The Lone Democrat 

State Rep. Merrifield gets ready to take the dome by storm

click to enlarge State Rep. Michael Merrifield - KATHY CONARRO
  • Kathy Conarro
  • State Rep. Michael Merrifield

Michael Merrifield has his work cut out for him.

He's got to learn the basics of lawmaking under the golden dome in Denver by next month, when the 2003 legislative session kicks off.

He's got to figure out how to be effective as a freshman representative from the minority party, in a year when the Republicans have taken full control of state politics.

And, he's trying to figure out how to stay in shape, as he'll be spending most of his time on Capitol Hill, far removed from his favorite mountain-biking trails.

"I'm really concerned that I'm going to really gain weight," confessed Merrifield, who on Nov. 5 became the first Democrat elected to the state Legislature from El Paso County in a decade, beating Republican candidate Dan Stuart by just 112 votes in the newly redrawn House District 18.

Merrifield says he gained 10 pounds during the campaign, even though he spent months walking the neighborhoods of the district, which stretches from his hometown of Manitou Springs to downtown Colorado Springs. It was his second run for state office, having lost to Republican Dave Schultheis by 682 votes two years ago, when he ran in House District 22.

"Usually, my summertime is spent on seven- to eight-hour bike rides," said Merrifield, 55, who retired from teaching at Coronado High School in June. "The walking was a piece of cake, really."

What won't be a cakewalk is trying to pass up to five pieces of legislation the maximum each legislator is allowed to introduce in one session.

One bill Merrifield is considering proposing would restrict the use of Certificates of Participation, or COPs, a financing mechanism that allows local governments to go into debt without voter approval. El Paso County's Board of Commissioners recently used COPs to finance an expansion of the county jail after voters rejected a ballot proposal to borrow money for the project.

Merrifield may also propose that the Colorado Department of Transportation be required to cooperate with local governments in planning highway projects. Locally, CDOT has "run roughshod" over the transportation wishes of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments, he says.

Other bills he's considering would strengthen the registration requirements for convicted child molesters, give the working poor access to affordable health insurance through Medicaid, and reform the CSAP tests to make them "more useful and less punitive" for schools.

The Independent recently spoke with Merrifield about his victory and his ambitious agenda.

Indy: In a year when the GOP seized political control nationally and statewide, you prevailed over a well-liked, moderate Republican opponent to become the first Democratic legislator elected from El Paso County in a decade. What's your secret?

Merrifield: I don't know if there's a secret. I wish I knew "the secret." I think a lot of things came together at the right time. I really had an awesome group of staff members.

I think one advantage I had over Dan [Stuart] is I was willing to, and I had the time to, throw my whole life into the campaign. I was literally spending 12- to 14-hour days, and more, right off the bat. In June, as soon as school was out, I started knocking on doors, meeting people one on one.

I know that Dan did some walking, but I don't think he did nearly as much as I did. I had some Republicans tell me that they didn't think Dan had the "fire in the belly" that I did.

And, I think people in El Paso County were ready for an alternative voice.

Indy: Do you believe your victory was largely thanks to the redrawn boundaries of House District 18 -- which reduced the Republicans' voter-registration edge? Was it a historical fluke, or do you think it might signal a lasting end to the Republican political monopoly in El Paso County?

Merrifield: I hope it's the third. I'm really going to work hard to make sure it's that. I fully intend to run again, and I want to try to help at least one or two other Democrats get elected in two years. We've got the foot in the door, and so my responsibility is to do a really good job in the next two years.

It's kind of an awesome responsibility. And it's going to be hard, because the Republicans have got that bull's-eye on my back, as I've been told by many, many people. The Republicans will do everything they can, I think, to make me look bad.

Indy: That said, have any Republicans reached out to you?

Merrifield: I've definitely had contacts with Republicans from other parts of the state who've been very open [and] supportive, and we've talked about working with each other. As far as the El Paso County delegation goes, there are going to be some that are very reluctant to do anything with me, [but] there have been a couple that have come forward and congratulated me and said they hoped they could work with me.

Indy: Can you name names?

Merrifield: I don't know if I should name them; the rest of the Republicans might shoot them or something.

Indy: As a member of the minority party in a state now under the full political control of the Republicans, how will you be effective?

Merrifield: I was talking with [incoming Republican Senate Majority Leader] Norma Anderson yesterday. She met with a group of the new legislators, and she pointed out that 80 to 90 percent of the legislation is nonpartisan, and to get it through the two houses you have to establish some bridges between the two parties.

Indy: You'll be kicking another campaign into gear in 12 to 15 months -- by then, what do you hope to tell voters that you accomplished?

Merrifield: Well, the [bills] that I've listed. I imagine it's going to be difficult to get 100 percent, but I will at least be able to point to the things that I tried to do.

I plan on really being back in town a lot, visiting with neighborhood associations and attending every kind of interest-group meeting that I possibly can. I'll hold regular town-hall meetings and be very open and receptive to the public.

I want not just Democrats, but people of a more moderate philosophy and persuasion in the entire county, to feel that they at least have an open mind and an open ear in at least one of their legislators -- regardless of whether they're in my house district or not. I feel like my responsibility is to represent them.

It's exciting and challenging, and kind of scary.



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