Secretary of State Scott Gessler is clearly no stranger to publicity. Even before being sworn into office in January of 2011, his name was familiar in political circles. The Democrats had Mark Grueskin as their top election law guru, Republicans in the state usually turned to their own cadre of leading experts, with Gessler at or near the top of their list. There were plenty of stories over the years which showcased Gessler’s ties to Republicans and the political organizations they formed to advance their causes.
Gessler’s installation as a figure in the public domain was pretty much complete by the time the candidate ousted a Democratic incumbent in the 2010 election. The rookie elected official had little reason to expect that to change after he assumed office. And it didn’t.
As was revealed in a couple week’s worth of front page newspaper stories back then, Gessler planned to moonlight at his old law firm — which deals almost exclusively with election law — while overseeing the secretary of state’s office, which has jurisdiction in that area.
Gessler didn’t view the dual employment situation as a conflict of interest, and only relented after a particularly emphatic reaction against him was lodged by many of the state’s media organizations and, as to be expected, Democrats in Colorado.
It wasn’t long afterwards that Gessler faced his next scuttle, this one brought about when he wanted to keep the money generated from business fees in his office instead of returning it to the general fund, as his predecessor had done to help bolster the state’s ailing reserves. Republicans in the statehouse defended Gessler and in the end his department was allowed to keep a portion of the money due to a crafted compromise.
Last summer, Gessler took another public dunking over his willingness to literally be dunked in a tank at a fundraiser to pay off a fine levied against the Larimer County GOP by Gessler’s own office. The secretary of state’s controversial dunking appearance was eventually scrapped and Gessler instead appeared as a speaker at the event which had been moved to a private home. But he continued to claim that there wasn’t a conflict of interest in his willing participation and that it was the media that was basically all wet.
Gessler’s penchant for being in the spotlight hasn’t much changed in the course of his first year in office. Last week a citizen advocacy group concerned with ballot privacy sued the secretary of state in federal court. And about the same time, Gessler found himself in the political limelight after sending out a fundraising letter which, some speculated, was the first indication of his interest in running for governor in 2014.
Gessler insists he’s not running for governor and reiterated his denial to one of our reporters this week.
Whatever Gessler may or may not do three years from now is fodder for the political gossip mill. What he’s done — and plans to do — in the remaining three years of his first term as secretary of state is germane as far as our readers are concerned. Hence, our story this week on Gessler’s legislative agenda, and this account which hopefully provides a little perspective on Gessler’s views.
Gessler recently appeared in front of a friendly audience at the Arapahoe County Republican Men’s Club, where he was the featured speaker at their first meeting in the new year. He was welcomed enthusiastically by his Republican (and mostly conservative) brethren. And during his 40-minute remarks, the early morning attendees got to hear about a variety of topics, including his continued disdain for the state’s major daily newspaper, why he thinks the actions of many Democrats these days are based on a longing for the good ole days of the civil rights movement, and why he continues to fight for what he believes in.
The quotes you read below are from Gessler’s remarks and have only been edited for clarity:
What Gessler thinks about what others say about him:
It’s actually sort of interesting, the vitriol, the terrible things people say, this, that and the other. Just the other day one of the left wing blogs called me the “Honey Badger” of Colorado politics. So you know, a honey badger is sort of like a fearless animal who has massive endurance and generally defeats its enemies on a consistent basis. I mean for them to say something like that about me, it’s just outrageous.
What I have found is, there is a status quo, there is a way of going about things in this state and oftentimes in this country, and there’s a reason it’s there. And if you look, probably the perfect embodiment of that is the Denver Post editorial board. I mean if you called up Central Casting and said, “I’d like a liberal mainstream media establishment, can you send one to me?” they would send you the Denver Post editorial board. And I think within my first three weeks they’d written six editorials against me, either about me or against me. None of them were favorable.
About non-citizens voting:
People tend to confuse this with illegal immigration and stuff like that. I’m just talking about citizens on the voting rolls versus non-citizens on the voting rolls. And this is really an area of a lot of ‘see no evil, hear no evil.’ In Colorado you have to be a citizen to register to vote and and we have strictly an honor system on that. And the Democrats have consistently said, “There’s no problem, no problem, nothing to see here, nothing to see here, go away.”
