Political gunfire erupts in both recall campaigns

The Colorado Statesman

The first-ever Colorado recall season is in full swing as two Democrats — Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs and Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo — defend themselves against an onslaught of political gunfire.

The two lawmakers face recall elections after supporting a package of gun control measures this year at the legislature, including banning high-capacity ammunition magazines of more than 15 rounds and requiring universal background checks and fees.

The recall elections are the first in Colorado history for sitting state lawmakers.

Up until last week, campaigns had been focused on legal challenges. Democrats first tried in Denver District Court to invalidate petition signatures gathered by proponents. The Secretary of State’s Office had certified recalls in both Pueblo and Colorado Springs, but Democrats argued that the petitions were invalid for not stating language that included a demand for the election of a successor to the recall official. Democrats lost that challenge and opted not to appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court. 

That case was followed by yet another Denver District Court case last week that was filed by the Libertarian Party of Colorado. Libertarians had argued that the state constitution allows for successor candidates to submit petition signatures up until 15 days before the recall election. The court agreed, giving candidates until Aug. 26 to submit signatures to the secretary’s office for the Sept. 10 elections. Democrats sought to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, but the high court declined to hear the case. 

With the legal challenges in the rearview mirror, campaigns this week were able to get down and dirty — and the mud certainly continued to fly.

Campaigns were motivated by a Quinnipiac University poll released Thursday that showed that by wide margins, Colorado voters oppose the two recall efforts. But the poll took a survey of all Colorado voters, not just those in Senate Districts 3 and 11, where the recalls are taking place. 

Voters say 54-25 percent that Morse should not be removed from office because of his support of stricter gun control. Voters also say 52-36 percent that Giron should not be recalled.

More enlightening is that Colorado voters say 60-31 percent that when people don’t agree with a legislator, they should wait for reelection, rather than attempt a recall.

While Republicans support both recall efforts by margins of 2-1, only 47 percent support the overall concept of recall, while 42 percent would rather wait for reelection, according to the poll.

That said, voters oppose 54-40 percent the package of gun control measures passed by the legislature. Along party lines, Democrats support the laws 78-16 percent, while Republicans oppose the laws 89-7 percent. An interesting takeaway from the poll is that opposition among independent voters is 56-39 percent.   

Women are divided on the new laws with their support, 48-45 percent, with men opposed 64-33 percent.

“With wide partisan and gender divisions, Colorado voters oppose the state’s stricter new gun control laws, but they don’t want to recall State Senate President John Morse or Sen. Angela Giron because they supported those laws,” said Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. “Philosophically, voters don’t want a recall election every time they disagree with a legislator. They’d rather deal with it every four years.”

For Democrats, the recall effort is not simply a referendum on gun control; it is a fight to maintain power. If Morse and Giron lose their recalls and are replaced by Republican candidates, the balance of power in the legislature could shift. Democrats would retain control of the Senate, but only by a single seat. That would make them vulnerable in 2014. The House, however, is expected to stay in Democratic control. 

The elections themselves are also complicated. With the district court’s decision last week, mail balloting essentially became impossible. State law mandates that clerks must mail ballots no later than 18 days before the election, but candidates have until 15 days before the recall to submit signatures.

Democrats primarily vote by mail. This year, the Democratic majority passed House Bill 1303 that was signed by the governor. The measure was co-written by Giron. It requires mail ballots to be sent to all registered voters. But the court’s ruling dealt Democrats a blow, and now turning out the vote in-person may prove to be quite difficult.

When The Colorado Statesman asked Morse campaign consultant Kjersten Forseth whether the campaign is worried about turning out the vote, she responded simply, “Yes.”

She then added, “Trying to fit voting into families’ busy lives is very difficult, but that was the recall proponents’ intent, wasn’t it? In the next three weeks, we will do everything we can to prevent them from being successful at suppressing the vote. Every single method available to educate and get voters to the polls will be employed.”
 
The attacks continue

Just as pressing, however, is defending against well-orchestrated attacks by conservatives. 

Colorado Springs-based conservative 501(c)(4) I Am Created Equal — operated by Republican operative Laura Carno — on Wednesday unveiled a television ad questioning Morse’s ethical background. The ad points to an ethics complaint Morse defended against in 2011 in which he was accused of abusing per diem spending. A bipartisan special legislative committee unanimously dismissed the complaint.

Morse in 2009 billed for leadership pay for 206 days out of the 239 off-season days. Members of leadership at the time were eligible for $99 per day for interim duties.

Those who accused Morse said his spending request was excessive and asked that he explain his leadership activities.

