GOP battles to reclaim El Paso legislative seats

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

COLORADO SPRINGS — Money is pouring into this cash-strapped community — not a rainfall of tax revenues needed to water parks or turn on street lamps, but a gusher of hundreds of thousands of dollars into targeted races by Republicans and Democrats. Under siege are legislative seats snapped up by Democrats in recent years — Senate District 11 and House Districts 17 and 18

After a decade of a Republican monopoly on legislative seats, the dominoes began falling in 2002 when Democratic state Rep. Rep. Michael Merrifield won House District 18. Senator John Morse claimed Senate District 11 in 2006 and Rep. Dennis Apuan captured House District 17 in 2008.

Republican candidate Owen Hill talks with a couple about his race against Democratic state Senator John Morse.
Photo by Chris McIntire
Democratic state Senator John Morse
Walking a precinct in Colorado Springs House District 18, Democratic candidate Pete Lee, left, and state Rep. Mark Ferrandino, right, compete to win over voters and their agreement to place Lee’s campaign signs in their yards.
Photo by Leslie Jorgensen/The Colorado Statesman
El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark and HD 18 candidate Karen Cullin, owner of Victoria’s Keep in Manitou Springs, together. Clark, Cullin’s campaign manager, also runs a bed and breakfast inn in nearby Old Colorado City.
Photo by Leslie Jorgensen/The Colorado Statesman
Republican HD 17 candidate Mark Barker and his campaign manager, former state Rep. Stella Hicks, aim to unseat Democratic state Rep. Dennis Apuan.
Photo by Leslie Jorgensen/The Colorado Statesman
Democratic state Rep. Dennis Apuan

These political battlegrounds have captured the attention of political action, small donor and other political committees that have pumped money into the campaigns — and externally paid for mailing and TV ads. The goal is to not only shore up partisan support but also lure unaffiliated voters that make up roughly a third of the registered voters in each of the legislative districts.

Senate Majority Leader Morse has amassed a $128,989 war chest to fend off GOP challenger Owen Hill, who has raised $87,484 and loans of $7,446. Thirty-eight percent of Morse’s funds came from political committees and organizations; conservative counterparts fueled 28 percent of Hill’s campaign.

Because Merrifield is term limited, the HD 18 seat is up for grabs — Democratic candidate Pete Lee and Republican Karen Cullen are jumping through hoops and walking precincts — to snatch it.

Both candidates are touting their business backgrounds as assets to turning around the sagging economy and spurring new jobs. Cullen owns a bed and breakfast inn; Lee is an attorney whose clients over three decades have included small businesses and Fortune 500 corporations such as Holly Sugar.

Political committees have given each candidate a boost — funding nearly 34 percent of the $64,474 raised by Lee’s campaign and slightly more than 34 percent of the $43,398 in Cullen’s campaign coffer.

Voters in the district, which includes Manitou Springs and western and central portions of Colorado Springs, have been peppered liberally with mailers courtesy of special interest groups — more promoting Lee than Cullen.

One mailer, paid for by Accountability for Colorado, featured a classroom blackboard with a simple math formula for “disaster” — it claimed that Cullen wanted to divert “$140 million from our schools” to bailout special interests. The massive postcard cited the Colorado Springs Gazette as its source.

“I don’t even know what they’re talking about. I’ve never said that,” declared Cullen, who added that even the newspaper protested that no such statement was ever reported.

Accountability for Colorado also issued a mailer titled, “Pete Lee has good ideas to make Colorado a business-friendly, low-tax state again.” At least one of the five favorable points attributed to Lee surprised the Democrat.

“Pete proposes tough new penalties for corporations that hire illegal immigrants — including jail time for CEOs who are repeat offenders,” stated the mailer. Lee sounded perplexed when asked about it.

“I don’t recall having made that proposal — particularly jail time,” said Lee. “I would explore a wide range of options with a group of people.”

In HD 17, Apuan is fighting to fend off GOP challenger Mark Barker — a political match between an anti-war protestor turned lawmaker versus a law enforcement officer turned lawyer.

Barker’s campaign is being steered by former state Rep. Stella Hicks, who had been appointed to the seat in 2006, and decided against seeking election in 2008. Apuan skated past Republican candidate Kit Roupe — perhaps propelled also by the winds of change that pushed then Illinois Senator Barack Obama to victory. Apuan’s campaign manager is Thomas Young, who worked on former state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign.

Though Romanoff rebuffed campaign contributions from special interests, neither Apuan nor Barker have turned down the assists. Apuan carried over about $3,500 from his previous legislative campaign and has raised $48,556 in this campaign cycle — at least 60 percent came from political committees. Of the $41,957 raised by Barker’s campaign, about 51 percent was derived from hefty donations from political committees.

