Spouses and partners of new legislators learn about juggling work and private time

The Colorado Statesman

Life will become a maze of deadlines, attention and stress for 31 brand-new lawmakers who entered the Capitol on Jan. 9. But it will perhaps be their spouses and companions who face the most dramatic change over the 120 days of the next legislative session.

Several of these new lawmakers’ partners heard from experienced family members who have navigated the roller coaster that is public service. The orientation program on Dec. 13 sought to answer difficult questions about how to juggle both personal and work-related issues that can be overwhelming for those who are new to the Gold Dome.

State Rep.-elects Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, and Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada, pose for a photograph on the rotunda steps on Dec. 13 at the State Capitol.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

For some families it may only be two years; for others it could be several years of servitude to the people of Colorado. But one thing was clear as spouses and companions learned the ropes — the challenge will not be easy, especially when kids are involved.

Cheri Scheffel, the wife of Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, said the most important lesson she learned came from Kim Kopp, the late wife of former Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton.

State Rep.-elect John Buckner, D-Aurora, and his wife, Janet, enjoy a reception for new legislators and their spouses on Dec. 13 on the House floor.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“She said, ‘With small kids, have low expectations,’” recalled Scheffel. “If your expectations are low, then when daddy is home for dinner, it’s the icing on the cake. If you just go about your plan of having dinner at 6, and if he comes, he comes, and if he’s there, it’s great. But then you’re not disappointed; the kids aren’t disappointed; and he’s not the bad guy for being late all the time.”

State Rep.-elect Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, and her partner, Deb Ellingson, get a look at the House floor during a reception on Dec. 13 at the State Capitol for incoming legislators.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

In addition to Scheffel, the panel of family members featured Greg Wertsch, partner of House Speaker-designee Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, Allison Singer, wife of Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, and Denes Szabo, husband of Rep. Libby Szabo, R-Arvada.

State Rep.-elects Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada, and Perry Buck, R-Greeley, discuss a possible bipartisan bill to deal with husbands during a reception on Dec. 13.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Denes Szabo said one difficult transition to swallow when his wife was elected in 2010 was all the attention that was thrust upon her: “People would chase me down, ‘Denes, Denes, Denes — how’s Libby?’” he affectionately remembered.

“I wasn’t insecure about it, but I was surprised at what level it went to, and it hasn’t stopped whatsoever,” continued Szabo. “Even my friends, ‘Oh, how’s Libby doing?’”

State Rep.-elect Justin Everett, R-Littleton, and state Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, talk on the House floor.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Scheffel said the popularity can be frustrating at times, especially when lobbyists are targeting her husband. She recalled one time walking with her husband at the Capitol only to experience the “lobbyist box out,” in which an operative literally boxed Cheri Scheffel away from her husband.

“I said, ‘Oh, this is interesting. I’m not used to that…’” Scheffel said with a chuckle. “But if you kind of look
at it with amusement and know what is happening, it’s an interesting thing.”

The spouses and companions also heard about the challenge of maintaining self-identity, while also not interfering with the policymaking of their partners. Wertsch said he is always careful of what he says,
making sure not to share his opinions with reporters, or through social media, because he doesn’t want to negatively impact the work of his companion.

That became increasingly difficult for him during the debate on civil unions last year when he testified in support of the measure to allow some legal rights for same-sex couples. Republicans killed the legislation in a game of political partisanship. But Wertsch said he always checks with his partner before moving forward.

“I don’t want to hurt his chances of passing legislation,” he told the audience. “And I also don’t want to necessarily influence him. He knows a lot more about legislation that’s before him than I do.”

Singer said she assists her husband by trying to create a space away from the Legislature for him. She finds it’s a good thing for him to focus on ordinary things as well, like simply taking out the trash.

“Don’t be afraid to sometimes just be in your own space away from their public space,” advised Singer.

All the panel members agreed that sharing calendars and frequently texting is the best way to keep track and get hold of their partners. And Scheffel encouraged spouses and companions to take trips to the Capitol to visit with their families.

“The Capitol is very family friendly. I recommend you bring your kids down here as much as you can… The staff, the people who work down here, are very accommodating and they love to see you,” she said.

Cheri Scheffel added that when things seem to be piling up at home and at work, that it’s important to remember that their partner is serving the people.

“Understand that it’s the office they hold,” she said. “You love them as a person… but it’s really the office they hold.”

Ready to jump in

Several of the new legislators’ partners seemed ready for the challenge, especially after having already made it through a difficult election season.

Rachel Wright, wife of Rep.-elect Jared Wright, R-Grand Junction, experienced one of the toughest campaigns after her husband became embattled in controversy over bankruptcy filings and an internal affairs investigation with the Fruita Police Department, where Jared Wright had worked.

“I’m very pleased to move on,” said Rachel Wright, adding that she is not afraid that she won’t get to see her husband anymore after the session starts.

“He’s probably the biggest family man I know,” she said. “He loves his daughters, so I have no doubt that he’s going to be home.”

Maura Nordberg, wife of Rep.-elect Dan Nordberg, R-Colorado Springs, said she is a bit nervous about the uncertainties that lie ahead, but that she is looking forward to starting a new chapter.

“It’s just the unknown,” said Nordberg, while stopping in the House chamber during a tour of the Capitol. “It’s kind of learning all the pieces. We’re very excited…”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com