Controversial vacancy committee meeting gives Neville the nod to succeed Kopp

The Colorado Statesman

A Republican vacancy committee on Thursday night denied veteran state Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Littleton, a promotion to the upper chamber by the narrowest of margins and instead chose activist Tim Neville to take over for retiring Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp. But the proceedings turned sour after the 60-58 vote was confirmed in a supervised recount as Kerr supporters charged that a handful of Republicans who should have voted hadn’t been notified of the meeting.

State Sen.-appointee Tim Neville, right, savors the announcement that he won the seat by a 2-vote margin as his opponent, state Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Littleton, left, lets the news sink in at a vacancy committee meeting held the night of Nov. 3 in Ken Caryl to replace retiring Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

It was a battle between the old guard and the Republican establishment, represented by the four-term incumbent Kerr, and an upstart wing of the GOP embodied by Neville, who helped lead the charge — unsuccessfully — against incumbent Democrats on the Jefferson County School Board in Tuesday’s election as part of the Jefferson County Students First Action.

The vacancy committee — made up of precinct and party leaders as well as elected Republicans who reside in the sprawling south Jefferson County district — packed the upper floor of the Ken Caryl Ranch House, where tensions ran high between backers of the two candidates. Rumors that a third candidate would enter the race with a nomination from the floor proved unfounded, and after brief nominating speeches, it was all about voting, counting and recounting the ballots.

Jefferson County District Attorney Scott Storey nominated Kerr, calling the four-term legislator “a statesman” who knew his way around the Capitol and stressing the veteran campaigner’s electability in a district whose lines could change dramatically following reapportionment. Kerr, Storey said, is someone who has “the ability to form consensus, the ability to collaborate, while at the same time preserve their core philosophies.”

Former Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, right, talks with Republican Ronald Rizzo during a vacancy committee meeting to name Kopp's successor in the south Jefferson County seat. Kopp announced early last month that he would step down on Oct. 21 to spend time with his family following the death of his wife, Kim.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Noting that the state Senate “is controlled by the Democrats, and it’s terrible,” Storey made the argument that electability matters: “Senate District 22 will be targeted — because Mike (Kopp) is not there — it’s going to be targeted by the Democrats. So you need to appoint somebody who has name recognition, has political and campaign experience, and someone who’s a proven leader, if you want to maintain this seat. And that’s Jim Kerr.”

After weathering attacks during the brief vacancy campaign from rock-ribbed conservatives, including Rocky Mountain Gun Owners executive director Dudley Brown — who blasted Kerr for his vote on a 2006 measure supported by most Republican legislators — Kerr spent much of his speech accepting the nomination defending his vote for a bill to establish a health care benefit exchange in the state.

Kerr denied his vote had anything to do with bringing national health care to Colorado and said, instead, it was a vote Republicans should applaud. “This wasn’t about implementing Obamacare,” he said, “this was specifically about protecting our state’s rights.” He added that he helped block a key federal grant that “would have tied us to the federal government, it would have tied us to national health care.”

“I know how to cut through the baloney,” Kerr said, making a plea to send an experienced legislator on to the Senate.

Nominating Neville, Ken Caryl resident Randi Ruscetta praised him as “a man of faith, a small businessman, a constitutional conservative” who has “been involved in the GOP since dirt.” Neville, she said, believes that “sometimes principles rise above the tit-for-tat. I believe Tim will not waver in his principles.”

Jefferson County District Attorney Scott Storey moves back into the crowd at the Senate District 22 Republican vacancy committee meeting in Ken Caryl on the night of Nov. 3 after protesting that several supporters of state Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Littleton, hadn't been allowed to vote in the contest to replace retiring Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, R-Littleton. Activist Tim Neville defeated Kerr by a 60-58 vote. Senate District 22 Chairman Don Lee, a former state representative from the area, presides at the lectern and declared the results would stand.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Neville kept his remarks brief, unfurling a laundry list of conservative causes he said he would champion in the Senate.

He promised to “pass a Right to Work law in this state,” said it was time to “put an end to illegal immigration in this state” and vowed to stop “Gov. John Hickenlooper’s sanctuary city policy.” He also promised: “I will fight to protect our rights to keep and bear arms” and pledged to “oppose all tax increases, even those disguised as fees.”

