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Bill strengthening penalties for harassment of elected officials divides some Senate Republicans

DENVER — A bill that would strengthen penalties for harassment and physical threats on an elected official has passed the State Senate with bipartisan support, dividing Republicans on what some see as another step at granting special privileges to elected officials.

Senate Bill 21-064 — Retaliation Against an Elected Official — passed the Senate on April 5 by a vote of 32-3, with GOP Senators Paul Lundeen, Jim Smallwood and Jerry Sonnenberg the only three voting against it.

It was sponsored by Senators John Cooke, R-Greeley and Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo.

Sen. John Cooke

Under the bill’s language, an individual who makes “a credible threat or commits an act of harassment as retaliation or retribution against an elected official or the official’s family” can be charged. “Retaliation against an elected official is a class 1 misdemeanor unless committed by means of a credible threat, then it is a class 6 felony.”

Cooke, a 30-year retired law enforcement officer, said nothing in the bill makes the act any different that what is on the books now, except the consequences are one degree stronger for both the felony and misdemeanor elements, and pointed out that this was not about just state officials but anyone who runs for public office.

“This isn’t just about legislators,” Cooke said. “Anyone who runs for school board or city council or any office shouldn’t be put in fear for a vote they make. That’s retaliation.”

All the bill does, Cooke said, is extend to elected officials heightened penalties that are already in place for first responders, law enforcement, judges and hate crimes.

“An attack on law enforcement is a threat on society,” Cooke said. “An attack on judges is a threat on our judicial and legal system. Hate crimes are a threat on decency, and an attack on a public official is a threat on democracy to be quite frank.”

Cooke said he doesn’t understand why people waited until the bill passed to raise objections.

“Nobody testified against it,” Cooke said. “Not one person complained until after it passed. Maybe they shouldn’t have been asleep at the wheel.”

Sonnenberg, who normally falls on the same side of legislation with Cooke, disagreed with this bill because he said lawmakers should not be writing legislation specifically for elected officials making them a protected class.
“Washington DC has fully reached Colorado, where we write laws for everyone else except ourselves,” Sonnenberg said. “It blows my mind. I asked to put me in this situation knowing there were going to be people who write me nasty emails. Death threats are different, but to be hazed or hassled is just beyond me. I don’t have that snowflake mentality.”

Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg

Cooke said people are overreacting to a bill that simply enhances the penalties for laws that are already on the book.

“In this day and age, we’ve lost civility we want good people to run for office and they shouldn’t be subject to physical violence and harassment,” Cooke said.

Sonnenberg, however, said there are too many unanswered questions that could lead to abuse of the new statute.

“Where is the line drawn,” Sonnenberg said. “And who gets to determine if it a credible threat? Who makes that call? Is that going to be some five-member truth justice commission that decides who’s offended and who’s not offended?”

It now moves to the House where it is sponsored by Adams County Democrat Kyle Mullica. It is assigned to the Judiciary committee. No date has been set for the committee hearing yet.

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