"Welcome to junior high."
That's the warning Adrienne Benavidez received from a fellow legislator when she was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 2016. When she asked her colleague what he meant, he replied: "You'll see." And she did.
During her six years in office, Benavidez juggled racist jokes and sexual harassment, far from the decorum one might expect from the state government. Things seemingly got even worse after she left in early 2023.
This year's legislative session was rife with controversy and conflict, from offensive comments about Black legislators "playing the race card" and transgender people "lying to themselves" to the special session devolving into legislators yelling over one another about the Israel-Hamas war. Some call the recent atmosphere the worst they've ever seen.
"No one there signs up to be part of the drama, but there is going to be drama," Benavidez tells Westword. "I knew when I left that there was a wider range of ideologies that would be present in the legislature this session, from the far right to the far left. I wasn’t hearing anything from leadership as to how to address those different perspectives."
Benavidez is one of seven state legislators who resigned in 2023 — the most in a single year since the Legislative Council Staff's database began tracking resignations in 2017. Apart from 2019, when three legislators resigned amid allegations of inappropriate conduct, every year from 2017 to 2022 saw only two to three resignations, usually because the legislators were elected to other local offices or appointed to federal positions. That is, until this year.
Of the seven legislators who resigned in 2023, two left for other positions and one left after it was revealed that she didn't live in the district she represented. The other four resigned apparently because they simply did not want to be there, either vaguely stating that they wanted to move on or not giving a reason at all.
"It has recently become clear that the sensationalistic and vitriolic nature of the current political environment is not healthy for me or my family," Dickson said in her resignation announcement on December 1. "I am stepping aside now to allow someone more suited for the rigors of the current moment to step in."
Dickson's resignation came eleven days after chaos erupted during the special legislative session.
That day, Democratic Representative Elisabeth Epps said "Free Palestine" during her remarks on a bill, prompting yells and insults from Republican members. When Democratic leaders let Republican Representative Ron Weinberg respond in a lengthy speech on the floor, Epps repeatedly yelled over Weinberg that his speech was "out of order," resulting in floor work pausing for around an hour as leadership tried to address the conflict. During the talks, Epps called the Republicans "fascists" and told some Democrats that they've "shamed us" and would have supported slavery in the past.
Dickson had filed to run for reelection in July, before the events of the special session. Dickson did not respond to inquiries from Westword about what prompted her resignation, but she reportedly endorsed Epps's recently announced primary challenger in the 2024 election.
Other legislators openly condemned Epps over her actions that day, including Democratic Representative David Ortiz, who posted on social media that Epps was "inspiring the more vitriolic petulant parts of us." He tells Westword that the Capitol has become "toxic."
Epps says the legislature is focusing on her to distract from the state's "complicity" in letting tax dollars fund the conflict in Palestine. “I think 'toxic' is a fascinating word choice, because white phosphorus is toxic, and there is literal white phosphorous gas being deployed on humans right now, and it’s being funded by the United States," she says.
Epps says any alleged toxicity in the Capitol doesn't start with her. She recalls the chair of a committee being so “vicious” to her during a meeting last spring that afterward, multiple legislators reached out to apologize for her treatment, saying, “I’ve never in my life heard someone spoken to like that.” When it comes to leadership interrupting and denouncing legislators on the floor, Epps says leadership disproportionately gavels legislators who are speaking in support of racial justice issues, according to a log she kept during the 2023 regular session.
Regarding the special session clash, Epps says it began because Weinberg said "I'm fucking done with you" to Epps after she mentioned Gaza while speaking on the floor. Weinberg tells Westword he did not say anything to Epps, claiming he only raised his hand to ask permission to respond. Westword was unable to hear what was said that day, and the recording of the incident only picks up Epps speaking over the microphone, not whatever was said on the sidelines.
“If their version of toxicity is their own comfort being disrupted, that’s nonsense," Epps says. “To toxicity, when do we start assessing that? When armed men are cursing at me? Or is it when I reply?”
Though she doesn't condone the way some colleagues treat her, Epps says that "feelings need to take a far back seat" for legislators when working on such difficult issues. She tells Westword she is trying to change systems that benefit many of her fellow lawmakers, so it's "natural" that they would feel uncomfortable with her actions.
“It’s not supposed to be comfortable. We’re addressing really hard issues often, and so some level of tension is appropriate," Epps says. "But the Capitol is not a safe place for folks who prioritize following the law and telling the truth. ... It is a very racist place. It is a place that is very anti-Black, it is a place that is anti-immigrant, it is a place that is misogynistic. But I’m not sure how different that is from the rest of the world."
"We saw that in special session, and that’s only what you’re seeing as public performance," Ortiz says. "That was deliberate; that is what you’re getting to see — let alone what happens behind closed doors and in dark rooms.”
