For people, policy and Colorado politics
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A lot of coronavirus guidance and rule-making that comes down from the state is informed simply by science and data. People are asked to wear masks around others because that’s a proven way to reduce transmission. For the same reason, we’re asked not to gather with people outside of our bubbles, to maintain social distancing, and so on.
But there’s also a whole lot of politics and subjective decision-making involved in the state’s pandemic response.
I wrote last month about that, as we saw ample evidence of uneven enforcement, county by county, of Colorado’s COVID-19 restrictions. It was clear that personal relationships and differing red v. blue attitudes on pandemic response had largely taken over a process that was designed to be objective and data-driven.
This week’s release of a revised vaccine prioritization plan brought another reminder that, on a lot of this stuff, there isn’t one clear, right answer but rather a tangle of tough, sometimes zero-sum choices. Often, they either fall to the governor or at least stop with him.
You may have seen by now that the revised version of the plan no longer offers any priority to people living in congregate settings, such as homeless shelters and prisons. The previous version released by the state health department gave those people the second-highest priority. Now, under the revised plan, people in that group who aren’t older than 65 or who don’t have other qualifying conditions are at the back of the line — with most of the rest of us who are ages 18-64.
That decision has gotten a lot of attention, and rightly so; as of last week, all 14 of the outbreaks with more than 100 residents infected were in prisons, jails or homeless shelters.
Besides nursing home residents, incarcerated people have faced a uniquely high amount of danger throughout the pandemic, with consistent and large outbreaks affecting them. It’s never been worse than right now. Here’s what our colleague Elise Schmelzer reported yesterday in a tweet: “15 people incarcerated in Colorado’s (prisons) have died of COVID-19, according to DOC website. That’s four in the past 7 days. 1,877 prisoners currently have COVID as do 255 prison staffers. 17 prisons on Phase III lockdown, meaning people get barely any time out of their cell.”
Other states have put these folks at or toward the front of their lines. Colorado had them close to the front of its line before the government reshuffled that line this week. That most people living in congregate settings have been bumped down to the final phase — which, the state now says, likely won’t begin until at least the summer — is a policy choice. Make no mistake about that.
Many of our political leaders often say that they don’t believe the pandemic response should be political. Well, it obviously is: Masks are political. The state’s COVID restriction system is political. The legislature’s recently approved state stimulus, bipartisan as it was, is political.
So, too, is the process of deciding who gets vaccinated soon, sometime next summer — or maybe even later than that.
Elsewhere in this week’s Spot: Justin Wingerter writes about Cory Gardner’s departure from the Senate, Saja Hindi provides a glimpse at how the legislature might address election matters if Republicans were in control and Conrad Swanson covers new spending for the Denver PD.
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Colorado’s elected officials have sought to fill in part of the gap in pandemic assistance for people living in the country illegally, as have local governments, community groups and nonprofits. But activists say more help is needed for those they say are often left behind.
Federal politics • By Justin Wingerter
Gardner says farewell to U.S. Senate
Sen. Cory Gardner ended his Senate tenure with a floor speech Tuesday afternoon that was quintessential Gardner: cheery and optimistic, overflowing with patriotism and historical references, folksy at times and intentionally vague on what he will do next.
Nearing the end, he came close to commenting on the nation’s current prickly predicament, in which the president of the United States — and many of Gardner’s colleagues in Congress — refuse to acknowledge the results of the election. He recalled watching the peaceful transfer of power from Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Speaker John Boehner in 2011 “without gunshot or war.”
“Today, I speak on the Senate floor with a heart of gratitude that as I leave with a new Congress set to begin, I go home not because of, or due to, the threat of violence or revolution, but because of that same constitutional governance that has given this country over two centuries of strength and certainty — a jewel among nations, exceptionally blessed by God.”
“Madam president, this kid from Yuma yields the floor,” he concluded a short time later.
The question of what comes next hung over the gushing speeches of his colleagues. Said Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Denver: “I suspect Senator Gardner is not done with his contributions to the country, to the state of Colorado, to his community,” phasing that will prove awkward if Gardner challenges Bennet in 2022. (There are many reasons to be doubtful about that, as I spelled out).
“I look forward to seeing what he does next,” said Sen. John Thune of South Dakota. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she is “certain he will continue to serve his state and his country.” Sen. Roy Blunt, the Missouri Republican, said, “I am ready to look and see what the next chapter of the Gardner story looks like. I think it’s going to be optimistic.”
Democrat John Hickenlooper will succeed Gardner next month.
MORE: Gardner gave his family a tour of the Capitol, resulting in Roll Call’s photo of the day.
More federal government news
Capitol Diary • By Saja Hindi
GOP legislators seek election probe
A day after the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office certified Colorado’s 2020 election results, Republicans called a meeting of the Legislative Audit Committee for an “election integrity hearing.” That followed a demand earlier in the week, by a faction of Colorado’s House Republican lawmakers, for an independent investigation into the state’s election.
