Locals add own flavor to Clear Creek assembly

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Like many of the Democrats gathered at the Clear Creek County assembly in Idaho Springs last weekend, Randy Wheelock has worn a lot of hats over the years. A past member of the school board and former city councilman, Wheelock used to co-chair the county Democratic Party along with his wife, Eileen, and this year he’s running the party’s get-out-the-vote operation in the mountain county west of Denver. So when he rose to urge delegates to support former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in a primary, Wheelock didn’t have to read from a brochure.

Clear Creek County Democrats raise orange delegate cards to indicate support for former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff in the U.S. Senate primary at the county assembly March 27 in Idaho Springs.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“Whenever we asked Andrew Romanoff, he’d come here,” Wheelock told the 32 assembled delegates, elected at precinct caucuses two weeks earlier. “He’s effectively had a statewide seat for the last four years he was in the Legislature. We’re one of the smallest counties, so it’s hard to get on people’s radar, but it’s always been easy to get on his radar.”

Instead of listing Romanoff’s accomplishments or dissecting competing policy positions, Wheelock made a common-sense appeal to fellow Democrats gathered at the United Church for a Saturday afternoon of politicking. “Andrew has represented most of the things I believe in,” he said. “That’s all you can say about anyone.”

Others followed, singing Romanoff’s praises, including one Democrat who assured his neighbors Romanoff “is from here, he was born here.” While that’s not, strictly, accurate — Romanoff grew up in the Midwest and moved to Colorado in the early 1990s after getting degrees from Ivy League schools — it conveyed the sense the assembled mountain town Democrats seemed to share, that Romanoff was as familiar as the sudden snow flurries that had erupted an hour earlier on the bright spring day.

Democrats met at assemblies across the state last weekend as the first wave of counties set about picking delegates to the May 22 state assembly in Broomfield, where delegates will nominate candidates for the August primary ballot. Romanoff edged Bennet in a statewide preference poll conducted at precinct caucuses March 16, tallying just under 50 percent of the vote over Bennet’s 42 percent, with the remainder undecided.

When it came time for Bennet supporters to make their case at the Clear Creek County assembly, party officers eventually had to enlist a somewhat reluctant spokesman because a number of Bennet delegates named at precinct caucuses hadn’t shown up.

“It’s been disappointing Bennet hasn’t been more proactive getting people out here,” said Hugh Derby, an alternate delegate to the county assembly. “Romanoff is clearly a strong candidate,” Derby said, “but they’re very similar in many ways.” Pausing for a moment, perhaps considering whether his ambivalence was overwhelming his message, Derby forged ahead, pointing out that Romanoff’s pledge to refuse donations from political action committees might not be an unalloyed strength. “As Democrats, we’re often idealistic,” he said, “but we often lose.”

Another Bennet supporter made a similar case. “There’s a tremendous amount of money targeting this race,” said James Hicks, noting that national Republican groups have vowed to pour millions of dollars into taking the seat. Since Bennet has proven himself a fundraising juggernaut — raising upwards of $1 million each quarter since he was appointed to the seat last January — he’s the best chance Democrats have, Hicks said. “For only that reason I’m going to support Bennet,” he said, and then added, somewhat apologetically, “I’m not trying to convince anybody to change their mind.”

Hugh Derby, left, Gilpin County Commissioner Jeanne Nicholson and Tracy McIlrath visit before the Clear Creek County Democratic assembly gets under way March 27 in Idaho Springs. Nicholson is running for the state Senate District 16 seat and McIlrath is her campaign manager.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

No one did. When county co-chair Truman Esmond called for a vote, 29 orange cards went in the air, each representing a vote for Romanoff, and only three were raised for Bennet. Because Bennet’s support didn’t pass the required 15 percent threshold to win representation at the state assembly, all of Clear Creek County’s 10 delegates would be Romanoff supporters. The assembly vote boosted the challenger’s share from 85 percent support in the preference poll taken caucus night to 100 percent.

