‘He did it the old-fashioned way’: Colorado Democrats and Republicans honor late House Minority Leader Hugh McKean

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The Colorado State Capitol rotunda is filled with people mourning former House Minority Leader Hugh McKean. Nov. 10, 2022.

House Minority Leader Hugh McKean’s cremated remains held a place of honor during a ceremony in the rotunda of the state Capitol on Thursday.

McKean, who died last month of a heart attack, was a beloved presence in the building over his six-year career as a state politician.

“Hugh’s laughter filled the hallways of the Colorado State Capitol, but not as much as his heart,” said Weld County Commissioner Scott James, the first in a line of dignitaries to eulogize McKean. 

McKean died at age 55 on Oct. 30. He was a former Loveland city council member and had been running unopposed for a fourth term in House District 51. He was expected to continue as the leader of the Republican caucus in the upcoming session.

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Former Gov. Bill Owens and Gov. Jared Polis walk down the Colorado State Capitol rotunda steps after a memorial for Hugh McKean. Nov. 10, 2022.

The speakers on Tuesday included Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, and former Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican.

As at any funeral, there were surprising anecdotes. House Speaker Alec Garnett told the audience McKean had a habit of sneaking into the Democratic leadership office to leave notes — and sometimes more.

“He once filled up my Nalgene with vodka,” Garnett said to laughter.

McKean’s colleagues honored him not just for his playful personality, but for how he approached politics. Garnett recalled negotiating with McKean over the 2019 “red flag” gun law. McKean had come to watch Garnett’s toddler’s soccer practice and talk through their differences over the bill.

The two men vehemently disagreed on the policy, which allows law enforcement to take weapons from people deemed dangerous. But their relationship strengthened nonetheless.

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Gov. Jared Polis hands folded flags to Hugh McKean's family during a memorial service for him in the Colorado State Capitol rotunda. Nov. 10, 2022.

“He represented his own views. He represented his constituents. He represented his party. But he did it the right way. He did it the old-fashioned way,” Garnett said. “In our society today, we’ve forgotten how to disagree with each other. But Hugh never did.”

Owens, the former governor, said that McKean was an effective lawmaker, pointing to nearly 60 laws for which McKean was a prime sponsor, all while serving in the minority in the House.

“He made his case with strength and energy and sound ideas, but also with respect and humility,” Owens said.

McKean had a particularly tough job as the leader of the House Republicans. His party has been out of power for years, and his caucus, at times, has been deeply divided between far-right members and more moderate members like himself. 

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Julie McKenna (right) comforts Susan Raplee during a memorial for Hugh McKean at the Colorado State Capitol. Nov. 10, 2022.

Representative Mike Lynch was chosen by his caucus Thursday to be the next minority leader. He said that it was McKean’s personality — especially his sense of humor — that allowed him to turn confrontations into productive conversations.

“That man could break the tension in any room. Any room. He could bring us all back to being human. Bring us all back to the point that we all come to this building for — which is to do something good,” Lynch said.

After the ceremony ended, and Taps was played by the honor guard, Commissioner James asked the audience to do something McKean would have appreciated.

“I want you to turn to a stranger. Democrats, turn to Republicans, if you can find one,” he said. “Look them in the eye, and tell them: ‘I. Love. You.’”

And they did.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
The Colorado State Capitol rotunda is filled with people mourning former House Minority Leader Hugh McKean. Nov. 10, 2022.