Stephen Fenberg’s foray into political advocacy began when he was just 7 years old.
As a child in Ohio, Fenberg door knocked for his first political campaign when his friend’s father was running to be a judge. He said the experience of advocating for change and talking to strangers about his passions led to his involvement in many more political campaigns, an experience that established the base on which his political career would be built.
“It was always in my blood,” Fenberg told Colorado Politics. “It’s unexplainable. It’s just who I was."
Before his 33rd birthday, Fenberg was elected to serve Colorado’s 18th Senate District in 2017. The Boulder Democrat quickly rose through the ranks, being selected as Senate majority leader — one of the most powerful roles in the legislature — less than two years into his term.
Today, 38-year-old Fenberg holds the most prestigious position in the Colorado Senate: president.
The prestige comes with tremendous burden. Fenberg assumed the job at a time when Coloradans face rising inflation, soaring crime rates, a lingering pandemic and a war in Europe that's threatening to send the global economy into a nosedive. As Democrats and Republicans approach similar goals with differing solutions, it falls on Fenberg to serve as the bridge.
Making a politician
Politics was a staple in Fenberg’s household growing up. He said his mother — who distributed party literature from the Ohio Democratic Party — would passionately yell at political news on the TV and drag Fenberg to volunteer for every election. His father was a family practice doctor, which he described as a public service itself.
Fenberg’s first role in politics came while he was studying at the University of Colorado Boulder. He served as chief of staff for the CU Boulder student government. The most autonomous student government in the country, the organization is currently responsible for allocating $25 million in student fees. Fenberg said the role helped him “realize the power of working on the inside to pursue change.”
“Public service, in one way or another, has just been who I’ve always been,” Fenberg said. “When I came to CU, it very much felt like one of the first opportunities where I, as a young person, saw how I could be involved and how I could play a part in shaping the world around me.”
Around a month after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in environmental policy, Fenberg and some other future political heavyweights started New Era Colorado in 2006, a nonprofit focused on youth political advocacy. The co-founders included current U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, state Rep. Leslie Herod and Lisa Kaufmann, chief of staff for Gov. Jared Polis.
Fenberg said the group of friends and CU graduates wanted to make sure young people had a seat at the table in deciding Colorado's future. Under Fenberg’s leadership as executive director, the nonprofit registered nearly 200,000 young voters over a decade.
Even as a twentysomething, Fenberg’s bright future in politics was evident to many of his peers.
“I really respected his leadership at New Era," Herod, D-Denver, said. “It’s one of the premier organizations for the voice of young people, not only across the state but across the country. That’s what he does. He’s able to really dig in and do the work to make sure things are effective.”
“He brings a lot of qualities and skills to the table, but perhaps none more compelling than his ability to be inclusive,” Neguse, D-Lafayette, said. “He does a really good job of bringing people together, finding ways to build consensus amongst disparate voices, folks who have different world views than his own. His ability to build coalitions is pretty rare, particularly at this point in our politics when so much has become toxic.”
Fenberg said his time running New Era helped him find his political voice, in addition to shaping the political landscape for young voters in Colorado.
After 10 years at the helm, Fenberg stepped down, concluding it was time to pass the organization on to the next generation of leaders. At the same time, Fenberg took a chance on running for the legislature to succeed his senator, Boulder Democrat Rollie Heath, who was nearing his term limit.
And just like that, Fenberg went from the big man on campus to the new kid on the block.
Taking the Senate by storm
Fenberg won his Senate seat with just under 80% of the vote and headed for the Capitol for the 2017 General Assembly. Though he was one of the youngest and least politically experienced legislators, his time at New Era armed him with a strong policy background and some clear goals.
Fenberg said he entered the legislative session aiming to expand election reform and accessibility, as well as address existential issues, notably climate change and human rights. One of the first bills he worked on was the prohibition of gay conversion therapy in Colorado. The bill initially failed, but it passed when he brought it back the next year.
That first session, Fenberg was the prime sponsor of 19 bills ranging from modifying primary elections to managing energy storage, of which seven were signed into law. By the 2019 session, all 20 of Fenberg’s bills were enacted. Last session, 22 out of his 23 bills became law.
