When Colorado Governor Bill Owens urged the state’s lawmakers to approve a get-tough immigration measure for the November ballot, the move seemed certain to back his Democratic rivals into the tightest of political corners. For months, Owens, a Republican, had accused the Democratically controlled legislature of refusing to deal with illegal immigration — one of the state’s most sensitive political issues — and his latest maneuver was designed to put the legislature on the defensive while at the same time galvanizing voters who otherwise might be put off by such GOP blunders as the war in Iraq.
But Owens did not count on Andrew Romanoff, the Democratic speaker of Colorado’s House of Representatives, and his party hitting back.
Led by Romanoff, the Democrats launched an unexpectedly aggressive counteroffensive: They threatened to call their own special session and, arguing that Owens’s ballot measure was so broad as to virtually guarantee a rash of lawsuits against local governments, began to develop their own reform legislation.
Now, two months after the governor’s June call for a special session of the legislature, his ballot initiative is dead — and Owens has signed an immigration bill brokered, in large part, by Romanoff, and widely seen as a political victory for the Democrats.
The new law, signed by Owens on July 31, requires 1 million people receiving state and federal benefits to prove they are legal residents of the United States. It is being described as one the toughest immigration laws in the country.
“The Republicans were hoping to pin the label of ‘soft on immigration’ on the Democrats, but it didn’t work,” said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University. “The Democrats saw it as a chess game, [and] for every move the Republicans made, they made adroit countermoves.”
As Democrats aim for a national resurgence in November, the recent successes of Romanoff and the Colorado Democrats demonstrate that for every centrist Democrat who is under attack by the party’s liberal wing, there are others making inroads in GOP territory by hewing carefully to the middle.
Pressing a decidedly centrist line, Democrats won control of Colorado’s state legislature in 2004 for the first time since 1962. They also made gains on the congressional level, with Ken Salazar winning a seat left open by retiring Republican Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell and by his own brother, John Salazar, winning a congressional seat that also had been in GOP hands.
This November, with every seat in the state’s General Assembly up for grabs, the Democrats have 3-1 odds of holding on to the House and 4-1 odds of keeping the Senate, according to the Web site Coloradopols.com. They also have a good chance of taking over the governorship (term limits bar Owens from running again) and of winning four of Colorado’s seven congressional seats.
In the case of the new immigration law, some liberal activists say that the Democrats have paid too high a price to secure the middle. Many of Colorado’s grass-roots immigrant advocates say they feel betrayed by Romanoff. They lament legislation that they say will make it harder for the needy to access government services.
“We were largely shut out of the process, we were shut out of much of the decision making, we were not present during many of the meetings,” said Bill Vandenberg, executive director of the Colorado Progressive Coalition. “Our legislative leadership, who are centrist Democrats, I believe very much caved in more than they needed to the anti-immigrant forces in our state.”
Romanoff, a 39-year-old former management consultant with degrees from Yale and Harvard universities, makes no apologies for his willingness to forge alliances.
Though not a skier or an avid outdoorsman, Romanoff arrived in Colorado after finishing graduate school in public policy — he was “casting about for a place to call” his own — and has been in the legislature since 2000. In two years, term limits will force him out of the statehouse. Romanoff grew up in Columbus, Ohio, in a Reform Jewish household where his mother, a Democrat, served as a social worker and his father, a Republican, worked as prosecutor. “It’s not a combination I recommend,” he quipped during a recent interview with the Forward. “They got divorced.”
A picture of Bobby Kennedy graces Romanoff’s office, and the House speaker talks earnestly about the Democratic mission to lift up the poor and about his admiration for liberal stalwarts Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. But he was also in attendance at last month’s meeting of the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist Democrat organization that helped propel Bill Clinton to the White House in 1992. “I’m an old-line Democrat, I guess,” Romanoff said. At the same time, he added, “the best way to do things isn’t always through a government program. I think sometimes folks in our party get caught up defending programs that don’t work — and that’s a mistake.”
As of late, immigration has become a politically charged issue throughout the country. And as the federal government has stalled on immigration form, more than 60 bills dealing with undocumented immigrants have been approved in 27 states this year alone, according to a tally last month by the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Colorado, both the Republican governor and Democratic leaders in the legislature are hailing the new legislation on immigration as a success.
The major law that was passed was the Democrats’ HB 1023, which requires a three-step identification verification progress for applicants for government benefits, licenses, contracts and loans. Applicants also will have to sign affidavits attesting to their legal immigration status, and may be prosecuted if found to be obtaining benefits illegally. Additional immigration laws were passed during the special session, including measures that require residency identification from applicants for professional licenses and for employers to certify the legal status of their employees.
The wrangling over immigration legislation began in June, after the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the GOP-backed proposed ballot initiative on immigration was unconstitutional because it packaged more than one issue into the single initiative. The most controversial aspect of the ballot measure, so-called Initiative 55, was a clause that would have given private citizens the right to sue municipalities or the state for providing government services to illegal immigrants.
In response to the court decision, Owens called for a special session of the legislature in order to pass legislation to put the initiative on the ballot. Democrats introduced their own legislation, warning that the GOP’s proposed ballot measure was worded too broadly, leaving open the possibility that anti-immigrant activists could end up suing municipalities for picking up the trash of illegal immigrants.
“Democrats were making some really hard decisions,” Ben Davis said. Davis is deputy communications director of Keep Colorado Safe, the ad hoc coalition formed to fight Initiative 55. “There are 250,000 undocumented immigrants in this state, and the voters overwhelmingly wanted change.”
Romanoff pulled off a coup by brokering a deal between Keep Colorado Safe, represented by former Clinton energy secretary Federico Peña, and the pro-55 coalition, Defend Colorado Now, which at the time was represented by former Colorado governor Dick Lamm.
Although the two groups seemed, on the surface, to be the strangest of political bedfellows in eventually agreeing to support HB 1023, Romanoff understood that both sides had a stake in coming to the bargaining table.
He “is an incredible legislator who brings opposing forces together every year to find solutions to problems,” Davis said. “And the bottom line is, Defend Colorado knew that a referendum measure was unlikely to be approved because Democrats were in power in the legislature, and we knew that it was unlikely that we were going to be able to prevent any legislative reform altogether.”
Instead, Davis said, the immigrant advocates focused on limiting the scope of the legislation, pushing successfully, for example, for exemptions for all medical services to minors and making sure the law was written in way that would not force employers to fire existing employees.
The deal was sealed when the two ballot groups held a joint press conference in support of the legislation, which was approved July 10 by two-thirds of the legislature.
It was not the first time that Romanoff has grabbed the spotlight by working pragmatically. Prior to the passage of immigration reform, his most prominent legislative accomplishment was authoring Referendum C, a ballot measure that was approved by voters in 2005. The referendum restored $1 billion in funding cuts made during the recession by allowing the state to keep and spend surplus tax money that otherwise by law would have been refunded to Coloradans. Romanoff successfully courted support from a spectrum of sectors, including the business community.
When analyzing the challenges facing his party, Romanoff insisted that the Democrats are divided more by strategies than by goals. He argued that there should be room for centrists and liberals alike.
“Compromise,” he said, “is my main shtick.”