On a warm, sunny Saturday morning in early October, proponents in a quiet Arvada neighborhood are readying their campaign signs for yet another recall of a state lawmaker.
Empowered by two successful recalls over the summer that ousted the Senate president and a fellow Democratic colleague, recall proponents are energized to target another Democrat, Sen. Evie Hudak of Westminster, over her support for gun control.
Wearing a Revolutionary War-era hat, one man tapes a bright yellow “Recall Hudak” sign to a piece of poster board, while another volunteer prepares petitions. Yet another supporter is readying computers to enter data received during the petition process.
Proponents must collect 18,900 valid signatures by Dec. 3 in order to force a recall election in Senate District 19, a seat that Hudak only won in 2012 by 584 votes against Republican challenger Lang Sias.
The looming recall election confirms what many feared, that after John Morse of Colorado Springs and Angela Giron of Pueblo were recalled from office — a first in state history — agitated citizens would build on the strategy, establishing a year-round election cycle in Colorado.
There are even greater implications this time around, as the balance of the Senate would be up for grabs. If Hudak is recalled, Republicans would regain control of the upper chamber, and take control from recently elected Senate President Morgan Carroll of Aurora and Senate Majority Leader Rollie Heath of Boulder — both considered liberals.
Hudak is term limited, but not for another three years. The committee seeking to recall her, Recall Hudak Too, is confident that they can cut her tenure short.
They were inspired after the Democratic-controlled legislature this year sent a package of gun control bills to Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, for his signature. The measures include banning high-capacity ammunition magazines of more than 15 rounds and requiring universal background checks with associated fees.
“The Second Amendment issue is very strong, and one of the reasons it’s very strong is it is the final straw that broke the camel’s back,” explained Mike McAlpine, a lead recall proponent from Arvada who is acting as spokesman for Recall Hudak Too.
But McAlpine says the issue goes beyond guns. In their statement of grounds for recall, proponents list a myriad of issues:
• “She has infringed upon our constitutional right to keep and bear arms;
• “She has voted to make all citizens less safe and to drive hundreds of jobs from Colorado;
• “She has limited, denied or otherwise refused to hear testimony from citizens holding views incompatible with her own;
• “She has rushed legislation on important issues, including billion-dollar spending and tax bills while ignoring the voice of the people;
• “So cavalier is Senator Hudak toward the legislative process that she suggested a coin flip to decide major tax legislation;
• “She has offended the sensibilities of men and women by openly insulting women and rape victims;
• “She has voted for legislation that continues to raise taxes on the hard-working citizens of Colorado and our Constitution; and
• “… Senator Hudak has turned her back on we citizens of Colorado and our Constitution.”
The statement ends, “It is clear Senator Hudak has dishonored her sworn oath and commitment.”
It doesn’t help Hudak that she has been featured in a few unpleasant headlines in the last year. Topping the list was a comment she made during the gun control debate when a rape victim testified in support of gun rights.
Rape victim Amanda Collins, a 27-year-old Reno, Nev. woman who was attacked in 2007 at the Reno campus of the University of Nevada, testified before a Senate committee against a measure that would have prohibited concealed-carry on college campuses. The measure ultimately died in the legislature.
Collins said she had a concealed-carry permit and would have had a firearm had the campus not been a gun-free zone.
Hudak responded, “I just want to say that, actually, statistics are not on your side even if you had a gun… Chances are that if you would have had a gun, then he would have been able to get that from you and possibly use it against you.”
Collins was taken aback by Hudak’s assumption, rebutting, “Respectfully, senator, you weren’t there. Had I been carrying concealed, he wouldn’t have known I had my weapons… I know without a doubt in my mind at some point I would’ve been able to stop my attack by using my firearm.”
Hudak apologized for what she herself described as an “insensitive” comment. But the damage was done.
Hudak was also recently featured in a “gotcha” piece by KCNC-TV CBS Denver, in which she was caught texting and surfing the Internet during committee hearings in September. Such activity is actually quite common at the Capitol during what are usually long hearings. But public perception is everything, and Hudak has a messaging battle on her hands.
