Colorado legislature appointments offer backdoor lock on seats |

Colorado legislature appointments offer backdoor lock on seats

Jessica Fender
The Denver Po

Term limits and early resignations from the state legislature are giving large numbers of lawmakers – among them many historymakers and rising stars – a toehold in state politics before they’ve received a single vote.

Nearly one in six sitting House members and nearly a third of sitting senators entered their chambers through appointments by selection committees, small groups of local party stalwarts that choose successors to retiring lawmakers. This year alone, five people won appointments to the legislature.

The effects are legislative seats more protected from opposing party challengers, more lawmakers who may not have had the time or means to otherwise seek office, and seats that go for decades without an open election, analysts say.

It’s a trend that’s remarkable, given Colorado voters’ penchant for deciding everything from intricate budget restrictions to controversial social issues at the ballot box, says political consultant Eric Sondermann.

“If this is becoming the norm rather than the exception, is it proper that these decisions get made by very small and rather exclusive vacancy committees or should they have general elections?” Sondermann asked.

Half of U.S. states hold sometimes costly special elections to fill statehouse vacancies, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Colorado is one of six where a political party or party committee fills vacancies and one of seven where the replacement must be from the same party as his or her predecessor, the data show.

Appointed House members fill out the remainder of their predecessors’ two-year terms and then stand for election. Appointed senators must run in the next general election. That means that incoming Sens. Michael Johnston, D-Denver; and Pat Steadman, D-Denver; as well as newly appointed Reps. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland; Max Taylor, D-Lakewood; and Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills, will all go before voters for the first time next year.

This year’s vacancies have more to do with personal decisions and White House appointments than with term limits. But political-science professor John Straayer of Colorado State University blames the eight-year clock politicians face in the House and Senate for the growing number of premature resignations.

“It’s a musical-chairs operation more than it’s been in the past,” Straayer said. “People start looking for jobs before their terms are up.”

Between 1990 and 1996, about two-thirds of lawmakers who left the legislature retired from politics, by Straayer’s count. From the advent of term limits in 1998 and until 2004, nearly two thirds of lawmakers who resigned early left to seek some other elective office, he said.

Some legislative leaders who benefited from statehouse appointments are House Speaker Terrance Carroll, recently resigned Senate President Peter Groff and Sen. Jennifer Veiga, all Democrats who have made state legislative history. Carroll became the first black House leader; Groff the first black Senate leader; and Veiga Colorado’s first openly gay state lawmaker.

Another appointee, GOP rising star Rep. Cory Gardner, plans to challenge U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey, a Fort Collins Democrat, for the 4th Congressional District seat next year.

NCSL analyst Tim Storey thinks the success rate of appointments stems from the extra time and experience those politicians get by starting a year ahead of what would be their freshman classes.

“Appointees get a head start. They get a little special attention,” Storey said. “With term limits, being the head of your class really makes a difference.”

A legislative race takes months of knocking on doors, organizing, speechmaking and tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of fundraising.

It’s a challenge that Assistant House Majority Leader Andy Kerr – a full-time educator and father expecting his third child – said promising candidates with hectic schedules may find daunting or undoable.

An appointment process, by contrast, takes a few weeks where candidates convince a few dozen party insiders.

“There’s no way I would have been able to run a full-bore campaign for six months or a year,” said Kerr, who was appointed to the House in 2006 and won re-election last year. “Even with the appointment, there are a lot of people who told me I would have to quit my other job when I was running my first campaign.”

While appointments may open doors to more types of candidates, they also can shut out voters, analysts say.

Denver’s District 31 Senate seat, which Veiga held, hasn’t seen an open election – a contest where there’s no incumbent – since 1977.

In more competitive districts than the heavily Democratic SD 31, early retirement – like that of Rep. Gwyn Green, whom businessman Max Tyler is replacing, or Sen. Jim Isgar, who’s pursuing a federal appointment – can help secure the spot for the incumbent party.

“The power-of-incumbency part in these races is so overwhelming that the appointment is often tantamount to an eight-year term,” Sondermann said. “It has the effect of giving the incumbent party a huge head start in preserving and defending that seat.”

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