By Janet Simons
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Maybe it was the posters.
As we searched to discover the political factors that played into Daniel Kagan’s victory in the vacancy election to replace departing Anne McGihon as state representative for House District 3, the posters leapt to mind.
Only the names of Aaron Silverstein and Kagan were displayed on big vinyl posters on the wall next to the auditorium stage at University Park United Methodist Church as 63 Democratic precinct committee people from Denver and Arapahoe counties cast their ballots on that snowy March 26 night.
Could it be a mere coincidence that the nine-way race turned into a runoff between Silverstein and Kagan on the third, and final, ballot?
And if it was the posters that brought the candidates to the final ballot, which factor was the tipping point that brought Kagan into the Legislature with 35 votes to Silverstein’s 28?
So, guided by the same spirit that leads Major League Baseball stars to believe that “lucky socks” feed winning streaks, let’s consider the possibilities.
Oddities in the nomination process
On the other end of the success spectrum, hitches in the nomination process were a common factor among five candidates who failed to make the final ballot.
Both licensed clinical social worker Stephen White and high school leadership program developer George Brown nominated themselves, and both of their self-nominations were seconded by Denver Democratic Party secretary Owen Perkins.
University of Denver business law professor and former lieutenant governor Sam Cassidy was the only candidate nominated by a family member, his wife, Jillian Jacobellis.
White was eliminated on the first ballot, along with former Denver City Council aide and candidate Shelley Watters.
Brown and Cassidy were eliminated on the second ballot.
Watters was nominated by Douglas Farquhar, an odd choice, considering that Farquhar had dropped out of the HD 3 vacancy race only the day before, upon realizing that his long affiliation with the Republican Party might hurt his chance of being elected by Dem true believers.
Farquhar had switched to the Dems shortly before entering the race.
“I’ve switched now. I’m legal,” Farquhar told the Denver Post. “But it was last-minute.”
Dan Draper nominated Colleen O’Brien, the other candidate eliminated on the first ballot, using three of O’Brien’s allotted five minutes to sing her praises and leaving the candidate only two minutes to explain how her skills as a teacher, small business owner and specialist in physical fitness would serve her in the Legislature. Although everyone seemed to agree that O’Brien had used her two minutes eloquently, there was ample speculation that she might have done better if she’d had more time to speak.
O’Brien, a longtime Democratic Party activist and familiar face in the party’s inner circle, had been expected to do well in the balloting.
“I have no clue why Colleen was eliminated on the first ballot,” said Denver Democratic Chair Cindy Lowery. “I was shocked.”
Lowery dismissed the idea that a lack of speaking time had sunk O’Brien’s ship.
“My gut reaction was that people had already made up their minds,” said Lowery, who noted that people who drive through blizzard conditions to cast their ballots probably know who they plan to vote for.
Instead, said Lowery, perhaps vacancy committee members had crossed O’Brien off their lists because the Cherry Creek schoolteacher isn’t a member of the Colorado Education Association.
“It’s just one of those things,” Lowery said. “When you’re making a decision among so many candidates and you’re deciding in 10 days, you look for reasons to eliminate people.”
There is another possibility. Of the nine candidates, only two represented Arapahoe County: attorney and community activist Judith Judd, O’Brien and Kagan. Perhaps Arapahoe County precinct leaders realized Kagan was their strongest candidate, and backed him over the other two.
Differences of opinion on important issues
All nine candidates were asked to take no more than a minute to state their positions on four issues. They unanimously embraced the Employee Free Choice Act and same-sex marriage, unanimously had severe reservations about the value of the CSAPs and unanimously liked the idea of a high-speed rail line from DIA up Interstate 70 to the ski resorts but dismissed it as unaffordable.
Lowery was stunned and pleased by the uniform progressiveness of their views.
“I would have been happy with pretty much anyone who won out of that group, and I’m on the progressive side of the party,” said Lowery.
Lowery focused on the same-sex marriage issue, noting that it had been debated among the three Democratic candidates who ran in last August’s primary for House District 8.
Lowery had run in that primary against Matt Bergles and Beth McCann, who went on to win the nomination and the seat.
“I was the only one in those debates who was in favor of gay marriage,” Lowery recalled. “To have all nine say they were for it — well, it definitely shows that the district speaks with a progressive voice.”
Although retired Washington Post and National Public Radio correspondent T.R. Reid got a lot of attention, he admitted in an interview with The Colorado Statesman that he had done “nothing partisan.”
That had to count against him in a race where only party loyalists voted.
One observer was overheard to note, “I’m concerned that no one even
knew he lived in the district. Before this vacancy came up, he’d never been to a meeting.”
Lowery said it’s important to remember that vacancy committees are made of people who are active in the party.
“Have I seen the candidate in the neighborhood? At events?” she asked rhetorically. “Across the board, that was one of my biggest concerns. What have you done? Are you dedicated to making the district a better place or are you just taking advantage of an opportunity?”
Silverstein and Kagan, the finalists, are two good men who have come to the aid of their party — frequently.
Silverstein served as get-out-the-vote coordinator for the Jefferson County Democrats in 2006, is a precinct committee person, Senate district vice chair, veteran of many campaigns and legislative aide to House Assistant Majority Leader Andy Kerr.
Kagan volunteered as an aide to McGihon, was instrumental in Linda Newell’s squeaky 2008 victory over Republican incumbent Lauri Clapp in Senate District 26, and, as a Hillary Clinton delegate to the Democratic National Convention in August, engineered a deal with Barack Obama delegates to allow Clinton delegates to cast their votes, averting controversy and contention.
The Arapahoe County factor
So why did Kagan edge out Silverstein?
As soon as the results became public, rumors began to spread that Arapahoe County had cooked up some kind of takeover that allowed SD 3 to be represented by a non-Denverite for the first time in its current configuration.
That, says Arapahoe County Democratic Chair Mike Hamrick, would be mathematically impossible.
“Daniel couldn’t have done it with just Arapahoe,” said Hamrick, noting that only about a third of the vacancy committee comes from his county, and that even if all of the county’s vacancy committee members had showed up for the election, they couldn’t have mustered 51 percent of the vote.
“I think he did a good job of communicating to all the vacancy committee members from across the district,” Hamrick said.
Noted Arapahoe County Democratic Vice Chair Jeanne McWilliams, “There was definitely cross-county-line support … a lot of crossover support for Daniel.”
Denver Chair Lowery observed that there are advantages for the party in having a Democratic state representative come from purplish Arapahoe County rather than true-blue Denver.
“I think there’s always been a concern about the split between the counties,” Lowery said. “The fact is that Mike and I are close friends, and there’s no indication of any kind of power grab.”
True, she noted, historically, the district has been Denver based.
“But there’s something to be said for extending our circles. Arapahoe and El Paso counties used to be considered safe Republican counties, but the Dems are making inroads.
“It’s just another notch for progressive ideals.”
And the winner is…
The Democratic Party officials seemed universally impressed by two factors that separated Kagan from the pack: his speech and the fact that he was the only candidate among the nine who had officially declared an
intention to run for HD 3 in 2010 before McGihon announced that she was leaving early — eliminating concerns that he might be running because he wanted to seize an opportunity.
Hamrick said Kagan’s speech, in which he talked about his childhood as the son of Holocaust survivors, “actually told a very compelling story. I believe he did the best job of using his life values to talk about why freedom is so important.
“He brought everything home together and showed us why he could do the best job.”