Epps isn't the only legislator whose actions Ortiz has taken issue with. He routinely calls out Republican Representative Scott Bottoms on social media for his repeated derogatory remarks against the LGBTQ community. Ortiz tells Westword he also confronted Republican Representative Richard Holtorf in person after Holtorf likened people with physical disabilities to running with bulls in Spain, saying if "you're dumb enough" to get hurt, "you own it."
"My focus is to call out the worst when I see it," Ortiz says. "It’s not one or two people’s responsibility, and it’s not one or two people that are creating this toxic work environment. It is a comment on all of us. ... We’re not showing our best, that's for sure."
Resignations have disproportionately impacted the House of Representatives this year. From 2017 to 2022, the sixteen resignations were almost evenly split between the two chambers: nine in the House and seven in the Senate. In 2023, five resignations came from the House, compared to only two in the Senate. And all five House resignations were Democrats.
While she agrees that the political atmosphere on a national level has become more toxic in recent years, House Speaker Julie McCluskie says she has "always been proud" of how the Colorado Legislature functions. Regarding the mayhem from the last day of the special session, she's still carefully considering how to respond.
“I was very disappointed and concerned with what happened in the chamber on that last day," McCluskie says. "I am continuing to review what next steps may be appropriate given the activities and behaviors that we saw from members.”
McCluskie admits that recent complications have made relations between legislators difficult. She points to scheduling conflicts causing caucus meetings to be less frequent, and concern or confusion over the open meetings lawsuit (led by Epps and Democratic Representative Bob Marshall) delaying some opportunities for legislators to meet with each other.
One of her biggest concerns, though, is the way legislators are communicating over social media. While she can gavel down disrespectful comments on the House floor, she can't control what insults legislators hurl at one another online. And those interactions often spill into the Capitol once the screens are away, she says.
“When we’re exchanging barbs or comments that are maybe less than productive, that does feed into the relationships that we then have in person when we are debating policy," McCluskie says. "My hope is that members would really adhere to the same sort of decorum and respect on social media as they would in the chamber.”
McCluskie says she hopes to address all of those issues during the next legislative session. But even during this year's disarray, she says she's been committed to fostering a "respectful working environment" and "comfortable space for debate," noting that all legislators are trained on workplace expectations and harassment policies during their orientation.
When someone violates those policies, McCluskie says, she addresses it directly with the legislator and with the House minority and majority leaders: "Praise in public, discipline in private."
In previous years, when repeated issues of sexual harassment and racial insensitivity arose, legislative leadership used caucus-wide training to try to "change the atmosphere," Benavidez says.
"If you have a classroom where kids are out of control, you address the whole atmosphere, not just the one child," Benavidez says. "I’m not sure that’s happening. ... The legislature is a group of 100 people with big personalities from very different ideologies having to work together. Outbursts are not unexpected. It’s how you address them that makes the difference, and that's what we’re still missing."
murder of George Floyd in 2020. While she says everyone was, and likely still is, committed to the idea, the focus fell off because of time issues.
“We started those conversations. Those did kind of fall to the wayside a little bit in the midst of changing of leadership," Gonzales-Gutierrez says.
While the conversations ended, the problems did not.
During the 2023 legislative session, Gonzales-Gutierrez says she and other female legislators of color were relentlessly threatened and harassed online, without much support from leadership. She tells Westword they "had to beg" for leadership to eventually put out a statement defending them.
Gonzales-Gutierrez says many legislators of color also felt they needed to add a white sponsor to any controversial legislation regarding issues like criminal justice that disproportionately impact communities of color. She says the white legislator served as a "validator" to assure other legislators that the issue was actually serious; lobbyists would ignore her as a bill sponsor and go straight to the white co-sponsor.
"That was really hard," Gonzales-Gutierrez says. "It felt as if our experience was not being considered as legislators of color."
Gonzales-Gutierrez recalls only one instance when significant criminal justice legislation did not need a white co-sponsor to pass: a landmark police accountability bill requiring body-worn cameras and restricting use of force. She attributes the bill's success to it coming mere days after Floyd's murder. But since its passage in 2020, Gonzales-Gutierrez says many of her legislative colleagues pulled back on their support.
"I felt like it was getting worse," she says. "It’s expected from the Republican Party; we already expect that. But we started to see more pushback from our own Democrats."
Gonzales-Gutierrez resigned from the legislature in August after being elected to Denver City Council. She says the change in office has been "a huge breath of fresh air," noting that the 100-member, part-time structure of the state legislature makes it harder to manage relationships and personalities than the thirteen-member city council. She also points to unequal representation in the legislature, like the underrepresentation of Latinos, as being a source of strife.
Those elements of the state legislature aren't changing anytime soon, but McCluskie is hopeful that the 2024 session will go smoother when it starts on January 10.
“I trust that as we head into this next session, we will — based on our learning from the regular session last year and the special session — be able to work together collaboratively, respectfully, and in a way that really delivers for the people that we serve," McCluskie says.
Only time will tell.