The ad that is appearing in Colorado Springs speaks directly to Morse: “The ethics investigation against you wasn’t trivial,” the narrator states. “When you reimburse yourself with our money, it should be for work you do on our behalf.

“But Sen. Morse, you charged us for days you got your hair cut, and when you went golfing. We didn’t elect you to be king, Sen. Morse,” the ad continues.

Carno explained releasing the ad, despite Morse being unanimously cleared by a bipartisan panel of his colleagues.

“There’s no dispute that Sen. Morse reimbursed himself with taxpayer funds on days he got a haircut and went golfing,” opined Carno. “Sen. Morse can tell us all he wants that other politicians think that’s acceptable behavior, but now that’s up to the voters to decide.”
 
War On Women: Part 2

Meanwhile, Democrats have been fighting back, working to move the message away from Morse and Giron and focus it on Republicans.

The GOP candidate seeking to replace Morse in Senate District 11 is former Colorado Springs City Councilman Bernie Herpin. In Pueblo’s Senate District 3, Republican George Rivera, a former police officer, is seeking Giron’s seat.

An ad funded by We Can Do Better, Colorado, a new political committee, attacks Herpin and Rivera for their alleged past support of so-called “personhood,” an effort to ban abortion by providing constitutional rights to the unborn.

In 2012, Democrats were successful by portraying a so-called “war on women,” in which the party painted Republicans as insensitive to the desires of female voters. It appears that strategy has surfaced again. 

The ad states, “What would you call someone who supports a ban on common forms of birth control? Interferes with our personal decisions?  If the recall efforts succeed, we’ll be calling them our state senators.”

The committee has also expanded its effort with mailers offering a similar message.

Herpin has vowed that he does not support personhood. But NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado points out that Herpin filled out a Citizens for Life survey that asked, “At what stage of development did we become persons? Single Cell (S), Birth (B), Other (O)?” Herpin marked “S.”

Herpin’s campaign, however, points out that the question did not specifically address personhood, and that later in the survey he also said that he does not support a ban on embryonic stem cell research, which would indicate that he does not support personhood.

“These ads are false and this is just an attempt to distract from John Morse’s record of ignoring his constituents and his failure to protect children from violent sexual predators when he had the chance,” responded Herpin.

Rivera is unapologetic in his support of personhood, having signed the initiative in 2012. But he also believes Democrats are simply trying to mislead voters. 

“Nothing says desperation like mailers from Giron that want to take the focus off the issues that put this recall in motion,” Rivera said in a tweet issued on Aug. 9.

Karen Middleton, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado, said the messaging is not about a distraction, but instead about alerting voters to issues that are important to them.

“It’s important for voters to know who stands with them on protecting women’s health and reproductive rights,” said Middleton. “Sen. Morse and Giron’s opponents both support ‘personhood,’ which could outlaw many commonly used forms of contraception and puts politicians squarely between decisions best left to women, their families, and their doctors.”

But Jeff Crank, a local conservative personality who is working with Carno to recall Morse and elect Herpin, called the ad “an absolute lie.”

“People have little faith in politicians because of untrue, dishonest ads like this one,” he said. “The group that put out this ad knows that there is no evidence that Bernie Herpin supported the Personhood Amendment yet they tied him to another candidate who does. They lied and they knew they lied.”
 
Attacks outside special interests

Another popular strategy by both sides has been to attack outside special interests that have become involved in the recalls.

It seems both sides of the effort are in a messaging war to convince voters that they truly represent the grassroots. 

On the right, recall proponents say Democrats are funded by a gun control agenda pushed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President Barack Obama.

On the left, Democrats say the recall itself is a product of the National Rifle Association, the conservative Denver-based Independence Institute and Americans for Prosperity.

The truth is that special interests from both sides have been fueling the election.

Giron’s camp raised more than $87,000 to fight the recall election even before a date was set, and much of that money came from liberal groups as far away as Washington, D.C. Morse’s supporters raised about $153,000 in monetary contributions before the election date was set. He received similar contributions to Giron.

On the other side, proponents in Colorado Springs raised about $84,000 in total contributions as of its last filing on July 1. Much of that money came from Carno’s group.

The next filings are due on Aug. 27 when observers say voters will be shocked by the amount of spending that has taken place since early July.

But down in Pueblo, proponents are running a different campaign. As of its last filing, they had only raised about $24,000. Lead proponent Victor Head said things haven’t gotten much better in the money category.   

Much of their funding has come from fundraisers at gun stores and community canvassing activities. Three plumbers who are complete political neophytes spearheaded the effort — Head, his brother Adam Head and their friend, Ernest Mascarenas.

