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Opinion: The enemies of progressive policy turned out to be Colorado Democrats

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Quentin Young

(Colorado Newsline) Boulder has a far-left reputation, reflected in one of its nicknames, the People’s Republic of Boulder.

It’s true that Democrats dominate the city, and its liberal tendencies are pronounced in certain matters of the environment and culture, but longtime residents know the truth. They’ve seen officials embrace racist zoning policies, resist law enforcement reform and mistreat people experiencing homelessness, and they understand that the place is superficially progressive but essentially conservative. 

Same goes for the Colorado Capitol.

Democrats commanded historically large majorities in the state House and Senate during this year’s legislative session. Democrat Jared Polis sits in the governor’s office. The November elections, in a further sign the Colorado electorate is shifting left, brought several new progressive lawmakers to the Legislature.

Yet, when the session came to a close Monday, it was clear that the Capitol was like Boulder — progressive on the outside, conservative in the middle — and most of the progressive agenda was left in ruins.

Democrats did record several notable achievements. They passed a package of gun violence prevention bills and a package of reproductive health care bills. They established a national precedent with a “right to repair” law for farm equipment. They adopted a prohibition against arbitrary local growth caps. And they expanded state income tax relief for low-earning workers and families with children.

Despite these and other Democratic triumphs, the main story of the 2023 legislative session involves failure. 

Like the failure of a land-use reform bill. Housing needs were the centerpiece of Polis’ State of the State address in January, and in March he and Democratic allies with much fanfare unveiled a legislative plan to spur residential development and increase the state’s housing stock. The plan utterly flopped, the victim of fierce resistance from municipal leaders throughout the state and moderate Democrats in the statehouse, especially in the Senate.

The land-use bill’s fate was only the most dramatic and embarrassing episode in a pattern of disappointments. The Democratic-led Legislature withheld permission for cities to allow overdose prevention centers, denied local governments the ability to enact rent control, gutted proposed air pollution reduction measures, failed to get protections for tenants facing eviction over the finish line, sided with law enforcement in keeping the criminal prosecution age at just 10, quashed proposed “fair workweek” guarantees, off-ramped legislation that would have provided protections for gig drivers and their customers, and diluted what would have been groundbreaking reforms for eating disorder treatment facilities.

The most critical Democratic misfire involved a proposed assault weapons ban. Though lawmakers did pass important gun violence prevention measures, the assault weapons ban was the true test of their commitment to halting the slaughter that has become routine in public places throughout the country. In the words of Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Denver Democrat who is vice chair of the House Judiciary Committee, the issue is “the conversation of our generation.”

Democrats not only silenced the conversation, but they did it as quickly as possible, right in the first committee that heard the bill.

A majority of voters in Colorado and the country favor an assault weapons ban. President Joe Biden has called for a national assault weapons ban. Several of the most infamous mass shootings in American history have occurred in Colorado. Gun violence was top of mind at the Legislature since two shootings occurred at East High School within walking distance of the Capitol during this year’s session. Yet Democrats balked.

It would be hard to assign blame to particular officials for the session’s fecklessness. But Speaker Julie McCluskie, based both on her general responsibility as caucus leader and her specific approach to particular bills, is vulnerable to the sharpest criticism. Polis exhibited rare incompetence in failing to marshal land-use reform through the Legislature, and his opposition to the assault weapons ban may have doomed that proposal. Moderate Democrats like Sen. Dylan Roberts of Avon were a formidable roadblock to progressive proposals.

Following their dominant performance in the November elections, statehouse Democrats had a mandate to advance progressive policies, and their failure to do so could haunt them when they next face voters in 2024. 

Colorado keeps trending blue. Last year, Polis beat his Republican challenger in the previously reliable GOP stronghold of Colorado Springs, and a Democrat came within 546 votes of beating Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert in a congressional district that’s supposed to favor Republicans by 9 points. At the start of the legislative session, there was a risk that an unchallenged Democratic majority would overreach and spur a backlash on the right. Instead Democrats underreached, which has already spurred a backlash on the left.

Housing advocates in Boulder have long tried to undo the city’s restriction on the number of unrelated adults who can live together, a policy that exacerbates the city’s already severe unaffordability. Advocates unsuccessfully tried to ease the the restriction with a local ballot measure, so they watched the state land-use reform bill with hope this year, because it would have stamped out local occupancy restrictions.

“After all we have been through, I thought this would be the year. I was wrong,” one of the Boulder housing advocates, Eric Budd, tweeted after the Legislature killed the land-use bill. The Legislature, like Boulder, proved to have progressive trappings and conservative instincts.

Still, Budd expressed an optimism that was also seen among many progressive lawmakers in recent days: “We’re not stopping.”

Colorado Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.