Legislator barred from Senate after dust-up over redistricting
DENVER — Without a single line being drawn, a fight erupted this week between members of a bipartisan panel that is to determine new congressional district boundaries, resulting in one state representative being barred from the Colorado Senate.
The to-do was sparked over whether one of 10 public hearings the panel plans to hold in March should be held in Grand Junction or Glenwood Springs.
The incident began Wednesday when Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, went onto the floor of the Senate looking for Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, to discuss the location of the hearings. The two men are co-chairmen of the Legislature’s Joint Select Committee on Redistricting.
The panel of five Democrats and five Republicans from both chambers had decided to hold one of three public hearings for the expansive 3rd Congressional District in Glenwood Springs, rather than the more populated Grand Junction, because Heath and Balmer believed Glenwood Springs was more centrally located for the Western Slope. The other two hearings in the district are to be held in Pueblo and Alamosa.
But some members of the panel, including Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, said they thought Grand Junction would be a more appropriate place to hold it, particularly for those who live in faraway Durango and Cortez.
When Balmer got into the Senate that day, however, Heath already had left. He turned around to leave to look elsewhere for the senator when he ran into Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, who also serves on the panel.
“Gail stopped me and asked me about the change from Glenwood Springs to Grand Junction,” Balmer said Friday. “She had some serious concerns about that and suggested that maybe we just have four hearings, but I thought that would put too much emphasis on the 3rd Congressional District, and we could get in trouble if somebody brought a lawsuit.”
Balmer said he “got frustrated, lost my cool and got angry with her” during the conversation, which led to shouting and waving his hands around, and a bystander thought it was done in a threatening manner.
Balmer said he apologized to Schwartz shortly afterward, but word of the confrontation already had reached Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, who initially said he would convene an investigation into the matter.
When he learned of that, Balmer apologized to him, Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch. As a result, Shaffer said he would accept Balmer’s apology and not form an investigative panel, but only if Balmer publicly apologized, something Balmer said he plans to do Monday on the House floor.
“I shouldn’t have gotten angry at her, and I apologized to her,” Balmer said. “Then I learned the leadership in the Senate had concerns as well, so I apologized to President Shaffer and Majority Leader Morse.
“It’s my understanding that I’m not allowed to go onto the Senate floor until further notice,” he added. “I do not blame Senator Schwartz for anything. She did not do anything wrong. She was seriously trying to talk to me, and I just lost my cool, which was very inappropriate.”
Balmer said he didn’t use profanity, threats or any obscene gestures toward Schwartz as initial reports indicated. Schwartz was traveling between Denver and her home in Snowmass Village and could not be reached for comment Friday.
In a statement, Shaffer confirmed Balmer apologized to him, and he had revoked Balmer’s privilege to come onto the Senate floor for the rest of the session contingent on Balmer’s public apology.
“The Senate chamber must be a sanctuary for the exchange of ideas in an atmosphere free of intimidation,” Shaffer said. “I will not tolerate a breech in decorum.”
McNulty said the entire incident was unfortunate, but he has no plans to punish Balmer for his actions and will not take him off the redistricting panel.
“He sincerely feels bad about what happened,” McNulty said. “We’re still committed to a bipartisan redistricting process. I’m not willing to jeopardize our ability to draft a bipartisan plan.”