At least three candidates are considering whether to run for Colorado Democratic Party chair following an announcement late last week that incumbent party boss Pat Waak will not seek an unprecedented fourth two-year term in March.
One potential candidate is a former state lawmaker who interned for the state Democratic Party nearly 50 years ago and spent more than a decade on the Democratic National Committee. Also weighing bids are a former county chair and a longtime legislative aide with both state-level and high-profile national partisan experience. At the same time, a bevy of prominent Democrats, including several who were term-limited or defeated at the polls in the last election, have turned down suggestions they run for the state party’s top office.
Before Waak announced on New Year’s Eve that she had decided against seeking another term as party chair, she said she spent more than a month talking to potential successors — casting what she termed a “widespread net” — while at the same time considering suggestions that she run again.
Among those Waak sounded out — but who have all declined to declare themselves candidates for the unpaid position — were former U.S. Rep. Betsy Markey, state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, Secretary of State Bernie Buescher and former CU Regent at-large candidate Melissa Hart, all of whom went down to defeat in the last election. In addition, Waak said she discussed the possibility with term-limited Colorado Speaker of the House Terrance Carroll and former state House Majority Leader Alice Madden,
Weighing runs are former state Sen. Polly Baca, who sat on the DNC for 16 years, including eight years as a national vice chair; former Larimer County Democratic Party Chair Adam Bowen, who lost a bid for county commissioner in the fall election; and longtime legislative aide Rick Palacio, who worked for Madden, U.S. Rep. John Salazar and, most recently, as a top political aide to U.S. House Democratic Majority Leader Steny Hoyer.
Whoever wins the Democrats’ top spot at the March 5 central committee meeting — conducted in the afternoon at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver before the party’s annual Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner fundraising bash that night — will be leading a statewide operation almost entirely different than the one led by Waak. Only one of the other statewide officers, party secretary Carolyn Boller, plans to seek re-election, and state party staffers have already found other jobs or don’t intend to stay long (five-year veteran organizer Mike Weissman plans to attend law school in the fall). “There’s going to be a lot of change-over,” Waak said in an interview with The Colorado Statesman this week.
Baca, whose career in state and national politics stretches back to the Kennedy administration, has waged the most public deliberations over a candidacy and already has a Facebook group dedicated to encouraging her to run.
“Yes,” Baca wrote in an e-mail to The Statesman, “I am seriously considering running for (Colorado Democratic Party) chair and am in the process of exploring the possibility.”
A Facebook group formed earlier this week is named “Draft Polly Baca for Colorado Democratic Party Chair” and, as of Wednesday night, boasted nearly 100 fans. The page features a video touting Baca’s qualifications, including her distinction as the first Hispanic woman to serve in both houses of a state legislature — Baca was first elected to the Colorado House in 1974 and finished her state Senate career in 1986 — and stints in the Johnson and Clinton administrations. (A 2008 profile in The Statesman points out that Baca might be the only living Democrat who has attended 12 straight national conventions as a delegate.)
But in the last year, Baca was sometimes at odds with the state party. Baca, who co-chaired former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff’s primary challenge against U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, was prominent among Democrats protesting what they said was the state party’s involvement in the primary. Last February, before a Bennet fundraiser in Denver that featured President Barack Obama — entwined with the state party more than it should have been, Romanoff supporters charged — Baca appeared alongside a handful of former party officers to denounce what they termed unprecedented interference in a primary.
Waak — who unseated her predecessor, Chris Gates, amid complaints he had tilted the party unfairly during the 2004 Senate primary between Ken Salazar and Mike Miles — dismissed suggestions any Bennet-Romanoff rift might influence the party’s direction in coming months.
“The party had no thumb on the scale in the primary,” she said, sounding exasperated with the topic. “It’s kind of the same thing we go through every time we go through a primary. It is just the nature of what happens when you have a primary.” Waak noted that she received a total of 70 letters complaining about Obama’s endorsement of Bennet — “out of a million Democrats” — and portrayed grumbling over the primary as unrepresentative. “Are there probably still some people out there who are complaining? Yeah, there probably are. But it was always a very small group of people.”
One reason Waak announced her intentions before the end of the year, she said, was so potential candidates would have time to traverse the state to gather advice on whether to run and round up support if that’s what they decide.
Still, she cautioned, “The state central committee could change very dramatically through the reorganization process,” as Democrats elect precinct and county officers over the next six weeks. “We could end up with a very different committee than you have right now.”
The state central committee is made up of roughly 500 people, including elected officials, county officers and others picked at county meetings in February.
After the committee elects statewide officers in early March, the new state chair has to name additional members “to create balance within the committee to make sure all of your constituencies are represented,” Waak added. It’s a balancing act unique to Democrats and can vary widely year to year, she said.
For instance, based on registration figures, roughly 10 percent of the central committee should be Hispanic, and both various groups and the committee as a whole are supposed to be balanced equally between men and women. Toward that end, Waak said, she named two dozen Hispanic men to the central committee two years ago. This year, she said, the national party is encouraging states to make sure young people are adequately reflected among party officers, something Colorado Democrats have been doing for years.
Waak said she has had detailed discussions about the job with all three potential candidates and added that they each bring different strengths to the table.
“My biggest concern is whoever does this needs to be committed to doing a 64-county program,” Waak said.
For now, she said, she doesn’t plan to endorse a candidate for her job, but that’s not set in stone.
“Who can tell?” she said. “Let’s see what happens. At this point, I’m not intending to, but that could change.”