‘He was always there to help’: Colorado lawmakers remember Hugh McKean, GOP statehouse leader

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican Minority Leader Hugh McKean in a lighter moment on the House floor as lawmakers gather for the final day of the 2022 legislative session at the Capitol, Wednesday, April 11, 2022.

Republican House Minority Leader Hugh McKean’s sudden death from a heart attack over the weekend shocked and saddened Colorado’s political world. 

While McKean presided over a fractious and deeply divided GOP caucus, he worked hard to forge good relationships with colleagues in both political parties. 

Democratic House Speaker Alec Garnett said McKean was a friend first. He recalls an incident that happened during the 2021 session, when lawmakers were still at the Capitol debating late on a Friday night.

“I'm complaining because my refrigerator broke,” said Garnett, whose wife was pregnant at the time with their third child. “She wanted ice, but our ice machine didn't work. So he was like, ‘Don't worry, I'll come up on Sunday and I'll fix your refrigerator.’ And I'm like, 'Really?'”

But the Denver Democrat said McKean, who lived in Loveland, was serious.

“And so he wakes up early on Sunday, drives up to my house, fixes my refrigerator, and then hangs out with my kids all day.” 

Garnett said it’s a good example of McKean’s character.

“He was always there to help people out.”

Garnett said that friendship helped them navigate thorny political issues, contentious policy debates, decorum breaches and managing a heavy calendar of work. Garnett recalled the end of one session when House Republicans wanted to leverage a backlog of bills to thwart the Democrats’ agenda. 

“There were just big issues that we had,” Garnett said, recalling his meetings with McKean as they tried to resolve the stand-off. “I think the benefit that we had was that we both loved the institution dearly, and so we wanted to make sure that we weren't doing anything to harm the institution. And we both loved the state of Colorado. And so with those two guiding principles, we were able to either find compromise or at least find a path forward to respectfully disagree with each other.”

A leader during a challenging few years at the Capitol

During an interview with CPR News in May, McKean noted how challenging the last few years were at the statehouse, especially coming out of the COVID pandemic.

“I think legislative sessions are always tough because we have a bunch of people who think differently about the things they want to accomplish,” said McKean. “In some ways, it's 120 days of, like, the fastest-paced thinking that you ever have to do, because you're constantly trying to negotiate on different subjects and things.”

With Democrats in charge of state government and McKean’s party holding their fewest seats in the House in decades, his ability to try to usher through GOP priorities was limited, but he said he wanted Republicans to be more than just the party of no.

“And really, this year for me was so much more about Republicans being for things, not just against things,” he said of the 2022 legislative session. “So we put on the table the tax cuts, we put on the table how we can save families money, how we can do a better job policing our streets. Some of those got through, some didn't.”

McKean, a general contractor in his regular life, was first elected to the statehouse in 2016 to represent House District 51 in Larimer County. He was running unopposed for a fourth term this year. 

The district 51 seat will be filled by a Republican vacancy committee after the election, with the appointee serving for the next two years before they will have to stand for election. Republicans will also need to select a new leader for the caucus. 

A ‘happy warrior’ who was challenged by the more conservative wing of his party

During his two years as minority leader, the House GOP’s 24-member caucus was almost evenly split between McKean supporters and adherents to the more conservative, hardline wing of the party. In an extraordinary move, on the last day of his first session as leader, House Republicans held a vote of no confidence to try to replace McKean. They were unsuccessful.

Beyond philosophical and stylistic differences, the conservative members argued he’d been unacceptably careless by casting an accidental yes vote on a gun bill, after which not enough House Democrats agreed to let him correct his mistake. McKean was finally able to vote no after the Senate made changes that the House needed to re-approve.

Republican state Rep. Colin Larson, a close friend of McKean, said he was always a “happy warrior” who took the attempted rebellion in stride, and was able to laugh about almost any situation.

“I remember going up and talking to him and he was like, ‘Look. I don't care. They want to kick me out as minority leader? Great, it'll take a lot of stress off my plate and I get to spend more time with my kids,'” Larson said. “He just kind of had that: ‘Whatever's gonna happen is gonna happen.’ He didn't stress about it too much, or maybe he did stress about it and just wasn't telling anybody.”

Larson and McKean worked together to recruit a historically diverse slate of GOP candidates for House races this year. While Republicans are not expected to make up their deficit of seats in the House, McKean was active in trying to narrow the gap.

Larson talked to McKean last Wednesday and had seen him recently at a Colorado Chamber of Commerce meeting. 

“We joked, we talked.” He said McKean told him he had a little bit of back pain. “But he was just, you know, (it’s) not a big deal. And he was working on his house.”

Larson called McKean’s sudden death a “total sledgehammer.” He said he hasn’t had the time to really grieve yet.

“I was on the phone with people, it was just nonstop and I was just like, ‘oh hang on a sec. I’ve got to take a second to break down.’ I was fine, and then it would just hit me and then I'd break down for a couple minutes and then compose myself and then carry on.”

McKean was 55 years old. He leaves behind two children, Aiden and Hanna McKean, and his partner, Amy Parks.