The event: the $15,000-a-day special session of the Colorado Legislature, which kicked off last Thursday in downtown Denver. The debate: illegal immigration, which has suddenly become something of an emergency in this election year.
Outside the Capitol, in the real world, a man sat in a beat-up old camper chair on a busy corner along Colfax Avenue. He held in his hands a cardboard sign with this shockingly honest plea: "Savin' for a hooker: please help."
Under the golden dome, things were a bit more surreal. Nearly 50 separate bills were introduced as possible laws, most of them by politicians who are either up for re-election this year, or are running for another political office. Not unexpectedly, the session quickly became a marathon of sorts between Republicans and Democrats who want to claim victory in November. The session was still in full swing four days later, with a deal of sorts finally struck between the governor and Democrats on immigration reform.
In a nutshell, most Democrats had pushed to tighten existing immigration laws. They put forth strong measures that would threaten business owners with serious fines for hiring undocumented workers. Many said that they, the lawmakers, should be writing the laws; that's why they were holding a special session.
Republicans, meanwhile, had wanted to put the immigration issue on the November ballot for voters to decide and were outraged that the Colorado Supreme Court struck down a citizens' ballot proposition last month that would deny most state services to illegal immigrants. In a 4-2 ruling, the Supremes declared the proposed amendment unconstitutional.
There was no shortage of Republicans bitterly complaining last week about the four "activist" judges.
"We're here today because they [the Supreme Court] misstepped... they need to be reined in," was how Rep. Kevin Lundberg (R-Berthoud) put it.
"Fifty thousand people lost their voice when the Supreme Court ruled [on this]," claimed Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Yuma), a reference to the number of people who signed petitions for the unsuccessful ballot measure.
"Four people denying 4 million people the ability to decide ..." bemoaned Rep. Rob Witwer (R-Golden).
Democrats, of course, disagreed, noting that Republicans seem to complain that judges are "activists" only when a court ruling doesn't go their way.
Everyone, it seemed, was prepared to posture. Rep. Michael Merrifield, a Democrat from Manitou Springs, had at the ready an Alan Simpson quote he had collected from a May interview that appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Simpson, a retired Republican U.S. senator from Wyoming and the co-author of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, described the debate as being all about "emotion, fear, guilt and racism." (During that Q&A, Simpson also had this to say: "Whoever is the most sane in this debate will be called a bigot and a xenophobe.")
The discussion on Friday got flat-out bizarre at times, like when Colorado Springs Republican Bill Cadman made the argument that there is "no such thing as an illegal immigrant."
While it is illegal to come into the United States illegally, Cadman noted, there is no law that specifies you are an illegal immigrant once you are inside the borders.
"How can we refer to them as illegal when they're not?" he wondered. "We can't address the issue until we define the issue."
To which Bob Balink, El Paso County's clerk and recorder, who was sitting in the audience, quipped jokingly, of course "Cadman's been smoking pot."
And so it went. By dinnertime on Friday, an envelope began making its way around the floor of the House of Representatives, taking up donations for pizza, along with bets that they would be there past midnight.
About that time, Rep. Dorothy Butcher, a Democrat from Pueblo, summed up her take on the session: "We got the Senate and House, and [the Republicans] want it. That's what it's all about."
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