‘Anti-equity’ legislators targeted

Backers of civil unions legislation are behind Fight Back Colorado
The Colorado Statesman

A group formed by supporters of civil unions — and seeded with a hefty contribution from wealthy gay-rights advocate Tim Gill — aims to flip control of the Colorado Legislature in its favor by targeting a handful of Republicans in close races this fall.

Inspired by a similar effort that led to the adoption of same-sex marriage in New York a year ago, organizers of the nominally nonpartisan Fight Back Colorado group say they intend to pick “one or two or three races where we feel we have a chance of making a difference.”

“Our group has a narrow focus, and that is targeting anti-equity legislators and incumbents. We would like to close the doors and be out business on Nov. 7” — the day after the election — “because we have been successful in changing the makeup of the legislature, the House in particular,” said local campaign veteran Roger Sherman, the committee’s treasurer and spokesman.

He said that this year’s double demise of civil unions legislation — during a spectacular standoff as the regular session drew to a close and then again on the first day of a special session when House GOP leadership sent the bill to a notorious “kill committee” — spurred him to organize the group.

“I was, like many of us in Colorado, taken aback at what happened at the end of the session and was looking for a way to harness that anger and that energy,” Sherman told The Colorado Statesman.

In a statement announcing the group’s formation, Sherman cast blame widely.

“This May, we all were betrayed by House Speaker Frank McNulty, Majority Leader Amy Stephens, and House leadership, who refused to let the Colorado Civil Union Act come to the floor for a vote, killing the bill, and the chance for loving and committed gay couples to be treated fairly,” he said.

Although the measure’s backers had the support of at least three House Republicans, who voted with Democrats to send the bill ahead at committee hearings, and predicted as many as 10 Republicans would support the legislation on the House floor, GOP leaders brought the chamber’s proceedings to a halt late into the night on the last week of the session rather than allow it to come to a vote. The bill had earlier passed the Democratic-controlled Senate along with the backing of three Senate Republicans.

The bill’s opponents argued that civil unions were different in name only from same-sex marriage, which Colorado voters banned with a 2006 constitutional amendment. Supporters countered that the bill stopped short of full marriage but still would have established broad rights and responsibilities for gay couples.

“We need to do everything we can to make sure our elected officials know that there are consequences for standing in the way of equality,” says Brad Clark, director of the gay-rights advocacy group One Colorado, in a video announcing the campaign organization’s launch.

The independent expenditure group draws support from Democrats and Republicans alike, said Sherman, although he admits it will likely use its financial muscle to try to unseat GOP lawmakers in order to clear a path for civil unions.

“We’re going to spend resources very carefully. There’s no sense in picking races we don’t feel are winnable,” he said, adding that the organization plans to finalize its target races over the summer.

He said that his group wouldn’t necessarily have to chose sides along partisan lines, pointing out that recent polls show civil unions have the support of a majority of voters, including Republicans.

“The rank and file Republican around the state supports civil unions,” he said. “This was about House leadership refusing to allow the vote to be heard on the floor. They know it would have passed, we know it would have passed. If Speaker McNulty was not sitting in that chair at the end of May, we would have had a different outcome.”

Still, he added, “The only votes against civil unions last session were Republicans, so it’s likely we’ll target Republicans in this instance.”

The group’s initial funding comes from Gill and the One Colorado organization, each kicking in $25,000, along with a $5,000 contribution from Broadway producer Ted Snowdon, according to a financial disclosure form filed at the end of June. But Sherman said that after seeding the organization with “early dollars from some friends,” Fight Back Colorado’s next report will show “a much broader base of support,” including numerous small contributions from across the state.

Groups associated with Gill reportedly poured nearly $1 million into an effort to oust unfriendly New York lawmakers and then spent even more shepherding the same-sex marriage bill through that legislature.

Gill, who made his fortune developing the Denver-based desktop-publishing software giant Quark, made a rare appearance at the Capitol in May, sitting stoically through a lengthy House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee hearing before Republicans killed the civil unions bill on a party-line vote.

During the last decade, Gill was known as one of the so-called Four Horsemen, wealthy liberal donors who coordinated funding to help Democrats take over both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in more than 40 years. Democrats maintained control of the legislature until the last election, when Republicans won a one-vote majority in the House.

Two key Republican backers of civil unions won’t be returning to the Senate next year. State Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, faces term limits, and state Sen. Jean White, R-Hayden, lost a primary at the end of June to state Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, an opponent of civil unions. In the run-up to the
election, White faced third-party attacks for her support of civil unions, including a mailer that featured two men kissing.

A GOP group formed late last year to support civil unions came to White’s defense during the primary, sending an email to Republicans urging their help to counter to what it called “shameful” attacks on White over her support of civil unions.

“With control of the state legislature in the lurch, conservatives should not be fighting conservatives — especially over a common-sense issue that is all about individual freedom and personal responsibility,” wrote the group Coloradans for Freedom, which lobbied heavily for the legislation this year.

The GOP group plans to support Republicans who have endorsed civil unions, said spokesman Mario Nicolais, though to date it has only identified one lawmaker to back.

“Coloradans for Freedom will cer-tainly support pro-equality Republicans in the general election,” Nicolais wrote in an email to The Colorado Statesman. “To that end, we have discussed putting our support behind Rep. Cheri Gerou. Her seat is critical to help hold the Republican majority. As more opportunities come up closer to the election, our board will discuss them.”

Following this year’s retirements of state Reps. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, and Don Beazley, R-Broomfield, Gerou, who represents a heavily Republican district in rural Jefferson County is the only House Republican who has actually voted for civil unions legislation on the ballot this fall.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com