Legislators’ kickoff complete with grub, gaffes

Penny Parker Mile High Life
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Opening Day of the General Assembly — no, make that Opening Week — is one long social event punctuated by family gatherings, floral deliveries, speeches, inside jokes, bad puns and, this year at least, Democratic control, iPads and something known as “Peegate.”

As usual, newly elected officials, male and female, donned their best suits for their photo ops and their mass swearing-in. Reporters not accustomed to covering “The Leg” squeezed into press areas. And lobbyists raced to legislators’ offices to praise, or pan, the bills that flooded in.

I, of course, headed straight for the one annual event that tends to bring even vehemently opposing sides together: Opening Night’s Blue Ribbon Reception, co-hosted by the Colorado Restaurant Association and the Colorado Hotel & Lodging Association.

Senators and representatives from both sides of the aisle gathered at The Grand Hyatt’s Pinnacle Room with a bird’s-eye view of downtown from the 38th floor.

State lawmakers tipped back adult beverages and scarfed down special snacks served by CRA-member restaurants. The per-person price of the party was low enough to comply with state ethics rules. (Full disclosure: I write a blog for the Restaurant Association.)

The only audible discussions were which restaurant served the best food. While there was no consensus, the 14 participating eateries put out an impressive example of their menus.

Ted’s Montana Grill served bison short-ribs, sausages and semi-sour pickles; The Charles Court at The Broadmoor upped the ante with a plate that included dynamite tuna tartare; CityGrille broke out some heat-filled green chili followed by miniature hamburger-shaped cookies; Cheyenne Mountain Resort plated a seared scallop; Mangia Bevi offered deep-fried ravioli with dipping sauces; Metro State culinary students cooked up crab cakes; Wild Eggs topped chips with egg salad and crostini with chicken salad; Outback Steakhouse served seared ahi tuna with wasabi soy dressing and blue cheese pecan chopped salad; Centerplate’s dessert display was worth raving about; The Fort served buffalo meatballs; Bonefish Grill had tuna sashimi; The Fresh Fish Company served tuna its way, seared along with ceviche; and Baca at the Inverness Hotel & Conference Center offered seared sea scallops with forbidden rice and butternut squash risotto.

During a short break at the feast fest, CRA President and CEO Pete Meersman thanked the roughly 300 attendees along with the restaurants and beverage sponsors Republic National Distributing and Southern Wine & Spirits.

“Restaurants and hotels are the cornerstone of Colorado’s economy,” Meersman said. “Restaurants and hotels together will generate over $12.5 billion in sales this year. This generates over $850 million in state and local state sales taxes. Restaurants and hotels employ roughly 286,000 employees in 11,500 restaurants.”

Those numbers were not lost on Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former restaurateur and founder of The Wynkoop Brewing Co., who spoke to the crowd he called “his peeps.”

“There is no challenge that restaurants can’t overcome,” Hickenlooper said. “My 10-year-old son, Teddy, and I got into an argument three weeks ago about how much homework he has. He said to me, ‘All you do is learn facts and make decisions and get a check. I learn something new every day and if I don’t get the facts right, my next day is miserable.’”

The governor went on to tell the lawmakers, “Our goal is to make good decisions. If we get together we will have a great session.

“Right here in this room, we have the two greatest industries in the world — restaurants and legislators.”

House Speaker Mark Ferrandino gave the Blue Ribbon Reception a big thumbs-up. “I told the House members this is by far the best event of the year,” he said. “This provides on opening day (of the Legislature) a day to celebrate each other. We have the next 119 days to meet and talk but we might not always agree. Tonight, let’s celebrate the opening of the Legislature.”

But Colorado Hotel & Lodging Association honcho Christine O’Donnell had the last word: “Let’s eat, drink and be merry!”

New this year

Many things have changed under the Gold Dome, what with 27 representatives and four senators who’ve never served before.

That’s what term limits get us.

But legislators also are getting the chance to be more tech-savvy, with iPads all around.

The paper-saving move was approved last year to cut down on printing and filing costs and to increase legislative efficiency. The tablets set taxpayers back about $60,000, according to the Associated Press.

Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, asked if software can automatically vote no for certain sponsors. The answer: Yes, but it’s “inadvisable.”

On the flip side, also new were key card readers on certain upstairs bathrooms at the Capitol that had long been accessible, through push-button codes, to lobbyists.

Capitol regulars decried the change. “Let my people go,” one reporter Tweeted. The Department of Personnel and Administration acknowledged to some miscommunication with the legislature. By days’ end Friday, the crisis was over, with wider access restored.

Capitol bests

Best use of a filing cabinet, endangered with the new iPads: To “put my coffee on,” said Sen. Greg Brophy.

Best debate over a speech: Sen. John Morse’s long paramedic story, about how he rushed to help following a car wreck where the victim ultimately died, had fans and foes. “Ran over to catch Sen. Morse’s speech. So far, I’m sorry I did,” the Grand Junction Sentinel’s Charles Ashby said on Twitter.

Best rip on the Senate: “We love having you in our chamber, but please leave,” said Speaker Mark Ferrandino.

Best photo op: Morse posed for a photo with the family of new Sen. Owen Hill. The two senators bitterly vied for a seat two years ago.

Second best photo op: Five speakers in one photograph — the current speaker and former speakers Frank McNulty, Andrew Romanoff, Terrance Carroll and Ruben Valdez.

Best gaffe: The governor said “Oh, Jesus” after messing up a quote in his State of the State speech. Second-best gaffe: Chief Justice Michael Bender asked representatives to “oppose — uphold — the Constitution.

Third-best gaffe: Morse introduced Bender as “Chief Justice Bennett.” Bender panned, “Thank you, President (Bill) Cadman.”

Best symbolism: The House opened with Denver’s Gay Men’s Chorus singing Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” Ferrandino is the first openly gay House speaker.

Best quip by a reporter: “`The skiing and the pot was great but the best part of my Colorado trip was the LAMB CHOPS,’ said no one, ever,” wrote the AP’s Kristen Wyatt, dissing Hickenlooper’s choice of what to bet on the Broncos game.

Penny Parker usually covers events, restaurants, business, parties and people throughout the metro area in her “Mile High Life” column elsewhere in today’s paper. She also writes for Blacktie-Colorado.com. She can be reached at penny@blacktie-llc.com or at 303-619-5209.