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Turning the tables: Colorado Republicans in for a reality check 

click to enlarge Mike Merrifield
  • Mike Merrifield

In the heat of the presidential campaign, Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera took the microphone at a local rally featuring Vice President Dick Cheney and whipped up a crowd of 500. Referencing the blistery weather that day, the mayor nastily claimed that Democrats would have never shown up in such force for their guy. Democrats, the mayor declared, are "weak; they can't take the cold."

Notwithstanding the fact that the mayor holds a position that is supposed to be nonpartisan, this week he defended his insult. "That's what I felt like saying," Rivera said. So, Mr. Mayor, do you really believe that Democrats are weak? "I will stand behind those comments."

Rivera might not have read the newspapers on Nov. 3. If he had, he might have noticed that, here in Colorado, Democrats now control the House of Representatives and the Senate for the first time in 44 years. The stunning upset places Republican Gov. Bill Owens -- who just last year was heralded by the National Review as "the best governor in America" -- in the annals of history as the guy who lost control the same year the Grand Old Party steamrolled the country's midsection like a monster combine.

And here in El Paso County -- the Republican stronghold of the state -- the most powerful and influential politician at the state Capitol is now Michael Merrifield, the only Democrat in the county's 13-member delegation. Literally overnight, the dozen others -- most of whom are not known for their past kindness toward Democrats, and all of whom expected top-dog status when the Legislature convenes in January -- were obliterated into obscurity. Think we're exaggerating? Consider this:

Republican Keith King believed that, come January, he would become speaker of the House of Representatives, the most powerful position in the House. Now his GOP colleagues won't even consider him for a leadership position; he'll be lucky if he gets an office in the bathroom.

click to enlarge Keith King
  • Keith King

State Sen. Andy McElhany fully expected to take the power helm as president of the Senate. McElhany's got a reputation of being more congenial and less strident than many of his El Paso County GOP colleagues; maybe he'll get an office in the basement.

Last year every Republican save three in El Paso County's delegation held top leadership spots, including powerful committee chairmanships. That means they got to determine which proposed laws were heard and which never saw the light of day. In the Senate, Doug Lamborn was the Majority Caucus chair; Ron May was the chair of Transportation; McElhany was chair of Capitol Development and co-chair of Business Affairs and Labor. Mark Hillman was the powerful Senate majority leader.

In the House of Representatives, Bill Cadman was the House majority whip; Mark Cloer oversaw House Services; Lynn Hefley chaired the Judiciary Committee; King was the House majority leader and Bill Sinclair was chairman of State, Veterans & Military Affairs.

All that is gone. Bottom line, as members of the minority party, El Paso County's Republican delegation will not head up any committees.

Few people -- including the Democrats -- thought that such a takeover was possible. Post-election analysis has noted that four wealthy Colorado Democrats -- Rutt Bridges, Tim Gill, Jared Polis and Pat Stryker -- helped fund key races. As importantly, socially conservative Republicans have themselves to blame in many races where they attacked and ate their own, trying to elect candidates who are out of touch with the mainstream.

Now, they and their colleagues will have to answer for past transgressions. As one Republican lawmaker who insisted on anonymity put it, "They may not be elephants, but even donkeys have good memories."

click to enlarge Andy McElhany
  • Andy McElhany

Like last year when Sen. Ed Jones, who is black, introduced a bill to kill affirmative action in Colorado and then sat with his back turned, refusing to acknowledge a packed audience of mostly people of color who showed up to speak against his proposal (which ultimately failed).

Like last year when the chairwoman of the House Health, Environment, Welfare & Institutions Committee refused to let Rep. Andrew Romanoff take the floor to present his position. Beginning in January, Romanoff will become the speaker of the House. This week the new speaker maintained the Democrats plan a different, far more magnanimous way of governing. "The golden rule does not mean do unto the Republicans what they do unto us."

Like King's antics last year, when he blithely asked Merrifield at the beginning of the session how he felt knowing that all of his bills would be killed outright. (They were, despite King's claim that he had been joking.)

This week, Merrifield learned that he will hold a to-be-decided leadership position in the Legislature. His cheeks are getting sore from all that smiling.

"I have been telling myself that I'm not going to gloat," said Merrifield, a retired teacher who found himself under relentless attack by Republicans during his bid for re-election this year. "I'm going to try to be a statesman.

"All through my campaign I've been pointing out that good ideas do not have any party -- they are not Democrat or Republican."

Now that he's finished doing his part delivering the Colorado Springs vote to George W. Bush, it might make sense for Mayor Rivera to take Merrifield to lunch to discuss a few ideas. The Democrat may be weak in the mayor's eyes, but he's our most powerful guy in the House.

-- degette@csindy.com

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