The results out of Clear Creek — one of the smallest counties in the state — aren’t decisive, amounting to only 1 percent of the delegates needed to make the ballot, but the Romanoff campaign trumpeted the win as emblematic.

“Drawing the lion’s share of previously undecided delegates and making inroads among supporters of his primary opponent,” said a statement issued just hours after the March 27 assemblies had concluded, Romanoff gained strength compared with initial results. In Adams County, the campaign pointed out, Romanoff swapped a 4-point win on caucus night for a 23-point win among assembly delegates, a trend echoed in nearly every other county that counted votes last weekend. It’s “great news for us, and a sign of fading support for Bennet,” crowed Bill Romjue, Romanoff’s campaign manager.

The Bennet campaign downplayed the Romanoff “spin,” including similar declarations of victory midweek after another half dozen counties held assemblies that also gave Romanoff more support than he’d enjoyed at caucuses.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of CD 2 discusses federal health care legislation at the Clear Creek County Democratic assembly. Polis, whose district includes the county, called the law a “very important step in the right direction.”
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“We’re definitely focused on talking to caucus and assembly participants, but we’re also reaching beyond the 4,000 party insiders,” said Trevor Kincaid, the Bennet campaign’s communication director.

Kincaid pointed out that Bennet has been traveling the state while Congress has been in recess, holding small business roundtables and talking financial reform with different groups, not just concentrating on county assemblies. He’s also been appearing on state TV sets in a $600,000 ad buy that began airing earlier this month, a luxury the Romanoff campaign hasn’t been able to afford yet as its fundraising has been dwarfed by Bennet’s.

“Andrew has two decades of grassroots experience, and the people with him now have been doing this for years. He’s very organized, and I give him credit for that,” Kincaid said. But that isn’t all it takes to win a primary election, he said. “When you’re comparing two decades vs. a few months, we’re right there with him, and we’re beating our internal projection of what we’re going to do. We’re confident we’re going to make the ballot, but our focus is on the entire state.”

After 45 more counties hold assemblies — including a cluster of the most populous ones on April 10 — Romanoff and Bennet will need the votes of 30 percent of state delegates to make the Aug. 10 primary ballot. If either falls below that threshold — considered unlikely — but still surpasses 10 percent support, he can petition onto the ballot by gathering 10,500 signatures, including 1,500 from each of the state’s seven congressional districts. Support below 10 percent at the state assembly means a candidate would be barred from petitioning onto the ballot.

Last week, Republican Senate candidate Tom Wiens, a former state lawmaker from Douglas County, announced he would bypass the state assembly and attempt to petition onto the ballot. In a preference poll held at Republican caucuses, Wiens trailed fellow GOP candidates Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck and former Lieutenant Gov. Jane Norton, who ended the night in a virtual tie at about 37 percent of the vote, with Buck ahead by a hair.

Clear Creek County Democrat James Hicks makes the case for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. “I’m not trying to convince anybody to change their mind,” Hicks said.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Back in Clear Creek County, after naming state delegates — basically everyone who felt like traveling down to Broomfield in a couple months — the assembled Democrats welcomed U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, whose 2nd Congressional District includes the county. Noting he’d attended the White House ceremony where President Barack Obama signed the controversial health care bill earlier that week, Polis devoted much of his talk to the landmark legislation.

“This is a very important, very important step in the right direction,” Polis said, urging Democrats to take pride in the achievement but also to steel themselves for a difficult campaign season ahead. “Republicans are going to make this (fall’s election) a plebiscite on health care reform,” he warned.

Polis blasted Attorney General John Suthers for joining a multi-state lawsuit challenging the health care bill on constitutional grounds, or “using the hard-earned money you sent to the state to sue the federal government,” as Polis termed it. “Everybody I’ve talked to, even conservative legal scholars, says there isn’t the grounds for a challenge,” Polis assured the Democrats.

