Julie McCluskie has guided Colorado Democrats to policy wins, but it has been an uphill challenge 

How ‘the great conciliator’ clears her mind while keeping the House from spinning out of control

ARAPAHOE BASIN — Step by tiny step, one of Colorado’s most powerful politicians shuffled up the face of a mountain as the last light of the weekend illuminated the jagged peaks above her. 

Sometimes, the deliberative and painful process of uphill skiing is enough to quiet the mind of the speaker of the House.

“It makes me better when I’m down in Denver,” said Julie McCluskie, pausing to allow a reporter to catch her breath. “But there are plenty of times my husband will say, ‘Why are you so quiet? What are you thinking about?’ And I’ll throw out some bill number that I’m trying to work out in my head.” 

As the leader of the largest Democratic House caucus in the state since the 1930s, McCluskie’s tenure heading one of the two chambers in the Colorado legislature has been marked by significant gains for her party’s agenda. Abortion access in Colorado isbefore. have been tightened and are getting tighter. The benefits lower-income people more. for the first time since the Great Recession. 

But McCluskie has also presided over a period of interpersonal and political tumult that’s arguably at one of its highest points in the legislature’s history.

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Among House lawmakers over the past two sessions, there have been , shouting matches and enough to fill a coffee table book. Following an extremely tense special session in the fall, two Democratic members resigned altogether, in the chamber. 

In the midst of it all, McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat and the first female House speaker from the Western Slope, has developed a reputation among both allies and adversaries at the Capitol as a cautious leader who puts tremendous effort — for better or worse — into making her decisions.

“Her strength and biggest weakness is that she always wants to do the right thing from a moral standpoint,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat and McCluskie’s counterpart in the legislature’s upper chamber. “It’s a strength because how do you not love that in a person? It’s a weakness because, sometimes, I think it can hurt, and it’s not always the strategic thing.” 

The arrival of more ideologically extreme members, in both the Democratic and Republican caucuses, has made McCluskie’s role more challenging, sometimes causing tensions to boil over. The state legislature, once a vestige of civility in politics, is starting to resemble the divisiveness of Washington D.C. 

The role of speaker, at least in part, is to stop the chamber from spinning out of control. Though that’s not what McCluskie wants her primary focus to be.

“I do not want to be remembered for the polarization, the extremism we’re starting to see in politics,” said McCluskie, who represents House District 13 spanning Chaffee, Grand, Jackson, Lake, Park and Summit counties. 

The official duties of House speaker consist of myriad tasks and procedures: assigning bills to committees, overseeing debate during bills’ final votes and appointing House leadership positions. There’s also the unofficial ones, like upkeeping key relationships.

Sitting across from McCluskie during an après-ski cocktail hour, her husband of 38 years, Jamie, has a few words to describe the gig as he sees it: “middle school principal.”

And McCluskie — sipping a “winter mule” because Stella Artois wasn’t an option — agrees, throwing in the titles of “den mother” and “deal broker” to top off the job description. 

‘I’m not quitting’

House Speaker Julie McCluskie, center left, speaks with Rep. Scott Bottoms, R-Colorado Springs, center right, on the House floor about his comments during a debate on a contentious bill regarding people who are transgender while other Democratic and Republican members of the chamber listen Feb. 26.
Elliott Wenzler/Vail Daily

The Colorado legislature was mere hours from calling it quits for the year when the House Democratic caucus gathered for one final meeting in May 2023. 

While some relationships in the House were strained, there was celebration and excitement about what the caucus had accomplished so far. Then one fellow Democratic representative, seated alone in the back of the room, stood to address McCluskie.

For the next 10 minutes, Rep. Elisabeth Epps of Denver tore into her, accusing her of a lack of transparency and failing the Black and brown members of the caucus.

“I’m asking you to do much, much more,” she said while media members, staff and fellow Democratic House members listened.

When Epps was finished, McCluskie responded to the criticisms carefully, with emotion rising in her voice at times.

“In this moment, I find myself a bit overwhelmed and unable to respond to you with concrete next steps,” she said. “I will lean in, I will do more. This place, this institution means everything to me … I’m not giving up. I’m not quitting.” 

Several members of the caucus responded to McCluskie’s speech with a standing ovation. 

It wasn’t the first or last time the speaker showed an ability to diffuse tense situations. Rep. Mike Lynch, a Wellington Republican who served as the minority leader in the House for the bulk of McCluskie’s time as speaker until resigning from the position in January, said he’s seen it many times.

“I’ve never seen anybody as artfully conduct a difficult meeting as she did in a couple of instances,” he said. “And I’ve been in some pretty intense leadership situations through West Point and the Army.”

That skill of weathering heavy conversations is consistent with McCluskie’s previous work experience. Before she ran for office, she worked for decades in communications and human resources. She was the director of communications for then Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia and later held the same role for the Summit School District. 

When McCluskie arrived at the Capitol in 2019, she quickly secured an appointment to the powerful Joint Budget Committee. Then she became its chair. When the House speakership opened up in 2022, she beat out two fellow Democrats for the job. 

Fenberg said McCluskie’s ability to make people feel heard has been a key strength for her. 

“When someone disagrees with her and they have a conflict, she almost always starts by acknowledging that concern. She hears it, and she repeats it back to you,” Fenberg said. “I think that’s comforting for a lot of people.” 

Sometimes, that skill of hearing people out allows the speaker to get through difficult conversations, even when she doesn’t necessarily change her mind. 

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“You’ll leave a meeting going, ‘OK. That was good. She diffused that situation, but wait a minute. Nothing really happened,'” Lynch said. 

McCluskie’s ability to redirect also sometimes appears in conversations with media members. 

