Colorado Democrat Talks Bipartisan Politics

Andrew Romanoff, speaker of the Colorado House, discusses what it takes to reach across party lines and engage elected officials in the other party. Is there a lesson for Rep. Nancy Pelosi?

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

On January 4, the 110th Congress will be sworn in, and for the first time in a dozen years, Democrats will have control of both the House and the Senate. Two years ago, Democrats in Colorado found themselves in the same situation. They took over both houses of the Colorado legislature for the first time in decades.

We thought Andrew Romanoff, the 40-year-old speaker of the Colorado house, might have some advice for the incoming speaker of the U.S. House, Nancy Pelosi, because Mr. Romanoff's tenure in the speaker's chair has been very good for his party. After winning 35 seats to the Republicans' 30 in 2004, the Democrats increased their majority in the Colorado house to 39 seats last November.

Andrew Romanoff joins us from radio station KUVO in Denver. Mr. Speaker, thanks for being with us.

ANDREW ROMANOFF: Thanks very much, Linda. I appreciate it.

WERTHEIMER: Can we start with a little compare and contrast. For years now, Congressional Democrats, especially in the House, have complained that they were shut out by the Republican majority, that Republicans basically ran over them. Did the Democrats feel the same way in the Colorado house during their 30 years in the wilderness?

ROMANOFF: I can't speak about all 30 years, because I've only been in the legislature for six. But yeah, we felt abused considerably during the time we spent in the minority. Some of their hijinks included a plan to redraw congressional boundaries in the middle of the decade. Republicans ran roughshod over the rules, at one point going so far as to even prevent Democrats from speaking in a committee. I had to lead a walkout at that point.

WERTHEIMER: So when you finally got into control, was there a lot of pressure from your brethren on the Democratic side to get even?

ROMANOFF: Sure. Some of the sisters too. Yeah, you know, there is sort of a, I suppose, a carnivore weighing in the Democratic Party that's out for red meat. They wanted to take revenge. We had to remind them that the golden rule does not mean do unto the Republicans as they did unto us.

And we tried to run the chamber in the last couple of years the way we wished that it had been run when we were not in charge.

WERTHEIMER: Did you feel that was a successful thing to do or should you have wailed on them for a couple of years?

ROMANOFF: It would've been more cathartic. But no, I felt very strongly that the right thing to do was to play fair, play by the rules, trying to tap the talent of the other team and pass bills not on the basis of the party affiliation of their sponsors but just on the merits of their ideas. I think all that makes for a better government.

WERTHEIMER: Did you find that there were Republicans that you could deal with?

ROMANOFF: Sure, including the governor, by the way. Bill Owens, who's leaving office now, proved to be a remarkably flexible politician and ended up taking a lot of grief from his own team. The attacks on him from the right wing of the Republican Party were quite vicious, but he stood his ground. And I think the state is better of as a result.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think that your strategy of trying to divide the Republicans you could work with from the other Republicans has increased divisions in the Republican Party?

ROMANOFF: Well, I'm not sure it was a strategy on our part, just a fringe benefit. I think the key is a party that is committed to solving problems. And if I had any advice to offer to my Congressional counterparts, that would be it, to stop pointing fingers and picking fights and start solving problems. We took office with a meat and potatoes agenda - schools, jobs, healthcare, water.

We weren't interested in redrawing congressional boundaries or demonizing gays and lesbians or impeaching judges who disagreed with us. Those were some of the issues at stake in the previous few years. We just wanted to make life better for the people who live here. And I think that was an agenda that Democrats and Republicans and the most important voter block in Colorado, independents, could embrace.

WERTHEIMER: So that's the advice you would give to speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi?

ROMANOFF: Well, she's done pretty well without my advice. But yeah, I'd say look, play fair, and you've got the votes, you don't need to twist the rules. Try to tap the talent of the other team. We shouldn't suffer from the illusion that our party has some kind of magical monopoly on good ideas. I think the Democrats in years past had gotten pretty good at criticizing the other team. And that may be a way to rally the troops and mobilize the base. But if you want to govern, it seems to me, you've got to lay out a picture of what this country would look like if we ran it.

Look, she's going to be speaker of the House with no advice from the 40-year-old kid from Colorado. She's doing just fine.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WERTHEIMER: Andrew Romanoff is the speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives. He spoke with us from radio station KUVO in Denver.

Thank you very much.

ROMANOFF: Thanks, Linda.

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