Colorado Senate Leader A Precedent-Setter

By: - April 19, 2001 12:00 am

When the vote was counted in last November’s general election, Colorado’s Democrats found themselves in a strange but not unwelcome position.

After 40 years in the minority, the Democrats had won a one-seat majority in the State Senate.

Two days later, Stan Matsunaka, a quiet, modest Asian-American lawmaker from Loveland, was elected by his caucus to be new Senate president.

Matsunaka, now in the final two years of his second and final four-year term, set about restructuring Senate operations, altering committee titles and membership numbers, advising Democrats on the responsibility of holding the majority after so many years.

“It wasn’t easy,” he said.”I wasn’t prepared for the time it took and the meetings that had to be attended.”But legislative onlookers soon learned that Matsunaka, despite his reticent demeanor and easygoing manner, was somebody to be reckoned with.

Only a few weeks into the session, the story of how the new Senate president ejected a stubborn and abusive lobbyist from his office spread quickly through the Capitol Building.

Matsunaka laughs about it now, but at the same time he still regards the incident as very serious.

Democrats had used their power to kill a bill they felt would benefit only a few, and the lobbyist was angry.

The man became abusive “and I invited him to leave,” Matsunaka recalled. “He just sat there in my office, continuing to be abusive. At one point he threatened to work to ‘get the Democrats out’ after next year and I got up from my desk and took him by the arm.”

The 48-year-old Matsunaka, a deacon and elder in his Presbyterian Church, told the lobbyist he didn’t know how he had done business in the past, “but you are not going to say those things in front of me.”

“He went out, yelling down the hallway.”

In spite of that, Matsunaka, the first of Asian descent to hold a leadership position in the Legislature, says the session hasn’t been a tough learning experience.

“It has been challenging, because there is something different going on every day. When you are in the minority you are always playing defense.

“When you are in the majority you get to be the offensive strategist. You get to run an agenda and push ideas and concepts and bills, and it’s a whole different situation.”

Big issues still must be dealt with in the final weeks of the session, including action on bills dealing with growth and development, health care and a few others.

Matsunaka is grateful that some social bills dealing with gun issues and abortion were quickly killed, enablin the senate to move on to proposals where common ground could be found.

Next year he will be a key figure in fashioning a new congressional redistricting and legislative reapportionment plan.After that he must decide whether he will get into a contest in Colorado’s sprawling east side congressional district.

“People say I should be starting now,” he said. My problem now is I would like to see who the challenger is on the other side.”

Republican Bob Schaffer, who won the seat after several years in the State Senate, has not announced his plans, but Democrats believe his ultra-conservative stances have annoyed some Republican leaders in the largely agricultural district, and that he can be beaten.

“If he decides not to honor his pledge to leave, and runs again, I’d be interested,” Matsunaka said.

“This job has been pretty exciting, with a long more hours than I thought, but it’s been worth it.”

“I think our version (the Senate’s) of a bill on growth will be killed, and the House bill will survive, at least for a while. It will be a challenge for us in the caucus, but it’s always been a tough one,” he said

“We’ve had a vision for Colorado, and we must be methodical about how to develop a plan for a reasonable and rational solution. I don’t know if that’s possible, but that’s what we are striving for.” Matsunaka said.

Carl Hilliard is a retired Associated Press reporter who covered the Colorado legislature.

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