Upon Adjournment

Political challenges face three freshman lawmakers

Column by Vic Vela
Posted

As the legislative session chugs along, three freshman lawmakers are trying to balance voting their personal ideology with that of the constituents who reside in their complicated districts.

And if that isn’t hard enough, a couple of them are still trying to figure out where the stairwells and exits and other important places are located inside the Capitol.
“The hardest thing for me was finding the bathroom,” said Sen. Bernie Herpin, R-Colorado Springs. “At my age, that’s important.”

Herpin and senate colleagues George Rivera, R-Pueblo, and Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, may not always agree on politics. But they share a common bond that is best summed up by the Grateful Dead’s “St. Stephen” — “One man gathers what another man spills.”

The three gained their seats as a result of recall efforts that sent their predecessors packing.

Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs and Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo lost to Herpin and Rivera in September recall elections that were spurred by the Democrats’ votes on gun legislation that became law last year.

Zenzinger took over the seat that was held by fellow Democrat Evie Hudak, who resigned in November in the face of a recall effort.

The three didn’t think they’d have their own nameplates inside the Senate’s chambers, at least so soon. But, here they are. And now that they’re here, they say they are trying to strike the right legislative balance while also trying to keep up with the sometimes complex and often maddening scene inside the Capitol.

I asked Rivera — a former cop who had never held elected office prior to winning his seat — if he has found the legislative process to be overwhelming.

“I’d be lying if I said no,” Rivera said. “Because there were instances where I said, ‘Wow, what did I get myself into?’ ”

Getting around the building and figuring out how the legislative process works is one thing. Going back to their brutally-drawn districts to convince voters to send them back to the Capitol for a full term will be a whole other ball of wax.

Rivera is surrounded by Democrats in Pueblo’s District 3. Heck, even his wife is a Democrat. Last September, Rivera became the first Republican to represent the Democratic stronghold since the 1930s.

“People were really fed up and upset with a lot of the laws that were passed in Denver,” he said, referring specifically to gun bills and rural electric mandates.

“The bottom line is this: It just doesn’t seem like they understand that although they’re Democrat down there in Pueblo, doggone it, they take them for granted at their peril.”

Then there’s Herpin’s Senate District 11, which includes parts of Colorado Springs. Now, when folks think of the Springs, they assume that it’s about as safe for a Republican lawmaker as Duke University is for Mike Krzyzewski.

But Herpin’s district is a tough one, and it includes Manitou Springs, where Democrats dig the vibe. Morse barely lost the September recall election to Herpin, by a razor thin margin of 51 percent to 49 percent.

Prior to becoming a state senator, Herpin’s political experience was limited to municipal government, having served on the city council there.

But Herpin recently learned the hard way that things said inside council chambers get nothing like the attention they receive inside the Capitol.

A couple of weeks ago, Herpin made headlines during a committee hearing where he was presenting a bill that sought to repeal last year’s law that banned ammunition magazines from carrying more than 15 rounds. The bill was a reaction to recent mass shootings where the killers carried magazines that contained large numbers of ammunition rounds.

Herpin was trying to make the point that high-capacity magazines are unreliable and that perhaps it was “a good thing” that Aurora theater shooting suspect James Holmes had a 100-round magazine because it jammed.

The senator’s comments were received with outrage by family members who lost loved ones in the Aurora theater shooting.

Herpin said his comments were taken out of context, but that he understands the reaction.

“I still think what I was trying to get across was correct, I just think I could have done it better,” he said. “It was my fault for not phrasing my remarks and taking into consideration the sensitivities of the subject.”

Herpin said “it’s not pleasant” when asked what it was like to be on the receiving end of bad press, rather than reading about someone else’s. Herpin then quipped that at least he didn’t go as far as did former Colorado Springs lawmaker Doug Bruce during his infamous antics on the first day of the 2008 legislative session.

“I’ve not yet kicked the reporter or the photographer, so I’m not the worst yet,” Herpin said.

Zenzinger hasn’t kicked a photographer yet either — and somehow, I just don’t see that happening.

Unlike Herpin, Zenzinger has no problem finding bathrooms in the Capitol, seeing as how she was once an aide to Democratic Sen. Mary Hodge of Adams County.
The margin for error in Herpin’s district is pretty thin, but the one in Zenzinger’s District 19 is New York deli pastrami-like thin - and that’s thin!

Hudak won the seat with 51 percent of the vote in 2008, which was a virtual landslide compared to 2012, when she won by a margin of 584 votes, or by less than 1 percent of the vote.

Zenzinger doesn’t need a math lesson to figure out just how difficult her district is — after all, she ran Hudak’s successful 2012 campaign. She said she tries to convey to her divided constituency that what happens at the Capitol isn’t as divisive as they might think.

“Ninety to 95 percent of the bills passed at the Capitol are actually bipartisan,” she said. “And people go, ‘No they’re not.’ Yes, they actually are. It’s just those 5 percent that are really divisive. And that’s challenging because 50 percent of my district will agree and 50 percent wont agree.”

Zenzinger knows that she’s going to face a stiff challenge this November, regardless of who the Republican nominee turns out to be. She hopes that people will see she’s the same person who served on the Arvada City Council, but she knows full well that conservatives — especially gun enthusiasts — will try to paint her as the second coming of Evie Hudak.

“I’m sure they’re going to try to say that,” Zenzinger said.

“So what I’m hoping to demonstrate is that I was OK when I was on city council in representing you and I haven’t changed. Who Rachel Zenzinger is hasn’t changed. So I’m trying to do a good job in showing I am my own person.”