The recall of two Democratic state senators came to an emotional end on Thursday as their Republican successors were sworn into office to thunderous applause by those who had been leading and watching the drive for the past six months.
Sens. Bernie Herpin of Colorado Springs and George Rivera of Pueblo have replaced Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs and Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo, respectively.
Morse and Giron faced a bitter and expensive recall effort that ultimately ousted the two Democrats on Sept. 10, offering them the unpleasant distinction of being the first state lawmakers in Colorado history to be recalled from office.
Grassroots gun rights activists targeted them along with conservative interests over the two senators’ support of gun control legislation. They had backed banning high-capacity ammunition magazines and requiring universal background checks, among other gun control measures.
What started as a political fantasy for activists — an effort that was originally overlooked by the Republican Party — came to pure reality with the swearing-in of Herpin and Rivera. The event brought throngs of recall supporters and their allies, as well as Republicans who feel energized and motivated by the successes of proponents.
Standing next to two sergeants-at-arms in the entryway to the Senate chamber inside the Gold Dome, Herpin and Rivera awaited their moment in history.
Senate President Pro Tempore Lucia Guzman of Denver — who is acting as president in Morse’s absence — read the certification of the recall elections. Morse was recalled from office by 319 votes; Giron was ousted by 4,075 votes.
“I want to personally congratulate you,” said Guzman, who was in an odd position having lost two of her friends and Democratic colleagues just weeks earlier.
El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams at the swearing-in on Oct. 3.
Outgoing Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Bender then made it official: “Mazel tov,” he addressed the new senators, offering them a congratulatory remark after performing the ceremony.
“I cannot begin to tell you how honored I am to be standing here,” Herpin addressed his Republican Senate colleagues. No Democratic senators were in attendance other than Guzman.
“I realize I have much to learn and pledge that I will work hard, serve with honor and never forget the lesson of this summer that this is truly a government of the people, by the people, for the people, and we serve at the pleasure of those we represent,” concluded Herpin, a retired Navy and Air Force officer and former Colorado Springs city councilman.
Rivera, a retired Pueblo police deputy chief, approached the well with red eyes; clearly emotional from the whirlwind experience he had just been through.
“To tell you the truth, I was at a loss for what I might say until I remembered there’s always wisdom in the Bible,” Rivera choked up the words, fighting back tears during his brief remarks. ‘Whoever wants to be leader among you shall be your servant…’”
Much of the Republican Senate caucus was in attendance for the ceremony, cheering on their newest members. Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs called the moment historic.
“I hope we all take a lesson from what happened this year and that we can set sail on partisanship out of this building and renew relationships and serve the people of Colorado as a body united, not a partisanship that is divided,” said Cadman.
Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, believes a strong message was sent to Democrats, who Republicans believe over-reached this year in passing gun control, a sweeping elections reform bill and a rural renewable energy standard, among other pieces of legislation.
“It will moderate this chamber because most of the radical bills that were passed out of this chamber last session… passed by one or two votes, and two of those liberal senators are no longer part of this chamber,” opined Harvey.
He believes the swearing-in marked vindication for gun rights advocates who felt their voices were ignored this year. Activists had circled the Capitol during the gun control debate in vehicles, blasting air horns.
“I was in committee when the gun bills were being heard, and you could hear the cars wrap around the Capitol honking their horns, and the Democrats acted as though they couldn’t hear them,” said Harvey. “I think they have heard the people of the state of Colorado today.”
Harvey expects his chamber to address legislation next year that would repeal some of the gun laws and other controversial Democratic-backed bills. But the bills face an uphill battle in the still Democratic-controlled legislature.
Harvey, however, believes that Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat facing re-election in 2014, would actually love to see an opportunity to reform some of the more divisive measures.
“He would love to have the ability to sign some reforms on some of these bills,” suggested Harvey. “I think he would love to repeal. In fact, I’m surprised that he was as politically inept as he was not to have vetoed at least one of them.”
Present in the Senate chamber was former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Republican who is seeking his party’s nomination to challenge Hickenlooper next year.
Tancredo believes there is a lesson to be learned from the grassroots recall drives. The political rabble-rouser in 2010 left the GOP to register as an American Constitution Party candidate in the gubernatorial race because the Republican candidates appalled him at the time. He later switched back to the GOP.
