Chicken incident ruffled feathers, but Poverty Task Force prevails

Despite nitpicking & bickering, Kefalas cites bipartisan progress
The Colorado Statesman

The work of an interim legislative task force examining ways to reduce poverty in Colorado has become overshadowed by distracting racial controversies. But despite all the public attention, members of the bipartisan interim committee say they are making progress and hope to submit a package of bills for the full legislature to consider when they reconvene in January.

The chaos for the Economic Opportunity Poverty Reduction Task Force began on Aug. 21 with poorly worded remarks from Republican Sen. Vicki Marble of Fort Collins. During a meeting, she linked poor health within black and Latino communities to diets and foods like barbecued chicken.

“When you look at life expectancy, there are problems in the black race…” she said. “Although I’ve got to say, I’ve never had better barbecue and better chicken and ate better in my life than when you go down South and you, I mean, I love it. Everybody loves it.”

She then went on to say that Mexicans eat vegetables in Mexico but stop eating healthy foods when they come to the United States — a statement that is statistically incorrect.

“The Mexican diet, in Mexico, with all of the fresh vegetables, and you go down there and they’re much thinner than they are up here; they change their diet… They become Americanized,” commented Marble.

Both Republicans and Democrats alike heavily criticized her for her remarks. Conservative blogs called Marble a “moron” and state GOP Chairman Ryan Call called the statement “careless.” Editorial boards called the remark “stupid,” while Democrats called it “patronizing” and “bigoted.”

With the drama in the rearview mirror, task force members had hoped to get on with the business of examining how to reduce poverty. But then Republican Rep. Lori Saine of Dacono brought a box of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen chicken for lunch during the task force’s next meeting on Sept. 4.

Saine brought the chicken despite a meal having already been provided to task force members. Some Democrats on the task force grew concerned that Saine brought the chicken to be disruptive after the controversy surrounding Marble the meeting before.

KDVR-TV Fox31 Denver reported that Saine brought the Popeyes in an act of “silent protest.” But reporter Justin Joseph only reported that “one witness heard” Saine make the “silent protest” comment to Marble at the Sept. 4 meeting. The witness is not mentioned by name.

Joseph approached Saine outside the meeting to ask why she brought the chicken. She responded by laughing, “I’m having chicken for dinner. Would you like a [press conference] at my house?”

Later that evening, Saine, from her Twitter account @LoriSaine, posted a photo of a chicken dinner that read, “My daughter and I are enjoying dinner tonight; this is one of her favorite meals.”

House Democrats the next day blasted Saine for “malicious” and “deliberate” conduct.

“There is no doubt about Rep. Lori Saine’s conduct. It was deliberate and malicious. Her mocking, taunting attitude proves that she is out of touch with racial concerns in our society and our state,” read a joint statement from Reps. Angela Williams, D-Denver, representing the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus of Colorado, and Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, representing the Colorado Democratic Latin@ Legislative Caucus.

“This behavior has to stop,” continued the joint statement. “We cannot allow out-of-touch, out-of-date actions to distract us from the real work of tackling the daunting problems of poverty in Colorado.”

Chairman Call was quick to throw Saine under the bus. In a statement following the Fox31 story, Call said, “Rep. Saine’s actions on Wednesday do not represent the Colorado Republican Party. They were insensitive and hurtful, and she must apologize for them.”

It appears the incident first came to light when task force member Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, asked Saine about her lunch selection, according to Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, who chairs the task force.

Ulibarri declined comment when asked by The Colorado Statesman for his account of events.

Kefalas, however, said he is sure that Ulibarri met with Saine outside the meeting and that Saine mentioned “silent protest.”

“He had spoken to Rep. Saine and expressed his concerns, and I’m certain that what he told me is that she did use the reference of, ‘It’s my way to silent protest…’ It is my understanding that that’s what she said to Ulibarri,” said Kefalas.

Kefalas then approached Saine to ask about her lunch selection. “I was once again shocked… I don’t want to impugn motivation, but sometimes I really have to wonder why people do what they do, so I went to address the issue with Rep. Saine,” said Kefalas.

“I went up to Rep. Saine and asked, ‘What are you doing with a Popeyes fried chicken box,’” continued Kefalas. “She said, ‘It’s part of my lunch. I’m eating it.’ I said, ‘In light of everything, aren’t you concerned that this could be a distraction?’

“And at one point… I’m certain… that she said to me, ‘This is my way of silent protest; I just thought it would be funny,’” according to Kefalas.

He added that he thinks that at some point when the Fox31 camera appeared, that Saine threw the Popeyes chicken box in the garbage.

