Colorado’s first lawmaker to use a wheelchair will get to wield the gavel this session, thanks to newly installed lift

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Bente Birkleland/CPR News
Rep. David Ortiz inspects the Speaker’s desk his first time on the House dais.

When the annual legislative session begins in just a few weeks, Colorado’s state capitol will be bustling with lawmakers and members of the public.  But on a recent day it was virtually empty, when Democratic Rep. David Ortiz entered the House chamber.

He was there to do something he’s never gotten to do before — take in the view from the Speaker’s podium.

“I'm very touched. I'm very humbled, excited. I mean, this is groundbreaking,” Ortiz said to the handful of legislative staff working in the chamber.

Ortiz is Colorado’s first lawmaker to use a wheelchair. After he won election in 2020, the state made updates so he could enter the chamber unassisted and reach his desk on the House floor. But for his first session, the Speaker’s podium remained out of reach, because of its elevated platform. 

Today, that changed. Ortiz was at the capitol to check out a newly installed lift that will give him the same access to the podium as the rest of his colleagues.

“It looks amazing. I really think it goes with the aesthetic of the building,” he said, admiring the gold-colored rectangular box which sits adjacent to the steps leading up to the platform. It was designed to blend in seamlessly into the ornate historic decor. 

Legislative staff believe this is the first podium lift of its kind installed inside a state capitol anywhere in the U.S.

Pointing to a subtle screen that surrounds the lift, Ortiz said, “I love the misted glass, that way I don't feel like I'm being stared at. Although I feel like someone should be playing The Final Countdown as it’s lifted up.”

With the lift in place, Ortiz will now be able to take a turn presiding over the full chamber; wielding the gavel during debates and determining the winners and losers of voice votes (if the outcome of one of those votes is really in doubt, members can ask for a formal vote to be recorded). 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democratic state Rep. David Ortiz in the House on March 4, 2021.

“It's an opportunity for that member to govern the entire body. It's an opportunity for them to interact with both Democrats and Republicans, to be fair, to call balls and strikes,” said Speaker of the House Alec Garnett. “This is pretty much where the power lies with the majority party versus the minority party.”

Over the course of a session, every member of the majority party gets a chance to preside over the chamber. Garnett said he’s glad Ortiz will now join that rotation.

“You can do it with humor, you can do it with fairness. Everyone has their own style, and I'm really excited to watch representative Ortiz as he gets this opportunity.”

For the 2021 session, legislative staff trained to physically carry Ortiz up to the podium in his wheelchair, but ultimately Ortiz says he didn’t want to take that approach.

“There were a whole host of reasons — I didn't want to get dropped, imagine what that could have looked like — but mostly because I wanted them to do things the right way,” he said.

During his first test of the lift, Ortiz rolled his wheelchair onto it as the staff who oversaw the project looked on. In 15 seconds, he was out on the dais. 

Bente Birkleland/CPR News
Rep. David Ortiz gives the newly-installed House chamber lift a try for the first time.

“Who's ready?” He laughed as he grabbed the large wooden gavel used to manage the floor and gave it a sharp bang which reverberated through the empty chamber. “That is loud up here.” 

As Ortiz thanked staff for making the lift a reality his manner changed from joking to emotional for a moment.

The 39-year-old survived a helicopter crash nine years ago while serving with the Army in Afghanistan, but was left paralyzed from the waist down. He’s worked in the years since to highlight issues people living with disabilities face. For him, making Colorado’s capitol more accessible is about a lot more than his own ability to do his job.   

“It's also symbolic to be able to see somebody with a disability up there now; whereas before we couldn't,” he said. “So any little boy or girl that lives with a disability (and) sees that, maybe they will consider running for office. And I would encourage them to, because being a caucus of one can get pretty lonely.”

The podium lift cost $22,000 and is likely not the last modification for the House chamber — other areas still need changes before Ortiz can go everywhere his fellow lawmakers already have access to.