Republicans are in the minority in Colorado's legislature, but the opening day of the 2021 session showed they plan to put up a fight — objecting to everything from Democrats' choice to lead the House, to the rules governing the chambers, all of which transformed what are normally mostly procedural actions into an hours-long debate.
Typically the minority party either votes for the majority’s choice for Speaker of the House or does not object. Republicans’ doomed-to-fail effort to nominate their own leader instead was even more surprising because Democrats hold a 41-24 majority and incoming Speaker Rep. Alec Garnett is mild-mannered, generally well-liked and on friendly terms with many Republicans.
Outgoing Speaker KC Becker, who is term-limited, called the challenge unprecedented. Other Democrats blasted Republicans for nominating minority leader Rep. Hugh McKean.
“We have no Democratic speakers, no Republican speakers, only Speakers of the Colorado House,” said House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar. “And it's a shame that my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are choosing to upend the bipartisan tradition, years and years in the making, for the sake of scoring political points.”
The challenge failed along party lines. McKean, who has faced pushback in the past from some in his caucus for being too moderate, later called for bipartisanship. Speaker Garnett said his door is always open and sought to move on.
"It's kind of fun to be the first Speaker elected through roll call on the floor of this House,” Garnett said. “So let's look on the bright side."
That dust-up was among the many first-ever events as the legislature convened under the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and historic political turmoil in Washington D.C.
"To see an attempted coup on the government," said newly sworn-in Democratic lawmaker Naquetta Ricks. "It's like, it's just unreal. I don't even know what to think about the whole thing."
Ricks’ family fled the nation of Liberia when she was a child to escape a coup. She’s the first African immigrant to serve in Colorado’s legislature.
"The fight that is going on now, I just don't think it should be a fight. And we would have to protect our democracy at all costs, and let them just do the work that they've been elected to."
The nation’s unrest didn’t completely dampen her excitement of now holding elected office when posing for a picture with fellow new representative, Democrat Jennifer Bacon. They said it felt surreal to stand on the House floor, with the chamber’s beauty and history still shining through, even though much of it is broken up by plexiglass due to the pandemic.
"We were people hanging out at events two years ago," Bacon said. "It's like you knock on a thousand doors or try to get petitions before people slam doors on you."
Ricks jumped in to add, "I never knew I would run for office or anything in Liberia."
Also sworn in on the first day of the new session were Colorado’s first Muslim lawmaker, Rep. Iman Jodeh, and the first lawmaker to use a wheelchair, combat veteran Rep. David Ortiz. Both are Democrats.
The November election did little to change the overall balance of power in the legislature; Democrats picked up one additional seat in the state Senate, slightly widening their majority there.
"I think the legislature works better when they're split chambers," said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert. The Republicans lost control of that chamber in 2018. "It doesn't lead to gridlock. It means that we have to talk to each other."
Holbert noted that when Democrats first gained control of the state Senate, the two parties got off to a rocky start. The GOP sued Democratic Senate President Leroy Garcia during the legislative session when he tried to do an end-run around a procedural stalling tactic. Now though, Holbert said the lines of communication are more open now.
He and Garcia even performed a duet of the National Anthem and "America the Beautiful" on opening day: Garcia on piano, Holbert on guitar.
While the first day provided some partisan drama in the House, it also highlighted the parties’ different approaches to lawmaking during the pandemic. Republicans objected to rules over how the state will manage the legislative calendar during a declared state of emergency.
The major policy work of the session won’t begin in earnest until mid-February. Democratic leaders decided to take a pause due to COVID-19 in an effort to prevent the spread of the disease in the crowded halls of the Capitol. By the time they return, most lawmakers will have received a COVID-19 vaccine.
Many lawmakers will use the extra time to fine-tune their bills for the session.
"I’m focusing on the major issues of concern that I hear from voters in SD 25," said Republican Sen. Kevin Priola. "Education, transportation, health and small business — I’ve a number of ideas that relate to those areas I’m working on, that may or may not be introduced, depending upon stakeholder work."
Helping Colorado recover from the pandemic is also expected to continue to be a top priority for both parties. The first Senate bills introduced include changes to a pandemic relief program for minority-owned businesses, to make the money not entirely contingent on race, and an extension to a pandemic-inspired pause on some debt collections.
“When we come back, I’m going to be ready to rock and roll,” said Democratic Rep. Dominique Jackson.