Dem state chair candidates stand up against outside involvement in primaries

The Colorado Statesman

The next chair of the Colorado Democratic Party won’t stand for it if outsiders try to influence a state primary.

All three Democrats running for state party chair agreed during a forum at a union hall in Lakewood on Jan. 29 when challenged by an audience member — the outspoken John H. Kennedy — to “take a pledge to oppose and publicly fight any effort by Washington Democrats to take over a primary again while you’re in office.”

In unison, former state Sen. Polly Baca, past Larimer County Democratic Party Chair Adam Bowen, and longtime legislative aide Rick Palacio all stood, along with the candidates for vice chair, secretary and treasurer. The roughly 50 Democrats gathered to hear the candidates all applauded.

True Blue sponsored a forum for statewide Democratic Party leadership positions Jan. 29 at the Sheet Metal Workers union hall in Lakewood. From left, Rick Palacio, Adam Bowen, True Blue organizer and forum moderater Rebecca Browning and Polly Baca.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Union organizer and True Blue leader Tim Allport and Polly Baca.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
State Dem Secretary (and candidate for re-election) Carolyn Boller and candidate for 2nd Vice Chair Vivian Stovall.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Former state Rep. Sara Gagliardi and her campaign manager Elliot Goldbaum watch the forum.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Last year’s divisive Democratic Senate primary between former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet cast a shadow over the discussion at the Sheet Metal Worker’s hall, but all the hopefuls made it clear they want Colorado Democrats to pick their own candidates.

Bennet, appointed to the seat in early 2009, had the backing of President Barack Obama and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He went on to win the primary and then beat Republican nominee Ken Buck, though he trailed Romanoff in Democratic caucuses, county assemblies and at the state convention.

The three announced candidates for state party chair are Baca, who was the first Latina elected to the Colorado Senate and sat on the DNC for 16 years, including eight years as a national vice chair; Bowen, who served two terms as Larimer County chair and lost a bid for county commissioner in the fall election; and one-time Pueblo County clerk and recorder candidate Rick Palacio, who worked for then-Majority Leader Alice Madden at the state Capitol, then for former U.S. Rep. John Salazar, and currently serves as a top political aide to former U.S. House Majority Leader and current Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer.

Democrats pick state party leaders at a central committee meeting on March 5 at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. Over the next two weeks, county parties meet to pick officers and additional central committee members, who, along with elected officials, all get a vote. Three-term Colorado Democratic Party Chair Pat Waak announced in late December she wouldn’t seek reelection to a fourth two-year term.

The forum was organized by True Blue Colorado, a group formed to pressure state party officials to stay true to Democratic principles.

“Our strategy has relied too much on those used by our conservative opponents, who not only rely on but are defined by money, influence and power,” said True Blue organizer Rebecca Browning, who moderated the forum. She added: “We are a progressive party, and we should stop wagging our tail between our legs about that.”

And keep outsiders out, she added, though she emphasized the group didn’t want to reopen old wounds, just prevent new ones.

“We came together after a primary season subject to too much influence outside the state of Colorado,” she said. “But this is not about ‘he said, they said’ — it’s not about the past, it’s about the future.”

Still, casting at least a glance toward the past, not one of the three candidates for state party chair supported Bennet before the primary.

Baca co-chaired Romanoff’s Senate campaign. A year ago, on the eve of a visit by President Barack Obama for a Bennet fundraiser, she appeared along with other past and current party officials outside Colorado Democratic Party headquarters in Denver to demand Obama stay out of the Colorado Senate.

At the forum, Baca explained why she’d taken that position.

“The reason I wrote that letter is because I really believed it was going to hurt President Obama,” she said. “I love our political party, but I also understand how harmful it can be when you try to do it top-down.”

She said she wanted to dispel misconceptions about her position. “Some would say when I did that that was not being nice to the White House, and that the White House would hate me forever,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve heard rumors I somehow have this clash with the White House — it isn’t true,” she added, noting that she was one of only a handful of Colorado Democrats invited to the White House Christmas party.

Palacio said he stood firmly with Romanoff up to the primary.

