EDITOR’S NOTE: James “JJ” Fletcher on Dec. 15 announced that he will be switching is party affiliation from Republican to unaffiliated. When The Colorado Statesman asked him on Dec. 9, he said that he had “no intention right now of running unaffiliated.”
Fletcher said on Dec. 15 that he is changing his affiliation to unaffiliated because, “We have faced too many roadblocks to continue as a Republican.”
Fletcher said in an advisory that he will officially announce the switch on Dec. 17 at 1 p.m. during a news conference at 200 S. Spruce St. in Grand Junction.
“Join me with God’s strength and courage to impact our local area with renewed energy,” Fletcher states in the advisory. “We are less than one year away from winning the House District 54 seat. Buckle your seat belts and enjoy the ride ahead.”
By Peter Marcus
The Colorado Statesman
Even though Republican Rep. Jared Wright of Fruita has only served one year in the legislature, he’s had to quickly learn to campaign like a veteran.
The once embattled lawmaker is facing not only a challenge from a Democrat next year, but also from Republican challenger in his conservative-leaning House District 54 Western Slope locality.
Republican James Fletcher, a Palisade businessman, and Democrat Brad Webb, a Palisade vineyard manager, would both like to unseat Wright in 2014.
They believe Wright is vulnerable. His first campaign in 2012 became entrenched in controversy after reports surfaced that Wright left the Fruita Police Department following an internal investigation in which officials said he demonstrated a pattern of dishonesty. It was also revealed that Wright — who had campaigned on a platform of fiscal conservatism — had a history including bankruptcy.
Several HD 54 Republicans expressed a desire for Wright to back out of the race at the time. But he persevered, winning the seat and going on to have a normal first year as a state representative without much drama.
But Wright says both Fletcher and Webb have been digging up old dirt in an effort to assassinate his character. He says the race has created a situation where the Republican and the Democrat are working in concert to oust him, a strategy known as “political triangulation.”
In a fundraising email dated Nov. 15, Wright alleges that Webb is campaign-ing with Fletcher to defeat him.
“He didn’t come to the fight alone — with him he brought a ‘Republican’ to run in a primary race against me — a classic political triangulation technique…” Wright wrote in the email. “My Republican opponent, rather than telling us what he would have done differently in the legislature, rather than telling us what he himself can bring to the table, he has instead run a campaign completely, 100 percent trying to assassinate my character, attacking my family and trying to leverage the fact that I am not an insider politician against me.
“My Democrat opponent and his ‘Republican’ friend will be amplifying their attempt to triangulate and squeeze out my conservative representation of your voice in the Colorado legislature…” Wright continued.
As evidence of the alleged political strategy, Wright offered an affidavit from one of his campaign consultants, Tom Bjorklund, a well-known Republican strategist along the Western Slope.
Bjorklund affirmed that his company, Tactical Data Solutions, operates out of the same Grand Junction building that Webb’s spouse, Brooke Webb, maintains an office. He said that over the summer, Brooke Webb approached him in the hallway of the building and commented on Fletcher.
“Brooke Webb stated that JJ Fletcher (James Fletcher) is a friend of Brooke and Brad Webb; and further that JJ Fletcher discussed strategy of running for House District 54 with the Webbs,” according to Bjorklund’s sworn statement. “Specifically, Brooke told me that JJ had discussed changing his party affiliation from Republican to the Unaffiliated designation so that he can run in the General Election against Jared Wright.
“Brooke Webb then completed the conversation by telling me that the upcoming election will be ‘very interesting,’” the statement continued.
For his part, Wright is concerned about the alleged strategy, pointing out that it could split the Republican vote if Fletcher runs unaffiliated, thereby propelling a Democrat or unaffiliated candidate into office. The district is split roughly between 50 percent Republican voters, 30 percent unaffiliated voters and 20 percent Democratic voters.
“It’s a relatively common tactic, it happens in races all over the country, where it’s basically defeat by division,” said Wright.
“Unfortunately, it appears, whether it’s intentional or not, and the evidence is certainly mounting for the intentional side, that there is coordination between my Republican primary opponent and the Democrat,” he continued.
“It’s unfortunate that this might be occurring, but it’s not an incredible surprise when you have two people that, regardless of their party affiliation, are good friends,” Wright added.
But when asked by The Colorado Statesman, Webb said that he has never had any conversations with Fletcher, nor does he believe that his wife has had any conversations, despite Bjorklund’s affidavit.
He acknowledged that his wife works in the same building as Bjorklund, but said that the relationship ends there.
“JJ Fletcher and I have never exchanged one word,” said Webb, who is the vineyard manager and winemaker for Mesa Park Vineyards.
“He and I have never said, ‘hi,’ ‘hello,’ ‘bye,’ anything together. His campaign was announced way before I ever announced a campaign… I have had zero contact with him ever,” declared Webb.
“It’s probably some sort of tactic on his part,” Webb surmised of why Bjorklund is disseminating the affidavit.
“As far as I know, no, there have been no conversations with Tom Bjorklund from my wife,” explained Webb. “Isn’t it a little ridiculous that my wife is being drug into this? My family? I mean, come on.”
