Morse goes down with political hit

The Colorado Statesman

Democrats were unable to dodge a major bullet Tuesday night when two state senators became the first in Colorado history to be recalled from office. Tears streamed down faces of supporters as Senate President John Morse and Sen. Angela Giron were ousted following their votes this year of stricter gun control.

In Senate District 11 in Colorado Springs, 17,858 voters cast ballots, with 51 percent supporting the recall of Morse, while 49 percent opposed it. Morse only lost by 343 votes.

Perhaps more surprising was that in the Democratic-leaning Senate District 3 in Pueblo, Giron lost her seat 56 percent to 44 percent. The clerk’s office reported that 34,682 voters cast ballots, with Giron losing by 4,154 votes.


A fiery Senate President John Morse concedes Tuesday night at the Wyndham Grand Hotel in Colorado Springs after becoming the first state lawmaker in Colorado history to be recalled.

Republican Bernie Herpin will replace Morse after receiving 83 percent of the vote; he was the only successor candidate on the ballot in SD 11. And Republican George Rivera will replace Giron with 88 percent of the vote; he was the only successor candidate on the ballot in SD 3.

Proponents of the recall effort against John Morse — Tim Knight (left) and Anthony Garcia — recounted their seemingly impossible feat Tuesday night after declaring victory.

The secretary of state’s office has 18 days from when the election ended Sept. 10 to certify it.

Maurice Cutting sat outside the El Paso County Service Center advocating for voters in Senate District 11 to oust Senate President John Morse.

The vote ends a five-month roller coaster of tumult and emotion that saw millions of dollars spent by outside interests, which resulted in painful attacks and finger pointing that became almost a national referendum on Democrats and gun control.

Senate Democrats’ communications director Doug Schepman volunteers for his boss, Sen. John Morse, on Tuesday outside the Colorado Springs downtown polling center.
Photos by Peter Marcus/The Colorado Statesman

Giron and Morse joined their fellow Democrats this year in passing bills to limit high-capacity ammunition magazines to 15 rounds and require universal background checks and fees.

As the 9 p.m. hour approached, Morse was down 726 votes with about 2,500 more to count; he needed about two-thirds of the remaining vote to win. Recognizing the improbable mission, Morse entered the watch party room at the Wyndham Grand Hotel in Colorado Springs to thunderous applause.

Approaching the podium, Morse did not look defeated, but rather enraged by the political exercise he was forced to participate in. He looked back at his two-term, seven years in office with affection, but frustration that he would not be allowed to finish out his final year.

“You’re not judged by how you got knocked down, but rather by how you got back up,” said a fiery Morse to an eruption of cheers. “Our last session was phenomenal. And the next session will be even better.

“The loss of this seat for the next 16 months is purely symbolic. Democrats, the party of working families, still hold the majority in both chambers,” Morse continued, pointing out that even with the loss of two senators due to recalls, Democrats still control the Senate 18-17.

“We have miles to go, and the highest rank in a democracy is citizen, not Senate president, so soon, along with many of you, I will hold that rank, and there’s nothing citizens can’t accomplish when they put their minds to accomplishing it,” the defeated Senate president concluded.

Morse had joked earlier that he was working on finding the perfect Robert F. Kennedy quote for his speech. He had been criticized during the election for quoting RFK during remarks in the legislature on gun control.

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

Critics said Morse was indicating that gun owners cause a “sickness in the soul of America.” But he would not back down, poking at his opponents by once again quoting RFK.

“RFK once said it is the essence of responsibility to put the public good ahead of personal gain,” declared Morse.

The architecture of recall

Despite painting proponents as “extreme [outside] groups,” Democrats significantly outraised recall proponents, taking in at least $2.6 million, while recall supporters garnered around $523,000.

It’s unclear, however, whether additional so-called “dark money” was contributed through 501 (c)(4) organizations, which can give money to committees without filing campaign finance activity.

The National Rifle Association offered the greatest support to recall proponents with at least $359,000.

Following the election, the pro-gun organization rejoiced: “The people of Colorado Springs and Pueblo sent a clear message to their elected officials that their primary job is to defend our rights and freedoms and that they are accountable to their constituents — not the dollars or social engineering agendas of anti-gun billionaires,” read a statement from the NRA.

Democrats saw the majority of the outside money. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, buoyed recall opponents with a personal check for $350,000, while groups as far away as Washington, D.C. filled in the brunt of the difference.

Bloomberg issued a statement after the election, saying the “Washington gun lobby cherry-picked… vulnerable senators.”

“This election does not reflect the will of Coloradans, a majority of whom strongly support background checks and opposed these recalls,” said Bloomberg. “It was a reflection of a very small, carefully selected population of voters’ views on the legislature’s overall agenda this session.”