“I worked for Andrew Romanoff, I was a strong supporter of Andrew Romanoff, I gave Andrew money,” he told the forum. “And when Andrew lost his primary, I cried for a day, and I was one of the most disappointed people in this room. The next day, I made a check out to Michael Bennet.” Invoking a boating metaphor, Palacio went on: “We don’t all just need to row together, we need to row in the same direction.”

Bowen, who was bound by party rules from endorsing a candidate in the primary, said he declared himself uncommitted at his precinct caucus last year and remained neutral through his county assembly.

“I’m not seeking to reopen wounds, but I think there are people who really need to be heard,” he said. “It’s important as the leader of an organization to maintain neutrality,” he added.

It was a theme sounded by True Blue organizers and audience members, who had a chance to tell the candidates what they thought of the party’s straits. “Democrats are losing confidence in the party, including because of the national party’s involvement in the Senate primary,” said one Democrat.

But the group had plenty of other concerns about the party and its performance in the last election, when Democrats lost control of the state House — by fewer than 200 votes costing a single seat — and ceded two congressional seats to Republicans.

“Our next leaders of this party are going to find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place,” Browning said. “The rock of increasingly convoluted regulations and cultural attitudes that favor money, influence and power… And the hard place of increasing voter apathy, distrust, and disaffection with the political process, our government and our party. We’ve lost the message. Democrats, taxes and government are the failing principles in the eyes in many in our country, and we need to turn that around.”

Each of the state party chair candidates weighed in.

“My concern about the party right now is that we have a lot of disillusioned Democrats, for a variety of reasons,” Baca said. “I’m running for state chair of the Colorado Democratic Party because I believe I can help re-energize — not only the disaffected Democrats statewide, but also Democrats who might be participating in the party but they need a little bit more juice, they need a bit more action, more involvement. And that’s why, as state chair, I will have a 64-county strategy, because I believe in organizing from the grassroots up.”

Palacio referred repeatedly to his “Three M’s” campaign slogan, standing for money, mobilization and messaging.

“The Colorado Democratic Party has an incredible opportunity to reclaim some of the things that are rightfully ours and we need to take back,” he said, adding that next year’s election is critical. “Our Democratic values are seriously at risk unless we do all we can to make sure Barack Obama is reelected president.”

More than once, Palacio looked over the diverse crowd and pronounced, “Unity is not the same as unanimity.”

“We have a huge tent, which is a blessing, but it’s also a curse,” he elaborated. “Oftentimes we expect party purity. There’s room under this tent and at this table for Democrats that are not in agreement with one another.” He added: “It’s vitally important that we have unity, someone who can bring the party together.”

Bowen — who described himself after the forum as “an evolutionary candidate, not a revolutionary candidate” — said his experience leading Larimer County Democrats and running for office in the last election has prepared him to helm the state party.

The northern Colorado county almost perfectly mirrors the statewide voter registration breakdown — Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters each make up about one third, with Republicans holding a slight edge — and it’s a near-perfect bellwether for statewide candidates.

“It’s one of those counties that’s absolutely a must-win, for a Dem anyway,” Bowen said. “If a Dem doesn’t win Larimer County, then the Dem doesn’t win Colorado.” He pointed out that Bennet and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper both carried Larimer County by about the same margins they won statewide.

“I’ve been a down-ticket candidate and I know how important it is to have some enthusiasm from the top-level candidates, because that really effects our (get-out-the-vote) effort,” Bowen continued. He recounted knocking on doors across the county and told the audience it’s important to reach out to Republican and unaffiliated voters in order to win elections in Colorado.

“A lot of Republicans, if you ask them, feel the party has moved away from them,” Bowen said. “They are not culture-war Republicans. Frankly, people who are gay, who are immigrants, who are state workers, feel they have been demonized by a lot of Republican office-holders, and that’s nonsense. We shouldn’t let the Republican Party get away with that.”

The state GOP picks its leaders at a central committee meeting on March 26 at Douglas County High School in Castle Rock. Current Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams is seeking a third two-year term. He faces announced candidates John Wagner, who ran the campaign of Republican U.S. Senate hopeful Cleve Tidwell; Bart Baron, who ran for Congress in Michigan before retiring in Colorado; and state Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, who announced his candidacy this week along with a list of endorsements from about half the Republicans serving in the legislature.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com