With legal challenges behind, campaigns are in full swing in Senate Districts 3 and 11 where Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo and Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs are facing recalls. For political observers, the odd-year summer battles are historic. The two recalls are the first for sitting lawmakers in state history.
But what will happen on Sept. 10 when clerks in El Paso and Pueblo counties hold elections is still very much up in the air.
The two Democrats face recalls after having supported a package of gun control measures pushed by their party in the legislature this year. The laws prohibit high-capacity ammunition magazines of more than 15 rounds and require universal background checks and fees.
The recall election is two-part. First it will include a “yes” or “no” question on whether to recall the legislator. Then it will contain a list of replacement candidates.
Retired Pueblo Police Department Deputy Chief and blues musician George Rivera submitted 1,513 petition signatures to the secretary of state. He only needed 1,000 to qualify as the Republican candidate to replace Giron. The secretary’s office validated 1,462 of the signatures on Tuesday, clearing the way for Rivera to run.
Rivera had already been considering a run for SD 3 in the 2014 general election. But once Giron started to face the legitimate possibility of a recall, he shifted his focus to the special election.
He is known in Pueblo because of his former background in law enforcement. But Rivera acknowledges that he will need to refresh the memories of voters. He and his campaign plan on a strong canvassing strategy, while also utilizing advertising.
Unlike in Colorado Springs where conservatives have pumped big money into the recall, the effort in Pueblo has been much more grassroots. Pueblo Freedom and Rights, the issue committee established to force the recall, raised only about $24,000, as of its last filing in June. Their next filing is due on Aug. 27. The committee now hands the effort off to Rivera and his campaign.
As of his first filing this month, Rivera’s committee only had about $4,000. His next filing is due on Aug. 5. But he says since making the ballot, he has watched donations increase by more than 300 percent. Rivera also expects to see national interest, noting that the gun issue will shine a spotlight on the race.
“This election, I believe, has national implications. There’s no doubt about it,” explained Rivera. “Colorado is a battleground state in the middle of the whirlwind, and the Second Amendment issue was the straw the broke the camel’s back…”
But Rivera acknowledges that the election is like none that has ever been seen before in Colorado — especially for a rookie. For one thing, time is of the essence. Candidates usually have at least a year to get to know their constituents. The replacement candidates in these elections have just over a month.
“In a lot of ways it is way different,” stated Rivera. “It has come so quickly that the usual time of getting around at a leisurely pace, and kind of setting your goals for a yearlong election cycle, just aren’t there. Everything is just compacted so closely, even veteran campaigners and politicians that I’ve talked to are like, ‘This is what I did, but gosh, this is not the same type of situation; it’s way out of the norm.’ They give the best advice they can, but then it’s like, we’re all flying by the seat of our pants.”
Giron’s camp had raised more than $87,000 to fight the recall effort before an election date was even set, and much of that money came from liberal groups, as far away as Washington, D.C. The next filing for Pueblo United For Angela is due on Aug. 27.
Another issue committee, Pueblo Taxpayers for Responsible Government, has also been filed to oppose the recall. Its first filing is also due on Aug. 27.
Giron’s district leans much more heavily Democratic compared to Morse’s Colorado Springs district. But she still faces a battle over guns, which has crossed party lines.
Giron faces an interesting dynamic with her local newspaper, the Pueblo Chieftain. Reports surfaced this week in which the paper has been accused of biased reporting leaning in the direction of recalling her from office.
The paper’s assistant publisher, Jane Rawlings, general manager, Ray Stafford, and production director, Dave Dammann, all signed recall petitions against Giron.
Also, during the legislative session, Stafford wrote Giron an email that some viewed as threatening.
“I’m the general manager of this newspaper. I’m the one that controls the newsroom. I control which stories get done and how those stories get done. And I don’t like these bills,’” Stafford wrote to Giron, according to Morse, who revealed the contents in March during a live interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.
Amy Runyon-Harms, executive director of left-leaning ProgressNow Colorado, accused the Chieftain of biased reporting. She points to the Society for Professional Journalists, which calls for at least disclosing that management at the newspaper is politically active.
“The Chieftain needs to be public about their activities and come clean with their readers, so that everyone knows the true extent of their involvement in the Senate District 3 recall attempt,” said Runyon-Harms. “Otherwise, how can anyone trust their reporting or their editorials?”
The Chieftain’s upper management did not return a request for comment left by The Colorado Statesman.
Giron herself expressed concern. She pointed out that the Chieftain is the only newspaper in her district. Giron is now afraid to work with the paper. They have invited her to debate Rivera, but she is nervous.
“Considering their unwillingness to disclose their bias, I’m not likely to accept that offer,” she said.
“This is not a typical election — it’s an election to undo the 2010 election,” added Giron. “I have no problem comparing my record to anyone’s — especially Mr. Rivera’s — who is so out of touch with Pueblo needs.
“This is not two candidates running against each other and at this time I see no need to debate him,” she continued. “But if a neutral party puts together a forum, I will consider it.”
The Colorado Republican Party was quick to criticize Giron, suggesting that she is hiding from her constituents.
