Selecting caucus leaders is tricky. It’s even trickier when the caucus in question is a superminority in its chamber, smaller than it has been in decades, and riven by personal feuds. Republicans in the Colorado House of Representatives had to contend with those difficulties two weeks ago when they convened to elect a new leadership team after former Minority Leader Mike Lynch was revealed to have been arrested for a high-speed, gun-toting DUI. When the dust settled after two days and multiple ballots, it quickly became clear that they had made the wrong choices.

Typically, caucuses look to elect unifying figures, leaders who can bridge the gap between factions within the caucus while retaining the ability to work with the other party. What caucuses need in their leaders are standard-bearers, people they can rally around without too much fear of embarrassment or political exposure. This is the formula which generated the last two Colorado House Minority Leaders, Mike Lynch and Hugh McKean – two men so anodyne that most Coloradans, at least before the news of Lynch’s arrest, would be hard-pressed to assign many descriptors to them beyond “Minority Leader.” 

In their recent caucus elections for Minority Leader and Assistant Minority Leader, Colorado House Republicans abandoned that common wisdom. Instead of electing standard-bearers, they elected lightning rods; leaders who are almost certain to cause them embarrassment and political exposure. 

While Rose Pugliese – who is bound to get the lion’s share of the headlines as the more senior of the two – is dragging a decade-plus of Colorado political baggage behind her, all of it lying in wait to upend the public pronouncements and policy positions she emits in her shiny new role, her election doesn’t break any molds. She doesn’t believe in climate change. She was a tea party activist. These things are embarrassing, but they are not new.

Ty Winter, though, is something new. The baggage he brings to the job of Republican legislative leadership is not the kind his predecessors have had. Ty Winter’s baggage is altogether worse – to the extent that his election as Assistant Minority Leader marks, in my view, a new low for Colorado House Republicans.

I will tell you why I think that, but first, It’s important to understand what it means for the Colorado House GOP – one of the most ignominious legislative caucuses in the country – to reach a new low.

There is fairly broad consensus amongst Colorado politicos as to what the Colorado House Republicans’ previous all-time low was: when then-Speaker Frank McNulty choked on the civil unions bill. It was the end of the 2012 legislative session. That year’s major piece of controversial legislation would have legalized same-sex civil unions in Colorado. Republicans had a slim, one-seat majority and at least one member of the caucus, Larimer County Republican B.J. Nikkel, had expressed her support for the bill. 

McNulty was lobbied hard by the right-wing, with Colorado Springs-based evangelical groups organizing a major push to kill the bill. Worried about backlash from his base and his donors, and seeing his control of the chamber slip away, McNulty became desperate on the last day of session. That night, he ground the chamber to a halt in order to avoid debate on or passage of the civil unions bill, killing thirty-some other bills in the process

It is not just Colorado politicos who saw that as a low point. Voters apparently did too: no Republican has held the Speaker’s gavel in the Colorado House of Representatives since that day.

Twelve years later, that squabble looks tame. In the years since, as Colorado House Republicans have settled further and further into their permanent minority party status, their behavior has only gotten worse. Say what you will about McNulty, his failure was at least an attempt at parliamentary procedure. The antics in the following years were downright Pagliaccic: equal parts clownish and tragic.

In 2017, for instance, then-Rep. Phil Covarrubias took to the well of the House to voice his support for World War Two-era internment of Japanese-Americans

“We keep hearing about how things went down with the Japanese people. For anybody that has never been in the heat of combat, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and all of that was going on,” Covarrubias said. “There’s no time to ask questions and find out who’s a citizen and who’s not.”

From 1942-1945, more than 10,000 individuals – most of them American citizens – were incarcerated without trial at the Amache internment camp in southeastern Colorado.

After a national media firestorm descended on Covarrubias in the wake of his comments, he once again took to the House floor to offer something vaguely approximating an apology.

“I stick to the fact that, under no circumstances, regardless of who they are, should people be treated in the way that people were being treated during the World War II period,” Covarrubias said. “I had nothing to do with President Roosevelt’s order. I’m sorry that that was a part of our history. That’s the best I can say. I have to get to a meeting.”

Covarrubias’ pro-internment comments were not the last time a Colorado House Republican engaged in blatant bigotry from the well. In 2021, Rep. Richard Holtorf, made a quip containing a derogatory racial remark at one of his Democratic colleagues during debate on a bill in the House. 

“I’m getting there. Don’t worry, Buckwheat,” Holtorf quipped from the podium, responding to a legislator who was identified at the time as either Leslie Herod or Tony Exum – both of whom are Black. The uproar was immediate. Holtorf was gaveled-down and the House went into recess as Holtorf asked “Why are you yelling at me?” from the floor. 

Then there were all the firearms mishaps. The Colorado House Republicans may be a lot of things, but they are not a particularly well-regulated militia.

The first time the Colorado House GOP’s penchant for unsafe storage made headlines was in 2014, when Rep. Jared Wright accidentally left his handgun in a state Capitol committee room. The gun was found by a fellow Representative, who alerted the Sergeant at Arms before the firearm was ultimately linked back to Wright. Since then, hardly a year has passed without some member of the caucus attracting headlines for a firearms-related oopsie.

In 2017, it was Republican Rep. Lori Saine. A proud Second Amendment warrior, Saine attempted to express her god-given freedom by carrying a loaded 9-millimeter handgun through security at Denver International Airport – a federal offense. Saine was arrested for the crime and spent the night in jail before being bailed out. Charges were later dropped.

And speaking of dropping things, that’s exactly what Rep. Richard Holtorf did with his pistol in 2022. Armed and inadvertently dangerous, Holtorf was passing through the crowd of lobbyists and onlookers outside of the chamber as he scrambled to cast a vote when his handgun “fell out of his pants onto the marble floor.”

