Tensions between House Democrats flare in final hours of session

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Incoming Democratic House Speaker Julie McCluskie speaks with Colorado Matters host Chandra Thomas Whitfield on Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, in a House Leadership conference room. McCluskie represents the 61st district, including Lake, Pitkin, Delta, Summit, and Gunnison counties.

With just hours to go before adjournment, long simmering tensions in the House Democratic caucus burst into the open Monday night. 

An emotional caucus meeting intended to update members on the fate of the final bills of the session changed course to reveal deeper divides over how the chamber has been managed. Several members criticized Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie directly, saying she failed to take action against racist and inappropriate comments on the chamber floor and didn’t do enough to support brown and Black lawmakers, especially the Black women in the caucus.

“The rhetoric that has happened in this chamber is toxic,” said Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver. “And Black women and those who stand with us — thank you — have been put in the line of fire, put in jeopardy. Our lives have been put in jeopardy and we have been asking for help and support. When we don't stand up for people, they keep coming for the next person.”

It was a dramatic moment of reckoning for the majority party that holds an historic supermajority in the House. Usually when these types of fractures happen, it’s behind closed doors, and certainly not in an open meeting attended by the Capitol press corps. 

And it raises questions about how McCluskie and other caucus members will approach their work together when the legislature reconvenes next year.

‘No one stands up for us’

The roughly hour-long impromptu meeting occurred soon after House Republicans walked off the chamber floor in protest over a proposal to reduce property taxes and TABOR refunds. They said the policy was too rushed and not well thought out and refused to return for the final votes of the session.

Democrats quickly gathered in a large committee room nearby. While the conversation started with updates on the tax proposal about the fate of another bill — the governor’s land use plan — the discussion quickly turned to deeper issues dividing some members and their top leaders.

First year Rep. Elisabeth Epps of Denver said there need to be intense changes to how the caucus is run between now and the start of the next session in January. She noted that she hadn’t talked to the Speaker in three months and she doesn’t think McCluskie calls out the “nonsense” from the other side of the aisle.  

“It is predictable at this point. And it's not just what happens on the floor, (it’s) what's happening off, to the extent that we have this moment” she said of Monday’s meeting. 

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democratic state Rep. Elisabeth Epps at the Capitol, March 2, 2023.

Several members have complained leadership did not do enough to address Republican comments that have crossed the line, including efforts to add anti-trans amendments to a resolution about the Equal Rights Amendment and verbal attacks after Democrats limited debate on a set of gun bills

Epps and other Black women in the caucus, including Herod and Assistant Majority Leader Jennifer Bacon, said the vitriol recently increased after the House passed a bipartisan resolution declaring May 12th Police Week

Six House Democrats, including Epps, Herod and Bacon, were away from the chamber and excused from voting on the resolution. They said false rumors quickly circulated that their absence was a coordinated protest against the police.

“We're fighting for Black lives when we're accused of walking out when we never did. And no one stands up for us to say that it didn't happen,” said Herod. 

In an editorial on the site ColoradoPolitics, former Republican attorney general candidate George Brauchler called out the three Black lawmakers by name, but not the other Democrats who missed the vote who are not Black. It’s not uncommon for some lawmakers to be off the floor for resolutions, which can be passed on a voice vote. 

McCluskie did make a public statement defending those members in recent days, but some colleagues said they felt it was forced. 

A grueling session with many lessons learned

As she stood before the caucus Monday night, McCluskie said she was a bit overwhelmed by their concerns and unable to respond immediately with concrete next steps. But she said she’s ready, willing and eager to sit down and talk with Epps and others. 

“I've said it to all of you before: We have not had opportunities to communicate. We are not communicating well. There has been too much. We have been working hard around the clock. I will lean in, I will do more,” she said.

McCluskie was elected to the statehouse in 2018 and previously served on the legislature’s powerful Joint Budget Committee. She helms a leadership team that is more racially diverse than ever before and mostly women. She was chosen by her colleagues to be Speaker after last year’s election.

This past session was a grueling one, with overnight debates, filibusters, and many weekends of work as Democrats advanced an agenda that included stricter gun laws and protections for abortion access and transgender care. 

With adjournment approaching, some lawmakers did rise at the meeting to praise McCluskie for how she organized and led the caucus and managed the chamber’s calendar. 

“I have deep gratitude for the work you've done and the way this has been handled and I want everybody to acknowledge that,” said Democratic Rep. Judy Amabile. 

McCluskie said she wants all of her colleagues to succeed. 

“This place, this institution means everything to me,” McCluskie said. “And when I fail, I fail. I am as human as everyone else here. My list of lessons learned is long, but I'm not giving up. I'm not quitting.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to clarify that the caucus meeting began as a chance to update members on the final actions of the session.