22 March 2006

Vacancies In Colorado: A Case Study

Democrat Deanna Hanna formally ended her State Senate term with a resignation on Tuesday, after controversy arose over the nature of her requests for campaign contributions. She wasn't precisely forced out. She did not have an ethics committee explusion recommendation hanging over her head and the odds are good that if an ethics committee investigation initiated by fellow Democratic State Senator Ken Gordon had gone that far, that a lesser sanction would have been recommended. The recall petition that had been in the works to oust her would have required well over ten thousand signatures, in a relatively short period of time, from registered voters in her state senate district, and there is a decent chance that petitioners would have failed to gather the requisite numbers of signatures, or that voters would not have decided to recall her. Absent a successful recall or explusion, she wouldn't even have been up for election in 2006.

Instead, the decision to resign was a political one. She left her office to avoid creating a campaign issue for Republicans in their campaigns against her colleagues in 2006, defusing the argument that Democrats have all the lack of ethical accountability that Republicans have been accused (often by the Bush Administration's Justice Department backed by solid evidence or other professional prosecutors, Tom Delay comes to mind), is shared by Democrats.

But, this decision was made easier by an important feature of Colorado politics that makes decisions like those made by Deanna Hanna issues of public perception and personal career fortunes, rather than opportunities to change the balance of power.

In Colorado, State House and State Senate vacancies are filled by vacancy committees comprises of officials of the departing legislator's own political party. I've served on two (one which appointed State Senator Jennifer Veiga, and another which appointed State Representative Anne McGihon, both of whom have since gone on to win elections in their respective districts without primary opposition). In the usual case, they consist of the precinct committee people in the District (a post to which I was elected for another two year term last night), although special rules apply in multi-county districts. Once a vacancy committee fills a post, the appointee serves only until the next general election in an even numbered year, even if, as in the case of Deanna Hanna's post, there normally would not have been an election for another two years.

This rule provides stability, and separates partisan issues from personal ones, in much the way that the Vice Presidency does at the national level. The political incentive for liberal to impeach President Bush, for example, is dramatically reduced by the sure knowledge that Vice President Dick Cheney would become President if such an impeachment were a success.

In this case, Democrat Betty Boyd, a state representative from Lakewood (within Deanna Hanna's district) was chosen in an unopposed Democratic party vacancy committee decision to fill Deanna Hanna's seat, and will take office Friday, leaving a mere two day vacancy in the post, during which the Senate is unlikely to conduct any serious business.

Another vacancy committee convened yesterday prior to the election of new precinct committeepeople in the precinct caucuses, chose (contrary to the rumors from Colorado Pols that another candidate was a lock), Democrat Andy Kerr, a school administrator with a background working with the Colorado Education Association when he was a teacher, to fill Betty Boyd's seat. In a matter of days, after a brief vacancy in the House, he too will restore the pre-Hanna resignation balance to the State House. In the meantime:

[Democratic House Majority Leader Alice] Madden is likely to keep controversial bills off the House floor until Boyd's replacement is sworn in Friday, she said.

Kerr was chosen, in significant part, because vacancy committee members felt that he, while being a solid Democrat, would also be a strongest candidate in the November election. He will be the candidate in that race, if he ends up being the Democratic party candidate after the caucus and primary processes are completed (which is likely because of the overlap between the caucus process the qualifies people for the general election ballot and the vacancy committee membership), in the relatively competitive Lakewood District that is House District 26. In 2004, incumbent Boyd received 16,606 votes (56% of the votes cast for the office), the Republican challenger Mike Smith received 12,424 votes, and Libertarian Doug Anderson received 799 votes. A race without an full fledged incumbent in House District 26 can be expected to be more competitive.

A vacancy in the Governor's post, similarly, is filled by a Lieutenant Governor of the same party who now is chosen by the Gubinatorial candidate him or herself before facing the voters. Unfortunately, Colorado has not yet adopted a similar system for the positions of Attorney General, Secretary of State or State Treasurer, where the Governor appoints a replacement who may be from a different political party than the incumbent, as was the case when Democratic Attorney General Ken Salazar was replaced by Republican Attorney General John Suthers.

If the federal models of a by-election or immediately gubinatorial appointment of a successor to Deanna Hanna, or even a simple rule that the post would remain vacant until the next election, had applied, the controversy would almost certainly have played out differently. Democratic party members would have urged Hanna to stay on to protect Democrat's one vote majority in the State Senate, and Hanna and all others Democrtas would have felt pressure to try to vehemently deny any wrong doing, rather than concluding that even an appearance of impropriety was enough to make resignation the right thing to do.

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