Last year’s irresponsible gun-owner was Rep. Ron Weinberg, who kindly provided two firearms to the thieves who broke into the truck where he left them – in the state Capitol parking lot. According to Weinberg, he kept one gun stored in his center console and another behind the back seat. After all, you can never be too careful. 

Last week, by electing Ty Winter as Assistant Minority Leader, the Republican caucus in the Colorado House of Representatives outdid this decade-long parade of bigotry and farce in one fell swoop: they elected a Proud Boy to leadership.

Law enforcement agencies around the country have issued warnings about the threat posed by the Proud Boys, a far-right militant group which rose to prominence during the Trump era for their role in the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, and the deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. At the latter, according to testimony provided to the Congressional committee investigating the attack, they were out for blood. The FBI categorizes the Proud Boys as an “extremist group with ties to white nationalism.” The Colorado Information Analysis Center classifies their movement as “white supremacist extremism.” In 2018 and 2019, Ty Winter was one of them.

At the time, Winter, who now represents Las Animas County in the state legislature, went by the Myspace-esque moniker Ty Freedom (or occasionally Ty “Freedom” Winter). His ties to the Proud Boys are not a passing gotcha, they run deep: from serving as the cohost of the Proud Boys podcast “Major League Liberty,” to cohosting and attending a Proud Boys rally outside the Colorado state Capitol, where he now works. 

The podcast Winter cohosted was named Major League Liberty, and its ties to the Proud Boys are indisputable. The show’s main host, Louie Huey, was a prominent leader of Colorado’s Proud Boys contingent for a number of years, a connection which has been documented not just in the Denver Post, but in court filings. Another co-host of the show, who went by the name “Liberty Logan,” was also a local Proud Boy. During Winter’s time as a co-host, the show developed enough of an audience that the team was allegedly in discussions with local radio station KNUS to move the show to their airwaves, but the deal was scuttled when, according to Liberty Logan, the station bowed to “political pressure” and backed-out due to the hosts’ Proud Boys ties.

Archives of the show’s episodes from before early 2019 have become scarce online, making it difficult to determine when Winter first joined the hosting lineup, but we do know that it was some time prior to September 2018. 

In the episodes which remain online – covering a period of mid-2019 – Winter can be heard engaging in the kind of fringe conspiracy rhetoric which has become so deeply associated with the far-right, like the time he asserted that Colorado Governor Jared Polis was a patsy for a globalist plot to destroy Colorado.

“We were always teased with the tinfoil hat, but we see a lot of it coming true,” Winter said in the July 3, 2019 episode, “You see that there are people that are part of this globalistic agenda cruising around that have been put in positions of power. They’ve been run for positions like governor. I mean, look at our governor here in Colorado, he definitely isn’t here to save Colorado. To me, it seems like he’s here to destroy Colorado from within.”

In an April 2019 episode, Winter repeatedly agreed with a guest who asserted that immigration lawyers who helped migrants access the asylum system were committing “treason.”

“These people are not only betraying the country of the United States – because that is the number one, that is treason to the United States, because you are instigating and motivating these immigrants to cross illegally into the United States,” the guest, Oscar Blue, said, misrepresenting the laws governing asylum seekers. “Right,” Winter agreed.

“We’re just glad you’re on here telling the truth,” Winter told Blue later in the episode.

Enrique Tarrio, the former national chairman of the Proud Boys organization, appeared as a guest on a May 2019 episode of Major League Liberty. In September 2023, Tarrio was convicted of seditious conspiracy against the United States and sentenced to 22 years in federal prison.

Now-Assistant Minority Leader Ty Winter, circled in red in the back

In September 2018, Major League Liberty hosted a rally at the state Capitol, which was promoted by the Proud Boys and heavily attended by the group’s members. As a host of Major League Liberty, now-Assistant Minority Leader Winter was in attendance. He was photographed at the event posing with a group of Proud Boys arrayed on the Capitol steps behind the flag of the Colorado Proud Boys. Other attendees were sporting shirts with common Proud Boys slogans like “Pinochet did nothing wrong” – a reference to Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet, who imprisoned or executed thousands of leftist opponents – and “RWDS,” which stands for Right Wing Death Squad.

After the Colorado Times Recorder reported on the rally, Winter and the other cohosts of Major League Liberty emailed my colleague Erik Maulbetsch with a bone to pick: we did not co-host this event with the Proud Boys, we hosted the event alone and it just happened to be attended heavily by Proud Boys, some of whom were also featured speakers, was the gist of it. The new Assistant Minority Leader signed onto the email below Louie Huey and Liberty Logan. Asked directly in two follow-up emails if he considered himself a Proud Boy, Winter refused to answer.

An email sent to my colleague Erik Maulbetsch by the Major League Liberty team

If the Colorado House Republicans retain any capacity for shame, they will correct their mistake and remove Winter from leadership immediately – but I won’t be holding out hope. What sense of shame could possibly survive the amount of exposure the caucus has given it in recent years? If that capacity to feel shame was not deadened by the time Phil Covarrubias defended internment, it surely was by the time Richard Holtorf flung a loaded weapon from his pants. 

This is different from the House GOP’s standard clownshow, though: by electing Ty Winter as their second in command, they have elevated a man with deep ties to modern day Brownshirts, a member of an organization whose leader is serving federal time for attempting to overthrow the US government. They have elevated a man who hosted the kind of protest which draws a crowd wearing “Right Wing Death Squad” apparel; a man who described Colorado’s first Jewish governor as if he were a caricature straight out of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. They have fallen into lockstep behind the leadership of a Proud Boy.

If that does not resurrect their capacity for shame, nothing will.