Write-in candidacy of Curry spices up race

By Marianne Goodland
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

This week, Rep. Kathleen Curry, U-Gunnison, is planning to educate voters in her district to ask them to do something they’ve never had to do before.

Curry will attempt to succeed where no one ever has — to win election as a write-in candidate for the Colorado House of Representatives from House District 61.

It’s a far cry from where she was in 2004 or even as little as eight months ago.

Rep. Kathleen Curry

Curry handily won election to the House from District 61 in 2004, beating back a challenge from Becky Rippy, a cousin of Curry’s predecessor, Rep. Gregg Rippy, R-Glenwood Springs. Curry took the seat with 60 percent of the vote to Rippy’s 36 percent. And it was the last time Curry had a challenger for the seat; she ran unopposed in both 2006 and 2008.

Once seated at the Colorado General Assembly, Curry began to make her mark. She was named chair of the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee, quite an honor for a freshman legislator and a tip of the hat from Democrats who wanted a West Slope legislator in a power position.

During the next six years, Curry became known as an advocate for water rights, landowners, and gun rights (she has an A- rating from the National Rifle Association), and an advocate for careful regulation of oil and gas.

Things got more interesting in late 2008. Rep. Bernie Buescher, D-Grand Junction, unexpectedly lost a re-election bid to the House where he was the most likely candidate to become the next Speaker of the House. That put the Speaker’s seat up for grabs.

In January 2009, Curry became part of a three-way battle for the leadership post with Reps. Terrance Carroll, D-Denver; and Anne McGihon, D-Denver. In her speech to the Democratic caucus, Curry said the House needed a speaker from a rural area, and pointed to her ties to Buescher, both as a legislator and because they come from the same part of the state. But what may have taken her out of contention was telling the caucus that she intended to keep her family and ranch as top priorities and would try to balance that with being speaker, which many view as a 24/7 position. A run-off whittled Curry out of contention and it became a two-way race between Carroll, who was eventually elected Speaker, and McGihon.

That may have been the beginning of her fall from grace with Democrats in the House.

After the Speaker’s election, Carroll named Curry as Speaker Pro Tem, and she continued on as chair of the Ag Committee for a fifth year.

It all changed on December 28, 2009. On that day, Curry announced she would leave the Democratic Party and become unaffiliated. Within the month, she was no longer Speaker Pro Tem, she lost her leadership position on the Ag Committee (although she remained on the committee) and in March she was removed from the House Appropriations Committee.

She told the Glenwood Post Independent in December that “I just don’t fit into either party. My votes are not consistently Democratic, they’re whatever I think is best for the district, and I know that has sometimes been kind of a disappointment” to party leaders.

At that time, the Post Independent reported that political observers in the district thought her switch would not endanger her chances of winning re-election in 2010.

But Ed Sands, chair of the Garfield Democratic Party, said this week that Democrats in his county were caught unaware, both by Curry’s decision and the manner in which she made it.

Sands said he found out about it from a phone call from a reporter. “Everyone was dismayed with her decision and there was a lot of concern in the way she went about it.” Sands said there had been no discussion about her frustrations with House leadership and that Democrats in the district would have tried to help resolve the situation, had they known about it.

After the switch, Curry was expected to caucus with Democrats, but she didn’t always tow their party line. In the most recent session, she voted against five of the dozen controversial bills that repealed state sales tax exemptions on agricultural products, candy, online retail sales, or that ended income tax credits. She also carried a groundwater bill, Senate Bill 52, on behalf of the Republican representatives of northeastern Colorado. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, said he had asked Curry to carry SB 52 because of her position on the Ag Committee; at the time, she was still its chair. Curry, who had no background in groundwater issues (there aren’t any groundwater basins in Colorado west of the South Platte), successfully marshaled the bill through the House, despite efforts by legislators on both sides of the aisle to kill it. At one point, SB 52 died on a division vote in the House but it was resuscitated on a procedural move by Curry and Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, and then successfully passed and eventually signed into law by Gov. Bill Ritter.

Despite her change in party affiliation, Curry decided to go for a fourth, and last term, from House District 61, running as an unaffiliated candidate. But state law got in the way.

State law requires that independent candidates file a petition of candidacy one year before the nominating petitions are due, which would have been on or about May 27, 2009.

However, in the case of at least four political parties in Colorado, party rules differ substantially from state law. According to a lawsuit filed last fall against the Secretary of State by La Plata County Commissioner Joelle Riddle, political parties can enact party rules that are less restrictive than those imposed on unaffiliated candidates. The state Democratic Party rule says the candidate need be affiliated only 12 months prior to the general election, or Nov. 2, 2009. The state Republican Party is even less restrictive, requiring party affiliation by February 24, 2010. For Libertarians, party affiliation is required 86 days before the nominating assembly; and the Green Party says a candidate must “not be affiliated with another party for six months before being nominated by the Green Party” for a partisan elected office. In addition, nothing in statute prohibits the political parties from removing any restrictions whatsoever, the lawsuit pointed out.

