By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
COLORADO SPRINGS — El Paso County Democrats are outnumbered in Colorado’s most populated and conservative “red” county, but they’re abundantly enthusiastic about the prospect of capturing more Republican-held seats.
“It’s a great time for us to strike while the Republicans are in disarray and extremely fractured,” said Democrat John Morse, who represents El Paso County Senate District 11.
More than 150 exuberant people attended a recent county Democratic Party strategy meeting to discuss how to build on their latest victory — with a one-seat gain, El Paso County Dems now hold three seats in the Colorado Legislature.
Last month, Dennis Apuan squeaked past Republican candidate Kit Roupe in House District 17 and Democrat Michael Merrifield won a fourth term representing House District 18. Morse won’t stand for re-election until 2010.
County Democratic Party Chairman John Morris said the party faithful had been dismayed — but not discouraged — by the county voters’ 59 percent to 40 percent preference of John McCain over Barack Obama in the presidential race, and by Bob Schaffer’s 57 percent to 38 percent El Paso County win over Mark Udall in the U.S. Senate contest.
“We wanted to capture that enthusiasm from the presidential election,” said the Dem chairman, who had expected no more than 50 people to show up at the Hillside Community Center meeting on Nov. 22, and, instead, “was pleasantly surprised to see more than 150 Democrats!”
Morris said the county party meeting sought to involve the new Democrats energized by President-elect Obama’s campaign. The agenda included teaching the newcomers about the local party, signing up volunteers for committees, urging folks to participate on civic boards and preparing for upcoming elections.
Topping the “to do” list is recruiting “progressive candidates” for the April 9 Colorado Springs City Council elections. City Council members Jerry Heimlicher, Scott Hente and Daryl Glen are up for re-election, and Margaret Radford is term-limited. Even though it’s a nonpartisan election, Democrats are painfully aware that Republicans hold every seat.
“We want to do candidate development programs,” said Morris, adding that the goal is to groom progressive candidates who are Democrats or unaffiliated.
“It’s a nonpartisan election so we can’t give endorsements — besides, it could be the kiss of death,” he cautioned.
During the meeting, former 5th Congressional District candidate Jay Fawcett pointed out that Republicans run on the mantra of “lower taxes” but fell on their swords in September when the Wall Street financial industry hit the skids.
On the local front, City Council members — with the exception of Glen — backed measure 1A in the general election. The one-cent sales tax increase designed to benefit county, city and suburban municipalities was defeated overwhelmingly.
Despite that rout, Colorado Springs Mayor Lionel Rivera said he hopes to put the tax increase on the April ballot. Such a move is apt to hurt incumbents seeking re-election to the City Council and to help newcomers win.
“I think City Council is a much better place for Democrats to make gains because it is nonpartisan,” said Morse, who thinks there are tremendous obstacles to winning more county commissioner and legislative seats here.
“The El Paso County Republican Party was extremely fractured… but even Obama couldn’t crack 40 percent of the vote here,” the state senator said. “We’ve got to figure out a strategy.”
“Democrats can potentially win local and legislative seats on the west side of the county,” Morse added.
Party Chairman Morris believes Democrats have a shot at winning several seats on the City Council in 2009 as well as another legislative seat and county commissioner seat in 2010. By 2012, Morris hopes Democrats will hold a majority of seats on the Colorado Springs City Council and the El Paso County Board of Commissioners.
Morris said the Democrats already are recruiting candidates to replace Merrifield, who will be term-limited in 2010. In addition, the party is laying groundwork to ensure Apuan’s re-election in HD 17 and to recruit candidates to run against Rep. Bob Gardner in House District 21 and newly elected Keith King in Senate District 12.
Morris said he was disappointed that Democratic candidate Pete Lee didn’t beat King in SD 12 — a district that contributed thousands more dollars to Obama than McCain in the presidential race.
“Pete Lee was an outstanding candidate who ran against a real shit-head,” said the El Paso County Democratic chairman.
Nathan Fisk, executive director of the El Paso County GOP, scoffed at Morris’ assessment.
“Keith King is a respected long-time servant to this community who has demonstrated more concern about public education than Michael Merrifield, who is in cahoots with teachers’ unions,” said Fisk.
Merrifield, whose re-election campaign received more than $4,000 from the Public Education Committee, taught in public schools for 30 years and chaired the House Education Committee.
King, a former state legislator, served on the House Education Committee from 2003 to 2006 and founded the Colorado Springs Early College, a charter high school at Colorado Technical University where students can take college courses.
“If the Democratic Party thinks riding the coattails of Barack Obama is an effective, long-term strategy to winning elections, it is badly mistaken,” said Fisk.
“The Republican Party is highly energized and extremely aggressive in pursuing victories in House Districts 17 and 18 in the 2010 election,” said Fisk, adding that the county party executive committee met this week to begin designing political strategies to win upcoming elections.
“We have several excellent candidates lined up to challenge Merrifield,” said Fisk, adding that Roupe or another candidate will run against Apuan.
“The Democrats didn’t win House District 17 because they put up a great candidate — they won because of Barack Obama,” said Fisk of Apuan’s victory.
Although the Democratic Party proved to be viable in energizing voters to go to the polls and raising campaign funds, Fisk said the county GOP did an equally good job.
“We raised more than $300,000 this year,” said Fisk, adding that the local party currently has several thousand dollars in the bank and no outstanding debts.
Sen. Morse said the county GOP might have money, but they “give us these terrible candidates who don’t know how the real world works… it’s absolutely embarrassing.”
Despite that, Morse said, Republican voters keep voting the “R’s” into office.
“Consider Bob Balink,” he said of the county clerk and recorder. “He wants to run for Wayne Williams’ county commission seat in 2010, and Wayne wants to run for Balink’s seat. It’s a game of musical chairs. Balink has clearly demonstrated that he’s an incompetent, blithering fool. But, I’ll bet you now that he’ll win that race.”
Williams confirmed his interest in running for county clerk and recorder. Balink was unavailable for comment.
“The Democrats have to build on these wins and come up with great candidates,” said Morse, the Colorado Springs state senator.
“Barack Obama said that he hopes his campaign’s grassroots organization will survive well past the November election day,” said Morse. “I think El Paso County is ripe for the picking. His goal is alive here.”