handled some of those moments.
This year she’s signaled a desire to respond more publicly.
On Friday, she rebuked Holtorf for an outburst from his desk. And earlier this week, she formally reprimanded Rep. Elisabeth Epps, a Democrat, in writing for Epps’ name-calling of other members and for interrupting House proceedings in November. During the special session, Epps sat in the House gallery with pro-Palestinian protestors and shouted down at her colleagues below.
McCluskie, who lamented that much-publicized vitriol had overshadowed legislative work, said she hoped the reprimand would “put to bed” what happened two months ago. She hoped for a “reset” this session.
“I’m looking forward to kind of reestablishing and resetting those norms, with this additional guidance — helping clarify for members what is OK and what is not,” she said.
In August, McCluskie privately reprimanded Rep. Scott Bottoms, a Colorado Springs Republican, for comments he’d made about Democratic lawmakers during a spring town hall event.
“I will continue my one-on-one conversations with members,” she said, “certainly working through minority leadership when it is on that side of the aisle (and) working directly with our members when it’s on our side — and continuing to reinforce civil, respectful debate.”
She and Fenberg spent much of Wednesday’s opening speeches calling for civility.
In the Senate, where Democrats have a 23-12 majority, Fenberg urged his colleagues to respect the institution. Democracy, and the world itself, is fragile, he warned, and only faces more challenges ahead. Here he invoked former President Donald Trump, saying those challenges could come from artificial intelligence, wars abroad or the potential for “a court-declared insurrectionist — a man who fomented a violent attack on our nation’s Capitol and our democracy — once again rising to power.”
“We must resist the urge to be performers,” the Boulder Democrat said. “We must remind ourselves that to be a caretaker of this institution. We must legislate for constituents, and not for Twitter.”
Rep. Mike Lynch, a Wellington Republican who serves as House minority leader, said in his opening day speech that though legislators may not always agree, “we are colleagues and individuals with way more in common as humans and Americans than we have in differences as members of a political party.” Echoing Fenberg’s point, he urged lawmakers “to remain civil and above the fray of a petty tweet.”
Social media brings challenges
Several lawmakers voiced pessimism about whether that will happen, though there was no singular cause — or singular legislator — driving it.
Many linked it to Trump and the growing partisanship of national politics, while others said lawmakers’ embrace of social media, as a way to gain followers and influence, had broken down relationships. It also can incentivized sniping at colleagues from afar.
Bacon, a Denver Democrat entering her fourth regular session, said the negativity had hit a “crescendo” after building for years, particularly against lawmakers of color. She was one of the legislators who was threatened and called racial slurs after being falsely accused of boycotting the police resolution. She’s now involved in the drafting of the House’s guidance for floor speech.
She said the recent resignation of freshman Rep. Ruby Dickson, who quit the House in December over the political environment, was just as much of a warning sign as Epps’ interruptions in November.
Leadership needs to set a consistent tone, she said. Soper, the Delta Republican, similarly called for consistency.
“People have pushed the boundaries,” Bacon said. “And because they were not checked, some of us believe it’s still happening.”
She said she was glad that leadership — both Democratic and Republican — had committed to focusing on what legislators say at the microphone.
But social media complicates that oversight. While online platforms can amplify a lawmaker’s message well beyond the statehouse, legislative leaders’ focus on what representatives and senators say also poses the risk of a backlash if they police members’ speech too stringently.
McCluskie grimaced when asked about how — or if — she can address what legislators write on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Epps has castigated McCluskie online and exchanged attacks with fellow legislators. Republicans used social media to spread the false boycott allegations against Bacon and others, amid other criticisms of their Democratic colleagues.
Epps did not comment for this story.
McCluskie said that she can — and has — had private conversations with legislators about their social media postings. But she acknowledged that members have free speech rights, allowing them wide latitude online and outside of her authority.
“Hopefully we can bring it back to a sense of normalcy”
The tension is layered on top of the stress inherent to legislating. Lawmakers debate difficult, life-and-death issues, said Sen. Kyle Mullica, a Thornton Democrat.
He was at the center of an emotional fight last year over whether to allow supervised drug-use sites, and he was also a swing vote on a failed bill that would have provided more transparency for gig workers; he opposed both. As the gig workers bill neared a critical vote, some supporters showed up to his house, unannounced.
Mullica said such bare-knuckle tactics aren’t a way to win votes, much less friends, in the building. And during his years at the Capitol — he served two terms in the House before winning his Senate seat in 2022 — the tensions have ratcheted up noticeably, he said.
“Hopefully we can bring it back to a sense of normalcy and not let the drama get in the way of doing the good work that I think we’re all down here to do,” Mullica said.
Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican and the chamber’s minority leader, distinguishes between the the policy debates, the political fights and the posturing.
The Democratic majority in the Senate, like that in the House, can push through, with pure political will, any number of policies Republicans find wrongheaded — and Republican will call them wrongheaded, he said, without devolving into name-calling.
Even when tensions have threatened to boil over in the Senate, Lundeen said debate has stayed within the bounds of the Senate process. A recurring example: when Republicans have sought to delay the proceedings and Democrats have responded with procedural leveraging of their own.
Keeping debates to politics and policy helps the Republicans to stay in the conversation, even if their minority status means they can’t shut down a disfavored policy through sheer political might.
“At some point,” Lundeen said, “performance artists become irrelevant to the conversation.”
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