SD 11 — A battle for soul of constituents and new soles for Democrats
One of the distinctions between the two candidates, Morse said, is that he’s lived in the Colorado Springs area for 42 years and knows the community. Hill hails from Virginia, graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy, and returned a few years ago to work as an economist for Compassion International.

“I went to grade school, high school and college here,” said Morse. “I know Colorado and I have helped forged its values over the last several decades.”

“I have many family members in the district and we are hopeful that our children can grow up here and land good jobs in the community,” said Hill.

Morse, who earned an MBA from University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and briefly pursued medical school, has embraced career changes. The Senate Majority Leader has been a paramedic, certified public accountant, law enforcement officer and detective for the Colorado Springs Police Department and Fountain Police Chief before pursuing a call to politics.

“My opponent seems to subscribe to the Douglas Bruce school of state politics — move to the state later in life and immediately claim you know its values and can represent its people by making changes to the law,” asserted Morse.

Bruce, a California transplant, gained notoriety after authoring and gaining voter approval of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights. He served briefly as an El Paso County commissioner and state legislator in House District 18.

From Hill’s perspective, Morse “thinks that government officials know better than the communities they represent. I am bringing a new energy to the idea that people can make decisions for themselves. (They) want the responsibility of determining their own future — not be told what they can and can’t do by an overbearing government.”

The Republican candidate said that unlike his Democratic opponent, his goal “is not on maintaining the status quo and getting re-elected, but in being proactive to what is right for this community for today and generations to come.”

Morse said that he doesn’t agree with everything government does, but he respects the separation of powers that ensure checks and balances. He mused that Hill doesn’t share the same respect.

“When the legislature passes a law he doesn’t like, he terms it unconstitutional… when the court makes a decision he disagrees with, he ignores the ruling and continues to call the action unconstitutional,” alleged Morse.

Hill’s current website does not contain opinions on issues such as the FASTER bill that was upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court despite the argument that the fees imposed on vehicle registrations violated TABOR. The Republican’s Facebook page is packed with famous quotes by politicians and philosophers — and a few of his personal comments.

“My grandfather would ask you how to grease a peanut combine? His answer would be that you run a politician through it real slow,” blogged Hill.

Hill and Morse said they have been walking precincts and listening to voters in the district that spans from Powers Boulevard on the eastside of Colorado Springs to include Manitou Springs on the Westside.

Asked what they’re hearing from voters, Hill said frustration with overbearing government regulations. Morse said they share concerns about health care, jobs and education.

“The most common conversation we have is with small business owners such as plumbers, coffee shops, CPAs, handymen… who all say that in the last 10 years, they have been spending a rapidly increasing amount of time filling out paperwork and trying to comply with overbearing rules,” said Hill.

Morse recalled talking with an elderly woman whose daughter is disabled and requires several medications — without health care assistance, the medicine would cost $2,000 a month. Without the medication, the daughter cannot function.

“Fortunately, the woman qualifies for Medicaid so she pays three dollars per month,” said Morse of the daughter. “She must reapply for Medicaid each year and last year there was a gap between when she applied and when she was re-approved. She lives in absolute fear of this gap.”

From the disabled daughter’s viewpoint, Morse said, “politicians seem to pooh-pooh these real needs of real people” and they focus on cutting budgets and that can strip services to help those in need to have a shot at a productive life.

“She reminded me, ever so gently, that my job isn’t about politics or votes, but about each individual person that I represent,” said Morse.

Asked about the surprises each candidate encountered in this political season, Hill said that despite all the talk about reforming government, “people cling to old ways of doing things because their fellow government officials are afraid to make changes.”

Hill said that until he talked with voters, he didn’t realize how angry they are at the political system. The Republican candidate said that the welcome surprise was having his ideas embraced by people. Instead of promising solutions, Hill said, the “best approach is to empower local communities to handle the unique situations they face rather than a one-size-fits-all solution from Denver.”

Morse said that he’s gratified that people appreciate his “willingness to stand up against the status quo and do something — not just talk about doing something.”

One example, the Democrat said, was a bill he carried to fund a pilot program to provide mental health care services to family members of recently discharged veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. The goal, he said, was to “help them and their soldier loved one to transition back into civilian life.”

Hill and Morse offer diverse views and choices for the 46,882 active registered voters in SD 11. According to the Colorado Secretary of State’s report on Oct. 1, the district has 15,961 Democrats, 15,003 Republicans and 15,534 unaffiliated voters.

The image of Hill is family values — he’s often seen at political functions with his wife Emily and their three young children Kaiden, Miette and Ellis. Add to that his work for Compassion International might endow a holy aura to the candidate.

