El Paso GOP goes...surfin' Colorado

Moondoggie Merritt elected El Paso GOP chair

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

COLORADO SPRINGS – Hundreds of “Dudes” and “Gidgets” had a bitchin’ time at the El Paso County GOP’s annual “Beach Party and Chili Cook-off” on June 5 at Mr. Biggs Family Fun Center in Colorado Springs. Before the surfers hit the waves, they elected a popular “Moondoggie” — Andy Merritt — to lead the party and avoid candidate wipeouts in the November election.

Wearing a Hawaiian lei and Colorado hula hoop, Republican state treasurer candidate Walker Stapleton poses with his campaign manager Michael Fortney at the El Paso County GOP Beach Party.
Photo by Leslie Jorgensen/The Colorado Statesman

Merritt, a long time party activist, was challenged by Brad Collins, president of the local chapter of the Coalition for a Conservative Majority. Merritt is district director for Congressman Mike Coffman and previously worked for U.S. Senators Wayne Allard and Hank Brown.

Collins and Merritt shared visions of strengthening the party, winning elections and upholding conservative fiscal and social values. They diverged on how to accomplish those goals.

Some anticipated a close battle between the two candidates to replace Kay Rendleman, who resigned the chair last month to manage Republican U.S. Senate Ken Buck’s campaign. Buck won top line on the ballot at the state GOP assembly in May; Republican challenger Jane Norton is petitioning onto the ballot.

Before the state party assembly, Collins told The Colorado Statesman that he wouldn’t run for chair because he openly supports Republican candidates in two statewide primary races — Dan Maes over Scott McInnis for governor and Buck over Norton in the U.S. Senate contest.

Collins resurrected his race for party chair at the urging of his supporters. He told the county party central committee that he favors Maes and Buck, but as chair would be fair to all candidates. Merritt said that he has and will continue to remain neutral in contested races.

Tatianna Gruen laughs as newly elected El Paso County GOP Chair Andy Merritt shouts with glee! Gruen and Reb Williams, each wearing a T-shirt in support of opposing Republican U.S. Senate candidates, nominated Merritt.
Photo by Leslie Jorgensen/The Colorado Statesman

Instead of watching a couple surfer dudes riding board-to-board in a breaking barrel wave, the election turned out to be more of an “ankle-buster” of small political waves.

In a symbol of unity, Merritt was nominated by Reb Williams, who wore the royal blue Buck campaign T-shirt, and Tatianna Gruen, who sported the purple Norton campaign shirt. The duo told the 384 delegates and other observers that Merritt would be fair and unbiased.

That message and the need for an experienced political leader were hammered home in seconding speeches. State Rep. Amy Stephens said Merritt had helped her win election. Dan Nordberg, 5th Congressional District director for U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, relayed the congressman’s endorsement.

Merritt was also endorsed by nearly every Republican elected official in the local party — from the county commissioners to state Attorney General John Suthers. State Rep. Kent Lambert and Sen. Dave Schultheis didn’t endorse either candidate.

Republican state treasurer candidate J.J. Ament captures the festive spirit with spicy chili and a tropical-themed booth at the El Paso County GOP Beach Party at Mr. Biggs Family Fun Center in Colorado Springs.
Photo by Leslie Jorgensen/The Colorado Statesman

Facing a massive wave — to keep the party financially afloat — Merritt told the delegates that he’d secured funding for county party operations from impressive donors, including developer Steve Schuck, El Pomar Foundation CEO Bill Hybl and others. That, he said, would allow the party to raise funds to provide direct and indirect support for Republican candidates — and not need a dime for office overhead.

In a “Cowabunga!” moment, Merritt rode the wave to victory, winning 72 percent of the vote.

State GOP Chair Dick Wadhams launched the beach party and central committee meeting with a rousing partisan speech — accusing the Democrats of being “ethically bankrupt” and using “Chicago-style politics.”

It was a slam on President Barack Obama’s administration for getting involved in at least two U.S. Senate races. The administration had emailed three potential jobs to former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff — none were promised. The overture looked like an enticement for the candidate to abandon his Democratic race against U.S. Senator Michael Bennet. Romanoff won top line on the primary ballot at the state Democratic Party Assembly.

