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Colorado's next speaker of the House race stands on character

click to enlarge Acting speaker of the House of the RepresentativesDoug Dean (second from right) confers with Republican lawmakers including, from left, state Rep. Richard Decker, newly elected state Sen. Ron May, Rep. Keith King and newly elected Rep. Dave Schultheis.
  • Acting speaker of the House of the RepresentativesDoug Dean (second from right) confers with Republican lawmakers including, from left, state Rep. Richard Decker, newly elected state Sen. Ron May, Rep. Keith King and newly elected Rep. Dave Schultheis.

The national election may be over, but one important Colorado contest has just begun. And, to borrow one of Dan Rather's lively election-night colloquialisms, the battle over who will become the next esteemed speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives is nasty enough to gag a buzzard.

El Paso County Republican Doug Dean, whose colorful reputation is a ladies man with a partisan mean streak, has been positioning himself to become the powerful speaker of the House for at least the past two years. But Dean is being challenged by Rep. Steve Johnson, a moderate Republican from Larimer County who believes the role as speaker requires a more level-headed approach.

Many lawmakers say that the central issue, however, is about character.

And, some are worried that Dean's personal reputation could be a detriment to the esteemed position.


A lot of potential

When Dean, now 39, was elected to the Colorado House six years ago, the then-telemarketer and house painter was considered a political neophyte whose biggest issue appeared to be his zeal for chemical castration for sex offenders. At the time the father of three was married to his wife, Sheila, who worked at Springs-based Focus on the Family.

Outgoing state Rep. Marcy Morrison, who watched Dean move up through ranks, tells this story:

"When Doug joined us I was griping about something he'd done, and [former Republican Majority Leader] Tim [Foster] looked at me and said, 'Morrison, that fellow has a lot of potential -- he may end up being next majority leader or speaker.' I thought about it and hurrumphed, but as it turned out, Doug certainly learned quickly.

"The first term he was pretty quiet, but he did something many of us didn't -- he learned the rules, and became a student of the process.

He learned that very well."

Dean became the house majority leader two years ago and now accepts large amounts of special interest money from insurance companies, developers, and the National Rifle Association. He has pushed for a statewide concealed weapons permit law and has argued heatedly against any gun control measures. He took up the fight against using photo radar for speeding tickets, and went to bat for the Denver Broncos stadium tax.

He routinely accepts gifts from lobbyists and other special-interest groups, including trips to Taiwan, to the Rockies spring training camps in Arizona, to Bronco games and ski trips to Winter Park.


Seriously ambitious

Now divorced, Dean has, by all accounts, become a seriously ambitious politician. As majority leader, Dean has controlled when legislators' bills were heard. He claims the leadership job requires him to live year-round in Denver, and his living expenses are incurred by the taxpayers of the state of Colorado. Dean says he also rents a room in El Paso County from a friend to retain his residency status in House District 18, which encompasses much of northern Colorado Springs.

Colorado's part-time legislature meets four months every year, and while the body is in session, representatives who don't live in Denver are entitled to collect up to $99 each day for their living expenses. This year Dean found a loophole and has charged taxpayers for about $67,000 in living expenses, which includes his $30,000 salary.

Dean defends his use of taxpayer money to pay for his year-round living expenses, arguing that his position as majority leader requires him to be in Denver most of the time.

Dean sought legal advice from the legislature's lawyers and his taxpayer-subsidized living costs were approved. But the move enraged some lawmakers who accused Dean of taking advantage of his position. The charges may not be illegal, but some politicians, including outgoing Senate Minority Leader Mike Feeley, believe the deal is ethically stinky.

Dean denies the charge, noting that Republican Senate President Ray Powers owns a house in Denver and former House Speaker Russ George has a Denver condo, and don't need to bill the state for their expenses. Dean, on the other hand, cannot afford to subsidize his decision to spend so much time at the capitol, he said.

"Should only wealthy people be able to serve in representative government?" he asked.


Conflicting romantic interests

Another delicate ethical question has plagued Dean for the past several years. Before his divorce, he was romantically tied to several women -- including paid lobbyists.

Dean rejects his reputation of being a ladies' man as ugly rumor and said his love life is nobody's business but his own. However, he conceded that that his current girlfriend is a registered lobbyist whose job entails convincing Colorado lawmakers to cast votes that favor her employer.

As with the issue over his living expenses, Dean said he has asked the legislature's legal staff for an opinion on the dual position of being speaker while dating a lobbyist.

"What I have suggested to them is that I will not assign any bills to committees that she has any kind of interest in and I will turn over to the speaker pro-tem to make those assignments," Dean said. "I believe that is the appropriate way to handle it, and also she will not lobby me.

"We are very well aware of people who are political enemies and what they might spin against me and we are taking every precaution."

But the entire concept has left some lawmakers incredulous.

"The speaker of the House of Representatives has to get a legal opinion on how to feed himself and house himself, and now he needs an legal opinion to figure out who he should have dinner with at night?" asked Feeley. "For God's sake, this guy wants legal cover to figure out who he should go out with because he doesn't have the moral fortitude to figure it out?

"This guy is a walking ethics examination. How does one person develop so many ethical dilemmas?"