Fletcher also denied having a relationship with the Webbs or discussing any campaign issues with them.
“I’ve seen Bradley at two wine tastings, and never even really officially met the guy,” said Fletcher.
“It must be paranoia, because I filed to run in July, and I think Bradley Webb announced that he would run last month… I had no idea that Bradley Webb was going go run,” Fletcher added.
As for the accusation in Bjorklund’s affidavit that Fletcher is considering running as an unaffiliated candidate, Fletcher said, “I would think the only way that [the strategy] would work was if someone would run unaffiliated, but I have no intention right now of running unaffiliated.
“There might be a possibility, but I’d have to do it before the end of the year, I’d just have to kind of feel the waters,” Fletcher added.
All three of the candidates have called for an end to the mudslinging, despite the dirt that has already been thrown in the campaign.
“If you look across the country, one of the things that voters say on a regular basis… is they’re tired of negative campaigning; they’re tired of people not talking about issues they care about and how we might be able to make their lives better,” surmised Wright. “Instead, they hear about every nook and cranny of an individual’s life, no matter how insignificant.”
Webb is not too concerned about Wright’s accusations, suggesting that it is time for all the candidates to look beyond the mudslinging and get to the issues.
“I just really hope we can put all the negativity and finger pointing behind us and we can actually run a real race on issues that Western Slope families care about,” Webb said.
Fletcher added, “I don’t want to say anything about what happened in the past with [Wright’s] bankruptcy and the Fruita police, it’s not going to help me any. My opinion would be the record stands for itself.”
Wright acknowledged that he could have done better the first time around on his messaging when some of those controversies arose, admitting that he was new to the process and had much to learn about campaigning.
“Being completely new to this process, I could have done a better job of messaging,” he said. “I could have done a better job of communicating with folks, and that’s on me.
“But that said, I’ve been extremely honest with people since the very beginning, and I have told my side of that… story,” he added.
Wright is leading in fundraising, with $9,230 in contributions and $4,796 cash-on-hand, as of the Oct. 15 filings. The next filing is due on Jan. 15. Fletcher has only seen $335 in contributions, and Webb only filed his candidacy with the secretary of state on Oct. 1, so no contributions have been filed.
Wright has several high-profile Republican endorsements, including House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso of Loveland, Assistant Minority Leader Libby Szabo of Arvada, and Reps. Justin Everett of Littleton and Dan Nordberg of Colorado Springs, among others.
Webb and Fletcher say they are still building their support base.
Moving beyond the mudslinging
Wright says he has delivered on his promises, fighting in the legislature for limited government and other conservative values, such as individual liberties.
He said one of his proudest moments this year was co-sponsoring a bill that would have nullified much of the Affordable Care Act in Colorado. But the measure hardly saw the light of day in the Democratic-controlled legislature, and likely wouldn’t have withstood a legal challenge.
Recently, Wright sent a letter to the Office of State Auditor asking for an investigation into the spending of Connect for Health Colorado, the state-based health insurance exchange established to implement the Affordable Care Act. Wright said he made the request in light of revelations that the CEO of Connect for Health Colorado has asked for a year-end bonus, despite the poor performance of the website, and the fact that its enrollments are far below even low-end predictions.
Wright likewise requested that the State Auditor look into whom the exchange contracts with, after it was discovered that Connect for Health Colorado hired a Democratic lobbying firm, OnSight Public Affairs, for undisclosed services.
He also highlighted a measure that would have provided an exemption to the business-personal property tax, and legislation that would have prohibited the state from aiding in any investigation under the National Defense Authorization Act. Both those bills died.
In the upcoming legislative session that begins in January, Wright said he will run a bill that would provide taxpayers with a deduction on their state income taxes if they are penalized on their federal income taxes for not purchasing health insurance, as is mandated under the Affordable Care Act.
“I’ve delivered on my promises,” said Wright. “I’ve focused on public policy that has focused on more transparency on government, to fighting against government waste and fighting for the business community, trying to deregulate where there are piles of regulation that are over-burdensome on business, and particularly fighting for people’s personal liberties.”
One issue close to Webb’s heart is agriculture, which is a topic of importance along the Western Slope, and one of personal importance to him as a farm owner. Webb this week returned from China where he was representing the Colorado Agricultural Leadership Program, discussing state-specific agricultural issues.
“This is the absolute number one issue that gets overlooked, and then with agriculture it is water, and it is certainly overlooked, not only on the Western Slope, but on the Eastern Plains where a lot of commodity crops are grown,” said Webb. “It’s an issue for all of us that are not in the urban corridor… That is a rural Colorado issue, and that’s what I intend to fight for, is rural Colorado.”
Fletcher said he would focus on energy issues as they relate to the district. As the president of Jay-Max Sales in Grand Junction, he provides supplies for the mining industry.
“It would be more that as a business owner, that I would try to build relationships with people within the industry, I have a lot of connections within the coal industry and also the oil and gas industry…” said Fletcher. “I can build those relationships with the energy people, I can probably add a little more depth with my 35 years of experience in the industry.”