The Boulder Democrat kept his remarks brief, pointing out he planned to give a longer talk on the health care bill later that evening at the county’s Jefferson Jackson dinner, but ended with some red meat for the partisans.

Bennet, Romanoff set second debate
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff will meet for a debate April 23 from 7-8 p.m. on the Colorado College campus in Colorado Springs.

It will be the second debate between the Democratic primary candidates sparring for a chance to run for the seat Bennet now holds. Sponsored by the alternative newsweekly The Colorado Springs Independent, the meet-up will be taped before an audience by KRDO-News 13, the local ABC affiliate, for broadcast the next day. Information on tickets will be available next week.

“This is something we as Democrats can be very proud of,” Polis said. The bill passed without a single Republican vote, he noted. “They decided to take their marbles home and not play.”

A couple of quick preference polls later — yielding unanimous support for Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s gubernatorial bid and Secretary of State Bernie Buescher’s election — a visitor from neighboring Gilpin County, term-limited Commissioner Jeanne Nicholson, rose to ask Democrats for their support in her run for the state Senate. Nicholson is seeking the District 16 seat occupied by Democratic state Sen. Dan Gibbs, who announced last year he would give up the seat to run for the Summit County Commission.

Nicholson warmed up the crowd with “the Green Dress story,” which ends with her beloved aunt telling Nicholson, “You should tell that story because then people will know you can think on your feet and you’re fiscally responsible.” Suitably charmed, the Democrats gave her a unanimous endorsement in her run against whichever Republican emerges from that party’s primary.

Then followed a cavalcade of candidates for local office, each winning a hearty endorsement from the assembly.

First up was former Idaho Springs Mayor Bill Macy, accepting a nomination to run for the county commission to take the place of term-limited Harry Dale.

“At the local level, we don’t need another politician, we need a public servant, and that’s what Bill is,” Wheelock said to a chorus of assent.

“You’ve got to promise me if you get elected, you won’t abandon me and will give me some help,” Idaho Springs Mayor Jack Morgan said to laughter from the crowd.

The afternoon’s only wrinkle came next, when Idaho Springs Police Chief David Wohlers revealed he wouldn’t be running for county sheriff but would instead pass the baton to his deputy, Jim Vogt, because someone had raised a question about potential Hatch Act violations. Seems Wohlers had signed for Homeland Security grants in his capacity as chief, and Democrats didn’t want to risk fighting a complaint based on the federal law that prohibits recipients of federal money from engaging in partisan campaigning.

Not to worry — Vogt agreed to step in and accept the nomination for sheriff just prior to the county assembly. “Twenty four hours ago, I didn’t know I would be standing here,” Vogt said. “The bottom line is, I was going to run with Dave as his under sheriff,” but under the new circumstances the roles would be reversed.

Longtime Clear Creek County Surveyor Greg Markle — “he has the personality to solve boundary disputes,” a supporter chimed in — and veteran County Treasurer Irene Kincade won unanimous support for their bids for re-election.

The bulk of Democratic state assembly delegates will be chosen April 10, when 21 counties convene, including population centers Denver, Jefferson, Arapahoe, Douglas, Boulder, El Paso and Pueblo counties.

Following is the remaining schedule for Democratic county assemblies.

• April 3: Alamosa, Bent, Chaffee, Fremont, Huerfano, Kit Carson and Mesa;

• April 5: Dolores and Summit;

• April 6: Grand, Phillips and
Washington;

• April 8: Moffat and Pitkin;

• April 10: Arapahoe, Archuleta, Boulder, Broomfield, Costilla, Custer, Denver, Douglas, El Paso, Garfield, Jefferson, La Plata, Las Animas, Montezuma, Montrose, Otero, Ouray, Prowers, Pueblo, Routt and Teller;

• April 11: Elbert and Rio Blanco;

• April 13: Rio Grande;

• April 15: Lincoln.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com