‘Honey Badger’ Gessler shares political morsels at Badger & Pig Roast

The Colorado Statesman

An old Scott Gessler yard sign from his Secretary of State’s race planted in front of this immaculately manicured home let us know we’d arrived at the right place. Or if you could get by with a slightly more esoteric clue, it came from the lovely woman who greeted guests near the gurgling water feature with “Happy Magna Carta Day.” Of course the olfactory hints were sure giveaways. The scent of roasted pork wafted through the air as guests began to assemble in the expansive backyard of Patricia and Brian Watson’s Cherry Hills abode in true horse country. We’d arrived at what was billed as “The Great Badger/Pig Roast” in honor of Secretary of State Scott Gessler, and the state’s chief elections official was on hand to welcome guests to the multi-tiered sponsored soiree. Prices began at $65 per person, with ‘Oinkers’ chipping in $250 and top ‘Porky’ participants maxing out at $500.

Gessler, who has been brandished with the ‘honey badger’ moniker by critics who mock his tenacious nature and even his weasley ways, has good naturedly adopted the nickname to help him fundraise against his political foes.

Gessler’s wife Kristi is served honey badger prepared by Ron Michel, who supposedly cooked up the treat from roadkill.

But with his announcement last month that he’s looking at running for governor in 2014 instead of reelection as secretary of state, Gessler’s potential political plans may have slightly dampened attendance at the June 15 event.

Two days after the independent ethics committee admonished Secretary of State Scott Gessler for “betraying the public trust for private gain” for using funds from his office’s discretionary account to attend last summer’s Republican National Lawyers Association conference in Florida, Gessler attended a ‘Honey Badger’ roast in his honor where he talked about his likely campaign for governor in 2014. Colorado’s chief elections official earned the ‘Honey Badger’ nickname for his weasley and tenacious nature.

Former Senate President John Andrews, for instance, was supposed to emcee the roast and had been listed on the invitation in that capacity. But he was a no-show.

Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, left, shares a laugh with fellow Republican Peg Brady, also of Arapahoe County, during a conversation by the pool at the home of Patricia and Brian Watson.

Andrews later explained that when he was initially invited to take on the ceremonial role, the event was a fundraiser for Gessler’s secretary of state race. He announced for reelection in March. “When he signalled that he was evaluating running for governor, I felt I needed to [apply] my personal rule of being neutral and step back,” Andrews said.

Kristi and Scott Gessler pose with their hosts Patricia and Brian Watson at the Watson’s Cherry Hills home on June 15. The ‘Great Badger/Pig Roast’ was held in honor of Secretary of State Gessler, who recently announced that he is looking at running for governor. Patricia Watson holds a wreath made by Barbara Gessler, and her husband — a former 2012 legislative candidate — displays one of about 10,000 bumper stickers he has recently made to promote freedom, opportunity and the Republican Party in Colorado. The Watsons have opened their home for Republican fundraisers this summer.

As chairman of the Western Conservative Summit and as head of a think tank at Colorado Christian University, Andrews said he needs to stay away from intra-party primaries. He said he and Gessler are on amicable terms and blamed the fact that his name was still being used on an email invite as simply the word not getting out to event volunteers.

Five-year-old Sofia Gessler gets up close and personal with one of the horses on the Watson’s Cherry Hills property as her babysitter braces her back.
Photos by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

Cherry Hills Village Republican Wil Armstrong, listed on the invitation as a member of the host committee, likewise did not attend the Saturday night party, but said it had nothing to do with politics — he was having an early Father’s Day celebration that night with his son who was about to embark the next morning to boy scout camp. He pointed out that his daughter Elisabeth volunteered on Gessler’s behalf and attended the fundraiser over the weekend. He himself hasn’t declared a preference in the governor’s race.

If there were any problems behind the scenes, neither Gessler nor his campaign aide Rory McShane let on. Gessler appeared cool and relaxed. We mention this because just two days prior, the Colorado independent ethics commission ruled against him in his long-running battle over using funds from his office’s discretionary account to pay for his trip to the Republican National Lawyers Association last summer. Gessler reimbursed the state for most of the expenses last month, but the commission had found that the GOP officeholder “betrayed the public trust for private gain” and levied a fine against Gessler, who said he plans to appeal the outcome. Gessler reiterated that two of the commissioners had actually contributed to the campaigns of the former secretary of state — a Democrat — and he rightly accused the same two former lawmakers of also having contributed to the gubernatorial campaign of Gov. John Hickenlooper, whom Gessler might run against next year.

In any event, Gessler didn’t seem overly concerned with the commission’s ruling against him and predicted final victory in an appeal.

After guests had dined on the pork and alleged ‘honey badger’ captured from road kill (which tasted suspiciously like beef), Gessler addressed his guests.

“Obviously I’m looking at running for governor,” he began, but said a formal announcement is still “a month or three away.”

The state’s going in the wrong direction and “we can do better,” Gessler asserted.

He said that under Hickenlooper’s administration, people in rural Colorado are experiencing higher electric rates which will likely continue to rise.

Small business people are finding it harder to compete because of the increased liabilities they are facing. And the ability to protect Coloradans is being hampered by a governor and legislature “who aren’t doing the job.”

Although Gessler said he loves his current job as secretary of state, he has come to realize that in order to move the state forward he needs to lead from a new direction. Recent polls, Gessler said, put him at 40 percent compared to the Democratic incumbent’s 42 percent rating, which he said confirms what his own internal polls signal — that the race is winnable.

Gessler added that he feels good about his chances against the popular officeholder. “The problem Governor Hickenlooper has is people know a lot about him and what he’s about, how moderate he is. He can’t convince people anymore because they’ve seen his actions, they’ve already taken the measure of the man. All the spin in the world isn’t going to change that, and there’s a lot of room for us.”

The likelihood of a potential GOP primary doesn’t scare Gessler. He said he considers announced GOP candidate Tom Tancredo a friend and someone whom he respects a lot. But he suggested that Tancredo, who ran for governor in 2010 on the American Constitution Party ticket, may have already reached the limit on what he can do in terms of attracting support.

“If people pay attention, we’ll win this race,” Gessler opined.

In response to a question about how much he thought it would take to defeat Hickenlooper, Gessler said he knows he’ll never be able to outraise the popular governor. He indicated that if he could raise “in the single digit millions” for his campaign, he could successfully get his message out and take back the governorship for Colorado Republicans.

Jody@coloradostatesman.com

See the June 14 print edition for full photo coverage.