Even enemies can show respect.
Colorado Springs Republican State Sen. Keith King has proved that time and time again.
May 9 will be King’s last day as a state legislator, but in his 12 years in the Legislature, colleagues say King has built more bridges between his GOP caucus and rival Democrats than any other Republican.
The 64-year-old former businessman is the General Assembly’s top champion of charter schools, and almost all of his signature bills have been focused on education. He’s had 77 bills become law, including three so far in the 2012 session, with more on the brink of passing.
And a good chunk of those have passed during his six years serving in a chamber run by Democrats, making him one of the most successful Republican legislators since the Democrats took over the Senate in 2004.
King has been involved in education policy for almost half a century. He started as a teacher in California in 1970, and was elected to the Colorado state House of Representatives in 1998. He served as House majority leader in 2003 and 2004, and was in line to be speaker of the House. State Democrats nixed that by winning the chamber in the 2004 elections.
King spent eight years in the House, left in 2006 due to term limits, but was elected to the state Senate in 2008. And now, four years short of hitting another term limit, he’s leaving.
King is bowing out to let Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, run unopposed. The pair, both Colorado Springs Republicans, were forced into the same Senate district when boundaries were redrawn by Capitol Democrats last year.
That’s something King holds a grudge about. He’s called the new maps “vindictive,” and said this week that the “door got shut on me.”
It was either run a primary or step down. King announced in December that he would step down, prompting a conservative blog to write, “Class, Thy Name is Keith King.”
During his time in office, King helped create the Colorado Charter School Institute, start a program that helps high school graduates get tuition for public colleges, established the Colorado Opportunity Fund, and has passed innumerable supporting bills for both charter schools and education at large. He’s founded several charter schools, and is now the head of Colorado Springs Early Colleges.
“He’s Johnny Appleseed. Everywhere he goes, he plants a new charter school,” said Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, who has known and worked with King since 2004.
Lambert, along with many other lawmakers, used the same phrase when asked about King’s departure.
“It’s a great loss,” many said, as though the response had been rehearsed. It came from Democrats as often as Republicans.
Though King started as a partisan scrapper, he evolved over the years into what many legislators call “a true statesman.”
Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, said that King had been a “bully” when he was in the House majority. Steadman was a lobbyist then, and worked with King often.
“Back in the day, when he was in the House, he was like a bulldozer. He’d just push stuff through. He was pretty relentless,” said Steadman. “He was unstoppable.”
Once, when he was House majority leader, King told former state Rep. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, that none of his bills would ever pass the House.
But King became a different man when Republicans lost the majority. The GOP was in the back seat of the House for years, only gaining a one-seat edge in the 2010 election. Democrats have maintained their grip on the Senate.
“When he lost power, he was just as effective, and even better, when he had to work with people. He really did change,” said Steadman.
King can still be occasionally intractable, say some colleagues in the Senate, but not as often as he strives to find common ground.
One of the most liberal members of the state Senate, Rollie Heath, a Boulder Democrat, sang King’s praises. Heath serves with King on the Senate Education Committee called King “the best of what government is supposed to be.”
Tony Salazar, director of the Colorado Education Association, fought with King for years over charter schools. They went to war over school vouchers and the Charter School Institute, but Salazar said he “never considered him an enemy.”
“He’d tell me what he was going to do, and I told him I was going to try and kill his bills, and we’d shake hands and walk away,” Salazar said with a laugh.
“Whoever replaces him will have some big shoes to fill,” Salazar said.
King may not be done with the Capitol. He says he’s thinking again about running for the House in 2014, in House District 20, where Republican Rep. Bob Gardner will be term-limited.
“I have a lot of people who would like me to come back,” said King. “It’s a work of love for me. I certainly don’t do it for the pay.”
Contact John Schroyer: 476-4825
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