The new Colorado state Senate Democratic majority on Thursday chose Sen. Leroy Garcia of Pueblo as its next president. The 38-plus House Democratic caucus elected House Majority Leader KC Becker as the speaker-designee, although it wasn’t without some pushback.
The decision about who would be Senate majority leader was a bit of a fight, as was the battle for president pro tempore.
In the Senate, it all came down to the votes of women. That Democratic caucus added four women Tuesday and defended the seat for a fifth, Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail. That meant the caucus is now majority women, with 11 out of the 19 members.
The choice for majority leader was between Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada, a woman who has played a major leadership role in the past, including leading last-minute compromise on the top priority bill for Senate Republicans in 2018, Senate Bill 1. Women expect to lead in the next session, Zenzinger said on Tuesday.
The other choice: Sen. Steve Fenberg of Boulder, the architect of the sweep of the five Senate races targeted by millions of dollars of spending, both by the candidates and outside groups. The five women owe at least a part of their success on Tuesday to Fenberg, as well as the Senate Democrats’ new majority.
He was nominated by one of the “Fab Five” – Sen.-elect Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge – while Zenzinger’s nod came from Sen. Nancy Todd, one of the Senate Democrats’ most senior members and the only one term-limited in 2020.
In the end, Fenberg got the thank-you of the Senate Democrats for making the majority possible and was elected majority leader.
But women swept the table for the rest of the leadership posts. Sen. Rhonda Fields of Aurora won the nod for assistant majority leader. Sen. Lois Court of Denver was elected president pro tempore, winning the position also sought by Sen. Angela Williams of Denver. That’s a job that also must be voted on by the full Senate, so Court will have to run again for the position on Jan. 4, when the 2019 session convenes.
Sen.-elect Faith Winter of Westminster, another of the “Fab Five,” won the nod for caucus chair. Sen. Kerry Donovan, another of the five and the only one up for re-election on Tuesday, was named majority whip.
The Senate Democrats, by virtue of their majority, also earned one more seat on the Joint Budget Committee. Sen. Dominick Moreno of Adams County, who has been on the JBC for the past two years, was elected for another term and will be the committee’s chair come January. Zenzinger will join him on the panel.
Senate Republicans also held their elections at the same time, putting four election-winners into leadership roles. Sen. Chris Holbert, who won re-election on Tuesday, will be the minority leader, with Sen. John Cooke of Greeley, who also won on Tuesday, as assistant minority leader. Sen. Vicki Marble of Fort Collins, the Republicans’ lone woman, will be the caucus chair. Newly re-elected Sen. Ray Scott of Grand Junction will be the whip, and freshman Sen. Dennis Hisey of Fountain will join the Joint Budget Committee.
The House Republicans moved more to the right with their elections, turning down efforts to elect a minority leader with a better record of working with the Democratic majority. Rep. Patrick Neville of Franktown will continue as minority leader. The assistant minority leader position, held by Rep. Cole Wist of Centennial, who lost on Tuesday, now falls to Rep. Kevin Van Winkle of Highlands Ranch. Rep. Lori Saine of Firestone will continue as caucus chair; Rep. Perry Buck of Greeley will hold the post of minority whip. Rep. Bob Rankin of Carbondale will be the ranking member on the Joint Budget Committee.
But the race was not without a little tension. Rep. Lois Landgraf of Colorado Springs initially hoped to run for minority leader, with Rep. Jim Wilson of Salida as assistant minority leader. But shortly before the vote, she announced she would not pursue a challenge to Neville. She told Colorado Politics the caucus is already divided and she wanted it to be unified, so she and Wilson both withdrew from consideration.
With four races still too close to call, House Democrats postponed their leadership elections until later Thursday.
Becker addressed the decision to move forward with the elections despite at least four House seats still largely undecided. Democrats have taken the lead in three of the four; the fourth is in Lone Tree between Chris Kolker, a Democrat, and the incumbent, Rep. Susan Beckman, a Republican, who leads by 500 votes as of Thursday afternoon.
Becker started out by announcing that Democrat Rochelle Galindo, who’s seeking the House District 50 seat in Greeley, had moved ahead of her Republican challenger by 308 votes. That put the race outside of the margin required for an automatic recount, although the GOP or the candidate, Michael Thuener, could request one, so long as they’re willing to pay for it.
Becker said that she and now-House Majority Leader Alec Garnett of Denver decided to move forward with the elections despite the uncertainty because it was important to get the work of the House Democrats underway. Recounts could take weeks, she said.
The election for speaker-designee was not without its own controversy. Rep. Adrienne Benavidez of Commerce City asked that the votes for speaker be tallied, although Becker was the only nominee. Benavidez said Becker needed to know that her selection as speaker was not unanimous, even if unchallenged by other members. She told Colorado Politics that it’s due in part to the lack of diversity in House leadership roles. While 15 members of the Democratic caucus are either black or Hispanic, comprising roughly 40 percent of the caucus, only one – Rep. James Rashad Coleman of Denver, who is black – was elected to a leadership post, as one of two majority co-whips.
The other leadership posts went to:
Rep. Chris Kennedy of Lakewood, who will serve as assistant majority leader, defeating Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver;Rep. Edie Hooton of Boulder, who will serve as caucus chair;Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet of Denver, who will serve as assistant caucus chair;Rep. Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village, who will serve as the other co-whip with Coleman.