“Sen. Giron is nothing more than a rubberstamp for radical, out of state special interests,” declared Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado GOP. “She can’t hide from her extreme record of raising taxes and criminalizing law abiding gun owners, so she has decided to hide from her constituents instead.”
Crosshair set on Morse
Meanwhile, conservative interests are also setting their sights on Morse, where the Democrat faces a greater chance of recall than Giron in the Republican-leaning district. Morse only won the 2010 vote against Republican Owen Hill by 340 votes.
El Paso Freedom Defense Committee, which is working to oust Morse, raised about $84,000 in total contributions as of its last filing on July 1. Its next filing is due on Aug. 27.
Much of El Paso Freedom Defense Committee’s money comes from the conservative Colorado Springs group I Am Created Equal, run by Republican campaign operative Laura Carno.
A separate committee, Recall John Morse, has also been established. Its first filing is due on Aug. 27. The committee has a Denver address. Well-known Colorado Republican campaign strategist Dustin Olson is the registered agent.
Morse’s supporters, A Whole Lot of People for John Morse, raised about $153,000 in monetary contributions before the election was set. Its next filing is due on Aug. 27.
The Republican candidate in SD 11 is Bernie Herpin, a retired Navy and Air Force officer and former Colorado Springs councilman. He is also past president of the Pikes Peak Firearms Coalition.
Herpin on Monday turned in 1,683 petition signatures to make the September recall ballot as a replacement candidate. The secretary of state’s office on Wednesday certified 1,411 of the signatures, paving the way for Herpin to place his name on the ballot.
“I’m honored to stand as the only constitutional defender on the ballot to replace John Morse when he is recalled on Sept. 10,” said Herpin.
“The outpouring of support from Manitou Springs to Powers Boulevard is overwhelming,” he added of his Colorado Springs district. “I’m excited to listen to all citizens of Senate District 11 and let them know they can recall John Morse and replace him with a senator who’ll defend the constitution and actually respect their concerns.”
The television advertising has already begun in the south Colorado district. Conservative gun rights rabble rouser Dudley Brown, executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners and executive vice president of the National Association for Gun Rights, has released a 30-second spot that portrays Morse as being under the control of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.
“Who’s pulling John Morse’s strings? Not the people of Colorado Springs,” states the ad, which depicts Morse as a puppet being controlled by Bloomberg. “In the state Senate, John Morse is taking his marching orders from the East Coast politicians like billionaire New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg, who tried to ban guns, salt and Big Gulps in New York, is bringing his radical agenda to Colorado Springs.”
Morse campaign consultant Kjersten Forseth laughed when she saw the ad. She said the gun control proposals in Colorado this year didn’t appear out of thin air. She pointed out that Colorado had recently experienced a historic and horrific tragedy when a gunman opened fire in an Aurora movie theater, killing 12 and injuring 58 more.
“We just experienced the anniversary of the massacre at Aurora; we had an entire weekend of pictures of these people who were killed in that theater, or who were severely injured in that massacre,” explained Forseth. “These [bills] came as a response to something that had struck our state more than once. It’s time to do something.
“The fact that they’ve tried from the very beginning to make this about an East Coast thing is ridiculous,” she continued. “This is a Colorado problem, and to pretend it isn’t is just denying the facts.”
Morse’s camp has run a 30-second spot of its own. But the Senate president steered clear of the gun issue, instead highlighting his career as a former police officer and as a legislator.
“Children aren’t always interested in their own safety; they don’t see the dangers,” Morse states in the ad, titled “Serve and Protect.”
“Keeping people safe and interacting with parents to help keep their children safe — it’s my job to make sure that happens,” Morse continues.
The narrator of the ad then points out that Morse has spent a life fighting crime and passed laws to crack down on sexual predators. The narrator also paints Morse as a son of an Army officer who wants to honor veterans with better services and benefits. Morse is also depicted as a crusader for seniors and businesses.
“The biggest challenge facing families is the economic challenge,” says Morse. “We need to create jobs here, not in India or China.”
The spot then goes on to call recall proponents “extreme groups from Denver,” and says the recall election would cost about $336,000. The actual figure is closer to $150,000, according to the El Paso County Clerk and Recorder.
“My job is to serve and protect and nothing will ever change that,” Morse concludes in the ad.
Giron’s supporters are running a similar spot that highlights her accomplishments, but also stays away from the gun issue. The 30-second ad is titled, “You Don’t Stop,” and points to her work with the Boys and Girls Club of Pueblo for 27 years.
“When I know there’s kids out there that need help, I’m not going to stop,” Giron says in the ad, which also points to her work creating jobs, restoring school funding and protecting kids.
Just as with the Morse ad, the Giron spot also points to “extreme groups from Denver” and states that the recall would cost $336,000. The Pueblo Clerk and Recorder said the election would cost about $186,000.
“You have to stand-up for what you believe in,” Giron continues in the ad. “I worked with kids in this community for 27 years. I loved every day that I went into work. When I walk onto that Senate floor, I bring those kids. That’s important.”