“We’re going to keep the heat on!” roared Wadhams.

The state chair thanked Ryan Parsell for picking up the county party reins when Rendleman resigned. Parsell hastily organized the county GOP’s state delegate credentialing process and this central committee meeting.

“You did a great job and you’re a great example to all of us,” said Wadhams. Parsell, who will serve as the county party vice chair, received a standing ovation and boisterous cheers.

The beach party featured hula hoop, karaoke and dancing activities on the “beach” — and a luau of hot dogs, chips, soft drinks and samples of chili made by at least 15 candidates.

“I’m the only one who won with quality chili!” declared state Rep. Mark Waller, defending chili cook-off champ. Waller’s secret ingredient is the chef — his wife Jennifer made the hearty dish.

“This year, it’s just going to be a popularity vote,” Waller teased Vickie Broerman, who was ladling samples of the Norton campaign’s chili and offering home-baked corn muffins.

“Whining Waller!” laughed Broerman, who won the cook-off in 2008.

Across the “beach” dotted with chairs and a few umbrellas, Erica Chaves ladled samples of the Buck campaign’s chili.

“Colorado GOP Girls” who dig U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck include (front row) Erica Chaves, who made the Republican candidate’s spicy chili, campaign manager Kay Rendleman and El Paso County Buck campaign coordinator Robin Coran.
Photo by Leslie Jorgensen/The Colorado Statesman

“It’s all in the spices,” said Chaves, who didn’t reveal the recipe but whispered that it includes cayenne, peppers, onions and garlic.

As the beach party emcee, former county GOP Chair Greg Garcia wandered through the crowd of Republicans draped with Hawaiian leis to let each cook-off contestant tout their chili.

El Paso County Commissioner District 5 candidate Peggy Littleton seized the microphone and jumped on a chair to pitch her white bean and chicken chili. Stephens beamed and shouted like a cheerleader as she promoted her bourbon-laced chili spiced with hot Italian sausage.

Colorado Springs City Councilman Darryl Glenn introduced his chili chef — his 17-year-old daughter Ashley Glenn who served scoop-styled tortilla chips with her chili of beef, kidney beans, green peppers, onions and basil.

Garcia enticed candidates and elected officials to come to the “beach” near the stage, bring a partner and dance to oldie goldies, from Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again” to the Beach Boys’ “Giddy-up 409.” Each time the music stopped and the words, “El Paso County,” were heard, the candidates and elected officials scrambled to get another partner from the audience.

Among the dancing surfers were Republican state treasurer candidates J.J. Ament and Walker Stapleton, who is petitioning onto the ballot; county Commissioners Amy Lathen and Wayne Williams with his wife Holly, Glenn, Waller and Lambert.

It was difficult to recognize Lambert at this beach party — instead of the Hawaiian shirt, sandals and dreadlocks he donned last summer, the Republican state senate candidate wore a classic white polo shirt, tan shorts, black socks, black shoes — and his own hair.

State Rep. Mark Waller, defending chili cook-off champ, offers samples to El Paso County Commissioner Wayne Williams, county GOP Vice Chair Ryan Parsell and Holly Williams.
Photo by Leslie Jorgensen/The Colorado Statesman

If an award was given for surf dancing, Glenn would win — he could “Hang 10” from one end of the beach to the other without missing a new wave of music. The chili cook-off award went to Norton’s campaign. (No one would spill the beans on the recipe.)

Unlike last summer’s beach party, the county GOP decided not to allow candidate stump speeches and scratched the buck-a-vote straw poll of candidates. Instead, it raised funds through the beach party tickets — $20 per adult, $5 per child — and charged $1 to vote in the chili cook-off contest.

As the sun set on the event, you could hear some Republicans singing, “I’m pickin’ up good vibrations… Good, good, good, good vibrations.”

It almost sounded like an election omen — Republicans aiming to kick Democrats out of office cycle like shaking pesky sand out their sandals.

Leslie@coloradostatesman.com