Never in contemporary Colorado politics has one party wielded so much power and control with such overreaching, unrestrained revolutionary zeal. Democrats won big in 2018, taking leadership of both chambers of the Legislature and all statewide offices. They have not frittered away the chance to impose major changes faster than the eye can see.
Colorado stands as one of 14 states in which Democrats control the Legislature and Governor’s Office, known as a trifecta.
Democrats held Colorado trifectas for six of 25 years between 1992 and 2017. Republicans held trifectas during four years in that span. During the remaining 15 years, Colorado benefited from political balance and the resulting high-end policies forged by compromise and gridlock.
Neither party held trifectas while simultaneously controlling all other statewide offices until this year. Historically, resistance from opponents with powers of the attorney general, treasurer, secretary of state, or all three held trifectas in check.
The aggressive legislative agenda, driven by a governor and three of four legislative leaders hailing from famously liberal Boulder, reads like a left-wing fantasy of taxes (disguised as “fees”), regulations and social engineering experiments.
“We write to you with tremendous apprehension about a host of bills moving through the legislature that would do profound harm to the state’s economy and kill jobs if they become law,” states an April 11 letter from the pro-business nonprofit Colorado Concern.
The letter pleads with Gov. Jared Polis to rein in his party’s political excess.
“We believe these bills are directionally wrong for Colorado,” it states. “We ask you, therefore, to help defeat these bills or veto them if they reach your desk.”
As of April 25, the governor had signed 137 bills into law and vetoed nothing. He has disappointed anyone who considered him a moderate Democrat who could lead his party to the center. His party-first leadership style discredits a March 30 headline in The Economist that calls Polis “an unusual breed: a libertarian Democrat.”
Legislators worked through a historic bomb cyclone that shut down schools and the rest of state government, and on Good Friday and Passover for the first time anyone can remember. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, told members to prepare to work Saturday and Sunday in advance of the session’s scheduled end Friday.
They pass laws early, late, and waste no moments in-between to change Colorado fundamentally during the Legislature’s four-month session.
Even the Democratic-friendly Denver Post editorial board complains of the Legislature forcing too much change too fast.
“…the public is drinking through a fire hose trying to keep up with the bills that have been working their way through the General Assembly since January,” said the Post’s March 6 editorial, published before introduction of dozens of additional life-altering bills.
Jon Caldara, president of the Colorado-based Independence Institute, a free-market advocacy group, says “liberal” does not describe Colorado’s Democratic Legislature.
“Coloradans need to learn the difference between liberals and progressives,” Caldara tells The Gazette. “Liberals used to say ‘the ends don’t justify the means.’ ‘Due process matters.’ Those were liberals, Norman Lear, the ACLU and the like… Those running Colorado today are progressives. Principle does not matter. Consistency does not matter. Process does not matter. Only winning matters, at any cost.”
The frenzied rush to impose left-wing legislation could leave every square inch of Colorado with a one-size-fits-all sex education curriculum for public schools. The instruction proposed by House Bill 1032 emphasizes LGBT education and restricts teaching traditional and religious views of sexuality.
While jeopardizing local control of public education, Polis and the Legislature enacted a jobs-killing oil and gas law that champions “local control” as an inherent virtue that justifies it. Indeed, consistency has no place here. Polis signed Senate Bill 181 despite warnings the measure endangers hundreds of thousands of jobs and could ignite a statewide recession.
A visit to Los Angeles reveals how Colorado’s looming regulations of energy production reach beyond those in California, where oil derricks and pumpjacks operate throughout dense urban neighborhoods amid homes and schools.
Only three months after Democrats took office, critics of the Democratic takeover say “Californication” could soon insult California.
“Obviously, we’re in an arms race to see who can be more California,” Caldara said.
“Californication” refers to duplicating the Golden State’s high taxes, excessive regulations, and left-leaning social policies long rejected by Colorado’s electorate.
While ensuring Colorado oil producers toil under the country’s most intense regulations, legislators and the governor quickly imposed the country’s strictest “red flag” gun law against the advice of most county sheriffs, local law enforcers and major law enforcement unions. Sheriffs and police chiefs complain the law forces them to violate the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which they swore to uphold in pledging a standard oath of office.
