Colorado Democrats elected sixth-generation Pueblo native Rick Palacio as state chairman at the biennial reorganization meeting March 5 at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. Palacio won on the first ballot, carrying 57 percent of the vote in a three-way race against a former state senator and past chairman of a crucial swing county.
“Our success does not hinge on one person, one man, one woman,” said Palacio over a full minute of cheering after outgoing three-term chairwoman Pat Waak handed him the gavel. “Our success hinges on the hard work of every single person in this room.” He set his sights high: “I look forward to taking back our state House. I look forward to some fair redistricting, making sure our lines are drawn in a way that they are competitive — not just in (Congressional Districts) 3 and 4, but in 6 as well. And, to the best of our abilities, electing Democrats in all 64 counties in the state of Colorado.”
At 36, Palacio is the youngest Coloradan to head the Dems in memory. He’s also the first openly gay state party chair.
The longtime legislative aide — including a stint working for the Democratic majority in the state House, jobs with former U.S. Rep. John Salazar, and a job he held until this week as deputy director of member services for U.S. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. — won the position after a brisk campaign that got under way after Waak’s announcement at the end of the year that she wouldn’t seek an unprecedented fourth term. The other candidates were former Democratic National Committee Vice Chairwoman Polly Baca and former Larimer County Democratic Chairman Adam Bowen.
About 450 members of the state central committee — made up of party officials, county officers, elected officials and bonus delegates awarded where Democrats polled well last fall — met in a crowded corner of the convention center, a situation that didn’t go unnoticed by U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, when he addressed the crowd.
Perlmutter said the meeting’s organizers must have followed President Kennedy’s dictum: “The first rule of politics is you pick a room slightly smaller than the crowd you expect.” He followed that with a rallying cry to the raucous group, already stoked from remarks by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, in town to speak at that night’s state Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner fundraiser. “If anyone tells you elections don’t have consequences — this might not sound very civil,” Perlmutter said, “but just punch them in the mouth.”
Democrats also elected Beverly Benavidez-Ryken as first vice-chair, Vivian Stovall as second vice-chair, Carolyn Boller to another term as secretary and Sherry Jackson as treasurer.
In front of a sea of yellow Palacio T-shirts and waves of hand-made signs for the other candidates, the three chair hopefuls made strong cases to run the party for the next two years, when Colorado’s role as a crucial swing state in the upcoming presidential election — the only statewide race on the ballot in 2012 — is likely to dominate.
Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb was among those who nominated Baca. “She believes in fighting for those principles that make us Democrats — knowledge with character, business with morality, science with humanity, and fighting against politics without principle,” he said. “She will bring enthusiasm and great ideas. She believes in youthful enthusiasm and she also doesn’t believe at a certain point of maturity that you need to be pushed aside.”
A vigorous and feisty Baca took the stage and first recounted her family’s long history in Colorado, including a forbearer’s role as namesake of Baca County.
“We are going to soar this next year,” she said, “but you cannot soar unless you have roots.” She observed that her great uncle was among the first Hispanic men elected to Colorado’s state Senate in 1878 and then pointed out that, exactly 100 years later, she was elected to the same chamber as its first Hispanic woman.
“I am running for state chair because I believe now, more than ever, this party needs somebody who knows how to lead, knows how to fight and knows how to win elections,” she said. Invoking the political battles over public employee unions in Wisconsin, Baca sounded a rallying cry: “Attacks on workers are attacks on all working families, the middle class and Democrats, and we must stand up to those right-wing nuts,” she said to thunderous cheers.
“I have the utmost respect for my two opponents — they are both rising stars — and I look forward to working with and voting for each of them in a future election,” she closed with a smile.
Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett spoke next. He began by recounting his history with the party and thanking Democrats for their support during his campaign for attorney general last year. During that run, Garnett said, he visited voters across the state and was impressed by their energy.
“I’m nominating Rick Palacio for party chair because he raised that same passion and commitment and excitement about being a Colorado Democrat I have and that I’ve seen in all of you,” Garnett said. (Garnett’s campaign manager, his son Alec, also ran Palacio’s chair campaign.)
A familiar face took the stage next to second Palacio’s nomination.
“Good morning, Colorado Democrats, I’m Terrance Carroll, I used to be somebody.” said the Denver Democrat and former House speaker, who went on to urge support for his “dear, dear friend Rick Palacio.”
