Controversial El Paso County GOP official quits

But not before blasting current leadership, fellow Republicans on her way out
The Colorado Statesman

COLO. SPRINGS — Embattled El Paso County Republican Party Secretary Sarah Anderson resigned her party post Monday evening, saying she plans to manage Republican primary campaigns in three Colorado Springs House districts in the coming election year — but not before publicly chastising the party for choosing “power over principle.”

In a nine-page, often rambling, open letter to El Paso County Republicans released Tuesday, Anderson, 22, attempted to document a rift within the Republican Party in El Paso County. Her e-mails and communications between party leaders have lead her to the conclusion that a culture of disparity between “principled” conservatives and the Republican Party as a whole has been in existence for a while now. Anderson alleges sexual discrimination, a disregard and abuse of bylaws, “capriciousness,” and an inside campaign to remove her from office simply for speaking out against Republican Party leaders, to name a few points touched upon in her resignation missive.

The release of the documents and the looming 2012 Colorado Springs House primary campaigns — speculated to be in House Districts 15, 16 and 21 — seem to seal the notion of a divide within the Republican Party itself, especially in the Colorado Springs area. Anderson would not publicly reveal in which House district primaries she plans on getting involved, but she herself acknowledges that people will speculate from her letter that they are in HDs 15, 16 and 21.

El Paso County is considered ground zero for Republican and conservative movements in Colorado and perhaps the nation. Colorado Springs Republican Reps. Mark Waller, HD 15, Larry Liston, HD 16, and Bob Gardner, HD 21, represent the districts likely to be targeted by Anderson.

With Republicans holding a razor-thin one-seat majority in the Colorado House, Democrats are already gearing up to take advantage of the fallout, looking at disunity within the Republican Party as President Barack Obama launches a campaign to once again win the swing state of Colorado. Obama’s campaign is aware that winning Colorado will take more effort in 2012 than in 2008. The president stopped in Colorado on Tuesday where he spoke in Denver, giving a campaign-style speech supportive of his $447 billion jobs bill. A disenfranchised Republican base in Colorado could help propel the president to victory in the state.

Still, Anderson has remained true to her “conservative values,” but not without her fair share of controversy. The young conservative’s outspoken and bold statements have pitted her against those within her own Republican Party, beginning with inflammatory remarks concerning House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument. The catalyst was a piece of legislation this year by Stephens — Senate Bill 200 — that established a health care benefits exchange in Colorado. It was considered by many conservatives to be an alignment with Democrats and federal health care reform. Conservatives who mockingly refer to President Obama’s health care reform as “ObamaCare” immediately began referring to SB 200 as “AmyCare.” Anderson helped brand the term.

On July 7 of this year, the El Paso County Republican Party held an “emergency” meeting to determine the controversial Anderson’s fate. The closed-door get together has been referred to by critics as a “witch hunt.” The party decided to let Anderson slide at the time, but mandated that she not speak to the press about her discontent and instead work towards party unity. The reign of censorship didn’t last long. Two months later, Anderson had established herself as a Republican Party outsider, coming down hard on elected officials and vowing to remove Republican incumbents who choose “power” over party and principle.

“There is far too much at stake in 2012 to waste my time and energy quibbling with hard-headed individuals who will not change; my time, talent and focus are better spent influencing public opinion with solidly principled candidates in primary races against those who have chosen power over principle,” wrote Anderson in her stinging resignation letter which she read at Monday’s executive committee meeting.

Anderson specifically singled out several elected officials, including El Paso County Republican Party Chairman Eli Bremer, as well as El Paso County Republican Reps. Liston, Gardner and Stephens. Also mentioned by Anderson were El Paso County Treasurer Bob Balink and Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call.

Liston received the harshest criticism from Anderson, who described him as a misogynistic, sexist state representative with a history of discrimination toward women. Anderson alleged that when she was 14 years old and first starting her political work as a volunteer at the legislature, she was warned to, “Make sure I was never alone in a room with him.”

In her letter, Anderson also alleged that a rumor circulating that she “shows up at meetings without underwear on” originated from Liston.

“Frankly, it’s repulsive that any elected official (let alone my State Representative) would say that about anyone (let alone one of his constituents,)” she penned.

Liston says he “feels sorry” for Anderson, and insists that the now retired El Paso County GOP secretary is a “young lady who needs some guidance.” He notes a record of working with women, including his current campaign manager Cheryl Oleyar. Liston says he is not personally frustrated about Anderson’s comments, but is instead concerned for his wife and daughter.

“I have a wonderful wife, a wonderful daughter, I’m a good guy, and I’ll let my actions in public and private speak for themselves,” Liston said. “I challenge anybody out there to rise forward and say that I’ve done something that I should feel bad or ashamed of.”

As for the comment he made in 2008 when he called unwed mothers “sluts,” Liston once again apologized and said that he has already atoned.

“I owned up to that mistake; I apologized to my colleagues on the floor of the House, I went the extra step, which I was glad to do, I went to the Florence Crittenton School for unwed mothers and I apologized to the young ladies and the staff of that school, and I went before the cameras and the media, the press, and I bared my soul. I owned up to my mistake, it was a mistake, I regret saying the word that was said…” reiterated Liston this week.

Anderson also released several e-mails between Liston and the executive committee in which he purports to not only call for Anderson’s resignation, but also suggests that the infighting will lead to doomed campaigns in 2012.

