By Jerry Kopel
Television cameras were focused, the balcony filled, the lobbyists behind the glass windows in the outer chamber were looking in, noses pressed against the panes, as the first Democratic majority to be sworn into the Senate in forty years, took their oaths of office at the state capitol January 10th.
Forty years ago, "Democrats in charge" was no big deal. The January, 1961 legislature convened with Democrats in control of the House, the Senate, and the office of governor for the fifth consecutive year.
While Democrats had lost 14 legislative seats in the 1960 elections, they still had the Senate, 19 to 16, (with Democrat Lt. Gov. Bob Knous presiding) and the House, 33 to 32. Democrats weren't worried. They were convinced Gov. Steve McNichols' re-election bid in 1962 and his victory would increase their legislative margins.
Success for the legislature's Democrats was tightly bound to McNichols' success. When he was in control, so were they. But McNichols lost to Republican John Love in 1962 and the voters elected a Republican majority in the Senate, 20 to 15, and in the House, 41 to 24.
Actually, Senate Democrats were out of power only 38 years, from January, 1963 to January, 2001. But 38 years is the longest period of time ANY political party has been out of power in 124 years of Colorado statehood. And except for the Steve McNichols years as governor, Senate Democrats were in the minority from 1943 to 2001, which, in football terms, is 52 to 6.
After forty years, some things remain the same. We still have 100 legislators. But for every three residents that legislators had to smile at and shake hands with in 1960, there were seven to face in 2000. That means more letters to respond to and more phone calls to answer. There are more people now living in Adams, Arapahoe, Denver and Jefferson counties in 2000 than lived in the entire state in 1961.
In 1961, 756 bills were introduced, and 282 passed in an 88 day session. In 2001, we'll see 800-850 bills in a 120 day session and it's anyone's guess how many will pass.
Legislators in 1961 managed to get down to business on the first day without speechifying. But that laid-back approach ended in 1990 when Senate President Ted Strickland decided to give a speech which was then printed in the Senate Journal. Well, the House wasn't going to be outdone, and in 1991, House Speaker Chuck Berry gave HIS speech, which was then printed in the House Journal.
Now we also have first day speeches by the House and Senate minority leaders, which are printed in the journals. As Jimmy Durante used to say, "Everybody wants to get into the act."
In 1961, one out of every four legislators lived in Denver, but the House and Senate were controlled by rural legislators. House Speaker Albert Tomsic and Senate President Pro Tem Sam Taylor were from Walsenburg, a town of 5,071. Both were attorneys who, at one time, practiced together.
Two West Slope leaders were Senate Majority Leader James Mowbray of Delta, and House Minority Leader John Vanderhoof of Glenwood Springs. Only House Majority Leader Allen Dines of Denver and Senate Minority Leader Ranger Rogers of Littleton came from the metropolitan area.
In 2001, six of the seven top elected legislative leaders live near the I-25 corridor from Loveland in the north to Pueblo in the south: Stan Matsunaka, Ed Perlmutter, Bill Thiebaut, John Andrews, Doug Dean, and Dan Grossman. Only House Majority Leader Lola Spradley of Beulah is from a strictly rural area. Beulah is home of the Colorado Onyx, a many-colored semi-precious stone.
There was a razor-thin majority in 1961 as well as 2001. In 1961, Democrats couldn't keep all 33 House members in step. Two Denver Democrats, Lela Gilbert and Bert Gallegos began voting with the 32 Republican minority. Both were denied re-election in 1962, both became Republicans and never again held elective office, although Gallegos did hold a position in President Nixon's administration.
Running the Senate is not brain surgery, but when you have been an observor instead of a participant in the mechanics of control, there could be early mishaps. How should we judge the Senate majority Democrats? Grade the last two months of the session, not the first two months.
(Jerry Kopel served 22 years as a state representative in the Colorado House.)
Copyright 2015 Jerry Kopel & David Kopel