“This is an issue about taxes, about legislation without representation, it is an issue about rights, not just gun rights,” added McAlpine. “We’ve had a lot of people come up and say, ‘I don’t own a gun, but I believe we should have the right to own a gun.’”
He added that all walks of life have been signing the petitions, including Democrats, unaffiliated voters, Libertarians and, of course, Republicans, who led the charge against the gun control bills.
“More than just a gun issue, it is a rights issue, and it is a lot of people who are fed up with a government that does not listen to them…” McAlpine continued. “This is not a party issue, this is very much an issue which is grassroots and an individual person issue.”
Lessons learned from Pueblo would confirm McAlpine’s contention. Giron was ousted by a remarkable 4,075 votes, 56 percent to 44 percent, in a Democratic-leaning district. The Republican who was elected to succeed Giron, Sen. George Rivera, is the first Republican senator to represent the district since 1938.
Support from previous recalls
The two recalls over the summer were organized very differently. In Pueblo, a group of three plumbers — political neophytes — led a grassroots effort on a shoestring budget. In Colorado Springs, a similar grassroots effort took place, but they had help from conservative groups who paid for petition gathering.
Both groups had limited funding compared to the millions of dollars raised by Democrats to fight the efforts. Proponents in both districts came out victorious by seizing the anger and frustration brewing. McAlpine said there is no one formula. The only constant is to reach out to the people, he said.
“There’s a tremendous amount to learn, and both of those recalls have been very forthcoming in sharing what worked and what didn’t work,” said McAlpine. “While we don’t have a formula, we benefit a lot from what they did. They’re rock stars.”
Both Victor Head, the lead proponent from Pueblo, and Tim Knight, the lead proponent in Colorado Springs, have been assisting proponents in SD 19.
Recall Hudak Too has also benefited from early support from political machine Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. Its executive director, Dudley Brown, had been hesitant to join the recall efforts in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, convinced that it couldn’t be done. But he acknowledged that he was wrong.
“The only people who thought it was possible to do it was people that had never been involved in politics before,” Brown told The Colorado Statesman. “To their credit, they made it possible now.”
Proponents would like to collect around 25,000 signatures to play it safe. But they are employing a strategy made popular down in Pueblo, in which volunteers crosschecked voter information with state databases before submitting signatures to the secretary of state’s office. The result in Pueblo was an impressive validity rate, nearly 94 percent.
Still, 18,900 signatures is a tall order. In Colorado Springs, proponents needed only 7,178 signatures; in Pueblo they needed 11,285. McAlpine acknowledged that the effort to recall Hudak could be going a bit better, and he remains worried about bad fall storms. McAlpine did not immediately have early numbers available.
Efforts have included setting up tables for a “sign and drive” along busy arterials in the district, like Wadsworth Boulevard, where proponents can often be seen outside the King Soopers at 80th Avenue. Proponents are also knocking on doors and making phone calls as part of their effort.
This is not their first attempt. Back in the spring, Recall Hudak began collecting signatures. But they suspended the effort after meeting with proponents in Pueblo and Colorado Springs, when it was decided to combine efforts by first focusing on Morse and Giron.
“We met as a group during the initial effort in the spring, and as a group we decided that we would put ours on hold, and that we would go down to Pueblo and Colorado Springs and bring what we thought were dedicated volunteers to them and help them with their effort, and that’s exactly what we did,” said McAlpine.
Contrary to some reports, McAlpine said his group has not paid a petition-gathering firm. In Colorado Springs, proponents used Kennedy Enterprises.
He confirmed, however, that the group does have two paid employees, including an 18-year-old and a 19-year-old who are involved with the effort. But McAlpine said the focus is on building a “volunteer force.”
Democrats must counter. It appears they have learned from failures in Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Little attention was paid early on to the recall attempts there. Democrats didn’t become vocal until it appeared obvious that the drives would make the ballot.
Even then their focus was spent less on messaging and more on costly lawsuits that sought to invalidate petition signatures. But in multiple instances, the secretary of state’s office and the courts agreed that proponents had legitimately petitioned onto the ballot.
This time around, Democrats appear to be more proactive. They have begun counter-canvass activities, including standing on the same street corner as proponents, demonstrating and encouraging voters not to sign the petition.
