Morse sticking to his guns; won’t resign SD 11 seat

Recall proponents submit twice number of signatures needed
The Colorado Statesman

Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, says “at this minute” he’s in it to win it, refusing to step down after recall proponents turned in more than double the number of signatures needed to force an election to oust the gun control supporter.

El Paso Freedom Defense Committee, an issue committee established to recall Morse from office, announced Monday that it submitted 16,046 signatures to the secretary of state’s office. The group only needs 7,178 valid signatures, or 25 percent of the 2010 vote in the district, in order to certify an election.

Senate President John Morse
D-Colorado Springs

“It’s nice to see commonsense prevail,” Basic Freedom Defense Fund board member Anthony Garcia said following the submission of signatures. “Today we turned in… signatures from people in Morse’s district who want legislators that listen to their constituents, not New York.”

Proponents boasted that the signatures handed in represent more than the total number of votes Morse received during the 2010 election, which was 13,451.

Morse himself has a big decision to make. He will be given five days from when the secretary of state’s office certifies the election to decide whether to resign office. The idea has been floated as a potential strategy. If Morse — who is term limited after next year — resigns, then Democrats would be able to convene a vacancy committee and appoint a Democrat to preserve the Senate District 11 seat. Former Rep. Mike Merrifield of Manitou Springs has been mentioned as a potential candidate, though he tells The Colorado Statesman he’s only interested in fighting for Morse.

In a news release, proponents cringed at the idea of such a strategy, suggesting, “Such a move risks public backlash as it could be perceived as both ignoring the electorate’s wishes and taking an even harder stance against gun rights.” They point out that Merrifield served as state director for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a national organization backed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has become the focus of attacks by gun rights supporters.

“Regardless of the outcome and any posturing by Morse, he is going to be removed from his Senate position one way or another due to his anti-constitutional beliefs and demonstrated actions,” declared Garcia.

Morse caused ire as Senate president by supporting a package of gun control measures. He himself introduced a bill that would have held manufacturers and sellers of assault weapons liable for crimes committed with guns they produced or sold. But Morse killed the legislation when questions over the legality of the measure surfaced.

In it to win it

Morse says no one from the party or anywhere else has approached him to resign: “At this point I have no intention of doing that,” continued Morse. “I am in this fight to win.”

When asked during a conference call with reporters on Monday why he would take the risk of being recalled and losing the Democratic seat, he responded, “I guess that’s the ultimate question.”

“The answer will be because we were doing the right thing and we continue to do the right thing…” explained Morse. “The opposition wants to try to do the recall, let’s ask the people what they think, let’s make sure they have the facts…”

Christy Le Lait, executive director of the El Paso County Democratic Party, confirmed that there are no immediate plans to protect the seat by asking Morse to resign.

“Democrats are focused on keeping Sen. Morse in office, that’s what we’re doing,” she said.

Rick Palacio, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, said the party is not discussing such an option.

“If we end up in a recall election, we’ll be focused on ensuring the people are voting against the recall,” he said. “It’s incredibly irresponsible and a waste of taxpayer money. It does nothing but feed what could be a slippery slope.”

That “slippery slope,” say detractors, is the fact that future policy issues could be jeopardized by threat of recall. Palacio points out that general elections serve the purpose of offering voters an opportunity to weigh in on candidates. He said it is ill-advised to sidestep the regular election process just because a group of people opposes a policy decision.

“What I’m worried about is the message that it sends to remove oneself or an individual district from the regular legislative process and from the regular election,” opined Palacio. “What’s to stop a group of individuals from every time they have a policy dispute from going to voters and trying to recall individuals?”

Democrats say they haven’t even considered placing an alternate Democrat on the ballot in the event of a recall election.

“If we end up in a position that this goes to an actual recall election, then what we’ll be focused on wholly is ensuring that the voters understand the real issues here…” attested Palacio. “Right now our Democratic option is Sen. Morse.”

Republicans have also been tightlipped about who might end up on the ballot from their side of the aisle. Two names that keep coming up are former Rep. Mark Barker and El Paso County Commissioner Sallie Clark. Clark says she’s not interested in the position, and Barker has not returned repeated requests by The Statesman seeking comment. Local Republican officials say Barker is not interested, and that the struggle has been finding a formidable opponent who is interested in the job.

Jeff Hays, chairman of the El Paso County Republican Party, said ideally, Republicans would like to rally around a single candidate.

“It’s never totally up to you because you have forces that you don’t have control over,” he acknowledged. “But we’re going to do our best to mobilize, to organize, and hopefully we’ll have a good candidate that shows up and runs a good campaign…”

Hays has convened Senate District 11 precinct leaders for a meeting, which he hopes to have in the next few days to discuss candidate options. The local party has ramped up fundraising efforts, reached out to volunteers and hired a director of operations.

Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, said the party is currently going through a list of candidates, but that it is premature to release names.

“There are a number of prospective candidates…” said Call. “I suspect that the local El Paso County Republican Party will help facilitate some sort of an endorsement process where we can consolidate support quickly behind a single candidate to give the voters the clearest picture possible.”

Effort draws big money

But Morse’s supporters say the effort is particularly disingenuous because it is being backed by big money and outside interests. At first they targeted the National Rifle Association for issuing a mailer on behalf of proponents. But they have backed off that message. Disclosure filings indicate that the NRA has only donated $985 for the mailer.

The real money comes from I Am Created Equal, a conservative Colorado Springs-based group — run by Republican campaign operative Laura Carno — that has donated $56,798 to the issue committee to pay Kennedy Enterprises for petition gathering.

Carno’s group has been established as a non-profit, which means it does not have to disclose donors to the public. As a result, it cannot endorse candidates. But it can certainly provide donations. Carno swears that her financing comes from in state.