And so what my office did was just something really basic. I looked at the voter registration rolls and I compared driver’s licenses. And since 2006 if you are a legal resident, getting a driver’s license, a non-citizen but here legally, you can do that but you have to show evidence of legal presence. In other words, if you’ve got a Green Card you can get a driver’s license but you have to show a Green Card or student visa or something like that. And they record that on the driver’s license database. So all we did was we compared the two and I found thousands and thousands of people who were non-citizens when they got their driver’s license but are also on our voter rolls. Now some of that’s probably okay.
People were not citizens, they got their driver’s license, they became a citizen, they registered to vote, it’s a good thing. But I know some of that’s not okay. Now and then these things crop up in other states, big problems. The last two or three years prior to me taking office, there were about 150 people who had asked me to remove them from the voting rolls because they were non-citizens. So they’d registered to vote and then they’d realized, oftentimes when they applied for citizenship, that they’re not allowed to vote because of (being a) non-citizen, otherwise they can never become a citizen. So they asked to be removed, so I know there’s problems out there.
And we showed a database. I couldn’t identify specific individuals who I knew, but we identified a pattern. So I asked the General Assembly to give me the authority to reach out to those folks and demand proof of citizenship to just do a check on the back end because they rejected a check on the front end. The Republicans said yes, the Democrats said ‘niet.’
Remember Andrei Gromyko, you know of the Soviet Union? Just niet.
Oh, well why?
Okay. So that’ll be niet.
And you can really sort of see the incoherence on the left. At first they were like, “Well this is going to stop… This is going to intimidate people.”
I was like, “Well how’s it going to intimidate people? They’ve already registered to vote, just ask them just like we do with felons, just like we do people who’ve moved out of state, just like people who have died in Colorado, we’ll remove them from the voter rolls. What’s the difference?”
And the answer was, niet.
And remember our Central Casting mainstream media, the Denver Post? They editorialized against this law and they said, “It’s a power grab by Gessler and he already has the authority to do it.” Now if you think about that, those are two mutually exclusive… I mean if it’s a power grab then I don’t have the authority, and I’m grabbing power. And those sentences were right next to one another.
So we lost last year’s legislative battle. Let me tell you some interesting things that happened. Remember I told you about 150 people have been removed from the voter rolls as non-citizen? That number has ballooned to well over 400. In one more year we’ve more than doubled. Other states started doing the same thing. So for example one state did it and the last information we had, they sent out letters. It was a Democrat dominated election board, actually, that did it. About 13 percent of all the people they sent letters to said, “I’m not a citizen, please remove me.”
And 35 percent said, “I am a citizen, here’s my proof,” and the other 50 percent had not responded at least at the time we got our data. So there’s evidence that there’s a problem out there but we’ve got people in Colorado still putting their heads in the sand. Congress took note, this sort of became a national thing, other states are doing this.
We’re developing more evidence, we’re eventually going to win this debate too. We’re going to win this debate because we’ve removed the objections off the table and we’re driving a debate nationally and in Colorado. And that, in my view, is sort of leadership shaping up the status while I’m trying to make a difference here.
I cut my teeth and I practiced election law for a long time and I firmly believe that campaign finance laws whack the little guy Whack. They whack the little guy. If you’re a large, sophisticated 527 independent organization, you can hire the attorneys and the accountants to navigate the law. And so right as I got into office we did an analysis of the campaign funds for the year before, for the election cycle before and 527s, independent organizations, spent about 25 percent of all reported political (expenditures.) And they paid less than one percent of all fines. Disproportionately low. Well, because they’ve got the lawyers and the accountants.
Small donor committees spent about one or two percent of the money if you take away the smaller committees. They paid 12 percent of all the fines. And I think that was almost a third of their total assets were confiscated in fines. And if you look at candidates as well, they’re generally less sophisticated than the 527s and they have far fewer resources, they pay a much higher proportion than a 527 in fines. So what we’re looking at — and this is just the filing side — is smaller organizations getting whacked by the stuff and larger organizations easily navigate it. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer in the campaign finance world.
