Q&A with Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia

Pueblo Democrat talks public option, police accountability

Sen. Leroy Garcia
Colorado Sen. Leroy Garcia, a Democrat from Pueblo, is a Marine Corps veteran who served in Iraq as a mortuary affairs specialist. He also works as an emergency medical services instructor at Pueblo Community College. (Courtesy of Colorado Senate Democrats)

Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat who works as a paramedic, figures his low tolerance for “political bickering and brinkmanship” earned him the support of his colleagues in the Legislature.

The Marine Corps veteran was first elected to the Colorado Senate in 2014. Before that, he’d served for two years in the state House and on the Pueblo City Council.

Garcia’s colleagues elected him Senate minority leader in 2018, and when the Senate flipped to Democrats, they voted him Senate president.

Newsline spoke with Garcia on Jan. 6 about his priorities for the upcoming legislative session. A week before that, he’d become one of the first state lawmakers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, due to his job as a first responder.

Newsline: You recently received your first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. What was the experience like?

Garcia: For me personally, it was such a meaningful day, and I say that because when you look back at all of the havoc that this pandemic has created — and I have witnessed it being on the front lines working as a paramedic for American Medical Response, where I’ve worked part-time in some capacity for the last 15 years-plus — we really need to make sure that this vaccine is getting in the arms of people and that we’re moving in a faster direction to recovery.

COVID-19 vaccine
One of four vials of the COVID-19 vaccine, right, sits next to a bottle of sodium chloride before it is reconstituted and ready to be administered to awaiting front line health care workers at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital on Dec. 14, 2020, in Fort Collins, Colorado. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post, pool)

We have seniors who have been living since March in isolation. We have increases in substance abuse disorders. We have increases in suicide and depression, and we have small businesses closing down, so the result has to be, we have to work harder to make sure that this vaccine is getting out.

And for me, you know, I wanted to be able to show that there’s no fear in getting this vaccine. This is important, and it will allow us to move toward normalization sooner rather than later.

Being a paramedic, you probably have a unique perspective on the pandemic. How does that shape your approach to this coming session?

As paramedics, we’re taught to deal with the issue at hand. And in the medicine world or the traumatic world, it’s the life threat or the issues that have the potential to create a life threat. The General Assembly, many times — especially now in the face of COVID, in this pandemic — is operating truly, too, based on triaging. And I say that because we have to pick in order of priority: What are the most important things?

Ensuring that we return back to normalcy looks different for many people, and that’s because some have been able to weather the storm of this pandemic without incident. They’ve been able to comfortably work from home because their employers have allowed that. Others have fallen behind on their rent. They’re at risk of losing their house if they haven’t already. We’ve seen an increase in homelessness.

We see storefronts closing. My parents have owned and operated a small business here in Pueblo for 40-some-plus years. When you start to see storefronts closing, you start to think of where we could be in the next several months if we don’t work hard to make sure that we’re being proactive in this. We run the risk of falling behind.

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One thing I’m encouraged by is the nonsense that’s being dissipated from Washington D.C. We’re seeing that play out in real time right now in Georgia (with Democrats winning the U.S. Senate runoff election) … (and) with a Biden-Harris administration that understands what’s important, and how we have to go into this 2021 year thinking about the big picture: addressing this pandemic and also working immediately on recovery, making sure we get students back in school and we get that foundation of schooling back to some normalcy so that students aren’t falling behind.

We were able to successfully pull off a special session (in December), unlike Washington D.C., and do it without incident and without the political bickering. So, you know, I always extend to my colleagues on the other side of the aisle that we are ready and willing to work with you, but we are not going to let the political games slow us down from the work that we have to do.

In what areas do you see particular potential for bipartisan cooperation?

It should be all of it. I mean, we have to walk in day one saying, “This isn’t about the Democrats and Republicans. This is about Coloradans.” If there’s any assurance of that, it’s being demonstrated from (the Georgia runoff) election. And that’s that Americans and Coloradans expect us to do our job. They expect us to go in there solution-oriented, and to have discussions — we’re a deliberative body, that’s totally fine — but to get rid of the political bickering and brinkmanship that none of us like.

I come from southern Colorado, where there’s very little tolerance for that. I think it’s one of the reasons I’ve been successful in being supported by my colleagues to serve as their president, but they have to be reminded, as all of us do, that we’re there to do the people’s work … (During) the special session, Republicans did support those initiatives — overwhelmingly bipartisan support on the initiatives that we had.

Sens. Leroy Garcia and Chris Holbert
Then-Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, right, talks with then-Minority Leader Leroy Garcia in May 2018. (Courtesy of Colorado Senate GOP)

How do you feel about a public option for health care?

I’m not opposed to it. I think what we need to do is ensure that we all are on the same page, or as best we can be, on the specifics of what a public option looks like. As you know, there’s been several initiatives over the last several years to move in that direction. I quite frankly can’t say that I’m opposed to it. You know, I’m a veteran who served in the Marine Corps and in Iraq in 2003, utilized the VA system.

I recognize that there’s some value, and it’s not a perfect system, but there’s some value in ensuring that there are venues in which someone can access the health care system. What we don’t have in this country or in this state is that same ability for everyone. And so I’m intrigued by it, I’m supportive of the concept.

What we have to do, though, is make sure that we’re not just creating other types of barriers. Because sometimes in the health care system what we do is we just create other types of layers, and it doesn’t always help ensure accessibility. That’s one of the reasons we have challenges in not only this state but this country with health care accessibility.

Outside of health care, what priorities do you see that weren’t as important before but came to the forefront during the pandemic?

