Death of Colorado civil union bill stirs anger, spurs action for November election

LGBT leaders, progressive coalition, plan to take back the House

State Rep. Mark Ferrandino addresses a crowd at a rally for the Colorado Civil Union Act May 3. The Colorado Civil Union Act was killed, twice, my the GOP controlled House. Ferrandino, along with other LGBT heavyweights are working toward reclaiming the House in November. Photo by Sean Mullins.

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June 6, 2012 | 1:17 pm
(Updated: February 25, 2013 | 1:20 pm)

Colorado’s LGBT political heavyweights and their allies, incensed over the death of the Colorado Civil Union Act, are preparing a full-scale attack to elect a “pro-equality” majority this November to the state House of Representatives. Their mission is to ensure Republican Speaker of the House Frank McNulty’s razor-thin majority is a thing of the past, rendering him unable to once again stop a bill that would extend most of the rights and responsibilities of marriage to Colorado same-sex couples.

Under his leadership that bill has died three times since it was first introduced in 2011 by gay Denver Democrats state Sen. Pat Steadman and Rep. Mark Ferrandino. And the bill will “meet a similar fate,” the speaker said, if it’s re-introduced under his watch next year in its current form.

Financed by a network of donors from across the country, leaders of the community coupled with a progressive coalition — including statewide LGBT advocacy organization One Colorado — will zero in on a handful of races they plan to win, giving the Democratic Party at least 36 seats in the House, according to multiple sources.

The GOP has controlled the House with a one-seat advantage – 33-32 – since 2011.

“McNulty has a big target on his back,” a former Republican Party leader, who asked not to be identified because of the ongoing debate around civil unions in the GOP, told Out Front Colorado.

While it’s extraordinarily unlikely supporters of the civil union bill can do anything to unseat McNulty in his safe-Republican district of Highlands Ranch, Denver-based LGBT activist Ted Trimpa said being forced out of his leadership role would be a fate worse than losing for McNulty.

“The win for us is making sure Frank has to sit on the back bench,” Trimpa said.

The alliances of organizations will mobilize hundreds — even thousands — of volunteers to knock on doors and call registered voters, all while buying radio and other media and stuffing mailboxes with direct mail pieces arguing Republicans associated with McNulty are too extreme and out of touch with most Coloradans who support issues like civil unions.

And while more than 300,000 members of the LGBT community will come together later this month to celebrate Pride at Civic Center, the work to take back the Speaker’s gavel has already begun.

“There is more of a personal reason then ever before to take back the House,” said Minority Leader Ferrandino. “The actions of the speaker to undermine the Democratic process have galvanized a lot of support.”

But McNulty doesn’t plan to go down without a fight.

“(We’re going to) go out and win seats,” he said. “We’re going to run on a record of economic accomplishments of building a better Colorado.”

Speaker of the House Frank McNulty tells members of the media the Colorado Civil Union Act is dead after he and Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, the bill's sponsor, could not reach a compromise. Photo by Sean Mullins

“Legislative malpractice”

When a House Judiciary Committee in 2011 originally killed the Colorado Civil Union Act, bill sponsors Steadman and Ferrandino vowed to bring back it back.

They made good on their word. The bill was re-introduced on the first day of the 2012 General Assembly.

At the time, Steadman was the sole lead sponsor. Supporters of the legislation agreed a Republican sponsor in the House, a symbolic political move to detoxify the bill politically, would help move the bill to the governor’s desk.

Steadman and Ferrandino courted Rep. Kevin Priola, a Republican from Henderson. Just two years ago he was a rare commodity: a Colorado moderate Republican who supported civil unions. He was endorsed in the 2010 election cycle by the statewide LGBT advocacy organization One Colorado.

The gay Democrats agreed to hold the bill in the Senate until after the 2012 primary ballot was finalized in late April, providing cover for Priola.

In the end, not only did Priola back out of sponsoring the bill, but the speaker pro tem completely switched his position to opposing the bill.

And while so much attention had been focused on Priola and a potential swing vote, Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, it was another Loveland lawmaker and member of House leadership, Rep. B.J. Nikkel, who would become the catalyst for the civil union bill to advance further in 2012 then it did the previous year.

“Everyone knew her vote had changed,” said Republican Rep. Robert Ramirez. “She had a real hard time after she voted against the bill (in 2011).”

After a contentious Judiciary Committee hearing during the regular session, Nikkel voted with Democrats to green light the bill saying it was “simply, the right thing to do.”

State Reps. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield, and Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, also voted for the bill on two subsequent panels sending the legislation to the House with just hours to spare before a midnight deadline would kill the bill.

But just as supporters were starting to allow themselves to be cautiously optimistic, a meltdown of historic proportions unfolded in front of everyone’s eyes.

After attempting, but failing four times to bring the House to order without making the civil union bill a part of the agenda, McNulty slammed his gavel and put the House in recess while he and Ferrandino worked out a comprise.

The civil union bill would be introduced as a special agenda item. But first the House would hear its regular agenda items.

Becoming restless with a Republican filibuster, House Democrats used a procedural tactic to re-order the agenda. But before the motion could be acted upon, Republicans called a recess for nearly three hours.

The bill was dead.

McNulty called it an impasse.

Democrats called it an abuse of power.

“It was legislative malpractice,” Trimpa said. “It was as close to being politically criminal as you can get.”

McNulty and his top lieutenants pushed back, asserting it was Democrats who should be blamed. They held the bill for more than 100 days in the Senate. We need more time to debate such a controversial topic, they said.

“I understood their strategy,” McNulty said. “But, I don’t think (the Senate Democrats) helped the proponents of this bill.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, who attempted to find a path for the bill through the House, called McNulty’s bluff the following afternoon and announced he’d call a special session so Republicans could have the time they needed.

A special session of the Colorado General Assembly must meet for at least three days.

The House came to order Monday, May 14.

The bill was killed – for the second time in just a week – within the first 10 hours.

Choosing a different track for the bill, McNulty sent it to the House State Affairs Committee, stacked with “no” votes — including a representative from the Western Slope who claimed he was the “proud father of a gay son.”

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    [...] a second time in a special session called by the governor. Nic Garcia at OutFront Colorado has an excellent post-session story that summarized exactly what happened and why the LGBT community is so angry at the Republican [...]

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    [...] during an interview with Out Front, said the bill will meet a similar fate in 2013 if he’s still in control. In that same interview, the speaker said he’d win every seat Gill [...]

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