Colorado Republicans don’t have their hands on any of the levers of state government, but they’ve had plenty to say about officials’ response to the coronavirus pandemic.
State legislators and some other GOP elected officials for weeks have taken to talk radio and social media to voice their outrage with the far-reaching restrictions on activities issued first by local authorities and then taken statewide by Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat. And they’ve pushed back in letters signed by nearly all members of the minority caucuses of the state Senate and House.
As Colorado’s COVID-19 case counts, hospitalization figures and death toll have risen quickly over the last month, the pandemic has upended more than the economy and residents’ daily lives. This time of crisis has added new complications to the state’s longtime rough-and-tumble politics. It’s even raised the question, for some, of whether a pause is in order to show unity.
“Anyone who is not providing assistance right now is making this pandemic worse,” said Mindi Haddad, a Denver political strategist who has worked with Democrats in the past. “And if you’re not helping, this is one of those points where you either need to sit down, get out of the way or figure out how to help. … This is not a political game — or at least it shouldn’t be.”
But plenty of Republicans disagree, arguing the opposition has a role to play at such a critical time.
House Minority Leader Patrick Neville said state legislators’ goal has been to “try to be helpful as much as we can,” while lamenting: “When this first started, we had a lot of back and forth with the governor’s office, and as time has gone on, he hasn’t been taking as much advice as he was in the beginning.”
Still, Democrats and even some fellow Republicans have questioned the helpfulness of GOP officials’ public statements.
In late March, Neville, of Castle Rock, called the declaration of a stay-at-home order by the Tri-County Health Department “insane” in a radio interview and said it was leading to “a Gestapo-like mentality.” He was among Republican state legislators from Douglas County who urged their county to cut ties with the agency. Days later, a letter signed by most of the Senate’s minority caucus denounced Polis for his statewide stay-at-home order, which took effect March 26.
Earlier, just after local and state orders had come down for bars and restaurants to close for on-site service in mid-March, U.S. Rep. Ken Buck — also chairman of the state Republican Party — assailed the measures as part of “a panic that is creating irrational responses.”
Recent Republican critiques of Polis have had a more measured tone.
On Monday, Neville sent Polis a letter signed by the entire House Republican caucus asking him to release the detailed coronavirus projection modeling he has relied upon.
“As of yet, we have no indication from you about specific guidelines, which will determine when we have made enough progress to put desperate Colorado workers back on the job and allow our businesses to reopen,” the letter says.
As it happened, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released its state virus projection models Sunday afternoon, while the Republicans’ letter was being finalized. But the question about what would trigger a lifting of restrictions had not been answered as of Tuesday, Neville said, though he said an afternoon conference call with the governor was productive.
“He’s definitely trying to work with us and be more intentional” about releasing more information about current cases, Neville said. “My point of view to him was that if he was more open about this data, then citizens might be more receptive toward your orders.”
Neville has been less critical of the governor’s state stay-at-home order, he said, because Polis, unlike the Tri-County department’s leaders, is elected and accountable to voters.
Asked about the Republicans’ latest letter, Polis’ office said the governor has consulted “members of the legislature, Colorado’s federal delegation and other local leaders about the state’s response to this crisis” and is taking a data-centric approach to decision-making.
In a televised address Monday night, Polis agreed the economic impact had been “devastating,” adding: “We all want a timeline — when will this nightmare be over?”
Without identifying specific metrics, Polis did cite a few conditions for relaxing the state’s orders: when more hospital beds are in place, when the spread of the virus has tamped down, and when “a mass-testing and containment program” is in place to keep close tabs on infections.
Some Republicans’ skepticism toward the orders is rooted in the weight conservatives tend to place on individual and economic freedom — a political value that also has led many of their officeholders to rebuff stronger school vaccination requirements for children and greater regulations to tackle climate change. In the case of the coronavirus, some have come off as dismissing the guidance of public health experts.
But Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain, says the legislators’ intent is to increase public understanding by getting more information out, including the numbers of people currently hospitalized and who have recovered. The state has said those figures aren’t readily available.
“We’re taking this deadly serious,” said Landgraf, whose daughter works as a surgical physician’s assistant and whose son-in-law is a hospital administrator. “It’s a horrible thing, and people need to pay attention (to the orders) and follow the rules.”
Ian Silverii, executive director of the left Progress Now Colorado, agrees on that point, but he suggested the Republicans’ latest letter was written to get attention and wasn’t the right approach in a crisis.
“During the crisis, showing unity is the strongest thing you can do,” Silverii said. “And that doesn’t mean you can’t hold people accountable” in subtler ways.
Silverii echoed Cole Wist, a former Republican state representative, who tweeted about the letter Monday: “I respect my former colleagues. But it is not the time and place for this. Pick up the phone and work it out.”
Others see a role for the opposition to play in pushing for more transparency and holding Democratic officials’ feet to the fire.
“There is a fine line to walk — because if the criticism just seems to be knee-jerk and just partisan in nature, that’s not good,” said Dick Wadhams, a former Colorado Republican Party chairman. “I don’t think that’s happened yet. I think legitimate questions have been asked of the governor.”
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