Though Colorado wouldn’t confirm its first case of COVID-19 until March 5, 2020, public health officials later concluded that it had been circulating in the state as early as January — fittingly enough, for a year that would come to be defined, above all else, by the spread of the novel coronavirus.
But a deadly pandemic was far from the only thing that left its mark on a tumultuous year in Colorado politics. Historic protests and waves of civil unrest gripped Denver and other cities. Record-breaking wildfires choked the skies with haze. Democrats prevailed in a pivotal presidential race, while Republicans launched baseless, conspiracy-laden attacks on the integrity of the election. Meanwhile — often out of the spotlight — lawmakers and regulators made critical decisions that shaped the lives of millions of Coloradans.
Here are five of the biggest Colorado political stories of 2020:
COVID-19’s deep, unequal impact
From the earliest public health orders shutting down bars and restaurants to the mounting financial toll on state and local budgets, the burdens of the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic fallout have been unequally shared. Many frontline workers in the service industry bore the brunt of a tidal wave of unemployment, while others faced impossible choices between their health and their livelihoods.
As many people transitioned seamlessly to working from home, workers at essential businesses like grocery stores and food-processing plants became some of the thousands of Coloradans who lost their lives to COVID-19. Public health researchers quantified the disproportionate impact of the virus on people of color, including low-income Latino communities in and around Denver. As of October, low-wage employment in Colorado remained 17.6% below January 2020 levels, while high-wage employment was just 0.2% lower, according to state economists.
In forcing an abbreviated session of the state Legislature, the outbreak also derailed a host of Democratic-led policy reforms, like a proposed state-level public health insurance option. Even with the first doses of coronavirus vaccine now being distributed, lingering economic uncertainty suggests that it could take years to add up the full costs of the COVID-19 pandemic — and some Coloradans will continue paying a higher price than others.
Protests over police violence prompt reforms
The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans at the hands of police set off a nationwide wave of protests beginning in late May, and Denver was no exception. Aurora, too, became a target for demonstrators and the subject of national attention following renewed scrutiny of the 2019 death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain, who died after being sedated and placed in a chokehold by police while walking home from a convenience store.
Thousands of protesters marched in Denver, Aurora and another communities across the state in early summer, with demonstrations at times marked by acts of vandalism and clashes between protesters and police, whose aggressive use of less-lethal weapons resulted in numerous injuries and drew scrutiny from Denver’s Office of the Independent Monitor.
Lawmakers at the Capitol responded to activists’ calls for justice and reform by passing a sweeping police-accountability bill that included an end to qualified immunity, requirements for body-worn cameras, a chokehold ban and other changes to rules governing the use of deadly force. And Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order designating Attorney General Phil Weiser as a special prosecutor to “determine whether the facts justify criminal charges against members of law enforcement” in the McClain case.
Democrats cement their grip on true-blue Colorado
In an unpredictable political year, Democrats didn’t make all of the gains they wanted to in states across the country, but Colorado was an unequivocal bright spot for them. President-elect Joe Biden scored a 14-point win over President Donald Trump, while former Gov. John Hickenlooper unseated incumbent GOP Sen. Cory Gardner by nearly 10 points. Democrats also expanded their majority in the State Senate and retained a 41-24 advantage in the House.
It was the second sweeping victory for Colorado Democrats in the last two election cycles, confirming the state’s solid blue hue — and amping up the pressure on Republicans who face an uphill path back to power in a state with rapidly shifting demographics and an ascendant liberal establishment.
Republicans follow Trump down the election conspiracy rabbit hole
Vulnerable Republican State Sen. Kevin Priola managed to beat the odds in his battle for reelection in 2020, running on his bipartisan record to eke out a narrow win in his heavily Democratic suburban district. But it was the opposite approach taken by gun-rights activist and restaurateur Lauren Boebert that did the most to fire up the GOP base, and helped Boebert win a high-profile House race in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District.
Since November, Boebert and other Colorado Republicans have enthusiastically joined Trump in spreading wild, unsubstantiated rumors of widespread voter fraud in an attempt to delegitimize Biden’s electoral victory. Former state GOP operative Jenna Ellis has become a key figure on Trump’s legal team, while University of Colorado professor John Eastman has also assisted those efforts. Groups with ties to Colorado GOP organizing have also targeted Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems and its employees as part of their baseless attacks on election integrity.
Colorado is burning as conflict over climate policy simmers
Before August of this year, Colorado had never experienced a wildfire that burned more than 138,000 acres. Within the next three months, it experienced three of them.
As summer turned to fall, intense, climate-change-driven drought conditions led to Colorado’s worst fire season on record, with the Pine Gulch, Cameron Peak and East Troublesome Fires all breaking the state’s pre-2020 record for largest burn area. For weeks, these fires and others scorched the high country, burning hundreds of homes, forcing thousands of evacuations, threatening water supplies and covering the Front Range in thick, hazardous layers of smoke. At least two people died.
It was a vivid example of the risks that Colorado faces in a warming climate — but 2020 was also the year that a quiet conflict over state climate policy spilled out into the open. The Polis administration is now facing two lawsuits from environmental groups over its failure to propose comprehensive greenhouse gas regulations to the state’s air-quality commission, and disagreements over the best ways to reduce emissions and battle climate change aren’t going away any time soon.