Concluding, Neville said Republicans need to stick to their principles and said it seemed to him that “the only way we can be defeated is when our leaders stray from those principles.”

During the roughly half hour spent voting and then counting ballots, Kopp — who announced early last month that he would step down on Oct. 21 to raise his family, following the death of his wife, Kim, from cancer — visited with Republicans. He reflected on his transition from statewide Republican leader back to private life as a father.

“It’s a little bittersweet,” he said, “but I’m looking forward to spending time with my kids, and I’m looking forward to cheering on my state senator from the sidelines.”

Finally, Senate District 22 Chairman Don Lee — a former legislator who preceded Kerr in the House seat — announced that Neville had won the balloting, scoring two more votes than Kerr. He said everyone had agreed beforehand that there would be a supervised recount if the vote was close, and these results certainly qualified. Both candidates chose representatives and party officials huddled in a side room to verify the first count.

Soon, word began leaking out of the recount that Kerr’s supporters were upset that some Republicans they thought should have been invited to the vacancy meeting hadn’t received the official call. But about 20 minutes later, Lee took the lectern to announce that the first vote had been confirmed and Neville would be the party’s nominee to replace Kopp.

“According to our parliamentarian that we had brought in, courtesy of the county party,” Lee thundered from the front of the room, “once that universe of voters has been credentialed and the vote has been taken and announced, that credentials committee cannot be amended. With that, I am making the determination and ruling that Tim Neville has been designated as the nominee for the Senate District 22 vacancy.”

Cheers went up but Storey stepped alongside Lee and addressed the Republicans.

“I’d like to talk too!” Storey said, raising his voice over the din of the crowd. “I just want to say one thing,” he continued. “There were several people, because of a mistake, that didn’t get to vote. Therefore, what happens now is that this is an invalid meeting, because the call didn’t go out to everybody that’s eligible to vote — that is a serious problem.”

“Out of order!” shouted several Republicans and others yelled, “Bye, Scott!”

Lee called for a motion to adjourn and it was quickly made, seconded and affirmed by a voice vote.

Kerr brushed away a request for comment immediately after Lee adjourned the meeting and quickly exited the room. Neville, on the other hand, said he was ultimately pleased with the results even if things had gotten more contentious than he would have liked.

“It’s unfortunate it developed this way, but like anything else, there was a vote, and we have to go with the vote,” he said. How did it feel, knowing he’d just been named to the Legislature? “A little numb,” he said. “The key is to move forward and get everything together and focus on Republican values.”

Within seconds after Lee declared Neville had won the appointment, a statement went out from his successor in the GOP leadership, Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs: “I would like to congratulate Tim on his appointment to the 22nd Senate District of Colorado. The caucus and I look forward to working with him on removing barriers to business and impediments to prosperity in the upcoming legislative session.”

Meanwhile, Storey continued making his case to anyone who would listen, calling what had just transpired “an illegal meeting” and suggesting that Republicans who hadn’t been allowed to participate might contest the results. But after a brief exchange with Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call, who had observed the meeting from the sidelines, Storey failed to persuade the party boss.

“The process worked,” Call told The Colorado Statesman moments later. “The process is designed to allow people to voice which candidate they want, which elected official they want. I really applaud Don Lee, the chairman of this committee, as well as every single person who bothered to come out to the meeting on a Thursday night.”

Call didn’t downplay the disagreement voiced by Storey, but he suggested that the looming election calendar would provide plenty of chances to sort things out.

“It’s a close election — whenever it’s a close election, there’s always going to be strong feelings one way or the other,” Call said. “But there’s going to be the opportunity to play this thing out, in just a couple of months, when we have precinct caucuses and assemblies.”

It’s similar to a point Kopp made before the results were known. He said he didn’t put too much stock in the notion Democrats might take the Senate seat in next year’s election but pointed out that Republicans could have an intra-party primary.

“I don’t want to prognosticate too early, however, the maps I saw of this district lead me to believe the real fight will be a family feud, a primary type of fight,” he said, and then he hastened to add: “ I’m not saying there will be, I’m not encouraging that, but if there’s going to be a fight, that’s where it’s going to be.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com