George won’t let DUI charge affect his duties as speaker
Russell George, speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, banged the gavel on the speaker’s desk at 9 a.m. Friday morning and declared with a smile, “The House of Broncos will come to order.”
It was a light-hearted moment that reflected the day’s football fever, and one that showed a new atmosphere of bipartisan civility that has settled on the House since George, a Rifle Republican, was elected speaker a month ago.
Opening the House that day was also a deliberate act of will, an effort at “maintaining my obligations and duties as if things had not happened,” George said.
In the early hours of that morning, while driving back to his downtown Denver apartment from a small party in Douglas County, George was arrested by a sheriff’s deputy on suspicion of drunken driving.
He failed the roadside maneuvers, was taken into custody and later released on a $1,000 bond.
Staying mum about the arrest, he arrived at the state Capitol building a few hours later and carried out the business of the day, which included a Glenwood Independent reporter observing his activities for a “day in the life” feature story.
“I should have done it all Friday,” he said later about revealing his arrest, which he did Monday morning on the floor of the House. “But I was just not in a position to do so. It was a pretty monumental situation, and I’m not accustomed to being in this kind of predicament.”
George called his decision to drive after drinking “a personal mistake and a personal failure.”
On Friday, he was determined not to let that failure distract him from his duties. But while he hosted a meeting, presided over the House and presented his seventh speech of the week, he knew that pain and embarrassment were awaiting him.
“I can’t take away what has happened,” he said later. “My only option is how to handle it.”
George skipped a 7:30 a.m. committee meeting Friday on Front Range smog. “I didn’t have the nerve to sit through that,” he said later that morning. His secretary, Donna Acierno, had accurately predicted that the meeting would be boring.
Instead, George hosted an informal meeting in his office at 8 a.m. with five legislators and a lobbyist to discuss a proposed bill on covenant marriage, over coffee and sweet rolls.
His eyes were red-rimmed and his voice was a bit raspy, but he was sharp and inquisitive on both the legal and moral implications of the proposal. He didn’t hesitate to challenge his two legislative buddies, Bill Kaufman, R-Loveland, and Gary McPherson, R-Aurora, on their legal interpretations of the bill.
At the start of business at 9 a.m. Friday, a prayer was offered and then George called the House to order. He and other representatives introduced their guests of the day and made announcements. Then George turned the chair over to another legislator, a common practice.
A calendar for the day showed the bills that were set for debate and votes, but it was far from the gospel. An hour of discussion took place before the first bill was read, and many of the bills on the agenda never came up before the House adjourned for the weekend at 11 a.m.
A few years ago when it became apparent that other House leaders would be knocked out in 1998 by term limits, George set a goal of winning the speaker’s seat. Now, with one more term to n See George on page 13-A
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serve, George has two years to manage the 64-member House of Representatives.
It’s a powerful position from which a legislator can control committee assignments and, if he desires, decide the fate of bills. George sought the post with the vision of a level field for all legislators, regardless of party and seniority.
“He has such a keen mind, he’s really superior as speaker,” Kaufman said Friday morning on the floor. “Russ is dead honest, and he’s absolutely fair to everyone, to both sides of the aisle. It’s been a whole change of atmosphere. It’s a lot more open. He’s set a tone of civility.”
George had observed former Speaker Chuck Berry, a Colorado Springs Republican, and he knew there would be lots of meetings, plenty of floor action and a heavy responsibility to manage bills and motivate people to work together.
That part of the job has come naturally, an outgrowth of his willingness to dispassionately sort out and clarify the language of a bill that he may ardently disagree with.
“He’s so even-handed. He’s got a great ability to allow things to go at their own pace, until it’s necessary that he get involved,” said Rep. Gayle Berry, R-Grand Junction.
What George didn’t anticipate was the constant demand on his time and attention.
“If it wasn’t a Friday, I couldn’t walk down this hall without being grabbed,” he said.
In an hour of office time Friday, he was tipped off to a piece of potential legislation by a lobbyist from the Colorado Bar Association and met with three officials from the Division of Wildlife on the Rifle fish hatchery issue.
Another lobbyist dropped by to say she was pulling a bill that he had objected to. The director of the Rural Resort Region showed up to report the group’s support for George’s long-sought revenue-sharing legislation. A Battlement Mesa constituent called in hopes of talking with George about a bill dealing with the gas industry.
Every meal – breakfast, lunch and dinner – is booked weeks in advance by people who want time to press their agenda with Mr. Speaker. He has learned to politely tell people that he doesn’t have time to talk with them, to save the issue until next week.
George got a bag lunch at a meeting with members of Colorado Counties Inc., but talked through the session. He toted the lunch back to the Capitol and bid the reporter goodbye. When he shut his office door behind him at 1:30 p.m., it was his first moment alone since the day had started.
The drunken-driving arrest was on his mind all morning, but this was his first chance to really think about it.
The arrest was his personal responsibility, he said, “but it should not reflect on my work. If I can do my work, I should. It was important to me to do what I was scheduled to do.”
Driving home to Rifle that afternoon, George made up his mind that he would come clean on the situation Monday. It was the proper way to do it, he said, and he never considered the possibility that the arrest could be kept secret.
“Redemption is essential to us, as humans,” he said. “I’ve got to square it with myself, deal with the legal process and sort out where I am personally. If I have a drinking problem, then I take this as a reckoning. In a way, this was a lucky event for me.”
He confided in his wife, Neal, during the weekend. He told their four sons the unpleasant news on Monday morning.
“My wife is supportive and understanding and only cares about me,” he said.
“The boys reacted in different ways. They were generally supportive, but in one case, he was a little angry. He asked me questions like, `Why weren’t you careful, Why weren’t you smart?’ I was hearing the same kinds of questions I’ve asked them on other occasions. It was like the parent became the child,” George said.
When he arrived back at the Capitol Monday, the plan was confirmed in his mind. George called his group of confidants, what he calls “the team,” into his office and told them what he planned to do.
Then, as the House adjourned for the day around 11 a.m., he shared his embarrassing news from the speaker’s podium.
Although George is clearly in agony over the situation, he is determined not to let it interfere with his job.
“I will continue, and I will probably be more earnest. I will put more into it, and try harder than ever before, because I’ve created this problem. I don’t want to have a negative effect on the work people rely on me for,” he said.
His colleagues seem to feel the same way.
Speaking from his office at the Capitol on Tuesday, George added, “People here are saying, `Put that aside. You deal with that, but I don’t want it to get in the way.’ I’ve kept every meeting, and I want to keep doing that. I am determined not to let it affect this position that means everything to me.”
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