Joe Hanel/ Durango Herald
Joe Hanel/ Durango Herald
DENVER – After six years in the Legislature, Sen. Ellen Roberts is used to being outnumbered.
It happened again a week ago, twice.
In an emotional 24 hours when Colorado senators grabbed onto some of the hottest live wires of American politics – gay rights, religion and women’s health – the Durango Republican found herself split first from most of her fellow Republicans and next from most of the women in the Senate.
Her isolation was on stark display April 27, when Roberts took the lead in arguing for a Republican resolution about women’s health care and religious freedom. Democratic senators who opposed her unfurled a prop on a roll of paper that spanned the whole front of the Senate chamber. They held it in front of the podium, literally cutting off Roberts and her fellow Republican senator, Jean White of Hayden, from the rest of the Senate.
“I feel shut out. I feel like there is a physical barrier that was attempted to be put between me and the rest of the world, and I reject it,” Roberts said shortly after Democrats removed the prop.
She wasn’t completely alone. The other two Republican women – White and Nancy Spence of Centennial – took her side during the debates about gay rights and women’s health.
But Roberts took it upon herself to do the heavy lifting in the debate about Senate Memorial 3 by Sen. Tom Neville, R-Littleton. The symbolic measure supported a Republican bill in Congress that would have let health-care providers refuse to insure or care for patients based on religious objections.
The issue flared up early this year when President Barack Obama’s administration told Catholic hospitals they have to provide insurance coverage for birth control to their employees.
In Washington, House Republicans held a hearing on the topic that featured all male witnesses. Conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh mocked a law student who wanted to testify, Sandra Fluke, calling her a “slut.”
National Democrats pushed back, saying conservatives were conducting a “war on women.” Fluke even visited Colorado and decried Senate Memorial 3.
Here in Colorado, it was a fight both sides were eager to have. Democrats had a chance to kill Neville’s measure in a committee, but they let it get to the Senate floor.
Roberts sees the issue as a matter of religious freedom, and she rejects the idea of a “war on women” as something ginned up to help Democrats win the fall election.
“It is a horrible thing to divide women from women for political gain,” she said.
Democratic women sharply disagreed.
Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, called SM 3 an “all-out assault on women’s rights,” saying it would support limiting access to birth control and gynecological services that specifically affect women.
“If this isn’t a war on women, what is it?” Carroll said. “This is government overreach into your bedroom, your body and your doctor’s office.”
Democrats were happy to let the debate highlight differences between their caucus and the Republicans. Fourteen of the 20 Democratic senators are women, while just three of the 15 Republicans are.
Out of the 12 Republican co-sponsors of SM 3, Roberts was the only woman.
“I knew the firestorm someone – a woman who is pro-choice – would encounter by signing on to this,” Roberts said.
Roberts insisted to her male Republican colleagues that the GOP women do all the talking during the debate so Republicans could avoid the boys-vs.-girls scene that played out on the national stage earlier this year.
But she was pitted against the male Republicans just a day earlier. On April 26, the three women were the only Republicans to cast votes for Senate Bill 2, which would allow gay and lesbian couples to join in civil unions. All 20 Democrats voted yes, and all 12 Republican men voted no. That bill now is advancing in the House, thanks to support from two key Republicans.
The civil-unions bill respects the freedom of religion, Roberts said. She spoke about feeling “punched in the stomach” in 1992, when Colorado became known as “the hate state” after voters passed Amendment 2, which banned civil-rights protections for gays and lesbians.
Amendment 2 was thrown out by the Supreme Court, and the civil-unions bill helps heal the wound for Roberts.
“It does restore some of my, your and Colorado’s collective soul that I believe we lost in the 1990s,” Roberts said.
In addition to supporting civil unions, she is one of the few Republicans in the Legislature who supports abortion rights, and that has rubbed some senators the wrong way. A few Republican men in the Senate supported Roberts’ primary opponent, Dean Boehler of Norwood.
It’s possible that Roberts will find herself more isolated next year. Spence is leaving the Senate because of term limits, and White, the Hayden senator, faces a primary challenge from Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Cowdrey, who is running as a conservative alternative to the more moderate White.