Meanwhile, legislators who virtuously signal “local control” champion House Bill 1192. It demands all school districts convene community forums at least every six years. The forums must ensure history and government classes emphasize “historic, cultural and civic” contributions of “American Indians, Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals within these minority groups, the contributions and persecution of religious minorities and the intersectionality of significant social and cultural features within these communities…”
The law would establish the “Cultural, Social Contributions and Civil Government in Education Commission” to make curriculum recommendations to the state Board of Education. The governor, by law, would appoint a commission that consists of two American Indians; two Latinos; two African Americans; two Asian Americans, and one commissioner who is lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered.
Diversity and tolerance make up an important part of Colorado’s Western live-and-let live values. That does not mean all parents and teachers support classroom instruction that places immutable traits over the character of historical figures. If 1192 passes, forget Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a society that never judges individuals by the color of their skin. The law would demand forcing students to focus on race, sexual orientation, nationality and religious identity above all else. It would mandate top-down imposition of the Democratic addiction to identity politics. Winners, not losers, write history.
In another move hypocritical to the party’s ostensibly noble “local control” platform, the Legislature and governor imposed a law giving Colorado’s electoral votes to future presidential candidates who win the popular vote. The law attempts to circumvent the constitutional and traditional practice of using the Electoral College to elect presidents.
Colorado’s new membership in the Popular Vote Compact kicks in only if enough other states join to make up 270 electoral votes — the number needed to win an election. With 15 members, the compact has 189 votes. If successful in recruiting more states, the compact will empower large progressive strongholds — think Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and New York — with more say than Colorado in determining who the state chooses to occupy the White House. If a majority of Colorado voters chooses Candidate A, all the state’s electoral votes would go to Candidate B. That ain’t local control.
Legislators proposed the FAMLI bill, attempting the most progressive family leave act in the country with a payroll tax disguised as a fee. Facing opposition, they amended it to study-status and kicked it down the road.
House Bill 1278, under consideration, imposes new voter registration and ballot access regulations on county election officials — at the erosion of local control. It imposes expensive unfunded mandates intended to reduce obstacles for those least motivated to vote.
The voting bill prohibits using police stations, sheriffs’ offices and other law-enforcement agencies as polling or ballot-box drop-off locations. Critics claim that provision promotes an ideology that says criminal suspects, fugitives and illegal immigrants should vote — for Democrats, of course. Former Democratic State Rep. Joe Salazar explained in a tweet the philosophy behind separating voting and law enforcement.
“I suppose if anyone studied any American History, they would know that law enforcement was typically used to discourage people of color from voting,” Salazar wrote. “It’s good to make things clear in the statute.”
HB 1230 would amend Colorado’s Clean Air Act to allow pot consumption in public, including restaurants and tour buses. Never let the need for clean air interfere with getting loaded.
Those are just a few big-ticket items that forcefully remind us how the left has taken charge with callous disregard for moderation and balance. (See sidebar below for other legislation attempted, approved or moving through the system).
For Republicans, 2019 serves as a hard reminder of the mantra “elections have consequences.”
It is a lesson Colorado Democrats learned through much of the 1990s and early 2000s, when they viewed Colorado as an increasingly red state that supported conservative fiscal and social policies.
“The state was red… red, red, red. It was driving farther and farther right,” explains attorney and Democratic strategist Ted Trimpa in a Colorado Public Television interview.
“At some point you say ‘enough.’ You don’t go out and get a consensus. You get a group of funders that really wants to win, you develop what a plan is, and people can either jump on that train or not.”
Trimpa consulted with a group of big-money in-state donors in 2004 to help form the famous Colorado Blueprint. Trimpa met with multimillionaire Democrats Polis, Quark Founder Tim Gill, petroleum executive Rutt Bridges, and Fort Collins billionaire Pat Stryker of Stryker Pharmaceutical.
“Bridges, Gill, Polis and Stryker — dubbed the ‘Gang of Four’ by the Colorado press — agreed to pool their resources… By the summer of 2004, they were ready to give money on a level never before seen in Colorado politics,” explains a 2010 Denver Post article headlined “How the Dems won Colorado.”
Trimpa said Republicans lost big because they lack a modern political strategy to compete with Colorado’s sustainable new Democratic machine — the one he helped design.
“You (Republicans) reinvent the wheel every election cycle… This is something you have to do almost year around,” Trimpa said. “And there’s a way to do this with a mix of political money and philanthropic money.”
He speaks of cooperation among the teachers union, individual donors, the environmental movement, trial lawyers and other special interests seeking Democratic election victories.