“There certainly has never been a kind of grassroots activity similar to what we have seen…” explained Tancredo. “The fact that the parties themselves, at least the Republican Party, was not even supportive of this endeavor… makes the victory even more sweet for those of us who have sometimes been on the opposite side of the Republican Party.”
State GOP Chairman Ryan Call could not attend the ceremony because a flight he was taking had been delayed out of Ohio. But Call — who has been attacked by recall proponents for not supporting the drive in its early stages — issued a statement.
“Last month, the people of Pueblo and El Paso County sent a strong message to arrogant and out-of-touch politicians everywhere: Our elected officials work for us, not the radical special interests…” stated Call. “As we did during the recall elections, the Colorado GOP will continue to stand by Sens. Herpin and Rivera, and look forward to their many years of service in the state Senate.”
Also in attendance was Republican El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams, who stood in the chamber with a large grin on his
face after having handled the logistics for a complicated and exhausting election.
“I’m happy to have closure, and I’m happy that the results weren’t challenged and that this election was quickly certified,” he said.
Victor Head, a plumber who led the charge against Giron in Pueblo, watched his historic and personal moment come to fruition from the upstairs gallery.
“We came to see the fruits of our labor through,” he said.
Becky Mizel, chairwoman of the Pueblo County Republican Party, who unlike the state party had been active in the recall since its inception, flanked Head.
“It’s real; it’s done today,” continued Head. “I wish I could watch them take [Giron’s] name off of the seat and put George’s name on there. It’s finally done.”
Morse is also realizing that the race is finally over. He lost in a Republican-leaning district that was tough for him even before the contention started.
The former Fountain police chief, who has served for seven years and would have been term limited after next year, said he is moving on.
“I leave the legislature with no regrets,” he said in a statement issued just before the swearing-in ceremony.
“A neighborhood in my district bears the troubling distinction of having the most gun deaths in the entire state,” Morse continued. “As a senator, I served families who expect, at a minimum, that we will prevent criminals from getting guns.
“Bernie Herpin was used as a pawn in an election where almost 80 percent of voters did not even participate and only 11 percent of the district elected him,” added Morse. “Make no mistake about it — he was elected in a myopic recall where he ran on only one issue. Senate District 11 has dynamic needs and is not defined by one issue.”
Giron was a bit less assaultive in her statement. She had served three years and was up for re-election next year.
Her loss was perhaps the most surprising, having been defeated in a Democratic-leaning district. A Republican has not represented Senate District 3 since 1938.
“Pueblo is my home, and for now I will return to my roots as a citizen advocate fighting for southern Colorado families, schools and businesses,” said Giron. “Now, more than ever, Americans are demanding bold leadership of our elected officials and I’m very proud of the breadth of work I accomplished in just three years of service in the Senate.
“I’m leaving, not on my own terms, but with my integrity intact and with the sure and certain knowledge that Colorado and Pueblo are safer with these modest gun safety laws,” she concluded.
Senate Democrats must now elect new leadership. A caucus meeting is yet to be scheduled, but Guzman expects that to take place in the next couple of weeks, certainly before the end of the month.
Guzman has not chosen to run for Senate president. Names that are being floated to lead the upper chamber include Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll of Aurora and Mary Hodge of Brighton.
Sen. Rollie Heath of Boulder has entered his name to be considered for majority leader in the event that Carroll is chosen as president and the position is vacant.
Guzman acknowledged that her caucus’ next leader is a sensitive topic that will take careful consideration. Carroll is considered to be the liberal, while Hodge, who sits on the Joint Budget Committee, is considered more of the moderate. Whom Democrats choose could set an important tone.
“Some are concerned that there be more of a dual team, maybe one of the folks elected being more moderate; one being considered more liberal…” explained Guzman. “I suppose that’s how people will vote.”
As for Senate Democrats not showing up for the swearing-in, Guzman does not believe that foreshadows bitterness in the session ahead.
“A lot of people are working and a lot of people are hurting, and I don’t believe that this was something that they wanted to do…” she said.
Meanwhile, Cadman said his Republican caucus is paying close attention to Democrats as they move forward.
“I think the leadership of their caucus does set the tone, and you even saw some concerns about that expressed by their own members,” said Cadman. “We have similar concerns.
“The good news is regardless of the leadership, with 17 votes and a couple of Ds that we’ve worked with over the years, we are in a prime opportunity to defend Colorado from a very extreme liberal agenda that’s being imported from out of state.”
See the Oct. 4 print edition for full photo coverage.