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Doug Bruce is in the house

Most folks agree the GOP firebrand is a smart guy--he just rubs people the wrong way

Published April 25, 2008 at 11 p.m.

A state Capitol bigwig got a warning call shortly after rebel Douglas Bruce was appointed to fill a vacancy in the House of Representatives.

Watch out and good luck - you're going to need it, cautioned a staffer for El Paso County, where Bruce had served as a county commissioner since 2005.

Not that most folks needed any introduction to the Colorado Springs Republican, best known for writing the ballot measure known as the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

Over the years Bruce had visited the Capitol a number of times, testifying on bills or ballot proposals. His performances - which once resulted in his being escorted from the building by state troopers - drew vastly different reviews.

A know-it-all. A bully. An insufferable narcissist who likes to hear his own voice.

A genius. A tax cutter. Someone finally looking out for the little guy.

Those who predicted political theater with Bruce in the legislature collected on their bets.

A couple of hours before he was sworn into office in January, he kicked a Rocky Mountain News photographer, resulting in the first censure in the legislature's 131-year history.

In Bruce's most recent blowup, lawmakers gasped this week when, during a bill to expedite temporary visas for guest workers, he said, "I don't think we need 5,000 more illiterate peasants in Colorado."

Most of the criticism leveled at Bruce has come from his own caucus - not that he cares.

"I didn't come up here to be loved," Bruce said. "I came up here to tell the truth."

House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, said he didn't know much about Bruce when the Capitol staff got the warning call from El Paso County in December.

"But I've certainly come to know him," May said. "He is worse than ineffective. He's counterproductive. He's a drag on everything.

"Douglas Bruce might be the worst legislator in the history of Colorado."

Both sides agree

On this point Capitol observers agree:

Douglas Bruce - who graduated from a California high school at age 16, who was a prosecutor by the age of 23 - is a smart guy who rubs people the wrong way.

"Smart doesn't necessarily mean wise," May said.

"He needs a week of charm school," said Rep. Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, conceding seven days might be woefully short.

"He definitely lacks people skills," said Sen. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, one of Bruce's strongest allies.

"He's known for his outspokenness but, quite frankly, I think we need outspokenness and truth. I do think he is being maligned, and I think much of it stems from this body's distaste of TABOR."

The 1992 measure controls taxation and spending. Critics see it as starving governments' essential public services.

Ever since it passed, Bruce has been happy to claim TABOR retaliation.

That's what he said in 1995 when Denver city officials cited him for failing to repair a fire-damaged roof on one of his rental properties in Five Points.

That's what he said in 1999 when Denver tried to shut down one a rental property on the grounds it was a public nuisance.

And Bruce claimed TABOR retaliation in January when Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, refused his request for a big swearing-in ceremony, complete with a speech before the entire House.

Bruce didn't show up for opening day, delaying his swearing in for several days so he could run an extra term.

Bruce had taken Bill Cadman's seat in the House after Cadman was appointed to a fill a vacancy in the Senate. On opening day, Cadman visited the House and then got huge laughs from his new Senate colleagues with his sly reference to Bruce.

"I did get a very warm, interesting welcome over there," Cadman said, "as if they didn't want me to go for some reason."

Process drives him nuts

Bruce soon discovered that the legislature's traditions - including the last-minute announcement of which bills will be debated - drove him nuts.

"This whole place is about micromanaging business, and telling everybody how they should live their lives, and yet they are so disorganized here they cannot even plan their calendar one day ahead," he said.

"There's an excuse for everything down here.'We've always done it that way and we're not going to change.' I can't make anybody change, but I can point to the absurdity, the inefficiency and the illegality of what they are doing."

Bruce bemoans the amount of time lawmakers take to discuss resolutions, such as making March colorectal cancer awareness month.

Bruce, in February, angered his caucus by his refusal to co-sponsor a resolution honoring the military. When May removed him from the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, more headlines ensued.