Both calls were rooted in the repetition by President Donald Trump and his allies, for weeks, of baseless claims of rampant voter fraud across the country. Colorado elections officials and county clerks have repeatedly lauded the state’s processes and have pointed to after-election audit results that show no evidence of wide-scale fraud here.
It was after House Speaker KC Becker rejected the first investigation request that several Republican members opted to make use of the bipartisan Legislative Audit Committee, currently headed by Republican Rep. Lori Saine of Dacono. Although Republicans are in the minority in both chambers of the legislature, the audit committee’s chairmanship alternates between the parties.
In a news release from Saine and 20 other Republicans — including some outgoing and incoming House members — the group said it was calling for a meeting next Tuesday “due to increasing calls from constituents across the state to perform an audit of Colorado’s election systems, and the recent request denial of lawmakers seeking transparency through a special committee on election integrity.”
The lawmakers cited allegations of ballot harvesting, outdated voter rolls and concerns about Dominion.
Becker, a Boulder Democrat, told The Denver Post that lawmakers needed clarity on what the hearing would be about. The request is broad, she said, and appears to go beyond the scope of the Legislative Audit Committee. She called recent allegations of fraud across the nation, with little or no evidence to back them up, “dangerous for democracy.”
At the same time, she said, “we have nothing to hide,” and she suggested such a hearing would reinforce Colorado’s success in running fair elections.
Saine did not return a request for comment.
Notably absent from the list of signers on the earlier news release about the call for an investigation: incoming House Minority Leader Hugh McKean of Loveland. On Tuesday, he said the first he’d seen of the request to Becker was in the announcement. McKean’s decision to run for minority leader earlier this year was indicative of a split among Colorado House Republicans, some of whom have been frustrated by their previous leadership.
More Colorado political news
Mile High Politics • By Conrad Swanson
Police get more Tasers after coming under fire for protests
Just hours before Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor released a report detailing the police department’s excessive force and poor communication during the George Floyd protests, City Council agreed to buy the police department 1,000 new Taser devices.
That nearly $4 million contract with Axon Enterprise, formerly known as Taser International, was bundled with another $12 million contract for body cameras and storage space for the department. Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca, who cast the sole “no” vote, said combining the two Axon contracts made it difficult for council to reject the stun gun purchase, since it was connected to a body camera measure.
“They will say they lumped it (together) because it is the same company, but we should know better,” CdeBaca said.
The combined package actually generated a discount on the total price, Denver Police Department spokesman Doug Schepman said, with the savings amounting to $2.6 million over five years.
Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer, however, wasn’t ready to make a call on the motive just yet. First she said she’d want to look more closely at the department’s standard business practices and whether these types of contracts regularly get joined together.
“So there has to be some level of established trust between the executive and legislative branches of government,” Sawyer wrote in a text message. “And the fact that we’re even having this conversation just illustrates how eroded the trust between our two branches is right now.”
At the same time, it’s clear this year’s events have eroded trust in Denver’s law enforcement in some parts of the community. Chief Paul Pazen, newly appointed Sheriff Elias Diggins, Public Safety Director Murphy Robinson and Mayor Michael Hancock have pledged to enact changes, in one form or another, in recent months.
As council considered the joint contracts Monday night, Councilwoman Jamie Torres asked Pazen whether the use of stun guns had contributed to any deaths in Denver.
“I have not seen any instances where a Taser has been the cause of death in our city,” Pazen replied.
But that wasn’t exactly correct.
In 2011, police stunned Alonzo Ashley, who convulsed and stopped breathing after the shock. Ultimately Ashley’s death was ruled a homicide, a medical determination rather than a legal one. Schepman noted that homicide ruling did not specify that the Taser had caused Ashley’s death.
Councilman Kevin Flynn hailed the contract as a win for accountability. Not only did the bundled package reduce the overall price, but the new stun guns will be connected to the body cameras, he said, and will turn on the recording devices whenever officers draw the Tasers.
More Denver and suburban political news
- Denver City Council agreed Monday night to defer raises for the city’s firefighters and suspend other benefits to save millions as the city faces a historic budget crisis.
- Aurora heads toward approving recreational pot delivery.
- The Regional Transportation District joined other transit agencies this week in calling on Congress to include the cash-strapped sector in a second round of pandemic aid, 9News reports.
- After one Denver city councilwoman got an entire neighborhood rezoned to encourage more accessory dwelling units there, other officials are looking to follow suit.
- Denver’s police chief this week promised to implement sweeping changes to how his department handles protests in response to a report from the city’s police watchdog.
- Denver Public Schools’ more than 93,000 students will begin the spring semester remotely, with students returning to the classroom in phases throughout January.
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