“And there’s an agreement,” he said. “It’s about winning… I would argue your team (Republican Party) is more about wanting to prove they’re right rather than wanting to win. If the objective is winning, it changes so many different metrics. It sounds really simple, but if you think about it, it can’t be about, ‘oh, well if we get this we’re going to get these three policies and this is what we can do.’ Everyone has to check that stuff at the door.”
By “check that stuff at the door,” Trimpa means the Democratic Party does not tolerate donors demanding agendas outside the context of candidates labeled “D” winning their races. Without those victories, he says, no other political agendas survive.
Trimpa’s party frowns on political consultants who make money by purchasing TV ads and taking a cut of the placement costs. TV ads don’t do much in modern politics, he insists.
“Voter contact, voter contact, voter contact,” he said. “Particularly with mail-in ballots. With mail ballots you know who got a ballot, you know who has turned in a ballot, so you know which door to go to. When you’re going to that door, you need to know what to talk about with that voter. It is not just ‘hey, here’s a door hanger, and have you turned in your ballot?’ ”
“I have advice for Republicans: Hey, why don’t you try coming into the 21st century? Yes it takes money to win, and ideology matters. But it’s like dealing with consumers. You have to tell voters ‘we’re going to give you something that you want’ (in return for a vote).”
Promising voters government outcomes feels unnatural for a Republican Party accustomed to offering limited government, in the form of freedom from taxes and regulations of businesses, individuals and households. Promises of “liberty” and “freedom” just do not sell among millennial voters, a demographic that increased its Colorado voter participation by 10 percent in 2018 over 2016.
The 2018 election proved a perfect storm that hydrated state Democrats and devastated Republicans. It pitted the GOP’s gubernatorial nominee against Polis, who spent at least $20 million in personal funds on his campaign. That liberated Democratic donors to contribute more to down-ballot candidates. It left Republicans scrambling to fund their top-ticket candidate, leaving little to assist down-ballot candidates.
If it all sounds hopeless for Republicans, party insiders cling to the last phenomenon that saved them from political irrelevance: Democratic overreach.
It seems an odd and desperate hope for Republicans to hang their hats on. It sounds like a loser’s wish. Maybe the winners will win so much they topple from the weight of success.
Improbable, yet recent history supports the possibility. Back in 2013, Democrats enjoyed a Colorado trifecta and embarked on an aggressive legislative agenda. Though falling considerably short of the velocity and volume of this year’s runaway legislative train, Democrats pushed through three gun control measures that motivated Second Amendment activists on the right, left and center.
Uproar over the gun bills, combined with lesser concerns about energy regulations and other measures, led to successful recalls of three Senate Democrats — including then-Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs’ District 11.
In December, fresh off his party’s thrashing of Republicans, Trimpa assured the public TV audience Democrats would not repeat the overreach of 2013.
“The difference this time is all of us still have scars from the recalls,” he said. “I think what a lot of us in this world learned is there has to be moderation. And I think you’re going to be a little surprised in terms of where leadership is, where Polis is… I don’t think you’re going to see this wave of left (legislation)… I think we have very effective leadership that is going to calibrate this in a way — understanding the way we maintain majorities is that you actually reflect where Colorado is. And Colorado is still pretty much a 50-50 state that leans blue.”
If that prediction had played out during this year’s legislative session, Democratic leadership and Polis would have stopped Senate Bill 181 — the oil and gas regulation bill. In the November election that put Democrats in charge, voters soundly rejected proposed setbacks for oil and gas production. By imposing 181, the Legislature stacked the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission with environmental activists and unleashed local governments to impose setbacks and regulations they choose.
Voters also rejected a tax increase for transportation infrastructure, a bond proposal for transportation, an education tax, and an attempt by Democrats to reduce the age qualification for state legislators from 25 to 21.
It means Colorado residents, given multiple options to legislate from the ballot box, chose a more traditional path over one of progressive change and more government overhead.
Any prospect of political balance in the near future of state governance rests in Republican hopes to regain a slight Senate majority in either the 2020 or 2022 election. Taking two competitive Senate districts would give the GOP a one-seat majority. Cautiously optimistic GOP insiders consider retaking the Senate in 2020 a steep and nearly impossible climb — on the ground, door-to-door, kissing babies, shaking hands and winning hearts and minds one voter at a time.
For the sake of political survival, Republicans must observe and learn from the progressives who shellack them each day the Legislature convenes. It is a simple concept: Winning matters.