“There’s definitely a whole lot more work ahead,” Fenberg said. “I don’t think you ever finish this work. I think you get to a place where you feel fine moving on and passing the baton, but I don’t think you should ever feel like you’ve finished the work you set out to do.”
Some of Fenberg’s most impactful work included SB 21-260, a $5.4 billion, 10-year plan to build out Colorado's roads and bridges, create more electric vehicle charging stations, boost mass transit and mitigate air pollution, and SB 19-181, landmark legislation that created a new Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission to draft rules, such as setbacks from homes, schools and businesses.
However, not everyone supports the changes Fenberg has made.
Jon Caldara, president of the Denver-based libertarian think-tank the Independence Institute, criticized Fenberg for helping to "make Colorado remarkably unaffordable." Caldara pointed to SB 21-260 for its 2 cents-per-gallon fee on gasoline and SB 19-181 for decreasing industry jobs by adding regulations to oil and gas operations.
“The Senate president is disconnected from economic reality and is more concerned about social engineering than he is running good government,” said Caldara, a columnist for The Denver Gazette, The Gazette in Colorado Springs and Colorado Politics. “Fenberg is a wonderful poster child for the new socialist, progressive Colorado legislature.”
Fenberg's supporters disagree, with his former colleague and classmate Kaufmann calling him "a fierce advocate for environmental justice" and "a champion for workers' rights and expanding access to voting."
"Not only is he an effective leader, but he leads with conviction," Kaufmann said. "There is no doubt in my mind that our state is better because of his commitment to public service and Steve is not only a dear friend but a valuable partner in our shared work in building a better Colorado."
After less than two years in the Senate, Fenberg was selected to become majority leader — a very rare feat, said Sen. Chris Holbert, the current Senate minority leader and former majority leader. Holbert, R-Douglas County, was also appointed as majority leader after two years in the Senate.
“I spent four years in the House and seven years in the lobby in addition to those two years in the Senate. (Fenberg) spent two years in the Senate and then became Senate majority leader,” Holbert said. “That’s evidence of his ability to learn quickly.”
Holbert worked alongside Fenberg as Senate minority and majority leaders for 3½ years, during which time the pair went through their fair share of highs and lows.
Holbert said things got tense between he and Fenberg when his Democrat colleague sponsored the controversial SB 19-181. That same year, Holbert and other Senate Republicans sued then-Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, for using computers to read a 2,000-page bill. Though the judge ruled in Holbert’s favor, the Republican said he thinks everyone would handle that situation differently today.
"Our relationship is rather productive now,” Holbert said. “It was a challenge at the beginning. (Fenberg’s) party had been in the minority in the Senate for four years and there were things they were wanting to get done. He had to learn the most complicated job in the Senate in a very short period of time. But, as we have spoken at the mic, we look back on those days as a learning opportunity.”
Holbert said Fenberg has learned how to manage the responsibilities of majority leader very well, describing the handling hundreds of small bills and a handful of major issues as a skill of “juggling bowling balls and BBs.” Holbert said Fenberg has mastered the art in the last few years.
Garcia agrees, saying Fenberg is dependable, well informed and an all-around strong leader to succeed him as president.
“President Fenberg is an exceptional member,” Garcia said. “He has been my righthand person in helping ensure that the Senate was run with efficiency, with decorum, with high standards, all for the betterment of the people of Colorado. ... I’ve seen him grow immensely as a strong leader and advocate. His insight as majority leader serves him well to now be the president.”
Fenberg: Part of the change
Fenberg's colleagues unanimously elected him as president on Feb. 22 following the departure of Garcia, who stepped down to accept a job in the Biden administration.
Despite the power and prestige that comes with being president, Fenberg said he hesitated to accept the role. He said he loved being majority leader and felt very well-suited for the role, but ultimately, he just wanted to avoid change.