Unlike the well-produced ads that are appearing in Colorado Springs and by Democrats in Pueblo, a recent ad shot by Pueblo recall proponents was filmed in Victor Head’s backyard.

Head had some friends work up a package deal for him. They produced two video ads, took several photos for fliers and finished it off with three radio spots for $2,000.

But the piggybank for proponents in Pueblo is so small that they didn’t have the money at first to buy airtime. Instead, the ads appeared on YouTube. Just on Wednesday, proponents cherry-picked a few television slots for their ads to appear. Victor Head himself filled out all the paperwork to submit the ads.

They won’t have the sort of presence that Giron and her supporters will have. Giron’s camp has already been running at least 12 ads a day on three local stations.

Such advertising can cost about $10,000 per day, explained Head, after looking over advertising rate cards. He says that is money his campaign does not have. Instead, they have only about $5,000 budgeted for advertising for the remainder of the campaign.

Still, ads from Giron’s side say proponents are “extreme groups from Denver.” Head said he was at first frustrated, but added that the messaging from Giron’s side has become a bit of a joke.

“People will come into the office and say, ‘Oh, you’re the big Denver millionaire,’” joked Head.

The ads he filmed work to debunk the “extreme” message being spread by Giron’s supporters. The three plumbers stand in the backyard to introduce themselves, explaining that they’re not out-of-state interests, but simply a bunch of ordinary guys who became frustrated with their state senator.

“She is blatantly lying,” Head said of Giron’s ads. “This isn’t like stretching the truth like some of those political ads do… But to flat out call us from the beginning ‘outside interests’ when she openly said she knows who I am; when I’ve been here since day one — it’s frustrating.

“But at the same time, I don’t think the message gets across that well,” he continued. “I don’t think a lot of people are buying it anymore.”

Giron’s campaign issued a “backup sheet” to defend their advertising. The campaign believes that the effort in Pueblo is tied to the effort in Colorado Springs, which has been spearheaded by the Basic Freedom Defense Fund.

The campaign says Head is one of the founding members of Basic Freedom Defense Fund. It points out that BFDF launched separate issue committees for each of the recall efforts, but that it’s all tied back to the same coordinated effort.

More troubling to the Giron campaign is that they say much of the money came from dark money, or sources that have shielded their donors through 501 (c)(4) nonprofits, or were reported in increments small enough not to be disclosed.

Proponents will be in court on Tuesday to answer to allegations of campaign finance violations, according to the Giron campaign.

The campaign also believes the NRA is behind the effort, pointing out that its Institute for Legislative Action registered an issue committee in Colorado on Aug. 5. But finance reporting for the committee is not due until Aug. 27. 

Christy Le Lait, who is leading the Democratic effort to protect Morse, said it is obvious that proponents are acting as sort of puppets for national special interests to send a “wave of fear” across the nation. She said remarks by Independence Institute President Jon Caldara confirm those suspicions.

Speaking in Colorado Springs, Caldara said the nation sees Colorado as ground zero.

“The entire nation comes to Colorado Springs and Pueblo to decide the fate on this issue,” Caldara told a crowd of recall supporters. “If the president of the Senate of Colorado… gets knocked out, there will be a shudder, a wave of fear that runs across every state legislator across the country that says, ‘I ain’t doin’ that, ever. That is not hap-pening to me. I will not become a na-tional embarrassment. I will not take on those gunnies.’ That’s how big this is.”

Le Lait said Caldara’s message is a form of campaign intimidation.

“Right Wing special interests are spending untold sums of money in their effort to recall Sen. John Morse… Is that because they care about guns? No. They want to strike a blow to the bold progressive agenda that Sen. Morse has represented for seven years,” said Le Lait. “This election is a critical step in their extremist national strategy.”

Caldara stands by his comment that Colorado is ground zero for a national referendum. But he disagreed with Le Lait’s accusation that the goal is campaign intimidation.

“If you piss off your constituents, you run the risk of this,” explained Caldara. “And when you do something on such a fundamental level as digging away at Second Amendment rights, then that becomes a flash point. I don’t understand why that shocks anyone.”

Morse’s campaign also accused Caldara of twisting Morse’s words when the Senate president this year quoted remarks made by Robert F. Kennedy in the aftermath of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

“This much is clear,” Morse stated. “Violence breeds violence, repression breeds retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our souls.”

Caldara, on his public television show “Devil’s Advocate,” indicated that Morse was suggesting that gun owners have a “sickness in their souls.” He also stands by that comment.

