Even as temperatures climbed and the unseasonably warm spring day beckoned on Saturday, more than 1,000 Denver Democrats packed into a school near the airport to ratify their support for a mostly uncontested ticket, and state Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, had a word for it.
The word of the day, he told delegates and others assembled in the gymnasium at the Evie Garrett Dennis Campus, was “committed.” It means, he said, “to pick a cause and dedicate yourself to it — for example, Democrats on a Saturday morning coming together to make sure their voice is heard.”
The word has an alternate definition, though, which Pabon said could be even more appropriate. “To place in a mental institution,” he smiled. “Example: signing up to spend your Saturday inside when it’s 85 degrees outside.”
It was also the 85th birthday of Latino organizer César Chávez, Pabon pointed out, and used the occasion to tie the late civil rights activist’s legacy to the November election.
“He believed, and he lived the idea, that there was something bigger and better out there for him,” Pabon said, recounting Chávez’ rise from poverty to national figure. “He could have silently toiled in the fields with his family for the rest of his life. But he chose something else — he chose to give power to the powerless, so he went out and organized.”
It’s the same choice Democrats plan to offer voters in the presidential election, said Pabon, who was speaking on behalf of President Barack Obama’s campaign.
“We can make a choice whether to settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while more and more Americans barely get by,” he said. “Or we can choose to build a nation where everyone gets a fair shot, does their fair share and plays by the same rules.”
Leaving no doubt which choice he preferred, Pabon led the crowd in Chavez’ iconic cheer: “Sí, se puede,” which turned into the Obama campaign’s 2008 slogan “Yes, we can!”
In the only contested race at the Denver County Democratic Assembly, state Rep. Jeanne Labuda, D-Denver, won top-line designation for the June primary against challenger Corrie Houck.
In a series of votes — because the southwest Denver district includes a few blocks in Jefferson County, the Denver House District 1 delegates first had to elect delegates to a multi-county HD 1 assembly, which convened in the same room a split second after the county meeting adjourned — Labuda got the support of 58 percent of the delegates to Houck’s 42 percent, both above the 30-percent threshold required to appear on the primary ballot. (Both candidates did better than they had at a caucus-night preference poll, which had Labuda at 55 percent and Houck at 28 percent, with the rest uncommitted.)
Both candidates devoted a hefty share of their speeches refuting claims made by the opposing candidates in a race that has had no shortage of attacks.
Saying she “wanted to counter a few things said about me by my opponent,” Houck blasted Labuda’s charge that a primary fight was “opening the doors for a Republican to win this seat,” displaying a chart that showed Democrats making up 45 percent of the district’s voters, overwhelming the 25-percent Republican registration.
“It’s almost mathematically impossible for a Republican to take over this seat, and it was purposely designed to be a safe seat,” Houck said.
Further, Houck contended, if Democrats were worried about losing the seat, Labuda’s House colleagues and state party leadership would have rallied around the incumbent the way they did around state Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, when a primary challenger emerged last fall.
“If I was disrupting the party out here, don’t you think someone would be intervening in this situation?” Houck asked.
A Democratic official told The Colorado Statesman that Kerr’s situation provoked an unusual response precisely because he represents a Jefferson County swing district — potentially tougher to keep in the Democratic column if a primary had drained resources — and cautioned against drawing any conclusion other than that the party was decidedly neutral in the HD 1 primary.
Labuda fired back by slamming a pair of blog posts reprinted from the political sites Colorado Pols and Denver Pols that were included in a packet of campaign material Houck handed to delegates. One of the anonymous posts claimed that the House Majority Project, an organization charged with electing Democrats, was forced to divert funds to defend Labuda’s seat against a Republican challenger in 2010, possibly costing the party control of the chamber by a single seat.