We continue to remain focused on ensuring that we’re addressing concerns around small businesses, supporting small businesses. We can’t allow small businesses to bear the brunt of these closures and be in a position where they’re significantly impacted and they’re closing the doors and their opportunity is gone forever. So small business relief and support, and I’ve been happy with — even though it hasn’t addressed all of the challenges — happy with the proposals that we’ve had thus far that recognize we have more work to do.

We definitely have a big area to help inform and shape around the education area, especially in the K-12 realm, where many school districts virtually almost overnight had to turn the switch and move to a virtual online format, which many weren’t prepared for. So, what I hope we’re doing is working to address that on the back end, so a year or two from now, we’re not seeing test scores that reflect students didn’t get what they needed, the type of support that would move them along in the system.

Environmental concerns continue to remain at the forefront of our caucus’s agenda, and so I believe that you’re going to begin to see a lot of the work augmented that we started … and I say that because it’s based on these elections. These are conversations that we’ve been having with constituents and conversations that originate from kitchen tables. They’re important issues that shape communities, and they’re being reflected in the conversations that we’re addressing in the Legislature.

Last year, you sponsored Senate Bill 217, which included a number of measures aimed at improving law enforcement accountability. What additional work do you believe is needed to follow up on that, and could any of it take place this year?

Well, first, we have continued to acquire data, and it’s not just the Legislature. I know a number of other groups, for example the ACLU and … Colorado Counties Incorporated, the Colorado Municipal League and others, have continued to provide data to the Legislature, which has helped inform members of the General Assembly about where they believe the focus points should be going into 2021.

This is true for every piece of policy that we look at: If there’s need for improvement or changes or modifications, we’re always open for that. I think what I’m most encouraged by is the transparency we’re starting to see with law enforcement. You know, prior to 217, it’s been like pulling teeth with some of these departments in the state of Colorado to recognize that their departments need to move in a direction of transparency when it comes to policing.

We have to interpret that data. I know several of my colleagues who were instrumental in helping pass Senate Bill 217 and … we’re continuing to have those conversations to see if additional legislation is needed.

What kind of feedback are you getting from your constituents so far about that new law?

Quite frankly, I would say statewide, people have been very, very happy about the policy. The only objection we tend to hear is that of law enforcement, and you remember, early on people said, “Well, people are going to leave the profession.” The data is not reflecting that. That crime was going to (increase) — the data is not suggesting that either. So, you know, I believe we have to make these types of decisions based on data, and when we were seeing years of police brutality … to a point of escalation that we’ve continued to see in this state, it’s unacceptable and we need to be assertive about putting the parameters and saying, “No more.”

What would you like to see happen with education funding this year?

I know there are a lot of conversations happening among the professionals … not only the educators who are in the classroom, but also the superintendents and (Colorado Association of School Boards), and all those other groups who really shape and inform education. … I would be doing a disservice if I tried to answer that question on behalf of (state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, Senate Education Committee chair).

But … I think we recognize that again, this is one of those areas where education has to be a priority. We have to ensure that we are working hard to address the challenges and support our students. I mean, this has been a very, very difficult year for students. And I know because my youngest — well I have a son who’s at the Air Force Academy that has had to transition a little bit in a different way — but then also for my son who is 13. I think for them just to automatically move to a virtual online format, it has been different.

And not every district has been able to do that in a way where it’s been as successful, or they have the capability. Broadband continues to … be an important issue in this state, and while we’ve made some progress there, we haven’t been able to address everything. So I think it’s just, we need to continue those kinds of conversations and ensure that education remains a top priority, especially in the K-12 realm.

Mobile Learning Lab
Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia, second from left, Gov. Jared Polis and other officials participate in a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Mobile Learning Lab at Pueblo Community College on Sept. 1, 2020. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

As a military veteran, where do you see opportunities for the Legislature to pass laws benefiting the state’s veteran population?

I would say any and every one we should be looking at. Veterans continue to be one of my top priorities. I say that because as you look at the veterans population and … the suicide rate among veterans and others, you know, it continues to be a real challenge, and so I hope that what we’ll continue to do is make sure that veterans are taken care of and supported.

That’s been from ways that the state can help provide areas where we say, “We appreciate your service” — for example, access to park passes — and that doesn’t do everything, right, but we recognize their contributions to this country. And other things like working around policies that help streamline some of the challenges they sometimes face as new homebuyers.

Some of this is being good liaisons on the federal side, but also finding unique ways in which Colorado supports veterans.

Something I plan to introduce this year, and would have done last year but … COVID presented some challenges, was introduce legislation to help work to create Colorado as an ideal model in piloting how we curb and address the suicide rate among veterans.

Do you see opportunities for doing more work on opioids and substance use?

Absolutely. … I was part of a conversation (Jan. 5) in which substance abuse counselors were recognizing that there’s been an increase in substance usage, and so we’ve got to recognize that this is one of the areas where we have some work to do, and we are committed to this.

Our legislative priorities are building on the things that have really shaped and are important to Coloradans, and so you can continue to see that kind of work.

What are your fears going into the new year? What are your hopes?

I don’t acknowledge fears. That comes from my Marine Corps background. … We have challenges, and you can never anticipate all the challenges. But my hopes are that we continue to approach the General Assembly and this upcoming session with the spirit of bipartisanship that we have seen exemplified this last special session.

So I’m going to continue to carry that same spirit, work hard, and I’m not going to let politics derail us from doing the important work we have to do. People expect us to do a job, and we’re going to do it.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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