Curry joined in the Riddle lawsuit, hoping to get a favorable ruling that would allow her to be on the November ballot.

But on June 23, Judge Marcia S. Krieger ruled against Riddle and Curry, stating that the registration timelines were “set early enough in the election cycle to generally accommodate those who leave their party due to longstanding policy differences, but late enough to prevent late-breaking departures from parties based on pique or political opportunism.” In addition, the state’s election laws were designed “to prevent partisan candidates from entering races as unaffiliated candidates in order to circumvent the party primary process or to bleed off votes from another candidate” and to “promote political stability and protect the integrity of Colorado’s political process,” by thwarting frivolous or fraudulent candidates, avoiding voter confusion, or preventing the clogging of election machinery required to administer an election.

Curry told The Colorado Statesman that the lawsuit is on appeal. But in the meantime, she has one other option — to get elected as a write-in candidate.

So can she succeed where no one else ever has? There are some who think she ought to give it a shot. And others think, no way.

Curry got encouragement in January from the Post Independent.

In a January 8, 2010 editorial the newspaper’s editors said they applauded her decision, although acknowledging that it could be political suicide and that winning as an unaffiliated candidate would be an uphill climb. Curry “felt the need to be true to herself and who she is – [and] isn’t that the type of person we should want in today’s political arena?,” the editors wrote.

Sands said most Democrats in his county don’t think she can win as a write-in candidate. “Some Democrats [are] very angry that she deserted the party;” but despite that if she had been able to get on the ballot “we could have supported her as an unaffiliated [candidate],” he said.

Curry is counting on her voting record, name recognition and independent voter registration in House District 61 that might work in her favor.

Curry’s district 61 encompasses parts of Eagle and Garfield counties and all of Gunnison, Hinsdale and Pitkin counties. The largest cities and towns in the district are Aspen, Gunnison, Glenwood Springs, and Crested Butte.

The last time a Republican held the seat was with Curry’s predecessor, Gregg Rippy, a one-term member who beat Democrat Rick Davis in 2002 by about 7 percentage points out of 22,000 votes cast.

Political party registration in the district in the past decade has seen upticks in the numbers for Democrats, from 27.3 percent of registered voters in 2000 to 31.1 percent as of May 2010. Republican voter registrations have lost ground in the last decade, from a high of 30.9 percent in 2004 to 25.8 percent this year. However, the district’s largest group is unaffiliated voters, a number that has held steady throughout the decade, at just above 42 percent.

And although she ran unopposed in 2006 and 2008, she’s got two challengers for the November ballot: Democrat Roger Wilson of Glenwood Springs, and Republican Luke Korkowski of Crested Butte.

As of the June 30 filing, his first, Wilson has $710 cash on hand for the campaign, much of it out of his own pocket; Korkowski, who filed his third campaign finance statement in June, has received more than $3,000 in contributions with a little more than $500 left in the bank.

Curry’s lack of party affiliation certainly hasn’t hurt her financially. As of the June 30 filing, she had received more than $30,000 in contributions with $9,278.24 still in the bank, although a substantial portion of those funds were contributions on hand before she made the switch.

But the most recent filing shows the contributions are coming in. She raised $10,000 in the last two months for her re-election bid, and counts among her recent supporters Jay Helman, president of Western State College; Jim Cooper, president of Oxbow Mining (and five other executives from the company also contributed to her campaign); a number of elected county and city officials through the district. And the mayor of Glenwood Springs is her campaign co-chair.

Curry also points to support she got for the lawsuit from elected officials throughout the district. Petitions supporting her and submitted along with the lawsuit included signatures from the entire Glenwood Springs City Council and city council members from Carbondale.

Curry said that she offered contributors who had given to her campaign prior to the switch the opportunity to get their money back; to date, no one has taken her up on the offer.

“I think [the election] is winnable,” Curry said, although noting that there’s no precedent for it and there has never been a viable write-in running a campaign like the one she plans.

“I have name recognition, incumbency, and popularity in the district. You put all those things together and then a write-in is doable.”

The biggest challenge for the campaign, admittedly, is just getting people to remember to write-in her name. So all materials — be it T-shirts, signs, banners, her election Web site or printed materials — include a picture of a ballot with instructions on how to write-in her name.

To win, it will take “an aggressive grassroots approach” that will help people visualize the ballot, she said. Curry also plans to ask her campaign volunteers to phone-canvass the district to reinforce the message.

Curry noted that 60 percent of the district voted early in the last election, and in some counties it was as high as 80 percent. She can’t say whether this will be an advantage, although she hopes that when voters are sitting around the kitchen table with their mail-in ballots they’ll have her direct mail piece sitting next to the ballot and the Legislative Council Blue Book.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com

CORRECTON: Due to an error in a Curry campaign finance report, a donation to the Curry campaign that was attributed to Rep. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, should instead have been attributed to her husband, Rick Roberts, who is unaffiliated.