“This cannot continue in Light (sic) of the upcoming 2012 elections,” a concerned Liston wrote to the executive committee on Sept. 6. “Too many of us have worked, toiled, sweated and Bled (sic) for our party to see us all dragged through the mud by immature, selfish and narcissistic people who have no one’s interests at heart, except their own. Will you just stand by and Watch (sic) while our party is destroyed from within, or will you do something about it?”

Following Anderson’s resignation on Monday evening, Liston told The Colorado Statesman that he does not hold Anderson in high regard — evidently — and therefore is not particularly concerned about an outside challenge. Liston is term-limited in 2012, but he says he will be actively getting involved in an open seat campaign in HD 16. Colorado Springs conservatives Karon McCormick, who serves as vice-chair for the party in HD 16, and Mike Garner, another HD 16 Republican, are rumored to be interested in running in the district, though they have yet to file paperwork with the secretary of state.

“I’m really scared, I’m scared to death,” Liston sarcastically responded when told that Anderson might run a primary campaign in HD 16. “Who do you think the people in my House district know and respect? Not to toot my own horn, but who do you think they know better? Me or Sarah Anderson?”

When asked what he thinks of Sarah Anderson, Liston responded,“Nothing.”

Speculation about Anderson doesn’t concern Bensberg, other Republicans Anderson would not publicly disclose the names of the candidates who she intends on helping. El Paso County Commissioner Jim Bensberg, the only candidate thus far to have filed paperwork with the secretary of state to run in HD 16, says Anderson isn’t his campaign manager. Rather, he told The Statesman, he has chosen veteran politico Mike Ciletti, a governmental relations partner at New West Public Affairs.

Bensberg declined to comment specifically on Anderson’s potential role in an open seat primary in HD 16, but he said he is prepared to take on any candidate that he faces.

“I’m going to run my campaign regardless of who else gets in,” he said. “I’m a seasoned professional, I’ve got eight years experience as a county commissioner and strong credentials within the party. If that’s persuasive to the voters of HD 16, I’ll be the new representative after 2012.”

Anderson says there is another unnamed, undeclared candidate planning to run in HD 16, suggesting that she will be working on that candidate’s campaign.

Contested primary campaigns in House Districts 15 and 21 would come as a surprise to El Paso County Republicans, as no one has been anticipating primaries challenging incumbents in those districts. Anderson says she is not currently focused on Rep. Stephens’ HD 20, but she says if there is a candidate in HD 20, she will be involved in the race.

Legislator Gardner, who also serves as the El Paso County Republican Party’s attorney, received a lashing from Anderson, too. She claims that Gardner publicly disparaged her, despite her being one of his “clients” as an elected official to the party. Anderson released an e-mail from Gardner to El Paso County Republican leadership in which he talked about the ramifications of Anderson’s rogue comments.

“It is incumbent upon Party officers to support the elected officials and not to criticize them publicly, and not to do things that would detract from their ability to serve, their ability to be effective, or even second-guess them,” wrote Gardner in an e-mail made public on June 23. “I think that the success of the Party is important, and I gather that some of the current Party officers believe that a purity of the platform is more important. I disagree.

“You can be as pure as you wish, but at the end of the day, you may just be promoting ideas and hearing yourself talk… it seems to me that they don’t understand the larger legislative game,” Gardner continued.

Gardner did not attend the El Paso County Republican Party meeting on Monday evening, and he could not be reached for comment as of press time.

El Paso County Republican Party Chairman Bremer was also harshly criticized by Anderson for an alleged abuse of the party’s bylaws. Anderson called Bremer “capricious,” arguing that he aligns with power over principle.

“There is no guarantee now that Chairman Bremer will not remove access from individuals who he just personally doesn’t like or can’t ‘trust’ for some undefined reason of his own, nor from campaigns he doesn’t support, potentially causing conflicts in primary neutrality…” stated Anderson.

After Anderson’s resignation on Monday, Bremer said he wishes her the best, but he is not concerned about a rift within the party itself.

“The voters will decide, and if there is an elected official who is not doing the will of the people, then it’s the job of the people to take that person from office,” Bremer said. “On the other hand, if they’re doing the will of the people and they retain their seat, then obviously that speaks for itself… I don’t see it as a sign of disunity within the party, I see it as a proper function.”

Colorado Republican Party Chairman Call, who also was rebuked by Anderson for allegedly asking her earlier to resign, would not comment specifically about her this week. But he fervently denied any division within the Colorado Republican Party, stressing that the party welcomes outside, grassroots opinions as part of a unified effort. Call said the party’s priority has to be on winning elections, because if the party is not successful it can’t advance its agenda.

“The job of the Republican Party, first and foremost, is to win elections. If we don’t win… we can’t see any of those principles actually translated into policy,” Call said. “While there is a need for, and certainly a welcome place for disagreement in our party, no one member of the Republican coalition has veto power over all the others.”

Call said the party has to be aware of “distractions” and other factors that create divisions within the party or “undermines its core purpose,” but he would not comment on Anderson specifically.

Meanwhile, Democrats are gearing up for the 2012 elections, suggesting that there may be some momentum to gain from any divide within the Republican Party.

“I’m sure it’s going to get a little messy this season if the Republicans are running primaries,” said Christie Lalait, chairwoman of the El Paso County Democratic Party. “We’ll just have to see what happens.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com