“I’m bothered by this,” Labuda began, “so I have to say something about this now. This comes from a blog, and you know what a blog is — people put on things they don’t have to answer for.” She said the blog got it wrong about the House Majority Project. “The House Majority Project does not communicate with citizens like you, unfortunately; they deal with me, because I’m a candidate. Anything that is said about the House Majority Project in here, the House Majority Project took care of that — it’s completely false.”
Labuda went on to dispute Houck’s claims that she’s too cozy with payday lenders, claiming she’s voted against the industry more often than she’s taken its side in legislative battles.
“I know we have to rein in predatory lenders, but I also know that people need options,” Labuda said. She said she has neighbors who borrow from the outfits when they have to.
“I know other professional people who have gone and taken short-term loans from payday lenders. They’re needed. I want to keep options open for people,” she said, adding that voting against a bill doesn’t necessarily mean a lawmaker disagrees with the broad intentions of the legislation.
“I don’t vote for all payday lender bills,” she said. “Unfortunately, I don’t vote for all education bills. Some bills just aren’t written well. You think of the ‘Right to Work’ law. What does the Right to Work law do? It doesn’t give us the right to work, it gives some employers the right to fire us. That’s the way some bills are written.”
She took at least a couple more swings at the blog posts distributed by her primary opponent.
“I’m still bothered by that stuff that’s in that blog that’s just full of falsehoods,” she said, making a face and dis-carding her prepared remarks to hammer the other blog entry, which called Labuda insensitive for comparing payday lend-ing borrowers with alcoholics.
“The comparison to alcoholism,” an exasperated Labuda said, “I’m not trying to demean anybody. I’m just trying to point out that for every legal item out there, there’s some people that aren’t able to use it correctly. I’m trying very hard to keep payday lending around for people who need it.”
She didn’t just respond to blog posts, though. Discussing the state budget, Labuda noted that last week’s revised revenue forecast meant the legislature would likely restore the senior property tax exemption for older residents who have lived in their homes for at least 10 years but then added that she didn’t intend to claim it herself.
“I’m a senior, I qualify for that,” she said. “I’m not going to take it because I don’t need it. I would ask those of you who are seniors, if you don’t need it, don’t take it because it can put money back into our schools.”
Nominating Labuda, former state Rep. Gerry Frank said that he hails from a portion of the district that doesn’t vote in high numbers and that he trusts her to represent him and his neighbors.
“We need someone to be our advocate,” he said, adding that during his time as a volunteer lobbyist at the Capitol, he has gotten the impression that party leaders have confidence in Labuda.
“Because she has served three terms already, and this is likely to be her fourth term, she is in line to be a committee chairman, in my humble opinion,” he told delegates.
Houck’s supporters, however, lit into Labuda in their nominating speeches.
“I believe, in my heart, that it’s time for a change,” said former Denver Public Schools Board President Michelle Moss, who also identified herself as a former HD 1 captain.
“It’s time for us to look for people who are positive and who have energy and will revive this district in a way I don’t believe our current state representative can,” she said, adding, “I’m tired of hearing about how difficult it is at the state Capitol.”
Susan Lontine, another past HD 1 captain, told delegates she had worked for Labuda at the Capitol but quit because she was “disappointed” with what she saw, listing instances where she claimed Labuda had sided with lobbyists over her constituents.
After all the speeches and some serious arm-twisting by both sides, none of the delegates changed their votes, handing Labuda the win at the multi-county assembly by a vote of 20-15 over Houck.
It was the only split decision at the school that day. A drive to send some delegates to go to the state convention unpledged in the presidential race fell short, garnering just a handful of votes. Democrats also nominated District Attorney Mitch Morrissey to run for a third term and waved ahead the remaining slate of Democratic legislative candidates unopposed.
The Denver assembly was nearly the last one held by Democrats, trailed only that night when Lincoln County Democrats convened in Limon, capping the process begun a month ago at precinct caucuses. The Democratic state assembly and convention is set for April 14 at the Pueblo County Fairgrounds. Republicans meet the same day at Denver University’s Ritchie Center.