Nearly two dozen members of the Colorado House and Senate Democratic caucuses spoke to reporters Wednesday about a letter they've authored that criticized what they call increasingly bigoted language, including statements made by House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican.
The Black caucus, Latino caucus, LGBTQ caucus and Jewish caucus, the latter led by Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet of Aurora, teamed up on the letter, which is addressed to Coloradans and invites them to be signatories.
On March 25, according to 9News, House Minority Leader Neville said that stay-at-home orders are leading to a Gestapo-like mentality, a comment he made on "The Peter Boyles Show."
According to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, comments made on the Mesa County Department of Health Facebook page have compared the department to Nazis after it posted a message asking people to report on those who aren't following public health orders.
The issue became very public last week when Charles Ashby of the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel asked Gov. Jared Polis about those comments. Polis, in a rare display of emotion, said that, "as a Jewish-American who lost family in the Holocaust, I’m offended by it, any comparison to Nazism. We act to save lives, the exact opposite of the slaughter of 6 million Jews and gypsies and Catholics and gays and lesbians and Russians and so many others.”
Michaelson Jenet said Thursday that Jewish custom, when dealing with Antisemitic Nazi rhetoric, is not to draw attention to it, or give it more screen time. But it's a different matter when that language is coming from elected officials, she said. Elected officials are expected to be honorable representatives of the public, she said, calling Neville's comments irresponsible.
The Aurora lawmaker is Jewish, and lost an entire branch of her family in the Holocaust. In recent weeks swastikas have shown up as graffiti, she claimed. When that language from elected officials is used for hate, blame and demonization, it's a new level of a problem, she said. "United, we will not stand for any form of racism, bigotry and Antisemitism. Hate for one is hate for all."
Citing Harry Budisidharta, executive director of the Asian Pacific Development Center, Michaelson Jenet said, "Words matter. elected officials have a responsibility to not use the pulpit" for speech used to ridicule or demonize others.
But it isn't only Neville's comments that drew Democrats together on Thursday. Several spoke to rising incidents of hate enacted on members of the Asian-Pacific community — including incidents where they're told to go back where they came from, or have had their vehicles attacked — as well as fears that wearing a bandanna causes black people to be targeted.
"Young black men are being followed in stores, especially when wearing a bandanna or face covering," said Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver. "We have to understand the unique situation faced by people of color" in the COVID-19 pandemic
The letter says that the COVID-19 pandemic has been used as a cover and excuse for "abhorrent behavior," including hate crimes against Asian-Americans, conspiracy theories denigrating immigrants" and statements that compare the stay-at-home order taken by the state's first Jewish governor to the Gestapo. The letter asks Coloradans "to speak up in the face of racism of antisemitism, report hate crimes and bigoted attacks and embody positive values of understanding, compassion, empathy, patience charity and grace."
Rep. Alex Valdez of Denver said the letter is the first in a long-term process to unite communities.
The letter does not call on Neville to resign his leadership post. Michaelson Jenet said she'd love to see "an earnest apology" that recognizes his poor choice of language.
The Democrats noted that anyone could sign the letter, not just elected officials, and said they would reach out to Republican members of the House to ask them to sign it, although recognizing the difficult position it would put them in. The House Republican caucus has been deeply divided between a pro-Neville faction and one that isn't during the past two legislative sessions, based in part on the failures by Neville and his brother, Joe, to appropriately use funds to help Republicans get elected to the Colorado House. In the 2018 election, republicans lost four seats, putting them at a record low 24 seats out of 65.
In a statement to Colorado Politics, Neville said his remark about Gestapo tactics was never aimed at Polis, specifically, but broad directives across the globe that he says have wrecked individual rights. “Encouraging people to report their neighbors for gathering and arresting a father for playing T-Ball with his daughter is very authoritarian and something we should be concerned about,” he told Colorado Politics. “My comments had nothing to do with the governor. personally. I made them before he issued the order. At the time I was actually encouraged by some of his efforts to reduce red tape to help us get through this crisis.”
Polis issued the stay-at-home executive order on March 25, the same day Neville appeared on the Peter Boyle show. However, according to a transcript, Neville was referring to Denver's stay-at-home order, not Colorado's.
The first version of the letter is signed by all 41 House Democrats and 15 of the Senate's 19 Democrats. Notably absent: Senate President Leroy Garcia of Pueblo, although a spokesman for the group said a second version, expected later Thursday, will include the other four, including Garcia. They attributed his name being absent to a technical glitch. Also among the four missing on the first version: Sen. Pete Lee of Colorado Springs, Kerry Donovan of Vail and Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge.
As of 5 p.m., the last four Democrats had signed onto the letter.