So what did I do?
Well, I did a couple of things. I rationalized a waiver system, because we’re able to waive fines at the Secretary of State’s (office.) No longer black holes, it’s actually transparent, it’s up front, it’s reduced the fines substantially. We would have people like the Rio Grande County Sheriff candidate who had raised 975 bucks and his committee was finally terminated after he hit $300,000 in fines.
There was another organization called United Women of Color. I’m guessing it was women and they supported minority candidates. They raised, I think around $5,000 or $10,000 — they were finally terminated after they racked up $4 million in fines. This is absurd, it is just absurd. It is hurting grass roots political activism, it’s truly a burden on free speech.
Now before I got into office my predecessor was headed towards criminalization of campaign finance laws — so not only could you pay fines but you can go to jail too. That’s really, in my view, a terrible system. I’m rewriting all the campaign finance laws from… I’m sorry, not the laws, strike that. Not the laws, I don’t make the laws. The regulations that implement the laws, okay?
So I’m rewriting all the regulations for long overdue reorganization. We’re making them easier to read but we’re also making substantive changes to bring them in line with court law, to make it easier for people to understand what they can and can’t do, so there’s less ambiguity. And I’m being massively attacked by the left because of it. You know, because big money’s going to be in politics or the lack of transparency.
Senator John Morse, the majority leader, during a hearing I had he came and he said, “You know, these things are complex, we all know that and we all know that you need a lawyer to follow them but that’s the price we pay for transparency.” The price you pay is to hire a lawyer? So before you can exercise your core political speech you have to hire an attorney to be able to do that.
But let me tell you the change we’re making there. It used to be big money, big money in transparency, stop big money. That was the talking point and that’s all that the press ever reported about. But now the press is reporting about well, these people are arguing transparency — they’ve given up the big money thing — on one hand but they’re talking about the burdens of speech on the other hand. And we had a big campaign finance rule-making hearing and let me tell you, there were a ton of folks who came. People on the ground with their personal experience…
People talked about the burden of free speech. And so what you had were all these Democrat organizations, none of whom reveal their donors, all of who have attorneys or were attorneys testifying, talking about how this is so important to stifle speech — And on the other hand we have a lot of people saying, “These are my practical experiences on the ground and this is what this does.” And we’re changing the terms of debate there as well.
It’s slow, it is difficult, but we are going to change the terms of debate there and people are going to realize in popular politicalcircles, not just the insiders, but they’re going to understand that the campaign finance laws have a true cost to fund our First Amendment rights and we are going to make those changes here in the State of Colorado.
And the left, for the first time, is on the defensive about this campaign finance stuff, they don’t know what to do. They’re not used to being held accountable, they’re not used to people doing the analysis, providing the evidence and willing to charge into the breach, as it were, and make a change and change the way things are, shake up the status quo. And I’ve been willing to do that and I think that’s a success story that you’re going to see unfold over time.
The vitriol on the left has been amazing. It gets a little bit easier after you’ve been called a racist the first 17 times, 18 times is not that bad, you know? But the fact is it’s not great to do that and I thought why are these guys just so angry at me? And when I sued Denver to actually get them to follow a law, that was sort of distorted in the press.
I was suppressing votes and all that stuff because God forbid if someone hadn’t shown up or participated for years, that they would have to ask for an absentee ballot or show up to vote. That’s what they had to do, just these huge burdens on the right to vote. But the left sort of blew this up into the civil rights fight of the day and sort of filled themselves with righteous indignation, misguided as it was. And I thought, well why? I mean, why are they so angry about this?
And so I’ve been thinking about that and here’s what I concluded. You know, one (reason) is sort of on the practical level, they don’t like energetic Republicans who make good decisions, they just don’t like that. So they want to kneecap us as soon as possible.
The other thing is they — and I firmly believe this and some folks in my office cringed when I said this, but I’m going to say it again. Republicans who behave well, who the mainstream media can sort of pat on the head and say, “Good boy, that’s a good job,” Republicans who sort of toe the line and don’t really want to make real change but you know, sort of will kick around the edges a little bit but buy into the mainstream media, the big money type framework — they’re good, they’re okay, they’re the Republicans that they like. But God forbid someone would really want to shake things up, that’s terrible. So they don’t like that.
