About 30 people stand Saturday morning at the Ruth Holley library branch to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Hands are placed over hearts before someone calls out: "Where's the flag?"
A moment passes before the stars and stripes are located, albeit in miniature, pinned to the lapel of Dennis Apuan.
Standing proudly at the front of the room, incoming state Rep. Apuan leads the pledge and goes on to welcome the audience at this House District 17 town hall meeting. Soon he launches into a bold speech about his priorities for the legislative session, which opens Jan. 7 when he and other legislators will be sworn in.
For starters, he says, Colorado needs to invest in clean energy. Education is equally important.
"We will build a world-class education system in Colorado," he says, without offering details.
Lofty rhetoric soon gives way to concrete concerns as the new Democratic legislator listens to questions and comments from a crowd made up of faithful members of his own party and a good number of Republicans, including Catherine "Kit" Roupe, the opponent he narrowly defeated in November's election.
One woman complains she's been jobless for eight months, but says she's glad Apuan was elected.
"No offense to your opponent," she adds. (Roupe doesn't reply, and stays quiet through most of the meeting.)
Others urge Apuan to pay attention to issues like civil rights, election integrity or the unfairness of charging higher insurance rates to lower-income people.
Wishes and hopes nearly overflow the meeting room before Hilda Huber, a 77-year-old Republican, offers something akin to a splash of cold water.
"It's going to be difficult for you," she says, "because you're new."
Learning the ropes
Apuan will have good company as the legislative session starts. Among the state's 100 representatives are 17 freshmen representatives and nine freshman senators. In El Paso County, attorney Mark Waller, a Republican who beat out Douglas Bruce to represent House District 15, will be another new face.
Democrats now have three seats from El Paso County, as Apuan joins Rep. Mike Merrifield and Sen. John Morse. Apuan replaces Stella Garza-Hicks in District 17, which covers southeastern Colorado Springs.
Garza-Hicks, who was appointed to the seat two years ago but cited family concerns in not seeking re-election, seems a little out of place beside Apuan at Saturday's meeting. She summarizes her legislative experience in vague terms, saying, "As a freshman, it's very exciting and also very challenging."
That could be particularly true for this year's rookies, who take office with a budget shortfall somewhere between $230 million and $600 million. But speaking after the meeting, Apuan seems unfazed by the difficulties he'll face.
"It's a great opportunity for change," he says, suggesting lawmakers will have to "think outside the box."
Apuan is already shifting priorities with the bills he plans to introduce. He had hoped to field a bill offering returning military veterans free college tuition, but now sees the price tag as a deal-breaker. Instead, he plans to introduce a bill providing child care to military families, and he's pushing another that would give prospective homebuyers information about the energy bills they would incur in any house on the market.
After weeks of orientation and training, the 44-year-old former community organizer says he's ready for the session. He adds that he's buoyed by the turnout at this meeting, and plans to continue such gatherings the first Saturday of each month.
Getting elected was the first challenge for new legislators. Rep. Marsha Looper of House District 19 in El Paso County says the next task is learning the art of legislating.
"The first year is really tough because a lot of information is thrown at you," she says. "My recommendation is not to run a lot of bills the first year."
With time, she says, legislators learn how to finesse their bills by using rules that, for instance, let them halt debate on a bill if discussion strays too far.
Waller hopes to learn such tactics quickly. He says he wants to work with both parties, and, unlike his predecessor, he's authoring bills more notable for pragmatism than ideology. One such proposal would force for-profit companies that put out collection bins for used clothing to clearly indicate they are not charities; another would try to stop groups from pulling initiatives that already have been printed on state ballots.
Though the job "doesn't come with a training manual," Waller, 39, says he's intent on figuring out how to get things done: "I don't want to just be that guy filling the seat for eastern Colorado Springs."