Meticulous efforts

The last speaker of the House from El Paso County, Chuck Berry, presided over the body for eight years until term limits kicked in and he was forced out of office. Berry, who now runs the state's largest business interest group, CASI, is married to Maria Garcia Berry, who is one of the most powerful lobbyists in Colorado.

When he was in office, the political couple made a very public decision that, while Berry served the public his wife would not lobby at the capitol.

Both Feeley and Republican Russ George, who presided as speaker for the past two years, noted that the Berrys were meticulous in their efforts to avoid even a perception of a conflict.

"I never saw any breach of that promise, ever. Maria [Garcia Berry] was never around, ever," George noted.

George, who is considered a moderate Republican, resigned his post this fall to become the director of the Colorado Division of Wildlife, which allowed Dean to ascend to acting speaker of the house through the end of the year.

George declined to comment on his own choice of who should succeed him, noting that "a speaker should not get involved in any way in the choosing of his successor."

The speaker of the House is the only leadership position that requires a full vote of Republican and Democrats. Though technically the Republican legislative caucus will meet this week to nominate a new speaker, the decision will be made by all 65 elected members of the House of Representatives when the Legislature convenes in January.


The character issue

With the criticism that the national and state Republicans have lobbed at President Bill Clinton for his marital indiscretions, state Rep. Johnson pointed out that he and his party need to remember their stance, namely that character matters and that moral credibility is key.

"Unless we want to be called hypocrites, we need to hold the same standard that we demand," said Johnson, currently the majority caucus chairman. "For us Republicans, this is the highest position in the [Colorado] House. How can we speak with any credibility unless we are careful about our own leadership?"

The character issue has also been one that has nagged Dean's fellow conservative Republicans as well.

Rep. Keith King, an El Paso County Republican re-elected to a second term this week, said he is supporting Dean in his efforts to become the speaker. However, King acknowledged his concerns about the rumors about Dean's personal life, and said he has had a blunt conversation with the acting speaker.

"I had a private discussion with him, and I think I'll leave it private," King said. "But I will definitely say this: I married a lady and I have been true to her the whole time, even before I was married and ever since. I think that's how we need to live our lives.

"From my own religious perspective, I'm a Christian and Christians didn't condemn anybody, but Doug also said he won't do it anymore. It's not my place to sit in judgment of his indiscretions, whether it's him or anybody. I don't have any evidence that he has done those particular things, but I don't agree with him morally if he has been having affairs."

Like King, Rep. Johnson said he has not made a point of pursuing clarification over Dean's relationship with a lobbyist. However, he said, "It's safe to say everyone in the building knows about it. There's been a lot of pressure on the El Paso County delegation to support Doug as speaker, and I think that's good that Keith [King] has discussed the issue with him. I'm glad that Keith is concerned about character because that's an important issue."

Former Colorado U.S. Sen. Bill Armstrong, a stalwart conservative, sidestepped a recent query on whether he has recently contacted any members of the Legislature with regard to who will be Colorado's next speaker of the house.

"I don't think I'd care to comment on that," Armstrong said.

Outgoing state Rep. Morrison said she has "never had [a] conversation with Doug over his personal affairs." However, she conceded that if she were to remain in the state House, she, like King, would have likely initiated a private conversation with him about similar concerns, she said.

Dean's Democratic opponent this year, Renee Walbert, ran a low-key campaign in part because she didn't get much support from the state Democratic Party in a district whose voters are overwhelmingly registered Republicans. (This week Dean won re-election with 68 percent of the vote.)

During her campaign, Walbert, a church choir director with three children, did not directly challenge Dean on personal issues, opting instead to focus on her concerns about education, traffic, growth and other issues that she said are on the minds of the people who live in House District 18. However, she said she believes Dean should hold himself to a higher moral standard.

"If, indeed, the person he is having a relationship with is a lobbyist then at a minimum that needs to be made public, and second, that person should abstain from lobbying [the House]. I think it's a little strange if he hasn't talked about it."


Different styles

One thing is clear: Dean's and Johnson's leadership styles are vastly different.

Since he was elected four years ago, Johnson has maintained a moderate approach, and concentrated on the type of issues that are not as polarizing, including bills that allow state parks to set their own entrance fees and the reintroduction of endangered species in Colorado.

Johnson, 40, maintains an apartment in Denver during the legislative session, but lives full time in Larimer County with his wife of 14 years, Lynette. The couple have no children. Like Dean, Johnson accepts special interest money and has not faced a serious challenger.

But Johnson believes that the people of Colorado are demanding less partisanship in their elected officials, and while he praises Dean's dogged job serving as majority leader, Johnson maintains a moderate approach to dealing with the issues facing the state -- like growth and education -- is key.

"Character, personality, integrity, how we have worked with other legislators, the atmosphere that we bring to the House -- those are all far more important than being partisan," Johnson said.

Dean makes no bones about his conservative Republicanism. His nasty run-ins with some Democrats and even members of his own party who have disagreed with him are notorious. But, Dean vows, those days are behind him.

"I have regrets that sometimes when I got my feathers ruffled I lashed out -- I've been known to have a quick temper but I've worked on that," he said.

"Some say I'm too partisan, but there are some who are supporting me because they believe I will be more partisan [than past speakers]."

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