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Merrifield battles to the end 

Between the Lines

For the first time in eight years, Mike Merrifield woke up Thursday morning without an agenda to pursue as a member of Colorado's House of Representatives.

No more bills to write, sponsor and push. No more issues to battle among state Democratic and Republican lawmakers, many of them ornery. No more wearing out tires driving back and forth to Denver, practically 12 months a year.

And, on a more wistful note, no more being looked up to as the Legislature's senior Democrat — he probably wouldn't want to be called elder statesman — from Colorado Springs.

Today, we can pay tribute to Merrifield as the first Democratic state legislator from El Paso County ever to last until term limits sent him home. That's monumental, given how Merrifield was the only Dem from the Pikes Peak region at the state level when he was first elected in 2002. Just him, surrounded by vultures intent on making his stay in Denver as short as possible.

The vultures lost. And now, as Merrifield leaves, he's hoping to hand his seat over to a Democratic successor, Pete Lee, if Lee can defeat Republican Karen Cullen in November.

Merrifield might have preferred a slow, stress-free conclusion in the State House. He would've enjoyed the chance to look back, reliving the good and the not-so-good memories, from ideas like the "Renter's Bill of Rights" that made the state a better place, through a scary battle with throat cancer, spiced with controversy along the way.

Instead, the feisty Merrifield found himself entangled in some of his most exasperating legislative battles during the final hours.

"This is crazier than it's ever been in my eight years," Merrifield said Tuesday night from the House floor. Even worse, he insisted, "than back when we were in the minority."

After the lawmakers finished the state's 2010-11 budget last month, Merrifield hoped the worst was over. Then came House Bill 1284, regulating Colorado's medical-marijuana industry. Merrifield's perspective put him in a difficult spot, wanting to make marijuana as available as possible to suffering patients. Unlike other more-insulated lawmakers, Merrifield could talk about knowing many friends and acquaintances with chronic pain, not to mention cancer sufferers, who already had improved their quality of life thanks to cannabis.

The 63-year-old never gave up, leading a last-minute House ambush Tuesday that rejected the Senate's version in a 33-32 vote and nearly killed the bill. But a subsequent reconsideration prevailed, which now likely means a court battle to prevent severe repercussions for the industry and those who've come to depend on it.

As emotional as that was for Merrifield, though, it didn't compare to the wrenching experience of Senate Bill 191, the teacher-evaluation bill — or, as Merrifield bitterly calls it, "the teacher punishment bill."

As chair of the House Education Committee, and a former 30-year educator, Merrifield championed numerous causes in recent years, helping shape major education bills. Then came SB 191, a total nightmare.

"It came way too close to the end, a terrible time for anything that important," Merrifield says. "It's been very frustrating. It has created hard feelings among our own [party] caucus members, and it was just bad policy and bad politics. It should never have come this late."

He fought it doggedly inside his committee, going past midnight to start his final week before losing a 7-6 vote that sent it to the full House. The bill had to survive two more votes, and Merrifield helped craft an old-fashioned filibuster Tuesday, trying to put off the next-to-last vote past midnight, long enough that the bill would "die on the calendar." But the filibuster couldn't last, and "teacher punishment" passed at 11:15 p.m.

It was an admirable fight, but Merrifield couldn't go out victorious.

That said, he'd happily settle for winning his next challenge. Merrifield wants to blaze one last trail, trying to become the first Democrat in modern times elected as an El Paso County commissioner. He'll face Republican Peggy Littleton, coming off the state Board of Education, in November for the District 5 seat left by term-limited Jim Bensberg.

It could be a dramatic battle to the end. Nothing new for Mike Merrifield.

routon@csindy.com

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