“They are all Colorado based. There is no NRA; no Rocky Mountain Gun Owners — no big organizations like that,” she said.

Still, Morse’s supporters are critical of how signatures were gathered. They argue that money can buy elections, and in this case it was money that bought signatures. They also questioned the gatherers themselves.

The issue committee established to support Morse, A Whole Lot of People for John Morse, paid for a robocall that was portrayed as a “public awareness alert.” The call told voters to beware of petition gatherers who could be convicted criminals. The robocall then directs voters to their website, ColoradoRecallWatch.com.

Le Lait defended the robocall, suggesting, “The robocall was about Kennedy Enterprises, and Kennedy Enterprises has a long history… of issues around how they collect signatures… To spotlight the issues they’ve had in the past and to let people know about that is not a scare tactic.

“Although they will claim success, there is nothing to celebrate here today,” Le Lait added after proponents turned in signatures. “What they have accomplished is proving that if you disagree with any vote of a legislator, outside interests can hire… petition gatherers to mislead, lie and even bully people into signing a petition to force a costly recall election.”

Proponents, however, scoff at the notion. They point out that A Whole Lot of People for John Morse is guilty of using money from outside interests.

The latest disclosures filed this week show that A Whole Lot of People for John Morse received about $97,600. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Sixteen Thirty Fund provided $35,000. The Denver-based nonprofit Citizens for Integrity contributed $25,000, while Mainstream Colorado, a Denver-based political action committee, donated $15,000. Total contributions climbed to $121,806.

In comparison, the El Paso Freedom Defense Committee raised about $55,000 in May, with only the one unusually large contribution from I Am Created Equal. It has totaled about $71,500 in contributions.

National interest

Following the money isn’t the only way to prove the national significance of the recall effort. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee out of Washington, D.C. was quick to offer a statement as the likelihood of a recall election became more apparent.

Michael Sargeant, executive director of the DLCC, pointed to Morse’s service as a former police officer and president and chief executive of Silver Key Senior Services, which assisted senior citizens.

“Extremists in Colorado want to waste hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to recall Senator Morse, for the supposed ‘malfeasance’ of working to make his community safer,” declared Sargeant.

He went on to highlight Morse’s leadership on gun control, elections reform, in-state tuition for undocumented students, and civil unions.

“The DLCC is committed to making sure that public servants like Senator Morse, who had stood up for their communities in the face of powerful special interests, are not intimidated by radical groups who distort his record of improving the lives of Coloradans and making the communities in his district safer,” Sargeant concluded.

Morse agreed that the race is likely to garner significant national attention: “If this ends up on the ballot then this does turn into a national race; a race of national importance… I won’t be surprised at all to see outside money being matched by outside money…” he said.

One issue Morse and his supporters have rallied around is the cost of the election, which they say could be as high as $200,000, though county officials expect the price tag to be just over $150,000. Democrats say it is hypocritical of conservatives to force such a government cost, given their commitment to conservancy.

But Garcia says voters want Basic Freedom Defense to push for the election: “It’s not us that are deciding to spend it, it’s the taxpayers and constituents of SD 11,” he said. “They feel the issue is important enough to spend it, and they’re the ones paying it. It’s up to them to decide, and so far they’ve said ‘yes’ by giving their signatures.”

The secretary of state’s office has 15 days from when signatures were turned in Monday to conduct a line-by-line review. Recall elections are notorious for invalid signatures, but the sheer volume collected indicates that a recall election is likely. It would be the first recall election known in Colorado history.

There is a 15-day appeal period to challenge any decision by the secretary of state’s office. But the challenges don’t have to end there. Stakeholders can then take their appeal to Denver District Court, as well as to the Colorado Supreme Court.

If an election is finally certified, then Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, must set an election date between 45 and 75 days following certification.

Proponents are fearful that Democrats will delay the election until November in an effort to prepare a campaign to save the Senate president.

The election itself would be two-part. First it would include a “yes” or “no” question on whether to recall Morse. Then it would contain a list of candidates to replace the Senate president.

Candidates must collect 1,000 valid signatures to make the recall ballot. Interestingly, candidates would be allowed to collect signatures immediately following initial certification by the secretary of state’s office. That means if there are court challenges, candidates could potentially have significant additional time to earn the support of voters, which could cause a crowded field.

Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo facing recall?

Recall proponents say the election doesn’t come down to partisan politics. Victor Head, who is running a similar recall effort against Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, said his group is gathering signatures from both Republicans and Democrats.

Giron is also being targeted for her support of gun control. Proponents have until Monday to collect 11,285 valid signatures, which represents 25 percent of the votes cast for her seat in 2010.

Head said he expects to collect the signatures needed, anticipating turning in about 20 percent more than the 11,285 required. He would like, however, to collect a 35 percent cushion.

Giron’s Senate District 3 is primarily Democratic, but Head said politics has not played into the effort, pointing out that even Democrats in the district want to protect gun rights.

“It doesn’t matter what party people are from, and definitely Colorado Democrats, or certainly Pueblo Democrats, are different than East Coast Democrats. But everyone loves their guns here. It doesn’t matter what party you’re from,” explained Head.

Meanwhile, George Rivera, a Republican who has filed to challenge Giron in 2014, said he has switched gears in anticipation of the recall election. Rivera intends to offer his name on the ballot if an election is certified.

“I’ve heard from a lot of people that have talked about the recall and the votes on the Second Amendment, and they’re very concerned about what’s going on in the legislature, and I’m concerned about that as well,” ex-plained Rivera. “And because of that, I decided to look into the 2014 election, but of course with the recall coming, it’s a real possibility I get in with that as well.”

Giron did not return request for comment left to her cell phone by The Statesman.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com