By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Republican legislators talked of change, then elected the same people to the same positions they had held in the last session of the state House of Representatives. The status quo election quashed two different plans to challenge three of the four leadership positions — but not before two challengers unleashed accusations of high-pressure vote tactics.
“Those of you in this room are part of the rebirth of the Republican Party,” declared Rep. Mike May, R-Parker, after winning re-election as House minority leader by acclamation.
“We have to lead with a style that inspires, rather than intimidates, people,” said Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, who was re-elected as assistant minority leader.
Balmer’s comment hinted at the fractures in the façade of GOP unity.
Hours before the Republican legislators had gathered in the Legislative Services Building for the Nov. 6 election, Rep. Cory Gardner, of Yuma, had decided against an earlier plan to challenge Balmer, and sought re-election as minority whip instead.
That irked Rep. Bob Gardner, of Colorado Springs, who was slated to run for minority whip without opposition.
The El Paso County legislator said he had been asked to run for whip by Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, and by Cory Gardner, who, at that time, was still planning to challenge Balmer.
“I thought it might be a multidimensional or multi-ambition chess game,” said Bob Gardner. “But they said that was not the case, and I took them at their word.”
When he heard about Cory Gardner’s plans to challenge him, Balmer said he encouraged Bob Gardner to stay in the race for minority whip.
Balmer also encouraged Rep. Ellen Roberts, of Durango, to challenge Rep. Amy Stephens, of Colorado Springs, for caucus chair.
What Bob Gardner thought was a “win-win” proposition — running on the slate backed by Balmer and the slate promoted by McNulty and Cory Gardner — came off as a double cross when Cory Gardner decided not to challenge Balmer.
Legislators from both chambers made a flurry of last-minute calls to solicit backing for Cory Gardner’s re-election as whip.
“Now, let’s all be candid — because I’m known for my candor,” said Bob Gardner in accepting his nomination. “Some of you may have already been threatened with a primary depending on how you vote here today… If you want style that twists your arm, then I’m not your candidate.”
Cory Gardner, on the other hand, made his case for re-election by crediting the role of the House minority leadership team in the election, taking special note of upsets by Laura Bradford over Bernie Buescher, in Mesa County, and by Kevin Priola over Dave Rose, in Adams County.
“When you see signs for Priola next to signs for Obama on the same lawns, you know we’ve been doing the right thing,” Cory Gardner said as he accepted his nomination.
“We were a shining star across the national scene when we picked up two seats,” the incumbent minority whip added.
Roberts, the other outside challenger encouraged by Balmer, also suggested that strong-arm tactics were employed to ensure the continuation of the House minority’s incumbent leadership team. The Western Slope legislator’s challenge failed, returning Stephens to the post of caucus chair.
Roberts said she and Bob Gardner had been “portrayed publicly as insurgents,” in an effort to shield May and Balmer.
“We blocked the removal of the top two House Republicans, which is good because diversity of thought should be prized, not eliminated,” stated Roberts in a column published in the Durango Herald.
Roberts said a legislator — she didn’t say who — had tried to convince her not to challenge incumbent Caucus Chair Amy Stephens. Roberts said the unidentified legislator had told her that her decision could either help or hurt her chances of running for state Senate District 6 in 2010.
“I have learned the difference between a cactus and a caucus. On a cactus, the pricks are on the outside,” Roberts wrote, quoting Arizona Congressman Mo Udall, the late father of Colorado U.S. Senator-elect Mark Udall.
Rumors floated of other legislators who had received “arm twisting” calls to re-elect Cory Gardner as minority whip. Two of the calls were described as more “congenial” than “threatening.”
Rep.-elect Carol Murray, of Castle Rock, denied rumors that Sen. Ted Harvey, of Highland Hills, had tried to influence her vote.
“I’ve had absolutely no conversation with Ted about the minority leadership election,” said Murray, adding that she and Harvey are “great friends” and that she had contributed to his campaign.
Rep.-elect Mark Waller was reluctant to discuss a phone call he had received from a fellow Colorado Springs Republican, Sen. Bill Cadman. As a newly elected legislator — replacing former Rep. Douglas Bruce — Waller wanted to avoid the controversy, which he initially blamed on the media.
“Cadman did call. He asked me to consider some things before I voted for assistant minority leader,” said Waller. “He said, ‘Vote your conscience. I don’t even want to know how you vote.’”
Cadman called the day before the minority party caucus, Waller said, and was unaware that Cory Gardner had decided against challenging Balmer. The freshman legislator was leaning toward Balmer because Balmer had helped him on the campaign trail.
“I was not threatened by anybody,” declared Waller. “I had calls from everybody running for leadership positions, and they were all cordial.”
“I have no reason to lie,” said Waller, adding that Cadman had remained neutral during the primary against Bruce.
Immediately after the minority leadership election, Cory Gardner and McNulty said they hadn’t made any “high pressure” calls to their fellow legislators, and that they didn’t know of anyone who had.
McNulty questioned Bob Gardner’s decision to suggest that such calls had been made.
“I would have encouraged Bob to take a more cautious approach in his speech,” said Balmer. “But Bob is never going to tell you something that isn’t true.”
Bob Gardner defended his speech as based on “reliable information from people who I believed to be reliable and honest. I am not in the habit of making false statements on or off the record. This information came from multiple people — not just one or two.”
“I’m disappointed that a group of people who claim to have a lot of intestinal fortitude and integrity showed that they have neither one, nor do they have the honesty to call it like it was,” the Colorado Springs legislator said.
“Ellen had the courage to challenge Amy,” he added. “We are the ones who have no reason to not tell the truth.”
“It’s a little like The Godfather,” mused a legislator who had supported May, Balmer, Bob Gardner and Roberts for leadership positions. “Nobody ever gets threatened.”
“You’ll never get to the bottom of this,” said another legislator.
The House minority leadership election showcased two different approaches — stay the course versus change. Cory Gardner and Stephens are considered social conservatives; Bob Gardner and Roberts are viewed as more open to resetting the priorities to reflect public concerns.
Despite all the controversy, Balmer said, the leadership will be inclusive of the diverse beliefs within the party.
“I think the Republican Party has to search its soul. We have to ask ourselves why we’ve lost races,” Balmer said. “We’re not going to win elections without bringing people to our ideas. We have to grow the tent.”
Colorado party Chair Dick Wadhams said that the House scrabble had no bearing on the future direction of the state party.
What about the political futures of the key players?
Wadhams said that Cory Gardner “is an outstanding leader who is taking a hard look at Congressional District 4 in 2010.”
“Frank McNulty has been building a great base of support and can galvanize the base for either a statewide race or in the distant future, Congressional District 6.”
“I’m a big fan of Ellen Roberts,” said Wadhams. “She is one of the most under-reported, under-rated legislators. She has done a great job!”
“Amy Stephens has emerged as one the most conservative legislators, representing her district well,” said Wadhams.
“Bob Gardner won’t be hurt by this challenge,” said Wadhams, describing the Colorado Springs legislator as thoughtful and bright.
Wadhams viewed the episode as “growing pains” — not unusual, particularly in this election year.