DENVER — Before she became the first House Republican lawmaker to vote in favor of legislation to recognize same-sex civil unions, Rep. B.J. Nikkel heard from her former boss, former Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave, who left her a voicemail urging her to vote no.
After she cast her vote in favor of civil unions two weeks ago, Nikkel was shouted down by religious protestors at her church in Loveland the following Sunday; and the next week, as the bill continued to move through the legislative process, a rickety old pickup truck circled the Capitol carrying homemade billboards advising “Nikkkel” — yes, it was spelled with three “k’s” — that she was going to hell for her vote.
On Thursday, three days after a revived civil unions measure was killed off quickly by her House GOP colleagues on the first day of a special legislative session, Nikkel was recognized again — not by protestors, but by a group of people celebrating her courage.
“I voted my conscience and I believe it was simply the right thing to do,” Nikkel said during a speech Thursday at the Jewish Community Relations Council’s “Leadership Luncheon” at Temple Emanuel where she was honored with the “Legislative Appreciation Award”.
“To me, the most timeless of conservative values is independence,” Nikkel continued. “And, the fact is — we are all Coloradans and giving equal protection under the law for those who do not have it is the fair thing to do.”
After voting against a civil unions measure last year when it was heard — and killed — by the House Judiciary Committee, Nikkel voted yes this year when the panel heard the same bill near the end of the regular legislative session, casting the deciding vote to send the bill on to two other House committees, where two more Republicans followed suit and cleared the bill for a hearing on the House floor.
Of course, Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, denied that vote by putting the House into recess and letting time run out on the legislation and 30 other bills on the night before the session’s final day.
When Gov. John Hickenlooper called a special legislative session to allow more time for the measure to be heard, McNulty chose not to send it back to the House Judiciary Committee, where Nikkel’s vote would have again ensured its passage, and instead directed the bill to the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee where he knew he had the votes to kill it quickly.
“Change is painful for some people,” Nikkel said during her speech Thursday. “Making substantive public policy change requires stamina and often vigorous and emotional debate. Change sometimes need to occur incrementally.
“I’m still glad I voted as I did. My disappointment is that all of the representatives of this state did not get their opportunity to vote their conscience.”
Nikkel recognized her two fellow Republicans, Reps. Don Beezley, R-Broomfield, and Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, who cast the deciding votes to help advance the civil unions bill on the two other GOP-controlled committees.
“I look forward to seeing moreRepublican leaders being unafraid to step forward and support this in the future — because it is the right thing to do,” she said.
Nikkel won’t be back at the Capitol next year. She decided not to run for another term after the Democrat-drawn map of new House districts drew her into the same district as Rep. Brian DelGrosso, which would have forced a primary had Nikkel not decided to step aside.
In her final session, she sponsored and passed what’s arguably one of the most consequential bills of the year, a landmark juvenile justice law that stripped Colorado district attorneys of their ability to unilaterally “direct file” juvenile offenders into the adult prison system without a hearing before a judge.
But her most lasting legacy may be a vote in a favor of a bill that didn’t pass, but still defined the entire legislative session.
“I decided to support the civil unions bill because would’ve made life a little better for some people in our state,” Nikkel said Thursday. “During that process, I became acutely aware of the kind of intolerance and bigotry that some people possess. I saw it directed at the gay community and soon found a lot of it directed at me because of my decision to move the bill forward.”
A day after her vote, Nikkel recalled, she spoke on the House floor with Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Denver, whose grandparents were imprisoned during the Holocaust.
“I shared some of my experience with Rep. Kagan, of being bullied, maligned and intimidated through phone calls, messages, through emails and text messages — and even in person – from my own state senator.
“I told Rep. Kagan that a ‘connection’ — a light bulb clicked on in all of this and it finally dawned on me after my vote that I felt perhaps I finally understood just a tiny bit of the persecution that his grandparents — and the Jewish people – and those in the gay community, have gone through over time.”