Palacio, who took some hits in his campaign because he works in Washington, D.C., began by talking about his Colorado roots.
Noting that his great grandfather was a coal miner who “risked his life so that miners could have a union,” and that both his grandfathers spent their lives in the mines near Trinidad, Palacio borrowed some of the energy excited by the union protests in Wisconsin. “They taught me that if working people don’t stand up for one another, no one else will,” he said.
Then, turning his fire on Republicans, he asked the crowd to consider what “limited government” really means:
“Republicans want to cut Head Start and limit our children’s future. They want to cut funding for science and research, and limit our country’s growth. They want to cut funding for the EPA and limit the clean air we breath. They want to limit a woman’s right to her own body. And the Republican Party of 2011 wants to tell me who I can and cannot love.”
But it was a personal passage near the end of Palacio’s speech that brought the crowd to a hush and, according to at least a few Democrats, moved undecided votes in his direction.
“Ninety seven years ago in Ludlow, Colorado,” Palacio said, “more than a thousand miners with their families laid down their tools and stood up for the rights that we should take for granted: mines that didn’t collapse, the right to work for a livable wage, and the right to bargain for their fair share.
“My grandmother was there at Ludlow — she was just 6 years old. She and her mother hid in a hand-dug cellar, and what she told me she remembered was her mom’s hand pressed over her mouth, and her mother’s words, ‘If they hear you, they’ll kill us.’ I’m here because my grandmother lived, but 19 others died. Every time the working men and women were shot down because they closed ranks, the survivors stood up and comforted each other with the famous words, ‘Don’t mourn, organize.’”
Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, appeared next to introduce Bowen.
“I’m nominating Adam because he has the energy and passion to fight for our shared, Democratic values, and he has the solid experience and track record of proven leadership,” Shaffer said.
Bowen, who runs a solar energy company and ran for Larimer County commissioner last year, touted his management skills and the zeal he brings to politics as a relatively recent convert, having been drawn to party politics in the middle of last decade.
“Under my leadership, the (Colorado Democratic Party) will be a modern, highly organized” — and suddenly the lights in the hall went dark for about 10 seconds, as Bowen quipped, “At least no one turned off the microphone!” When the lights came back on, he picked up his speech where he’d left off: “ — a highly organized, professionally run political party. Working together, we need to continue building infrastructure that continues to elect Democrats.”
The subsequent balloting went to Palacio, who received 245 votes to Baca’s 141 and Bowen’s 41.
Following Palacio’s win, Benavidez-Ryken was elected by acclamation. (Another candidate for first vice-chair, Alan Lee, was unable to run due to Democratic rules that require gender balance between the two top positions.
Stovall won the second vice-chair race with 213 votes over Dick Barkey’s 135. Boller easily fended off a challenge from Christine Alonzo, 271-82. Jackson, a former executive director of the state party, took 220 votes to win the treasurer’s office, beating challengers Justin Herrera’s 86 votes and Diane Kirchner’s 43 votes.
Following a trip to Washington to prepare for a move back to Denver and wrap up his job with the House Minority, Palacio said he’s anxious to start traveling to Democratic events across the state. He told The Colorado Statesman his first trip will likely be to the Eagle County Crawfish Boil early next month. But he has plenty of suggestions and ideas he said he plans to consider following the two months he roamed the state during the chair campaign. “It’s my strong desire to take all those opinions into account as we make decisions in the near future,” he said. “I’m committed to listening to everyone who has an opinion.”
His first order of business once he returns to Colorado will be making some necessary committee appointments and filling some holes at the state party office following the departure of several long-time aides. “We’ll be developing a strategic plan for fundraising so we’re aggressive with our fundraising campaign,” he said.
Palacio also said he could set another central committee meeting as early as next month to consider a set of rules changes proposed by the True Blue Colorado group of progressive Democrats. The proposals weren’t voted on at the March 5 meeting because central committee members dispersed after officer elections, leaving the body without a quorum.
“I’d like to get those taken care of,” he said, “I want to put them onto the schedule as soon as we can.” He added: “I feel badly we had to table these proposals. There are a lot of people who spent a lot of time putting them together, so I want to be sure they have an opportunity to be heard sooner than later.”