Published: May 16, 2014
In recalling Sen. John Morse, the people of District 11 fired a seasoned politician with a knack for achieving extreme and divisive goals. As Senate president, Morse ranked among the two most powerful state legislators.
Voters replaced him with Bernie Herpin, a former Colorado Springs councilman who had lost a recent bid for re-election. Herpin would enter the Senate as a freshman in the minority. Skeptics feared him "too nice" to hold his own in the big leagues. If his bottom-rung status wasn't troubling enough, majority legislators knew him as the man who helped dethrone their king. They were miffed. If Herpin opposed puppy torture, Democrats would have reason to balk.
As such, the controlling party instantly snuffed a succession of Herpin's bills. They dismissed a version of Jessica's Law he co-sponsored to fulfill a pledge of tougher sentences for predators who rape young children. They killed his bill to strengthen protections for reporters who shield sources, a proposal supported by the Colorado Press Association that should have enjoyed bipartisan support.
"Those of us in government do a poor job keeping ourselves in check," Herpin said. "Thomas Jefferson said the press should be government's watchdog. I learned Colorado has some of the country's weakest shield laws, so I wanted to change that. If reporters can't protect sources, we may not find out about problems in government such as Watergate."
Democrats denied Herpin's proposal requiring higher regulatory standards for naturopathic physicians. They said no to a bill that would have given school districts better options for plumbing inspections.
Then something unexpected occurred in a Legislature known for doctrinaire personalities and partisan turmoil. Politicians on each side of the aisle began to like Sen. Herpin. They discovered an affable, formidable man with sincere concern for children, families and veterans. Opposing him by rote, Democrats surmised, wouldn't look so good.
They realized Herpin was right to insist on Jessica's Law, so they introduced a Democratic version of the bill and welcomed his support. Herpin didn't need a Republican bill. He needed an outcome for the public, in the form of stricter penalties for monsters who rape kids younger than 12.
Democrats decided Herpin, a former Air Force and Naval officer, was smart to suggest new license plates that celebrate a forthcoming Naval submarine named "USS Colorado." So they passed his license plate bill. They supported Herpin on a bill to enhance transparency in the Department of Transportation. They worked with him on bills designed to make Colorado more accommodating to the military. They allowed Herpin a slate of minority-party victories one expects from legislative veterans.
"I really enjoyed working with Sen. Herpin," said Sen. John Kefalas, a Fort Collins Democrat. "He is just a very pleasant fellow."
Kefalas isn't a moderate with a "D" on his lapel. He has a 100 percent rating from the liberal ACLU and a 3 percent rating by the conservative Colorado Union of Taxpayers. He wasn't happy about the recall of Morse and maintained initial skepticism toward Herpin.
"He is seen as a very nice man who cares about the state and tries to be thoughtful about the legislation he supports," Kefalas said. "The recall circumstances he came with were interesting for sure, but his interactions were positive and constructive and I think that generated results."
Kefalas wishes all legislators cared more about good outcomes; less about antagonizing their opponents.
"We all need to overcome this hyper partisanship," Kefalas said.
Rigid ideology, blind party loyalty and shock legislation cost three senators their jobs last year. As Herpin demonstrates, politicians who focus on the public's welfare inspire positive, bipartisan leadership among their peers.