When asked during a news conference this week whether she supports a bill to ban the purchase, sale and transfer of , and how the House will proceed with debate on the bill, McCluskie didn’t answer directly. 

“We have a number of gun violence prevention bills on the horizon. We’ve got some big energy bills, some housing bills. A lot of floor debate is in our future,” she said. 

When pressed, she said, “I am listening closely to the input from my district. When and if that bill comes to the floor, I’ll be listening to debate. I promise I’ll let you know where I land before it leaves the House, if it does.” 

Epps, who is the prime sponsor for this year’s , also sponsored a similar bill related to so-called assault weapons in its first House committee hearing. Epps has been one of McCluskie’s fiercest critics and . She isn’t the only Democrat who has made negative public comments about the speaker though.

In December, Rep. Alex Valdez of Denver criticized the speaker , the platform formerly known as Twitter, for not assigning any person of color to be a committee chair. 

McCluskie says she offered leadership positions to several members of the Black and Latino caucuses, but they turned them down because they were running for other offices, including three who ran to be either Denver mayor or city council members. She added that she’s set up several members of those caucuses, who were newer to the legislature last year, to step into leadership positions by making them vice chairs of committees. 

Attacks through social media, which McCluskie has called her “greatest frustration,” have led to turmoil for the entire chamber. There have been of lawmakers on the platform.

“I’d much rather talk to a member face-to-face about their concerns than hear about it on social media,” McCluskie said. “I invite those folks who would rather post on social media than really deal with an issue to come to my office any day of the week.”

The great conciliator

After skinning up to Black Mountain Lodge at Arapahoe Basin, Colorado House Speaker Julie McCluskie takes in the views before skiing down.
Elliott Wenzler/Vail Daily

Less than 12 hours after an uphill ski lap at Arapahoe Basin in mid-February, McCluskie was back in the thick of it — playing referee as Republicans tested out the boundaries of permitted comments while debating several contentious bills about people who are transgender. 

Tensions flared when McCluskie asked one member, Rep. Brandi Bradley, a Littleton Republican, to focus her comments on the bill at hand during Bradley’s speech about people falsely claiming to be transgender.

“You are attempting to limit my ability to tell you how often it is happening,” Bradley

Bradley continued to argue with the speaker until McCluskie banged the gavel, stopping the chamber’s work by calling a recess.  

“Perfect. Awesome,” Bradley said on the mic before stepping off camera to talk with the speaker for nearly 10 minutes. When she returned, she quickly shifted the focus of her comments.

Over about three hours of debate on the bills that day, McCluskie called for a recess five times in an effort to cool the temperature as lawmakers’ comments became more and more heated. Her approach to controlling the discussions, including for the first time in at least a decade, is one of the areas where she’s received the most criticism. Republicans have complained their speech has been curtailed by her restrictions and have considered taking legal action over it. 

“It’s clearly, undeniably biased and unbalanced,” said Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron, the minority whip. “She does not control the chamber well.”

Colorado Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, speaks during a rally to unveil an eviction protections bill being advanced by Democratic lawmakers Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2024, in Denver.
David Zalubowski/AP

Despite that criticism, a focus on bipartisanship is one of the first things McCluksie mentions when talking about what she’s proud of from her time as speaker.

“I believe long-lasting policy cannot be shoved down people’s throats by one majority or the other,” she said.

The speaker’s own politics are markedly moderate and often diverge from those of the most progressive members of her caucus. 

“She’s probably a centrist at heart,” said Christine Scanlan, a longtime friend of McCluskie and former state representative for House District 13, “But she’s progressive on some really important social issues.”

The far-left members of the House have at times grumbled that McCluskie doesn’t fully support their progressive policies. At one point, there was talk of a possible from the position. 

There have also been rumors that another member, Denver Democrat Rep. Jennifer Bacon, could run to replace her before the start of next year’s session. Bacon said while people have brought the idea to her, she has no such plans.

“I had a conversation with the speaker this summer where I said, ‘I don’t know where that came from. It didn’t come from me,'” Bacon said. “I have not been lobbying for that.” 

Over halfway through her second session as speaker, with some of the most contentious bills yet to be debated, McCluskie’s position among the various factions appears solid. 

“She’s not going to use her position to push her agenda,” said Rep. Lorena Garcia, an Adams þȾƷƵapp Democrat who sponsors some of the caucus’ most progressive bills. “She’s been very clear that if a legislator brings a policy she’s gonna let it go through the process.”

Historically, speakers have varied in how aggressively they use their position to benefit their own political ideals, with some openly killing bills they disagree with and others focusing more on the management aspect of the job.

McCluskie says she fully intends to run for speaker a second time. If she’s successful, she will be among a short list of people who have held the position for four years. Most speakers have been elected to the position in their final term. 

Lynch and Fenberg alike point to McCluskie’s willingness to compromise with both sides of the aisle as another quality that’s both a strength and weakness. Lynch, who said McCluskie tries to be “the great conciliator,” said he thinks sometimes the speaker doesn’t use her position enough to stop policies she doesn’t believe in herself. Fenberg said McCluskie will sometimes compromise on things when there may or may not be any benefit to the concession. 

“When other people are cutthroat and you’re showing up trying to do the right thing, sometimes that doesn’t serve you well,” Fenberg said. “I think in the long-term it does but in the day-to-day, battle-by-battle basis, sometimes it can feel defeating.”

That same long-term focus is what keeps McCluskie coming back, at least once a week in the winter, to the hill at Arapahoe Basin. Each time she reaches the top, she’s rewarded with a single downhill run, a blissful ride that’s all too short, lasting only a fraction of the time it took to get there.