11 January 2006

Opening Day

I was privileged to be on the floor of Colorado's House of Representatives this morning on the opening day of the session (Anne McGihon's introduction of me and her other guests will provide proof of that in the state's archives for eternity), something akin to baseball's opening day for sport's fans. And, there is something unspeakably cool from the perspective of a political junkie like myself about parking in a member's spot (well, actually some other representative took our spot and we parked in their's) and actually being on the floor of the State House, a few feet away from the legislators themselves.

The State House, for those who haven't visited, is decidedly square, indeed, almost a cube, in stark contrast to the national capital in Washington, which is more curved. The public gallery is small, but wasn't overflowing this morning. The appointments are nice, but with plebian touches, like the black metal three door file cabinets next to each representative's desk, that make it clear that we are not in Washington.

Andrew Romanoff, Speaker of House in Colorado, opened with a clever symbolic move. The opening prayer on the opening day was offered not by the traditional mainline Christian pastor, but by a Ute Shaman, predominately in the Ute language without translation. Thus, Romanoff both illustrated with action his recognition of the role played by the non-Christian left and non-white constituencies in the Democratic party coalition, while at the same time offending no one, since I doubt that there were four people present who could understand the Ute invocation (except for the occasional mention of the word "Colorado" which apparently is the same in English and Ute, and a closing "Amen"). Romanoff dropped the ball symbolically with the non-Christian left and liberal Christians later, however, swearing in the legislative staff with a "I swear . . . So help me God.", oath, rather than the usual "I swear or affirm . . . statement absent the "So help me God.", that you usually hear in a court of law or deposition in Colorado. I've had clients who are Quakers and particularly sensitive to this matter, and I suspect that there was, at least, someone in the large group of legislative aides and staff sworn in felt similarly, but didn't want to make a scene.

The usually opening day traditions followed, and I was struck by some of the intended and not intended symbolic details. Governor Owens was identified at one point by the honorific "his Excellency", which I didn't realize was ever applied to a non-monarch, and the young son of a former representative, who offered us the Pledge of Allegiance, slightly fumbled, reciting:

I pledge allegiance to the flag, and to the nation for which it stands, under Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Yeah, I feel like I'm being crushed under our authoritarian nation sometimes too.

The presence of military non-commissioned officers bearing rifles (probably unloaded) as the honor guard wasn't terribly reassuring either, although the moment of silence for our soldiers at war abroad which Andrew Romanoff began his policy speech with was a suitably moving one (the capital is also full of little mini-shrines in every nook and cranny, think Shinto less the Japanese calligraphy and you'll have the idea, to relatives of state employees who are serving in or have served in the military). Our politicians in Colorado are very clear that we are a nation at war. (Mr. Stengel, the minority leader in the House and a former law clerk with my law firm, similarly remembered those serving in our pending wars, but his thunder had already been stolen by Romanoff on that point.)

It was notable that the respective houses of Colorado's General Assembly seem incapable of communicating with anyone (at least today) with anything less than a committee of three elected officials. Also, it bears noting that the House appears to have been more efficient in discharging its duties than the Senate, despite the larger number of members in the body. As the House spent a moment in silence, we could hear the national anthem being sung on the other side of the capital, an agenda item we'd completed some time earlier.

Of course, the highlight of the morning was a policy speech by my Washington Park neighbor and contemporary Speaker Romanoff, followed by a policy speech by Minority Leader Stengel. You don't have to be partisan to notice that Romanoff is a better public speaker than Stengel.

Romanoff called for bipartisanship and outlined a Democratic agenda for the session in a charming speech that invoked his father, Alexander Hamilton, and the usual array of ordinary Coloradans present in the chamber to illustrate personally the importance of his political points. His tone recognized the fragility of the Democratic majority that prevails in the House and committed his party to a moderate path focused on bread and butter issues like pre-school education, reductions in health care costs, compromises to deal with Colorado's limited water supplies equitably, and measures to combat identity theft and sex offenders who don't comply with registration requirements.

Minority leader Stengel, who is a less dynamic personality to start with, opened with a call for bipartisanship, and did fortunately enough, refrain from digging into hot button social issues other than immigration (which Romanoff also addressed). Instead, he opened by emphasizing the great importance of frugality in the face of the fiscal abundance provided by narrowly passed Referendum C, acknowledging the majority's positive statements in that regard. But, bipartisanship quickly dissolved into partisan jabs in his own speech and his calls for frugality seemed to vanish as he moved on from discussing his party's agenda to highlighting the bills proposed by members of his caucus, many of which involved the very "investments" in Colorado, and new spending programs, which he had just minutes before condemned.

Of course, in a morning filled with introductions and pomp, the real work was done behind the scenes, in the case of my boss and state representative, first in a sidebar conversation on the floor of the house regarding a key bill, and then off the floor on her cell phone which gets such heavy use during the session that it is a wonder that it doesn't get hot enough to burn her fingers. By the way, the office space for House members (two to a room) is nothing to write home about, although I hear (but can't report first hand) that the member's only bathrooms in the capital are decadent.

Pride of place for the evening's legislative hobnobbing went to the Colorado Restaurant Association, who obviously know how to cater to the best. I didn't go, so I can't tell you how that went.

1 comment:

Off Colfax said...

I was planning on attending the opening day ceremonies but, for the life of me, I just couldn't drag myself out of bed this morning. That's the occupational hazard of being naturally nocturnal, although 4 different night jobs have ground it down into being a force of habit to not get sleepy until just this side of dawn, in addition to the hormonal imbalance.

Sounds like I missed a good day under the dome, though.