The Ten Biggest Colorado Political Stories of 2019

The GEO immigrant detention facility in Aurora has been the site of major protests.
The GEO immigrant detention facility in Aurora has been the site of major protests. Erin McCarley
The stars aligned for Colorado Democrats in 2019...or so they thought. Dems clocked some key victories, but failed to weaken a key tenet of TABOR. They also faced opposition from influential members of their own party in trying to repeal the death penalty. But they managed to push through oil and gas restrictions defeated at the ballot in 2018.

Keep reading for the ten biggest political stories in Colorado in 2019.

A State of Immigrants
In January, the immigrant detention facility in Aurora opened a long-dormant annex facility, expanding capacity by 432 beds. Shortly thereafter, one dormitory after another was hit by infectious disease outbreaks, leading to quarantines of hundreds of detainees. Congressman Jason Crow, whose district houses the facility, consequently made investigating the facility and improving oversight a priority.

But protests rocked the detention center throughout the year, including one over the summer that involved a small number of activists removing the American flag above the facility and replacing it with a Mexican one and two anti-cop flags. Republicans and conservative media outlets blasted Flag-gate, and pro-Immigration and Customs Enforcement activists began appearing at protests.

He'd Rather Go to Jail
Democrats successfully pushed so-called red flag legislation, which allows law enforcement agencies and family members to ask courts to temporarily confiscate a person's gun if that person poses a safety threat.

Some law enforcement leaders, including Douglas County sheriff Tony Spurlock, support the law, saying it’s a tool for saving lives. Others, like Sheriff Steve Reams of Weld County, argue that the law violates the Second Amendment. Reams even appeared on national news outlets and said he’d go to jail before enforcing the red flag law. We’ll soon know if Reams meant what he said, as the law is set to take effect on January 1.

The Little TABOR That Could
Colorado Democrats had it all for the 2019 election. They controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office. So referring a measure to the ballot that would have ended the taxpayer refund program mandated by TABOR and allowed the state to keep budget surpluses seemed like a shoo-in. But a strong majority of voters rejected the ballot initiative, known as Proposition CC, and TABOR survived its toughest challenge yet.

Now Colorado lawmakers will be tasked with figuring out how to balance a budget next year after the expected financial windfall never came.

click to enlarge A legal sports-betting market in Colorado will kick off in May 2020. - PHOTO-ILLUSTRATION BY JAY VOLLMAR; PHOTOS FROM GETTY IMAGES
A legal sports-betting market in Colorado will kick off in May 2020.
Photo-illustration by Jay Vollmar; photos from Getty Images
What Are the Odds?
Voters legalized sports betting in November. Come May, bettors will be able to gamble on their phones and at casinos in Cripple Creek, Black Hawk and Central City. Tax revenue collected from bets will go toward the state’s water plan.

Expect a raucous first weekend of legalization in May: Not only are the Rockies and Nuggets playing then, but the Kentucky Derby lands on that first weekend of the month.

Comeback Kid
After Mike Coffman lost his congressional seat to Jason Crow, the longtime Aurora lawmaker could have easily taken a cushy job in the private sector. But Coffman chose to stay in politics: The Republican ran for mayor of Aurora, the third-largest city in Colorado, and won by the slimmest of margins over Democrat Omar Montgomery.

Coffman will have his hands full in his first few months as mayor. Although the city manager runs the day-to-day affairs in Aurora, the mayor runs city council meetings. And those meetings have been the scene of protest, vulgar language from crowd members, and biting partisan back-and-forth between members in recent months.

Level Playing Field
Although Coffman won his seat, two conservative Aurora City Council incumbents lost to political newcomers from the left. Following the victories of Alison Coombs and Juan Marcano, two self-identifying Democratic socialists, city council now comprises more Democrats than Republicans for the first time in as long as anyone can remember.

The new-look Aurora City Council is likely to explore topics that tend to split along party lines, such as the immigrant detention facility, oil and gas drilling, and affordable housing.

Why Is He Even Running?
Earlier this year it seemed like every Democrat with a substantial following — and even those without one — was running for president. That included Colorado's own John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet.

Hickenlooper's campaign never really took off; he came across as overly centrist and uninspiring. But when he dropped out of the race, he quickly entered another one, challenging Republican Senator Cory Gardner back home. Even though he himself said he wasn't suited for Congress, Hick is now the Democratic frontrunner against Gardner.

Senator Bennet has stayed in the presidential race, and although his poll numbers are nearly non-existent, he’s been meeting with voters on the ground in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, hoping he can develop some momentum.

The Bid to Beat Gardner
After Colorado turned bright blue in 2018, Gardner became one of the most vulnerable Republican senators in the U.S.

Nipping at his heels is former Colorado House speaker Andrew Romanoff. Romanoff might be giving Democratic frontrunner Hick a run for his money, doing his best to paint himself as the progressive to Hickenlooper's moderate. But the way things are looking now, it's Hickenlooper's race to lose.
The death penalty still remains on the books in Colorado. - ISTOCK/AVNPHOTOLAB
The death penalty still remains on the books in Colorado.
Delayed Death of the Death Penalty
The state hasn’t executed anyone for decades, and following the failed attempt by prosecutors to get a death-penalty sentence for Aurora theater shooter James Holmes, Democratic lawmakers have been convinced they can abolish the death penalty once and for all in Colorado.

State Dems tried to push a bill that would have killed the death penalty. But their efforts came to a screeching halt when Senator Rhonda Fields and Representative Tom Sullivan, two Democrats who each lost a child to gun violence, sided with Republicans in opposing the bill. Sullivan's son was killed by Holmes in the Aurora theater shooting and Fields's son and his fiancée were killed in 2005 by two people currently sitting on death row.

Democrats say they will reintroduce the bill during the 2020 legislative session.

The Mysterious Man in Blue Shoes
Governor Jared Polis is deeply liberal when it comes to certain topics. The governor, together with state Dems, tried his best to de-fang a key tenet of TABOR, and he signed the controversial red flag bill and oil and gas regulations into law.

But Polis surprised some immigrant-rights advocates by pushing Democrats to water down a bill that would have largely prevented cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration officials when it came to civil immigration enforcement. Additionally, the governor indicated that he wouldn't sign a bill, which ended up failing, that would have made it less convenient for parents to opt out of vaccinating their kids for non-medical reasons. Polis's shoes may be blue, but his political leanings are anything but.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.