Kefalas then pointed it out to Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, one of two black lawmakers who sit on the task force. Fields became “incredulous,” according to Kefalas, but he asked her not to ask questions, which Fields complied with.

For her part, Saine told The Statesman that she never mentioned anything about a “silent protest,” and that she was simply supplementing the lunch provided to the task force.

“I don’t understand why my lunch is a story…” said Saine. “The only thing I said to John [Kefalas] was, ‘I don’t understand why chicken is controversial…’ Making a spectacle out of my lunch is not professional.”

The task force is provided with a lunch that is meant to keep in line with what a low-income lunch might look like. But Kefalas acknowledged that it is completely acceptable for task force members to supplement what is provided to them. Saine said that was her only intention.

“It’s very small and I mix the lunch together,” said Saine. “It wasn’t a secret what was on my desk…”

As for GOP Chairman Call pouncing on her, Saine said he had not been presented with all the facts.

“I was a little shocked,” said Saine. “I think he did that before he got all the facts.”

She believes she was patient with the Fox31 reporter, but that at the time she wasn’t going to answer questions about something she wasn’t focused on.

“We shouldn’t be having this conversation now,” said Saine.

Rick Palacio, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, said if Saine’s explanation is revealed to be false, then she should resign.

“Rep. Saine’s actions are beneath those that Coloradans demand from their elected representatives and they make a mockery of our legislative institution,” said Palacio. “I stand with Chairman Call and demand that she ‘apologize for them.’

“Moreover, if Rep. Saine’s explanation for her actions are revealed to be untrue, for the good of her constituents and Colorado’s legislature, she should submit her resignation immediately,” added Palacio.

The Colorado Progressive Coalition criticized Saine on Sept. 6, calling her behavior “outrageous and offensive.”

“Our state Capitol is no place for racism and ignorance,” said Corrine Fowler, economic justice director for the Progressive Coalition. “They have been charged with working on solutions to address poverty. Saine’s decision to eat Popeyes chicken in ‘silent protest’ during a meeting of this task force creates a mockery of the work they are supposed to be doing.”

Work being overshadowed

Kefalas agrees that all the controversy has been a distraction. He’s worked much of his legislative career on poverty reduction, and the task force is a sort of culmination of those efforts.

Kefalas joked that when the cameras first showed up on Aug. 21, he assumed the media was finally taking interest in the work of the task force.

“When I saw the camera coming in I thought, ‘Oh great… Finally they’re getting it that what we’re doing is actually important and they want to film it and inform the public that we’re trying to come up with solutions.’ And then I realized, of course, that it was because of these statements,” explained Kefalas.

The mission of the task force is to commit to “an inclusive process of dialogue that embraces varied perspectives on the complex issues related to child and family poverty and the nexus between economic opportunity and poverty reduction.”

Kefalas points out that it has been making great progress, advancing ideas around housing issues, child care and workforce readiness and development, among others.

Despite the partisan bickering surrounding the allegations, Kefalas says the work of the task force has been quite bipartisan. As an example, he points out that Sen. David Balmer, R-Centennial, and Rep. Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs, are working together on advancing ideas around public-private collaborations.

“I see addressing poverty and this idea of shared prosperity, expanding economic opportunity, as being good for taxpayers,” said Kefalas. “Ultimately we can redirect more of our public dollars to other kinds of infrastructure if more and more people are able to raise their families, make a living and even put some savings aside so that their kid can go to college.”

At the task force’s next meeting on Sept. 18, members will discuss how to advance recommendations for legislation to address poverty reduction and economic prosperity.

“My goal is that we can get as much bipartisan support for whatever bills might come out of the task force,” said Kefalas.

One piece of legislation could address the Property Tax/Rent/Heat Credit rebate program, also known as the PTC rebate. The legislature appropriates $7 million for the program, which offers credits to persons with disabilities and qualifying seniors.

A performance audit revealed that the program is not working efficiently because the people who need the program the most are not targeted. If ineligible participants take part, it becomes difficult for the program to recoup the money that is spent on them.

Kefalas said the task force is addressing the issues and will likely recommend legislation to tackle the troubles.

He added that the recent allegations surrounding Saine have been particularly frustrating because she has been working diligently as a task force member, including bipartisan collaboration with Ulibarri.

“She’s been really engaged, and I think we have some agreement and common ground here,” said Kefalas.

Saine agrees that the distraction is unfortunate and she is looking forward to moving on.

“I really enjoy working with Sen. Kefalas and I really enjoy working with Sen. Ulibarri a lot,” said Saine. “We have a lot of positive movement working together. Hopefully this can just be put aside and let’s just keep working together in a bipartisan fashion. That’s the best choice going forward.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com