Mark Waller has built a reputation for being level-headed and working with both sides during three years as a state House representative from eastern Colorado Springs and El Paso County.
Since knocking off incumbent Douglas Bruce in the 2008 Republican primary, Waller has worked his way up the Legislature's totem pole. He's now the assistant House majority leader, helping set the agenda and prioritize bills.
But this week, Waller hasn't been in such a good mood. In fact, the 42-year-old attorney is rip-roaring mad at the new state House and Senate district maps for the next 10 years, put forth by Democrats and approved this week by the Colorado Supreme Court.
"Obviously the whole intent behind their maps was to try to put us Republicans in disarray by pitting us against one another, hoping to divide and conquer," Waller says. "These maps are doing a disservice to the people of Colorado."
It's hard to argue against the allegation that certain Democrats, after the reapportionment commission's first maps were rejected, came up with new boundaries amenable to the court and clearly drawn to put some incumbent Republicans in districts together, or give them tougher challenges.
Some might call that smart, opportunistic politics. Others would insert different adjectives.
We've heard the local impact: House Majority Leader Amy Stephens of Monument now shares the same district with Rep. Marsha Looper of Calhan. Same goes for state Sens. Keith King and Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs. (King already says he won't run again.)
However, those seats are sure to stay Republican. It could be different in Pueblo, where GOP state Rep. Keith Swerdfeger was moved into a new district where Pueblo City Councilor Leroy Garcia, a Democrat, had announced his candidacy. The Dems have a huge edge over Republicans in that district, so Swerdfeger isn't running for another term — which could reverse the GOP's 33-32 edge in the House.
"Keith has been a conscientious legislator," Waller says of Swerdfeger. "He's a smart guy with a lot of common sense and business sense. Now we're losing a truly great public servant who's respected by Democrats as well."
But Waller promises not to let his and others' frustrations spill over into the General Assembly convening Jan. 11, just four weeks away.
Here's how bipartisanship still works in the state House: "Sometimes if there's an issue where I'm real close to agreeing with the other side — about four, five, six times a year — I like to give the benefit of doubt and help colleagues because they are colleagues. But with the Democrats who were on that [reapportionment] commission, they will get no favors from me at all.
"Is that reprisal? I don't think so."
We'll have to see whether hard feelings will influence lawmakers. They have to come up with a balanced budget, and forecasts indicate they'll have to make more spending cuts.
"As I see it, this budget is going to pit Colorado's schoolchildren against Medicaid recipients for the same money," Waller says. "That won't be easy."
Meanwhile, many legislators — including all 65 in the House — will be up for election. So with the Legislature overlapping caucuses and county assemblies, many lawmakers will have to divide their time between campaigning and the Capitol. This also raises the likelihood that anything happening in Denver could create instant campaign issues.
"I think there's a lot of opportunity for craziness this session," Waller says. "There will be some angst, but the key is going to be managing the angst, which we're already working to do. Obviously, we'll have to do a lot of campaigning during the session, when everyone should be focused on legislating."
As for the next election year, Waller flinches at Democrats saying their No. 1 goal is to regain the House majority instead of first trying to address the state's issues. (Of course, Republicans were singing a similar tune in 2010.)
"This is not going to create the disarray that the Democrats are looking for," Waller says. "We're going to rise above this. Instead, I believe we'll pick up even more seats in both the House and the Senate next year."
Those sound like fighting words for the year to come. Perhaps, for the Legislature, it'll be all about channeling anger into determination in 2012.
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