“It seemed to me that the Senate president was saying that gun ownership is a sickness in the soul of America,” explained Caldara.

But Le Lait said that couldn’t be further from the truth: “Twisting Sen. Morse’s words does a disservice to the voters in this critical recall, and it damages the vital discourse surrounding public safety,” she said. “The other side might win a few votes with such deception, but it comes with a great cost.”
 
Endorsements roll in

Political capital is also being heavily spent as the Sept. 10 recall date approaches. High-profile endorsements have been flooding in this week.

On Wednesday, former Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, praised Morse’s work as a former police officer, which he said carried into the Senate president’s work in the legislature. Ritter is also a former Denver district attorney.

Morse had worked on 2009’s so-called “Katie Law,” which allows law enforcement to collect DNA samples from felony suspects during the booking process.

“This is a law that gives police and prosecutors a powerful tool to help make arrests and get convictions,” Ritter said in a statement. “As a former police officer and police chief, he knows what’s necessary to help get repeat dangerous felons off the street.”

But just as Ritter was praising Morse for his law enforcement background, some of Morse’s former police colleagues with the Colorado Springs Police Protective Association sent a robocall to voters in SD 11 highlighting Morse’s 2008 vote to kill a measure that would have allowed harsher penalties on violent sexual predators who attack children.

“During his time in the Senate, John Morse didn’t ask for our input once on public safety issues and consequently passed legislation that made our jobs tougher,” Officer Barry Freeman, a member of the CSPPA board of directors, said in a statement.

In the robocall, Officer Tim Ives, who also sits on the CSPPA board, says Morse “no longer listens or shares our values.

“Even more shocking is that John Morse voted against protecting children from violent sexual predators,” continues Ives. “We are dedicated to protecting the most vulnerable and John Morse makes our jobs harder.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, issued a statement in support of Morse on Aug. 17, suggesting that the Senate president is solely dedicated to the needs of his community. 

“John is a hard working public servant who listens and reflects the values of his constituents in Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs,” said Perlmutter. “John always stands up for his community and for the state of Colorado. He will continue to fight for common sense solutions that will continue to grow Colorado’s economy.”

Giron on Wednesday received the endorsement of former Democratic House Minority Leader Sal Pace, who also ran an unsuccessful bid for Congress in 2012. Pace currently serves as a Pueblo County commissioner.

Giron’s campaign was careful to point out that Pace has an “A” rating with the NRA.

“Sen. Giron’s opponents are extremists who say they want to send a ‘wave of fear’ through Colorado and the nation,” said Pace. “Pueblo should stand up to them and tell them we don’t want to be ruled by fear — we want to be ruled by someone who stands up for our working families and our community — that’s Angela Giron.”

Other candidates seeking ballot placement

But not all Democrats agree that Giron has been standing up for them. Richard Anglund, a Pueblo Democrat, is currently working to gather the 1,000 valid signatures needed by Aug. 26 to petition onto the recall ballot and replace Giron.

The situation is odd because party leaders in both Pueblo and Colorado Springs had hoped to rally behind their respective Democratic lawmakers.

But Anglund is unapologetic, suggesting that while he supports gun rights, he remains a Democrat and does not want to vote for the Republican. He says Giron is simply a member of the “Democratic machine.”

“The difference is when you take on a right, meaning in-law; rules by which you abide by… when you challenge one of those rights, I have problems with that,” explained Anglund, a 76-year-old retired math teacher. “Anytime that you chip away at the rights of our constitutions… then I have an obligation. And I think that the Democrats should at least have an opportunity to speak up about their rights.”

In Colorado Springs, Gordon Butt was working to collect the 575 signatures needed to petition onto the ballot as a Libertarian candidate. But Libertarian Party of Colorado Chairman Jeff Orrok said Butt became consumed with business affairs and was unable to run.

The party is now rallying behind Jan Brooks, a 31-year-old mother who works at a Colorado Springs auto dealership.

Orrok acknowledged that the petition gathering has been difficult, noting that Libertarians are working solely with volunteers. But he believes SD 11 voters will see Brooks on the ballot.

“We’re just rolling up our sleeves and trying to bring in all of our activists,” said Orrok. “This weekend there’s going to be a massive push and I’m pretty sure we will get across the finish line.”

The Libertarian chair believes it is important for Colorado Springs voters to have a third-party choice.

“If you just look at the demographics of this district, with such a high number of unaffiliated voters, it just seems like there is this natural sort of rejection of the two parties,” opined Orrok. “We just think that if you’re tired of the two-party system, it’s time to start looking at the Libertarian Party.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com