Congress loses a ‘rare bird’ as Rep. Ed Perlmutter retires

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Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Rep. Ed Perlmutter poses with his Mars 2033 bumper sticker at his favorite place in the U.S. Capitol, a statue of John “Jack” Swigert given to the complex by Colorado. It embodies the state he’s proud to call home and his advocacy for space issues in Congress.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter has mixed emotions about his pending retirement from Congress.

“I've loved this job,” he said, sitting in a temporary office in the Capitol Visitor’s Center recently with the last few remaining staffers on his team. “If you like people, it's a great job.”

That’s not to say it hasn’t also been frustrating at times.

“Everybody says, ‘How can you stand working there?’ But you find common ground with people, as much as you can, and you work with them,” he explained. “So, I'll miss that. I'll miss that part. There's a lot of action. I'll miss that part. And the collegiality, I'll miss that part.”

He’s seen and done a lot over eight terms in Congress, from seeing Barack Obama elected president to the January 6 riot, which he described as both the worst day he experienced at the Capitol, but also the best, because they came back that night to finish the work they had started.

When he announced his retirement in January 2022, Perlmutter said it was time. He’d been mulling leaving for a while. This past year was the first time since 1994 that Perlmutter was not running for one office or another.

“I pride myself on being a retail politician,” he said.

Over the years he’s spent countless hours talking to voters at their doors and even at the local grocery store. His focus on the district was paramount; it included keeping his chief of staff and communications director based in Colorado rather than Washington, D.C.

“I like to see [people], I like to talk to 'em. I like to hear their thoughts on things, and I want them to see me.”

CPR News was out with Perlmutter on the campaign trail in 2012 when the congressman encountered a Jefferson County voter named Ginny.

Perlmutter was going door-to-door, and Ginny, who was out for a run, changed course to catch him for a quick talk. Perlmutter asked if he could put a yard sign up at her house. She said yes. What made this exchange memorable, though, is that, after agreeing, she asked what party he belonged to. Ginny was a Republican, Perlmutter a Democrat, but that didn’t faze her.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter
David Zalubowski/AP
U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter hands out flyers during a car rally for Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, at East High School late Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020, in Denver.

Perlmutter’s bipartisan reputation started during his time in the statehouse, and it solidified in Congress.

The institution may have grown more partisan during his tenure, but he said it’s been easy to work with and find friends across the aisle. 

“He’s the type of a guy that if he was your neighbor, even if you disagree on [politics], you'd have a great time,” said GOP Rep. Warren Davidson of Ohio. 

The lawmaker, who is a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus, calls Perlmutter a friend. They have played opposite each other at the congressional baseball game, cheered for opposing sides when Army and Air Force play against each other, and have served on the Financial Services committee. They’ve even worked on bills together, such as SAFE Banking.

Davidson might not miss Perlmutter’s political stances, “but I will miss him personally … He was entertaining, whether it was about work or about just what's going on in current events, just a guy that you enjoy spending time with.”

The way Democrat Jim Himes of Connecticut described it, Perlmutter’s “not reflexively partisan.”

He’s developed a fellowship, especially among members of the Financial Services committee. Himes says Perlmutter is “a rare bird” in Congress because while he takes his work seriously, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. 

One indelible memory Himes has of Perlmutter involves the two skiing together in Colorado. Himes remembers watching his colleague go down one particularly steep run, “screaming at the top of his lungs. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god, this is a member of Congress. You know, he’s whooping it up the whole way down the slope.”

“Days can be hard around here, and when you're hanging out with Ed Perlmutter, you're having a good day,” Himes said. “You know, you can always count on Ed for a joke and a laugh.”

Perlmutter got his laughs many different ways; he was the self-described "designated heckler" on the Democrats’ congressional baseball team and instigated a holiday decorating competition that came to take over an entire hallway of one Capitol office building.

Caitlyn Kim/CPR News
Rep. Ed Perlmutter's final baseball card of his congressional career. He's played for the Democrats since arriving in the House in 2007.

Perlmutter's legislative legacy

If Perlmutter will miss the people here, he won’t miss the last-minute rush to pass bills that comes around yearly.

“There's a little bit of a Groundhog Day aspect to this place,” he said. Congress is in one now, trying to get an appropriations bill. “It's the same speech every year. ‘We gotta get these done, we gotta send them to the Senate,’ We've gotten all our work done and then it all waits until like this week or next week to finish it.”

Legislatively speaking, Perlmutter said he accomplished a lot of what he wanted to get done. After years of cost overruns and handwringing, the massive VA hospital in Aurora is finally open.  Bills to help firefighters, to aid veterans suffering from brain trauma, and to support aerospace development are other successes that come to the top of his mind.

But he will be leaving with a few items still undone.

Perlmutter said he’s said he won’t be there to keep supporting the endeavor to get humans to Mars by 2033. He’s turned a bumper sticker with the words “Mars 2033. We can do this” into a much-used prop in hearings, one his committee colleagues have seen so often, it’s become a running joke.

“That’s [an issue] where somebody else is going to have to pick up the mantle,” he said. 

And legislatively, Perlmutter went out “swinging,” pushing until the last moment to have his bill to get the cannabis industry access to financial services included in the omnibus bill, the last legislation this congress will likely pass this term. He’s managed to get it through the House several times this congress and last, but the bill has continued to stall in the Senate.

Ed Perlmutter, Jamie Raskin
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
House Rules Committee members Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., and Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., right, work on the markup of the resolution that formalized the next steps in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2019.

'Colorado's been a good place for the Perlmutter family, it really has'

Perlmutter has also worked tirelessly, and without much notice, to improve the institution through the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, who has served with Perlmutter on this committee and on Financial Services, said Speaker Nancy Pelosi wanted to staff it with “people who genuinely worked with others, regardless of political views.”

Some ideas they've come up with are small, like having rooms where lawmakers of both parties can work collaboratively.

“If everybody just is always going to their corner, you don't develop the relationships. And politics is about relationships,” Perlmutter said.

Some of the committee's ideas are bigger, and potentially less popular. One of the last bills Perlmutter introduced this Congress would increase lawmaker pay for the first time in more than a decade, bringing it on par with the federal judicial salaries. 

Cleaver said sometimes there is a lack of courage when it comes to discussing issues like lawmaker pay for fear of getting attacked, but “nobody has attacked him. I’ve never seen a story where Republicans attack Ed Perlmutter for suggesting such and such. And it shows how much respect people have for him.”

While Perlmutter maintains he doesn’t have any second thoughts about leaving, he is sad to go. He has viewed being a member of Congress as a way to serve his community and his neighbors — “a noble calling.”

It’s something he said his father instilled in him.

“My dad was always [saying] ... ‘if you have the opportunity to give back to your community, that's your responsibility.’ And, you know, Colorado's been a good place for the Perlmutter family, it really has,” Perlmutter said, choking up. “And I've had the responsibility to give back, and I've loved every second of it.”