Colorado state Senate Democrats voted Wednesday to name Boulder’s Steve Fenberg president of the chamber, and Commerce City’s Dominick Moreno leader of the caucus.
Fenberg, majority leader since 2019, will take over for the outgoing Senate President Leroy Garcia of Pueblo, who on Feb. 23 will step down to take a job in the Department of Defense. Moreno will take over as majority leader. Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada will take over for Moreno on the Joint Budget Committee.
The shuffle is expected to become official once the full Senate votes to approve a new president later this month.
Moreno is a five-year veteran and former chair of the Joint Budget Committee, a powerful group of six lawmakers with substantial control over a state budget expected to reach about $40 billion this year.
These positions will all run through at least this year, but the November election could swing the chamber back to Republican control for the first time since 2018. Democrats now hold 20 of the Senate’s 35 seats, and they’ll have to work to defend that turf following the recent decadal redistricting process, which yielded at least six likely competitive races among the 35 districts. Republicans expect a stronger-than-usual showing in 2022 — polling suggests as much, too — after years of electoral lashings in this state, and they need to flip only three seats to win back the Senate.
The role of president is to oversee the Senate, presiding over daily work on the chamber floor, deciding whether or not certain bills can be introduced, choosing when the chamber should hear gubernatorial appointments. The president also commands a full-time staff, whereas most senators have only part-time aides.
Garcia is a hands-off leader who has been reluctant to wield many of the powers conferred upon him as president and who prefers to lead members to find their own paths. Fenberg, much more the policy wonk and political tactician, is expected to behave differently in that role.
“My number one priority at the end of the day has been the wellbeing and what’s best for this caucus. By no means does that mean everyone has agreed with every decision I’ve made,” Fenberg said at Wednesday’s caucus meeting. “But if I had an issue with anyone, a disagreement with a bill, … I try to approach every situation with honesty and humility.”
Other senators were interested in the job, but only Fenberg and Vail’s Kerry Donovan officially declared intent to run. Donovan argued the chamber would benefit from a woman leader who lives west of the Front Range. Eleven of the 20 caucus members are women, yet its four most powerful leadership roles — the president, majority leader and the group’s two Joint Budget Committee delegates — have all been men for the past two years.
Donovan was absent Wednesday due to a family death, her colleagues said, and so Fenberg ended up unopposed. He’d have won, anyway, senators believe.
Moving forward, all four of these critical caucus roles will be held by people from the Front Range. It will soon be the case that the three people with the biggest jobs at the Capitol are all Boulderites: Fenberg and Gov. Jared Polis live there, and Speaker Alec Garnett grew up there, but lives in Denver now.
The majority leader is a strategist and legislative director for the caucus. That person sets the calendar for the chamber, and serves as their party’s unofficial chief liaison to the minority.
There were at least a half-dozen senators who were interested in being majority leader, but Moreno, who is respected by colleagues for his calm and for his budget savvy, cleared the field and ended up running unopposed.
After thinking on it over the past weekend, Moreno told The Denver Post, “It began to feel like (not running) was actually, oddly, the very selfish thing to do — to not assume a role that other people have confidence you can do,”
Uniquely among his Senate colleagues, Moreno is a frequent and frank critic of Polis, a Boulder Democrat who leans libertarian or even outright conservative on fiscal issues in particular. This frustrates many Democratic lawmakers, but even the most progressive among them generally choose their words carefully when discussing the governor.
“I certainly will always be willing to speak my mind,” Moreno said. “I think it’s important to have balance. In this situation, I think (Fenberg) is more close to the governor’s office than I am. I think what’s important to note is this has never been personal for me in any way. … For me it has always been a separation-of-powers issue.
“I take that very personally. I’ve always considered myself a guardian of the legislative institution, and that’s not something I want to back down on.
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