The counter activities have caused a bit of tension. Proponents believe their opponents are “impolite” by attempting to convince voters not to sign the petition. In a few instances, verbal battles have broken out between proponents and opponents.
“Our focus is on supporting Evie, obviously,” said Dwayne Stephens, chairman of Jefferson County Democrats. “That’s my objective, to support Evie and give her the support she needs.
“We’re trying to find volunteers to help out with whatever efforts that are going on,” he added.
Kathryn Wallace, chairwoman of Senate District 19 for Jefferson County Democrats, said the county party is confident that proponents won’t gather the signatures needed.
“I am really rosy, and I believe that the signatures will not be collected,” she said. “I’m going forward with that.”
Hudak has already hired a campaign manager, local Democratic political strategist Chris Kennedy.
“I have a lot of volunteers, and it’s helpful to have somebody interact with them because I’m very, very busy just doing my job,” explained Hudak, saying she is focused less on strategy and more on her ongoing work as a state lawmaker.
“I’m doing my job,” Hudak continued. “I have a lot of work to do, and that’s one of the reasons why I arranged to have a campaign manager, so somebody can do the things that need to be done.”
Hudak has been at the center of attacks since the gun control debate began early this year. She has received nasty emails and Internet postings that have been abusive and threatening. Many are trying to shield her from the attacks as she navigates the recall.
“There are some distractions,” she acknowledged. “But that’s what my campaign manager is being paid to do, and I want to continue doing what is important, as long as I have this job.”
Hudak has acknowledged that recalls could change the tone in the legislature, as some lawmakers might become fearful and scale back their ambitions. But Hudak says she will not fall to the scare tactics.
“It’s kind of like a buzzing bee,” she said. “You just kind of get used to hearing it in the background. It’s not personal. They may be attempting to make it personal, but I know it’s not.
“I’m used to it…” Hudak continued. “I think it’s about taking control of the state Senate. I don’t take it personally.”
Hudak is not subscribing to messaging advanced by Democrats in the last recalls, in which they called the recall process an erosion of democracy. Instead, Hudak acknowledges that proponents are simply exercising their constitutional right.
“It’s their democratic right…” she said. “It’s a new wrinkle on democracy.”
Sen. Andy Kerr, a Democrat from Lakewood who is facing a tough re-election race in 2014, said he has heard that he will be targeted next for recall. At a fundraiser on Oct. 20, Kerr said it is important to support Hudak because it is important for lawmakers to stand up for what they believe in.
“I fully and completely stand by passing bills like universal background checks because I heard that people in my district support that, and I don’t care that some outside groups, some national groups, are going to pour in tons of money against me,” said Kerr. “I don’t care what they think or what they do, but I’m going to stand up and do what’s right for the people in my district.”
During the recalls in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, Democrats attempted to paint proponents as “extreme” outside interests who were being manipulated by powerful gun lobbies.
Clearly the strategy didn’t work. Proponents easily turned the messaging around as Democrats took in millions of dollars from groups all across the country, including liberal interests in Washington, D.C.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who became a target as the co-founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, personally donated $350,000, which confirmed the suspicions of proponents and offered them ammunition to attack Democrats as being puppets for a greater outside cause.
Hickenlooper recently signaled that those outside interests should “probably” stay away from Colorado.
“Colorado is a state that people like to be themselves and solve their own problems,” the governor told USA Today. “They don’t really like outside organizations meddling in their affairs…”
Hudak said she’s not quite ready to start thinking about strategy, adding, “There is no recall election at this time. I’ll have more than enough time to think about it.
“I’m being as optimistic as I can, I have a good chance of not being in a recall election,” she continued. “I know everybody wants to go to the next step, but that’s not where we are. That’s not where I am.”
Pressure to resign?
One strategy could be encouraging Hudak to resign. If she resigns the seat, then Jefferson County Democrats would be able to convene a vacancy committee and appoint a Democrat to replace her, thereby preserving the seat and delaying a contentious race until the general election.
