Colorado voters are deciding who to hire and who to fire in the 2022 election, but days before the votes will be counted, at least one incumbent already knows he won't be returning next year to the halls of power.
U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter announced in early January that he had decided not to seek a ninth term representing the Jefferson County-based 7th Congressional District, creating a rare open seat in Colorado's D.C. delegation.
In the nearly 16 years the Arvada Democrat has served in Congress, the 69-year-old Perlmutter has earned a reputation as an energetic campaigner — his celebratory cartwheels are legendary — as well as a details-oriented workhorse, a fierce advocate for his suburban district and a tireless constituent servant.
Perlmutter currently serves on four House committees: Financial Services; Science, Space and Technology; Rules; and the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. He chairs the Financial Services Committee's Consumer Protection and Financial Institutions Subcommittee.
By his office's count, Perlmutter has written 56 pieces of legislation that passed the House, including concurrent resolutions, amendments and rules.
During a recent interview, Perlmutter said he's approaching retirement with the same gusto he's brought to the job, with a full schedule of legislating and campaigning, though this time for other candidates. Still, he had at hand the number of months and days remaining until he leaves the House — on the day this column publishes, it's one month and 30 days until the winner of the Nov. 8 election will be sworn in on Jan. 3.
Democrat Brittany Pettersen, a state senator from Lakewood, and Republican Erik Aadland, a first-time candidate from Pine, are vying to fill the seat.
Passing legislation isn't the only way members of Congress can leave a mark. During his tenure, Perlmutter shares credit for spurring what turned out to be the longest run of employment expansion in U.S. history when he urged a powerful committee chair to talk to the press at a crucial juncture during the Great Recession. His efforts also saved the Colorado-based Orion space exploration program from the budget chopping block, which could ultimately lead to landing an American on Mars.
But while it appears increasingly likely that Congress could finally reach agreement in the upcoming lame duck session on the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act — the SAFE Banking Act, legislation he has shepherded for years to allow federally regulated financial institutions to provide services for legal marijuana companies — among Perlmutter's most enduring public legacies could be in the field of constituent contact and his work on the House committee to modernize Congress.
Perlmutter held his 105th and final "Government in the Grocery" in late August at a Safeway store in Lakewood, capping the trademark constituent outreach approach he pioneered just weeks into his first term.
Over the years and at grocery stores across the district, the lawmaker met one-on-one with nearly 3,400 constituents at the affairs, his office said — usually a couple dozen at a time, though on several occasions hundreds of Coloradans showed up wanting to talk, and the events were converted into impromptu town halls.
The bipartisan Modernization Committee, established in early 2019 and renewed at the beginning of last year, is tasked with coming up with recommendations to bring congressional operations up to date. It's a task relished by Perlmutter, who has served on the panel since its inception.
With an equal number of Democrats and Republicans on the body — six members from each party, with a Democratic chair and Republican vice chair — the committee has held hearings and studied how Congress goes about its business, yielding nearly 200 recommendations. So far, more than 40 of its suggestions have been implemented, and another 80 have been partially implemented or are in progress, the committee said this week.
The committee held its final hearing in mid-September and is preparing a last set of recommendations, set for a vote on Nov. 17.
Among the most recent set of recommendations come to life: setting up a system so the public can track how amendments change legislation and how proposed legislation would affect current law; letting members pay for their staff's professional development; encouraging the Library of Congress to expand its schedule of events to promote bipartisan cooperation between lawmakers; and providing every district office with secure Wi-Fi.
That last has been a particular pet peeve for Perlmutter.
"Everybody was having to work off of their own phone, their own hotspots, and the speed — everything was just so slow," he said. "And it was really aggravating. You look at something like a Starbucks, you could do better at Starbucks than we were doing in our congressional office."
He said it took testimony from his long-time chief of staff, Danielle Radovich Piper, who is based out of his district office in Lakewood — unusual for congressional chiefs of staff, who nearly all run things from their members' offices in Washington.
"It's a bigger kind of a question, which is, the district offices, until we really started making a stink about it, are always seen as, 'OK, they're out there. We'll worry about Washington, that's where we'll make sure everybody has what they need. The district offices will have to fend for themselves.' And we said, 'Wait a second. That's not right. That's not how it should work.'
"She really was able to look at how district offices were being operated. They're kind of an afterthought, but really, it should be a much more prominent consideration because it's the district offices that do most of the work with the people we represent, the constituents."
Perlmutter said bringing the House up to speed technologically is one of the broad categories the modernization committee has tackled. The others are planning how to more effectively use office space, including providing meeting rooms in the members' cramped, 100-year-old office buildings in D.C.; how to better train and retain congressional staff; how to better support individual lawmakers — including taking a look at increasing compensation, which has been frozen since 2009, and providing resources to bring new members up to speed on some legislative procedures; and possibly revamping the congressional calendar so lawmakers can have a better chance to collaborate.
"We needed to definitely look at our systems," Perlmutter said. "Congress has fallen behind the private sector in a lot of different ways — technologically, whether it's iPads and systems like that, the private sector just this last 20 years has been so disruptive technologically, we needed to catch up. On personnel issues, we found ourselves losing a lot of very qualified people who were experienced, but they were all leaving us for a variety of reasons, compensation being part of it, benefits being part of it, the way there wasn't really any continuing education for our staff. And is there something that can be done to help find common ground and not always combat, but collaboration, where possible, and not just confrontation all the time?"
Toward that end, Perlmutter said something as simple as changing the way lawmakers sit in committee hearings — where they spend the bulk of their time — could lead to more productive relationships across the aisle.
"The Republicans sit on one side of the room and the Democrats sit on the other side of the room, and you really don't have much in the way a conversation going on," he said. "There could be a lot more relationship-building. When you're talking to somebody next to you, all of a sudden you start developing a relationship and you can say, 'You know what, I'd like to work with you on x, y or z.' The way the committee rooms are set up, you can't have that interaction."
Perlmutter said he's encouraged by the committee's work.
"So I say, every 240 years, Congress should take a look at itself and figure if it needs to modernize things," he said.
Ernest Luning has covered politics for Colorado Politics and its predecessor publication, The Colorado Statesman, since 2009. He's analyzed the exploits, foibles and history of state campaigns and politicians since 2018 in the weekly Trail Mix column.