This week the House spent more than 45 minutes debating a resolution on the 1915 massacre of 1.5 million Armenians.

"I was tempted to say something, but I try to avoid contributing to the time-wasting aspect so I just sat there," Bruce said.

That statement brought both laughs and cries of "You've got to be kidding!"

Bruce's colleagues say he's the one who wastes time, nitpicking bills and repeating his arguments. During the budget debate, Bruce constantly trekked to the podium.

"If you found out that you only had six weeks to live, you would want to spend it with Doug Bruce - because every day would seem like a lifetime," joked Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Littleton.

Biggest accomplishment

In addition to getting $700,000 for a veterans group, Bruce touts his biggest accomplishment this session as bringing attention to a legislative tradition that began in 1933 after Coloradans overturned a margarine tax.

Since then, "safety clauses" have been added to the majority of bills, essentially declaring an emergency that allows them to take effect without any attempt at a referendum to repeal them. Bruce has pointed out there are no emergencies.

"I consider every time legislators tell the truth to be a personal victory," Bruce said.

But lawmakers said that very issue reveals Bruce's ineffectiveness.

"He lectures us on safety clauses and then asks for an 'aye' vote," May said. "Once he looked over at his caucus - his alleged caucus - and put his arms out as if to say, 'Where are you?' Why would any of us rally to his support?"

Weissmann told school children shadowing lawmakers Thursday to watch Bruce's attempt to strip the safety clause from a bill.

"I told the kids: 'This is going to be a life lesson for you. On this bill, he is absolutely right with everything he says. But he's going to lose big,' " Weissmann recounted.

"If you (upset) people along the way, it doesn't matter what you say. It's going to go down."

Bruce responded that voting on a measure based on personality instead of merit is so "ninth grade."

Kick or nudge

Weissmann chaired the legislative committee that was appointed to review the kicking incident. The committee had a range of options, from a fine to suspension, but recommended censure, a remedy Weissmann believes was the right choice.

Still . . .

"We joke it would have been a whole lot easier if we had kicked him out then," Weissmann said, with a laugh.

On Feb. 5, the night of his precinct caucus, Bruce told fellow Republicans his version of events:

There had been no kick, just a nudge, a tap actually, after he had asked the photographer not to take his picture during the morning prayer. A Denver Post staffer had egged on the Rocky photographer.

He vowed never to speak to either paper again.

Republicans gave him a standing ovation.

But Bruce would speak to the Denver dailies. His critics said he couldn't help himself, that his anger at the newspapers wasn't nearly as deep as his need to be in them.

When Bruce made his "illiterate peasants" remark during a fellow El Paso County Republican's bill, some colleagues called it a political stunt to try to win votes in his tough August primary.

"That's absolutely what it was," said Bruce's opponent, attorney Mark Waller, an Iraq war veteran. "I think he's desperate and it's starting to show."

Immigration and Hispanic groups were outraged at Bruce's comment. A rally is planned for 3 p.m. today at Acacia Park in Colorado Springs.

Barry Noreen, a columnist for The Gazette in Colorado Springs, ripped the lawmaker.

"Bruce has supporters who still see him as Superman," Noreen wrote. "Many others are growing weary of the insecure, narcissistic, attention-starved teenager trapped in the body of a flabby, aging, right-wing pol."

Bruce points to the more than 1,100 e-mails he has received in support of his illiterate peasants comment. Reader comments and letters to the editor also back Bruce.

"I had some Hispanic young man come in here and say, 'Can I have my photo taken with you? You're my father's hero. He works for the Department of Transportation and he says your comments are right on,' " Bruce said.

Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said he's not surprised.

"He continues to do things that make him ineffective as a legislator, but play well at home," Sonnenberg said.

"I've been one of his defenders from the beginning, demanding he receive the respect that comes with the office," Sonnenberg said. "But it's gotten to be where some people can't stand to be around him. I'm not to that point.

"Yet." or 303-954-5327

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