Morse, who is known for his wisecracking humor and sometime cantankerous remarks, might not be viewed as displaying a holy soul — but wearing holey soles. An independent political committee resurrected the theme of holes in Morse’s shoes that helped walk him into office four years ago. The group issued a blast email of an old photo of Morris with his feet on a desk and clearly exposing the holes in his loafers. Now, they’re running a TV ad of walking-talking shoes pitching his re-election.

“The television commercials that are currently airing are catchy with the talking shoes, but they are not mine,” declared Morse, who added that he knew zip about the 527 committee’s ad.

HD 17 — ‘More is more’ versus ‘less is more’ philosophy
The Democratic and Republican contenders agree on one thing — losing and finding jobs are the dire issues facing their constituents in this district that includes southeast Colorado Springs and stretches south to the Pueblo County border and includes the Fort Carson Army Post. The district does not include the towns of Security, Widefield and Fountain.

“Too many people are out of work,” said Apuan. “Those who are working continue to struggle to make it from paycheck to paycheck.”

“Most people are concerned because there are so many unemployed,” said Barker. “I’ve heard the story over and over that people have been laid off by their employers due to the slowdown in the economy.”

The Republican said the economic recession has idled contractors of housing and infrastructure — and the job losses have caused a ripple effect in the loss of income to sustain local businesses.

The candidates diverge on the causes and solutions to this pressing problem.

“Many of the people in my district feel disillusioned by the political system and feel they’re forgotten,” said Apuan. The Democrat said he’s running for re-election to make certain his constituents are remembered and represented.

“I will continue to do everything in my power to ease their pain by ensuring that the government is working to create jobs in Colorado, demanding everyone has access to quality and affordable health care and working to provide all children with a great public education,” vowed Apuan.

Apuan’s brand of representation, according to Barker’s view of government, impedes small businesses from growing and creating jobs — and the additional fees or taxes hurt everyday folks.

“In 2010 alone, the legislature approved more than $1 billion in new tax and fee increases, and approved $300 million in sales tax hikes by removing the exemptions on many items purchased daily by my constituents,” said Barker. “These are truly staggering increases.”

The Republican candidate said the state’s business personal property tax takes millions of dollars out of the economy each year and stifles growth.

Like Apuan, Barker values education, but from a different vantage point. Specifically, the Republican noted that 36 percent of Coloradans are college grads — the second highest state in the nation — and that coupled with job opportunities creates an optimistic future.

“High-tech manufacturing makes up half of Colorado exports,” Barker said. “We have many experienced workers from these industries living in House District 17. Add tourism, bioscience/biotechnology, energy, and others and we have great options.”

What differentiates the candidates from each other?

“I have worked to make our government work for the people,” said Apuan of his first term in the House. “My opponent plans to cut the funding and resources for our public services and programs.”

By winning re-election, Apuan said voters would be ensured access to quality health care, social security, strong public schools, public safety and job creation in areas such as the state’s renewable energy program.

“(Apuan) has supported the expansion of both the size and scope of state government,” asserted Barker. “He has supported the increase in revenue to the state through various methods intended to circumvent Article X, Section 20” of the state Constitution — TABOR.

Apuan, however, did not vote for the controversial FASTER bill that rankled many Coloradans who were unaware of the increased fees for vehicle licensing — and the late fee penalties that were later scaled back.

“I believe we need to hold our elected officials accountable and that is why I helped close billions of dollars worth of taxpayer funded corporate loopholes,” said Apuan. “It is also why I fought to put the state budget online so taxpayers can see how their money is being spent.”

Barker described his philosophy as “one of free market capitalism, personal liberty and responsibility — all with limited government.”

Apuan said that it takes continued political involvement to keep state government from returning to ”failed policies” that caused the recession.

“We have made great strides in building Colorado’s new energy economy, tightening the budget and increasing transparency. We are making progress, but we still have a lot of work to do,” said the incumbent Democrat.

Both candidates said they have walked the neighborhoods and knocked on thousands of doors in HD 17, and are continuing to send mailers to promote their campaigns. There are currently 17,677 active voters in the district, including 6,217 Democrats, 5,423 Republican and 5,810 unaffiliated voters.

The district has been targeted in the “must win” column for both the Democratic and Republican parties.

HD 18 — An open seat, but not a musical chairs game
Cullen and Lee have hit the pavement daily, talking to voters in this district that includes Manitou Springs and stretches across Colorado Springs to just past Academy Boulevard on the east and to Lake Avenue on the south.

As some folks say, it’s a campaign challenge to vie to fill the shoes of popular Democratic state Rep. Merrifield, who is term limited and running for a seat on the El Paso County Board of Commissioners.

