State of the Union leaves Colorado guests wowed, Congress members divided

State of the Union
Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Joe Biden talks with Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Colo., after the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress at the Capitol, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, in Washington.

In a new era of divided government, Colorado’s Congress members had decidedly different takeaways from President Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address.

How they viewed the speech depended on what side of the aisle they call home.

For Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet, the president’s words reminded the country that progress has been made, “that we were able to come together in a bipartisan way to address some of the biggest challenges facing the country and facing the world.”

And that, from that bipartisan foundation, Washington can continue to collaborate to address the country’s challenges.

It was a major theme of Biden’s address.

“To my Republican friends, if we could work together in the last Congress, there is no reason we can’t work together and find consensus on important things in this new Congress, as well,” Biden said. “The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict, gets us nowhere. And that’s always been my vision for our country.”

Those words of unity were exactly what Democratic Rep. Jason Crow went into the speech hoping to hear.

“A message of what brings us together as Americans,” said Crow. “Resetting the tone about civility is something that I think is really important. And I’ve got to say I've been encouraged by what I've seen so far. Some of the meetings between Speaker McCarthy and the President have been civil, have been productive. And I think it's really important that that message continue.”

Biden talked about the progress made during his first two years in office, including passage of bipartisan bills to advance infrastructure and gun safety.

Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper said Biden spoke about things that have “real meaning” in Colorado, like the PACT Act to help veterans exposed to toxins. “We’ve got over 400,000 vets in Colorado. That’s a big deal.”

Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse also thought the bills passed and signed into law last year have made a real impact on people’s lives.

“I think many Coloradans will be able to speak to that first hand,” he said, giving the I-70 expansion at Floyd Hill (made possible through the bipartisan infrastructure law) as just one example. “So as the President discusses the many ways in which the laws we enacted have made an impact in people’s lives, Coloradans can viscerally connect to that.”

Freshman Democratic Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a self-described political nerd, was excited to be in the chamber for her first State of the Union address.

“Christmas, Election Day and the State of the Union are kind of my top holidays,” she said before the speech. “So getting to be there and see the president in person and sit with colleagues who, before this, I saw on TV is just personally going to be an incredible moment in my life.”

Caraveo snagged a seat close to the center aisle, where lawmakers can shake hands with guests walking in. But she said there was one message she was listening for: specifics about how plans to tackle the rising cost of living, “what we all have to pay bills on every single day, whether it’s rent or a mortgage, whether it’s eggs or other groceries.”

After the speech, Caraveo's fellow first-year lawmaker, Democrat Brittany Pettersen said in a statement that Biden had laid out "a bold plan to attack inflation head-on, lower health care and housing costs, and make sure all parents can afford and access quality child care." And for her part, Rep. Diana DeGette said she was ready to work with the president on expanding access to abortion, shifting away from fossil fuels and passing new gun restrictions, all policies that are extremely unlikely to advance in the Republican-controlled House.

For Republicans: '72 minutes of lies' 

But as with much of politics these days, there was a split-screen effect. If Democrats heard a unifying and optimistic message, Republicans found much to be concerned about.

GOP Rep. Doug Lamborn said in a statement that the nation “is in peril” due to Biden’s leadership. 

“It is glaringly obvious that the state of our union is weaker, and American families are suffering because of Joe Biden’s out-of-touch, failed liberal policies that have caused historic inflation and have emboldened our adversaries,” he said in a statement. “There is a reason Republicans took back the House, and that’s because of speeches like tonight where Biden ignored and deflected blame for inflation, rising crime, and a border crisis his administration created.”

Conservative Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert tweeted out a steady stream of criticism throughout the speech, from blaming Biden for COVID-era school closures to writing that the president hates American energy. And when he called for a ban on assault weapons, Boebert, a longstanding gun advocate, responded “NOT. A. CHANCE.”

“72 minutes of lies can’t make us forget about the past two years of misery,” she tweeted.

And the calls for unity that Democrats appreciated, did not seem to convince Republicans. GOP Rep. Ken Buck tweeted, “We need a unifying leader to heal the wounds of our nation. Tonight, Biden showed us he isn’t that leader.”

Guests experience a ‘bucket list’ night

While there was partisan theater on the House floor, as lawmakers clapped or sat on their hands at key moments, high up in the gallery, many Colorado guests were just excited to be there.

Colorado Mesa University President John Marshall, who attended at Boebert’s invitation, said it was a “remarkable experience to have a front-row seat to this ritual of our democracy.”

And his experience extended beyond the speech; as he got to sit — and chat — with a really diverse group, from a businessman and a basketball player, to a biology teacher and even George Floyd’s brother.

Like many other guests, Lilianna Soto was excited to be at the Capitol for what she described as a “bucket list” opportunity. “I had never thought that I would be able to get that crossed out. And I’m here today,” she said before the address. “It’s going to be an honor. I can't wait to see President Biden.”

But it was also a bittersweet moment for some, like Boulder resident Ellen Mahoney. Her husband was a victim of the 2021 King Sooper shooting. She was honored to be Neguse’s guest — to help him spotlight the issue of gun violence and to hear the president speak to people at home about his hopes for the future.

“I was glad to hear him mention his plan to address gun violence in America. It’s devastating and life-altering to lose a loved one to senseless and horrific gun violence — and I hope the leaders in the room heed President Biden’s call to ban assault weapons and to prevent the loss of more innocent lives,” she said in a statement.

Richard Fierro, who also survived the Club Q mass shooting and helped disarm the shooter, was Crow’s guest. It wasn’t just being there for the speech that amazed him. He enjoyed spending a day on Capitol Hill with his wife and Crow. Both men are veterans and they swapped military stories as they checked out the Capitol.

“I am an American that loves our system and loves democracy. So for me to see how the Congress was running around voting in between meeting people and doing all this stuff,” he said, “It’s been a real humbling experience.”