In sometimes-raucous meeting, Colorado Senate Democrats select new leaders

New Colorado Senate Majority Leader Robert Rodriguez answers questions from reporters after his selection on Friday.

In a tense meeting that featured both surprises and an accusation of intraparty backroom dealing, Colorado Senate Democrats on Friday chose Sen. Robert Rodriguez of Denver as their new majority leader and Sen. Faith Winter of Broomfield as assistant majority leader.

Rodriguez, the caucus’ former assistant majority leader, steps into the important role vacated by Sen. Dominick Moreno when he resigned his legislative seat last month to become deputy chief of staff for strategy for new Denver Mayor Mike Johnston. In his position, Rodriguez will play a key role in running the Senate calendar, determining the makeup of committees and setting caucus priorities with President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder.

Committee oversight is a pivotal task right now, as some progressive Democrats have called for reassignments after moderates like Sens. Dylan Roberts and Kyle Mullica cast deciding votes to kill several bills this session, including a measure to permit local rent-control laws. In an interview with Capitol media after his selection, Rodriguez reportedly deferred several questions on whether he would look to shake up committee assignments.

Senate Democrats’ choices

His colleagues selected him for the role of the No. 2 Senate official over Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada, a moderate who is considered one of the most pro-business voices in her caucus and has clashed with fellow party members on health care, regulatory and local-control matters. Still, Zenzinger holds the powerful position of chairwoman of the Joint Budget Committee and her supporters for majority leader included Sen. Janet Buckner of Aurora, who nominated Zenzinger after Buckner had been considered the favorite for the job as a compromise candidate between the progressive and moderate wings of the caucus.

Rodriguez, however, got the backing of another senator who had lobbied for the job — Winter, whose efforts to boost environmental and workforce regulations have made her a favorite of the progressive wing and brought her into conflict many times with business interests. And after winning what was believed to be a close vote among the 23-member caucus, Rodriguez turned around and nominated Winter to be assistant majority leader, a vote that she herself won.

Colorado state Sen. Faith Winter, right, accepts the nomination to be Assistant Senate Minority Leader, a position she won in an election Friday over Sen. Rhonda Fields, left.

Rodriguez’s election appeared to surprise some members of the caucus, causing Mullica and Sen. Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village to ask that the selection of a majority leader be delayed so that hopefuls for the job could talk to members individually. When Buckner, the caucus chairwoman, ruled the vote would be held Friday, Zenzinger nominated Sen. Rhonda Fields of Aurora, who admitted she was surprised to be getting the nod and then launched into a thinly veiled critique of leadership elections, intimating deals were made for Rodriguez to get Winter’s support and then bring her on as assistant majority leader.

“I respect the process and believe every vote should count … and we should not be doing anything to undermine voting — consolidating, stacking, whatever you call it coming up with some prior agreements. I don’t think that’s the Democratic way,” Fields told the caucus, which was meeting in public in the Capitol’s Old Supreme Court chambers. “Voting should not be based on deals … We are Democrats, and we need a leader who will play by the rules.”

Who is Robert Rodriguez?

Colorado Senate Majority Leader Robert Rodriguez raises his hand to speak at a caucus meeting Friday.

The new majority leader, Rodriguez, is an outspoken labor advocate whose bills have included an unsuccessful 2021 effort to expand the number of doctors that workers’ compensation patients are offered as choices and give patients longer periods to change up medical care. This session, he ran a controversial but ultimately unsuccessful effort to create first-in-the-nation rules allowing gig transportation workers to be more selective about the rides they choose without retribution and appeal dismissals by private firms to the state government.

But Rodriguez — who this year served as chairman of the Senate Business, Labor and Transportation Committee — also has been a key vote for business interests at times and has long been seen as a senator who will work across interest groups to hear all points of view. He was the deciding committee vote this year against a bill that would have expanded state unemployment-insurance benefits to children of recipients, and he worked with now-Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen to craft a 2021 law expanding consumer data-privacy protections.

Sen. James Coleman, the Denver Democrat who nominated Rodriguez on Friday, said he believes the new majority leader will be objective and ensure all bills get debated. Coleman also said he believes Rodriguez will be effective at building consensus in the caucus — a caucus that, as Friday’s meeting and the votes of the past session showed, has some ideological rifts.

Promises voices to caucus members

“I’ve seen him watch, stakehold and do what’s best for everybody,” Coleman said in his nominating speech. “In the times I’ve worked with Senator Rodriguez, he has made sure everybody is at the table.”

Colorado Senate Majority Leader Robert Rodriguez and Senate President Steve Fenberg speak after a caucus meeting Friday.

Rodriguez, who was first elected in 2018, said he’s watched the caucus in that time go from being the minority party to legislating through the coronavirus pandemic to holding a near-record 23-12 majority — and believes it continues to make “big strides” for Coloradans. With Fenberg term-limited at the end of 2024 and Democrats seemingly guaranteed to retain control of the Senate, Rodriguez steps into prime position to be its next president.

“I’ve watched new members bring their voices and their ideas for helping the community to the chamber,” Rodriguez said Friday. “I look forward to elevating your voices and your goals as a team. You will always have a voice in the caucus.”