Both Cullen and Lee have achieved name recognition from past, if unsuccessful, races. Democratic candidate Lee ran against Republican state Senator Keith King in 2008, and Republican contender Cullen campaigned for a seat on the Manitou Springs City Council last year.

There’s little variation in what the candidates perceive are the most important issues on the minds of voters — and both believe their business backgrounds are assets in understanding problems and finding solutions.

“Jobs, the economy and government spending,” said Cullen.

“People are extremely concerned about the amount of money our government is spending. I’ve talked to many people who have been out of work for nine months or more and it doesn’t matter what their skill level is,” said the Republican candidate. “I’ve talked with people who have master’s degrees and people with minimal skills — and they can’t find a job.”

“I think we can help small businesses. As a small business owner, myself, I know that we can create jobs if we don’t have burdensome regulations,” said Cullen who with her husband Jay own Victoria’s Keep, a bed and breakfast inn in Manitou Springs.

“For example, when the ‘dirty dozen’ (bills) passed, that impacted our business. Because of the taxes, we have to pay more for paper products, candy and soda,” said the Republican candidate.

The Democratic candidate identified similar problems — but offered a different perspective on the cures.

“Jobs, economy and education,” declared Lee. “We can’t save or tax our way out of this recession. We have to help stimulate the economy by creating a climate that helps businesses to grow jobs.”

“As an experienced businessman, I understand business and economic issues. My legislative goal is to work for a vibrant economy that creates jobs,” said Lee.

Cullen proposed “reforming the business personal property tax” and offering tax credits to small businesses — new and existing entities — as incentives to create jobs.

The Republican conceded that the elimination of the tax and addition of a tax credit would result in lower revenues for the state that is already struggling to cover deficits and balance the budget. Cullen, however, said that the creation of jobs would recycle money into the economy and increase state sales and employment tax revenues.

“There is some offset,” said Cullen.

Lee suggested initiating a “Buy Colorado” program to spur job creation.

The program would ensure all entities under the state government would buy products and services from businesses in Colorado before purchasing or outsourcing jobs to other states and countries.

“Even if the products cost 3 percent more, it’s worth it because it would help businesses grow, create jobs and the money would be spent here — instead of helping an economy outside of Colorado — and increase revenues for the state,” said Lee.

“It’s actually Dick Celeste’s idea,” said the Democrat, who early in his campaign had met with the Colorado College President.

“It’s an example of an idea that was generated from talking with a constituent,” he declared. “Dick implemented a similar program when he was governor of Ohio. It was highly successful.”

The rivalry between the candidates is rooted in their backgrounds. Lee has lived in Colorado Springs for 34 years; Cullen is a third generation Coloradan who moved to Manitou Springs in 1993. Both candidates have been deeply involved in community service.

“I look forward to being the citizen’s legislator versus the lawyer legislator,” said Cullen, zinging her opponent.

Lee countered, “People, who’ve known me over the past 34 years, know that I have experience in working with businesses, an understanding of education from having been a classroom parent for my children to now, serving as a member of the Colorado Springs School District 11 budget committee, and extensive knowledge of our justice system as an attorney.”

In response to Republicans who have wondered if the Democratic candidate is more liberal than Merrifield, Lee laughed.

“I’m not a partisan ideologue. I’m a pragmatic, independent thinker. That’s why I have Republican supporters as well as Democratic and unaffiliated voters,” declared Lee.

Among Lee’s Republican supporters are developer J. Kenton Pass, Colorado Springs City Councilwoman Jan Martin and former city Councilwoman Mary Ellen McNally. High profile Democratic fans include state Sen. Rollie Heath of Boulder, former state Rep. Daphne Greenwood, builder Chuck Murphy, former Colorado Springs City Councilman and former Senator Ken Salazar’s District Director Richard Skorman, former 5th Congressional District candidate Jay Fawcett and CPA Marvin Strait.

Cullen said her message mirrors the voters’ hopes — “I think everyone wants less government — not more.”

The Republican candidate has been endorsed by the “who’s who” of GOP politics and business. They include state Senators Keith King of Colorado Springs and Josh Penry of Fruita and state Reps. Carole Murphy of Castle Rock, Amy Stephens, Bob Gardner and Larry Liston of Colorado Springs and Marsha Looper of Calhan, American Furniture Warehouse CEO Jake Jabs, El Pomar Foundation CEO Bill Hybl, and developers Steve Schuck, Scott Smith, Chris Jenkins, Ralph Braden and Heath Herber.

Merrifield’s replacement in the legislature will be determined by at least 30,518 active voters, including 10,618 Democrats, 9,278 Republicans and 10,329 unaffiliated voters.

Leslie@coloradostatesman.com