Some onlookers wondered, just who was that unknown blonde and her two lovely daughters waving from a passing car in Littleton’s Western Welcome Week parade?
As Newell jumped from the cavalcade, two women approached her, noticing a nametag that identified the mystery lady as some sort of “state senator.”
Former state Sen. Linda Newell stands in front of the Littleton Municipal Courthouse, where she plans to eventually tape an episode of her planned television series on the workings of state and local government. The Last Bill: A Senator’s Story, which serves as the series pilot, will have its premiere March 18 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Littleton.Photo by Peter Jones
“We don’t have a state Senate, do we?” a woman asked.
“Yes, we do,” Newell responded with her trademark smile.
“We don’t pay for that, do we?” the second woman followed up.
“Poorly, but yes,” Newell quickly rejoined.
As a political novice and a newly elected Democrat who was never expected to win the once-Republican-safe District 26 in the 2008 Obama wave, Newell would turn out to be an unlikely educator on the ways of state government.
“I would get questions like, ‘How do you like D.C.?’ And I would need to explain to them that I’m a state senator. I work at the Colorado State Capitol. I’d have to explain the difference between federal and state,” the 59-year-old former lawmaker said. “These were not young people. These are people my age who have voted.”
Newell would eventually try to fill those embarrassments in ignorance with educational town halls, not just focused on her own legislative priorities, but on the mechanics of making state laws—legislation that many assumed come from thin air.
“It became very clear that I had to do more to educate people in a nonpartisan way,” she said. “In my last session, I had this idea—let’s take the government to the people so they don’t have to come and find us.”
With a background in theater and television, Newell knew one of the best places to find her constituents was in front of their TV sets, or maybe in a movie theater.
The result: The Last Bill: A Senator’s Story, a new half-hour PBS-style documentary that has its world premiere Saturday, March 18, at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Littleton.
The film is essentially a senator’s eye view on an unseemly process that is often compared to making sausage. It is also a primer on the “ups” of bipartisanship as an idea becomes law, and the “downs” of a second bill that inexplicably dies in committee.
The Last Bill follows Newell as she runs about the dome, making friends, influencing people, advocating her position, compromising on it and eventually finding common ground with her Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud.
“We’re very apart on many things, but we really enjoy working with each other when we can get that sweet spot of policy we agree on,” Newell said.
Their bill—passed by the Senate and House of Representatives and signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper last year—essentially encourages multi-tiered collaboration in proactive suicide prevention with nonpunitive language easier to sell across the aisle.
A movie subplot surrounds a second bill that dies in committee after Newell is unable to garner Republican support for criminalizing the fraudulent use of service animals.
To hear Newell tell it, the lawmaking process onscreen is not so different from that famous sausage analogy, with a bit of childbearing thrown in for good measure.
“It’s ugly. It’s pretty. It’s beautiful. It’s heart wrenching,” she said of her work as a senator. “It’s difficult, but it’s also a wondrous thing. We’re so lucky to live in a country and a state that still has the integrity of that process.”
Despite its title, The Last Bill may not be the last of its kind. The documentary will serve as a pilot as Newell and her production team pitch a proposed public-television series that would take similar case studies on all three branches of government in Colorado, from city councils to the governor’s office, from municipal judges to the state’s Supreme Court.
“You will see the process through a human story,” Newell said.
Plans would be for each episode to be re-edited for use in schools, with accompanying curriculum to enhance the learning experience.
Newell stresses that the project is nonpartisan, a natural move, she says, after representing the purple District 26, which is evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and independents in its stretch from Littleton and Englewood to Cherry Hills and Greenwood Villages.
“When you are purple, you are constantly voting against somebody, but I was elected to represent and that was my job,” she said. “It’s a really hard place to be, which is why I wish more districts were purple, so that we didn’t get the extremes. It should be harder.”
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