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State House Republicans oust leadership after lackluster election

Legislature remains split for upcoming session

DENVER – Republicans held control of the Colorado Senate following Tuesday’s election, but they lost three seats in the House, spurring a change in leadership.

In terms of power, nothing changed compared with last session. Lawmakers must continue to navigate a split Legislature, in which controversial bills often don’t advance.

Democrats rejoiced over extending their majority in the House, after an overall frustrating night for the party. Democrats lost key congressional races in Colorado and watched Hillary Clinton lose the presidency nationally.

House Democrats Thursday capped off their wins by electing Rep. Crisanta Duran of Denver to serve as the first Latina House speaker.

“What’s most important to me is that we lead on behalf of all people in Colorado,” Duran said, adding that her priorities will focus on transportation and education when the Legislature convenes in January.

While Democrats celebrated their wins, across the hall in the basement of the Capitol, House Republicans licked their wounds.

The caucus lost three seats – including House District 59 in Durango – allowing the Democrats’ majority to grow to 37-28.

Democrat Barbara McLachlan defeated Republican incumbent J. Paul Brown in District 59. Other Republican seats lost were in Colorado Springs and Adams County.

Unhappy with the results, conservatives led an effort to remove the caucus’ leadership, ousting Assistant Minority Leader Polly Lawrence of Littleton.

Instead of Lawrence, House Republicans chose Rep. Patrick Neville of Castle Rock, one of the state’s most conservative elected officials, to lead them.

The caucus’ majority leader last session – Rep. Brian DelGrosso of Loveland – is term-limited this year.

Lawrence was expected to replace DelGrosso in the upcoming session, but after disappointing results Tuesday night, she said she did not have the caucus votes, and so she decided not to float her name as a candidate for the leadership position.

“The new leadership will take us in a new direction, and hopefully we can find better results in 2018,” Lawrence said following the vote.

Neville said he plans to reach a wider audience.

“Unfortunately, we’re sitting in the minority inside these walls,” Neville said. “I truly believe we have a vast majority outside these walls.”

DelGrosso – a Lawrence supporter – reminded colleagues that Lawrence raised more money for the caucus than ever before, at around $1.5 million. He suggested that district maps are drawn to favor Democrats, which is why it’s an uphill battle to the majority.

Voters on Tuesday approved allowing unaffiliated voters to participate in nonpresidential primaries, which changes dynamics. Republicans might struggle to reach unaffiliated voters if they lean too far to the right under the new conservative leadership.

There also was an attempt by Republicans to oust Rep. Bob Rankin of Carbondale from the powerful Joint Budget Committee. But after consideration, the caucus decided Rankin should maintain the position, which has a hand in writing the state budget.

In the Senate, Republicans elected Sen. Kevin Grantham of Cañon City to serve as the chamber’s new president. He replaces outgoing Sen. Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs.

Grantham said national politics likely won’t impact his caucus’ agenda, despite winning the presidency.

“Our agenda doesn’t change whether Donald Trump is president or not president,” Grantham said, adding that curbing construction defect lawsuits and fixing crumbling roads and highways will be priorities.

For Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango, the meeting was bittersweet, as she recently announced her resignation. She will not return for the next session. A vacancy election is scheduled for January to replace her.

“I feel good,” Roberts said. “It’s been 10 great years. I’ve really been able to work on a lot of key issues. I love my district. ... It just feels right for me to move on.”

For Senate Democrats, the election was not what they were hoping for.

Democrat Rachel Zenzinger knocked out Republican incumbent Laura Woods in Jefferson County, but Republican Kevin Priola defeated Democrat Jenise May in Adams County.

The two races were a wash, leaving Republicans with a one-seat majority.

Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman of Denver will continue in her leadership role. She said the caucus is focused on environmental issues, including renewable energy, conservation and public lands.

The caucus created a new leadership position to work as a senior adviser on issues such as climate change.

“We had an agenda planned for the majority,” Guzman said. “I hope we can continue to move in that direction.”


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