The strategy was floated in Colorado Springs and Pueblo, but both Morse and Giron rejected that idea. Hudak herself admits to being “strong headed,” but she would not answer definitively whether she would consider stepping down.
“None of those conversations have taken place,” she said. “I have never even discussed it at all.”
A couple of names pop up in Jefferson County Democratic circles when resignation is mentioned. One is former Rep. Sara Gagliardi, who was defeated in 2010 by Republican Rep. Libby Szabo of Arvada. Gagliardi did not return requests left by The Colorado Statesman for comment.
The other name that pops up is Arvada City Councilwoman Rachel Zenzinger, who is currently running unopposed for re-election. Zenzinger is Hudak’s former campaign manager and a close friend. She did not rule out the possibility of seeking a vacancy, but said it’s premature to consider. Zenzinger is considering running for the seat when Hudak is term limited.
“Right now it’s just a clear focus on supporting Evie and trying to communicate to the voters in her district the things that Evie has done,” said Zenzinger.
One idea is to allow Hudak to handpick her replacement, which theoretically would not be challenged in a vacancy election. That person would have time in the legislature before having to defend their seat. Hudak, however, said she has no interest in selecting a replacement.
“That’s not my role…” she said. “I typically don’t intervene in any inter-party competition. There are people who do that sometimes, but I try to stay out of those things…”
It would be an advantage for a sitting Democrat to defend the seat after gaining name recognition, compared to attempting to take it back from a Republican, who would likely win the seat if Hudak is recalled and a successor is elected.
But Zenzinger doesn’t subscribe to that theory, suggesting, “I would still consider it to be an open seat.
“It’s a competitive district anyway,” she added. “Any kind of election is going to be close and competitive… I have been considering the seat in 2016, so I do keep my ear close to the ground.”
As chairwoman of SD 19, Wallace would chair the vacancy committee. But she said she has not been part of any resignation discussions.
“I have no say in anything and I would not be the first person to know anything,” said Wallace. “If there are discussions going on, they are not with me.
“Nobody tells me anything,” she added. “I’m sure there are people talking somewhere, but they’re not talking to me…”
For his part, Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio said the party is currently solely focused on defeating the recall petition drive.
“It’s proof that the dysfunction of Washington has infected the Colorado Republican Party, as these anti-government ideologies are cut from the same cloth as the extremists in Congress that have taken our government hostage, and shut it down,” said Palacio.
Republicans prepare to seize opportunity and take control of state Senate
As Democrats continue their strategy meetings, Republicans are preparing to potentially seize the opportunity and take control of the Senate.
Bill Tucker, chairman of the Jefferson County Republican Party, said the county party is not yet looking to recruit successor candidates, waiting until proponents satisfy signature requirements.
But he said his organization is very supportive of the recall effort.
“I support the democratic effort in the constitution of Colorado to recall,” said Tucker. “I absolutely support the Colorado provisions and the national provisions for redress, and that’s really what we’re doing with the recall.”
Some establishment Republicans have voiced concerns with the recall efforts, fearful that it could come back to haunt them. They worry that it is an erosion of the democratic process that could become a strategy used by Democrats to recall Republicans down the road.
Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, took a lot of heat from proponents in Colorado Springs and Pueblo for not having supported them from the beginning. The Republican Party ultimately got behind the successor candidates, but it never truly threw its support behind the recall efforts.
As a result, those proponents have threatened to go after Call if he doesn’t push reforms that focus more on the grassroots.
As the Hudak recall surfaced, Call cautiously promised to offer support from the party, but has not demonstrated an all-in approach.
“The Republican Party will play an appropriate role in supporting a Republican candidate if and when there is an election,” he told The Statesman. “Until that point, we’re focusing our resources and efforts on supporting and recruiting great candidates for the legislature, and the elections that we already have on the ballot for 2014.
“We will respect and honor the citizens if they choose to go ahead on a special election through the recall mechanism,” Call added.
Tucker thinks his party shouldn’t be so worried about recall elections, saying it is simply an extension of the democratic elections process.
“I don’t think that our party needs to be as paranoid as it is,” opined Tucker.
“Democrats can read the constitution just as well as we can. It is not a party issue. It is a citizen issue,” he added.