This year there will be 24 lawmakers who have secured a seat in the statehouse through a vacancy
Nearly a quarter of the 100 state lawmakers who will sit in the Colorado General Assembly this year will have been appointed to a legislative seat at some point by a Vacancy Committee, a side entrance to the Capitol that bypasses the normal electoral process and gives tremendous power to partisan panels , which can be as small as a few dozen people.
In 2023, there will be 24 lawmakers serving in the Legislature — 14 members of the House of Representatives and 10 Senators — who have secured a seat in the Statehouse by free appointment, including at least nine lawmakers appointed in any 12-month period.
The next appointment to the vacancy is scheduled for Saturday, when a panel of Boulder County Democrats will meet to select a replacement for former House District 12 Representative Tracey Bernett, who resigned on the first day of the 2023 legislative session. She faces a felony charge alleging she lied about her residency in order to run for re-election in a more politically favorable county last year.
If a Colorado legislator resigns from the General Assembly mid-term, or resigns after the first or general ballots but before the election, his replacement to represent tens of thousands of Colorado residents in the Capitol is filled by a vacancy legislative committee, the composed of a small group of party insiders. For comparison, each Colorado House district has about 90,000 residents, while each Senate district has about 165,000 residents.
In recent years, job postings have played a large role in the composition of the legislature. Legislators appointed by a Vacancy Committee often use their tenure advantage to seek re-election. Some vacantly appointed lawmakers have served in the Capitol for more than a decade.
One of the longest-serving legislators in the Capitol, originally entering the legislature through a vacancy, is Senator Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat.
She was appointed by a vacancies committee in 2010 to fill a vacancy created when an incumbent gave up her campaign for re-election. Fields has served three, two-year terms in the House of Representatives and is in her second four-year term in the Senate. This year marks her 13th legislative session. Fields’ term ends in January 2025.
The latest person to secure a seat in the Statehouse through a vacancy is Perry Will, a New Castle Republican and former state representative who was selected Jan. 8 by a 19-member Vacancy Committee to serve the remaining two years in the senator Bob Rankin to serve term of Senate District 5.
Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, resigned Jan. 10, a day after the start of the 2023 legislative session, saying he and his wife wanted to start a new chapter in their lives.
The 19 people on the Vacancy Committee that appointed Will represent 0.01% of the 163,126 people living in Senate District 5.
In House District 12, the Democratic Committee on Vacancies meeting Saturday has 53 people, according to CBS4. Two of the members are themselves candidates for the vacancy.
The Legislature passed legislation last year in hopes of increasing the number of people who sit on vacancy committees. It requires that each Democratic and Republican vacancy committee include at least the entire central committee of a legislative district, the size of which varies from district to district.
The central committees, which have discretionary powers to determine who sits on the vacancy committees, are made up of district captains who are elected at district assemblies, which are biennial gatherings that bring together party insiders at a set time and place, leading to can lead to severe limitation participation.
Prior to the change in law, there was no set minimum number of people on a vacancy committee, and panels were often fewer than 10 people.
Will, for example, was appointed to his House seat in 2019 by a vacancy committee with just six members. Will was selected that year to replace Rankin, who was appointed to the Senate by a vacancy committee to replace Republican Senator Randy Baumgardner, who resigned his seat.
Will lost his bid for re-election in the House of Representatives in November but is back in the Legislature thanks to his January 7 vacancy.
“I think it’s a fair trial,” Will said. “I think I’m doing a good job down here and my intentions are good. I’m just here to do stuff for people.”
Will said he always tried to represent everyone in his district, whether he was sent to the Capitol by 19 people or 160,000.
“Once you’re elected, you represent everyone in your district,” he said. You don’t just represent the Democrats. They just don’t represent Republicans. You represent everyone.”
Will told The Sun he plans to run for reelection for his Senate seat in 2024.
Legislators appointed to their seats by the vacancy process can serve in the legislature for up to two years before voters have a chance to comment. This gives them the powerful power of office, and they are almost always re-elected to their positions.
Take Senator Nick Hinrichsen, D-Pueblo, for example. He was appointed to his seat in February 2022, replacing Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, who resigned to accept a position at the Department of Defense. Hinrichsen then won a narrow election in a swing district on November 8th.
There have been few examples of vacant lawmakers failing to win re-election.
State Rep. Judy Reyher, a Republican from southeast Colorado, was elected to a seat in the House of Representatives in 2017 and then lost in the 2018 election. Republican Kurt Huffman was named representative of House District 43 last year after the end of the 2022 legislative session. He never actually served in the legislature before losing by 400 votes to Rep. Bob Marshall, a Democrat from Highlands Ranch, in the November 8 election.
Arvada Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger was appointed to her seat by a vacancy committee in 2013, but lost her re-election bid in 2014 after serving a year in the Legislature. In 2016 she ran again for the seat and won and was re-elected in 2020. Zenzinger is now chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, the powerful body that drafts the state budget.
Rep. Lorena Garcia, an Adams County Democrat, was appointed to her seat Jan. 4 after former State Rep. Adrienne Benavidez resigned shortly before the start of the 2023 legislative session. Benavidez was re-elected in November before deciding to step down, meaning Garcia will serve a full two-year term before voters in House District 35 can decide whether to represent her.
“The process of posting jobs is terrible,” said Garcia, a community activist who leads the statewide Parents’ Coalition. “It’s just absurd. I felt like I was going through a coronation process.”
Garcia said there were 40 people on the Vacancy Committee who elected her to office. This corresponds to 0.04% of the 89,889 inhabitants of their district.
“It wasn’t an inclusive process,” Garcia said, explaining that most people don’t know who their district organizers are, let alone how to contact them if they want to contribute to the recruitment process.
Only five states use an appointment process for job postings similar to Colorado’s. In the rest of the country, legislative offices are filled by special elections or by appointment by county commissioners or the governor.
Ohio is an exception. In this state, the legislature fills its own vacancies.
“It’s flawed, but it’s the best flawed process we have.” Morgan Carroll, the outgoing chairperson of the Colorado Democratic Party, said of Colorado’s free legislature appointments.
Carroll said the nomination for governor leaves the decision up to one person, as opposed to a group. She also said special elections are problematic because they are costly and favor wealthy candidates.
Additionally, Colorado’s legislative session lasts only 120 days each year. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to facilitate a special election in this time frame.
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