But the other thing that they don’t like is, in my view, I think about what makes America great. This is you know, probably the mainstay, is our Christian values and the freedom we have to not only exercise those but the freedom to make ourselves what we want to be. And that’s political freedom, that’s economic freedom, that’s the ability to do this stuff. Now if you ask someone on the left what makes America great, a lot of times what they’re going to say is the right to criticize government. And that’s good, but that’s not the thing I think that makes America great. And the reason why is they don’t believe in the fundamental goodness of America.
And you see that in foreign policy where they try and hobble the ability of America to do things and their whole goal is to criticize our western culture and what we’re about in our country. And so what motivates these people? I mean what motivates them? What gets them up in the morning?
I think what gets them up in the morning is they sort of think back about the Civil Rights movement — that’s their paradigm — and they close their eyes and they envision themselves and just want to be on that freedom bus fighting for civil rights. And that was a noble thing. It was a noble thing that strung out western culture through our own values articulated in the Declaration of Independence. But they view it, that’s what they want to do and they miss it. They were just born too late, sorry. They miss it, okay?
But they’ve got to do something, I mean they’ve got to feel good about themselves somehow so what do they do? They look around and they see oppression everywhere because they need to see oppression so that they can fight the oppression and be on the freedom box. This is what they need to do and this is how they find meaning, by blowing up basic things into the civil rights fight of the day and that’s how they motivate themselves.
I think that’s sort of a fundamental difference between some of the people on the left and, I think, us, the people who sort of defend traditional values.
Why I’m in office:
Why the heck am I in office here? Well, I’ll tell you it’s not the money — if you’ve read my salary, it’s not a good thing. I mean it’s okay, I’m not complaining, but I’m not in it for the money.
And you don’t necessarily run for office so that you can spend more time with your family. And obviously I’m not running for office so that I can make sure everyone loves me, I’ve not necessarily done it for that reason, obviously from the press. So why am I doing this?
… I think it’s because we’ve got a choice here, in this country. We stopped the Obama train. We stopped it. We haven’t turned it around, we haven’t reversed it, we haven’t fixed it but we’ve stopped it. We’re still headed towards the cliff or the rained out bridge but it’s a lot slower now, it’s not going at full speed. So we’ve stopped it but we still have to turn it around.
And we have a choice in this country, we have a choice. Do we want to continue to do great things, do we want to be great country? Do the values of freedom, political freedom, economic freedom, the things that have truly made us the greatest country in the world, do we want that? Do we want to embrace it and fight for it as every generation before us has?
Or do we want to surrender to the socialism and failed policies that we see working their way through Europe and that we have seen abject failures in countries like the Soviet Union and others? Do we want to head in that direction or do we want to head in the direction towards freedom?
And to my mind that’s the choice before us. And the choice is something that’s very important. The reason I ran for office was because I didn’t want to be older in life and look in the mirror and say, “I coulda, I shoulda, I woulda. I had an opportunity but I never did it.” I didn’t want to be there. And so now I’m in office I am here to do stuff, to take advantage of this opportunity that you have given me, that has been given me by the State of Colorado to make a difference in this world, in my little world of Secretary of State that I’m working on.
But I’m here to make a difference. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, obviously we’ve got a major, major election in 2012. But I’m here to say this: 2012’s not the end of it, it’s not like the old Soviet Union where the winners of the political fight could shoot the losers and then it’s done, you know? I mean you don’t shoot them. Jimmy Carter keeps popping up, you know, certifying the Venezuelan election, for God’s sake. So the fight always continues, but that’s why we’re here.
There’s a guy named Daniel Burnham and he was a city planner, some of you may have heard of him, a famous architect, and he said, “Make no little plans for they have no power to stir a man’s blood. Think big.” And I think that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to continue to think big and we’ve got to be persistent. So whomever our nominee is, whoever wins in 2012, we have to continue this fight because I think my children… my children, your kids, grandkids and future generations are going to look back on this one day and they’re going to want to know whether we were wanting or whether we built a better country for them just as our forebearers built for us. And I think that’s what this is all about.