“It’s a big step personally and it’s a big step for the caucus and for the institution,” Fenberg said. “I realized what I was hoping for was not to have disruption, not to have any changes. I finally made peace with the fact that that was not an option. Then it was a question of, 'Do I want to be part of this change and help shape it to make sure that the caucus and the Senate are better for it? Or do I want to be on the sidelines?' The way to make the moment was to be part of that change.”
Fenberg wasn’t the only one uncertain about him becoming president. Holbert said he encouraged Fenberg not to accept the position, saying the majority leader is more important than the president and it’s essential for the majority and minority leaders to have an established relationship, such as the one they already enjoy.
But, in the end, Fenberg took the leap, a move that his supporters say is for the best of the state.
“I couldn’t be more excited for Steve to have been bestowed this honor and I know he’s going to serve the people of our state very well,” Neguse said. “President Fenberg is leading the charge and responsible for moving the needle when it comes to positive policy that will impact my family and millions of other families across our state for years to come. I’m grateful for his willingness to do that."
“One of the things that I love most about Steve is that he will evaluate all angles of a challenge or solution and he really cares about hearing people’s input,” Garcia said. “I know he’s going to serve this caucus well, members of the Senate well, but also just work really hard to make sure all constituents are heard in Colorado.”
Fenberg said he hopes his presidency will not disrupt the Senate’s focus or agenda. Personally, his main priorities include using one-time federal funds for COVID-19 recovery, managing the legislative budget and passing legislation to improve education, increasing affordability, addressing the behavioral health crisis and tackling the fentanyl crisis.
But what matters more than what the Senate accomplishes this session is how they accomplish it, he said. Fenberg said working across the aisle and finding a consensus between Democrats and Republicans is the best way to make effective, lasting progress.
“It’s solving big problems and, as much as possible, doing it in a bipartisan fashion,” Fenberg said. “What I’m looking for is not just to pass a bill, not just to pass a handful of bills, not just to get headlines or to win an election, but to really have a long-lasting impact on the state and people’s lives.”
That goal has made some headway this session, such as when a bill for $30.5 million in law enforcement grants received bipartisan sponsorship or when a Democrat-backed bill to assist immigrants who pleaded guilty to crimes was unanimously passed by the state Senate. However, lawmakers continue to clash on other major issues, including bitter party-line battles over abortion and vaccines. Republicans also blame many of Colorado's problems on policies Democrats have adopted in the last few years, notably fee increases and criminal justice reform.
The largest change with going from majority leader to president, Fenberg said, is shifting to prioritize the institution, instead of just his political party.
To fully fill that role, Caldara said Fenberg would have to repeal controversial progressive bills and support Republican efforts, such as HB 1066, which requires schools to post their curriculums, and SB 38, which allows hospitals to include the health care affordability and sustainability fee in billing statements. Both bills were indefinitely postponed in committee this session.
“I would love for any of them to become a bridge between the progressives and reality, but I don’t see that happening at all,” Caldara said. “The difference is policy and that policy is only going to get worse.”
Holbert said he believes Fenberg has what it takes to make the transition to being a bipartisan leader.
Holbert said he saw a shift in Fenberg’s behavior during the first few days of his presidency, when Colorado Springs Republican Sen. Bob Gardner criticized Democrats for not having produced a bill to address the fentanyl crisis. After Fenberg was quoted calling Gardner’s actions “wrong,” Holbert said he saw Fenberg talking with Gardner about the issue and how the Senate might move forward as a body.
“President Fenberg demonstrated a new side to his political self,” Holbert said. “He transitioned to the leader of a 35-member body where Senator Gardner’s opinion matters equally with everyone else’s. It is my great hope that he is looking to be that leader of the chamber, the leader of 35, which does mean that he needs to listen to both sides."
The minority leader added: "The (remaining days in the session) will prove that or not.”
While Fenberg’s current appointment as president is temporary — lasting only through January to finish Garcia’s uncompleted term — Fenberg said he intends to run for the post again if the Democrats maintain control of the Senate in November.
“I think it’s clear that democratic institutions are fragile and need to be protected and there need to be caretakers,” Fenberg said. “I take that role very seriously. It’s an honor.”