The money, however, was not enough to defeat passions from gun rights advocates who fervidly campaigned for retribution.

In Pueblo, the effort was mostly grassroots, as three plumbers launched the campaign with limited resources, but still somehow managed to pull off the seemingly impossible.

In Colorado Springs, proponents had more financial support from conservative groups like Colorado-based I Am Created Equal and Americans for Prosperity, but still had relatively finite contributions compared to Democrats

Democrats face hurdle

Both sides spent the days leading up to the recall getting out the vote. Democrats were hindered by an inability to utilize mail balloting.

A Denver District Court judge heard a case last month filed by the Libertarian Party of Colorado in which they argued that they had not missed a 10-day deadline to submit signatures in order to petition a successor candidate onto the ballot. The judge agreed, ruling that the state constitution requires that successor candidates have up to 15 days before the election to submit signatures.

But that conflicted with a state law that mandates that ballots be mailed no later than 18 days before the election. The result was that an all-mail election would be impossible.

There were several ironies attached to the case. For one, Libertarians were ultimately unsuccessful at placing a candidate on ballots in either Colorado Springs or Pueblo.

But even more wry was the fact that Democrats had pushed an elections reform bill this year, House Bill 1303, which mandated that all voters should receive mail ballots.

Recall proponents repeatedly alleged that Democrats pushed the bill knowing that recalls were coming, as Democrats primarily vote by mail. The court challenge negated any benefit Democrats could have potentially received from all-mail voting.

Another potential problem with HB 1303 appeared after Jon Caldara, president of the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute, cast a ballot in Colorado Springs, despite not living in the district.

Caldara has been a leader in efforts to overturn the new gun laws, and the Independence Institute is assisting with a lawsuit seeking to overturn the laws restricting magazines and requiring background check fees.

Caldara believes HB 1303, sponsored by both Morse and Giron, was a flawed piece of legislation that includes lax residency requirements, such as being 18 years old, living in Colorado for 22 days and having an address in the district with intent to make it a permanent residence.

He changed his voter registration from Boulder to El Paso County and said he rented a room from a friend in SD 11. The room is in a house registered to former Rep. Mark Barker, a Republican.

In the end, Caldara submitted a blank ballot but said he orchestrated the event in order to prove a point.

“It is my belief that this extremely sloppy new election law was designed to legally move voters into districts where their vote is most useful,” opined Caldara. “I will show how this dangerous new law works by easily and legally voting in the John Morse recall election.”

Democrats believe Caldara is misinterpreting the law. Christy Le Lait, who headed up A Whole Lot of People for John Morse — the issue committee supporting Morse — asked Republican District Attorney Dan May to launch an investigation into possible voter fraud.

“This appears to be a flagrant attack on our election system,” said Le Lait. “Jon Caldara’s childish stunt, meant to prove a misguided point, has ultimately undermined the public’s faith in our democracy. It was a shameful act, and it was a crime.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who supported the gun laws, agreed that Caldara was mocking the system.

“We urge the county clerks in Pueblo and El Paso counties to make clear that people engaged in attempting to disrupt the elections are open to criminal prosecution,” said Hickenlooper. “We’ve also reached out to the attorney general to help us ensure fair elections take place.”

Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who is exploring a gubernatorial run to challenge Hickenlooper in 2014, placed the burden back on Democrats.

“I am pleased Gov. Hickenlooper is now interested in election integrity,” he said. “This is exactly what I warned the governor about. Unfortunately, he refused to listen, and instead signed a flawed election bill that weakened the tools to protect our elections.”

Democrats have also been alarmed by how El Paso County Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams, a Republican, conducted the recall election. Polling centers opened nearly a week after centers in Pueblo opened. Critics also asked Williams to offer more opportunities to vote by expanding hours and locations.

Some of the more vocal groups included the Colorado Progressive Coalition and Vet Voice Foundation.

“Many of our members in El Paso County are working mothers and heads of households who may not have the opportunity to exercise their right to vote without opening more locations…” said Hillary Jorgensen, voting rights director for the Progressive Coalition.

Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, agreed, suggesting that Williams’ actions were tantamount to voter suppression. He said the comparison in turnout between the two counties is proof. Turnout in Pueblo was nearly double that of Colorado Springs.

“It does show what happens when voters are denied their constitutional right to vote,” Ulibarri said from Morse’s watch party Tuesday night. “Access to the polls matters and access to that constitutional right matters. And if you close polls before folks are off work and you don’t allow for mail-in voting, you’re going to have a severely restricted electorate, and that’s just fundamentally unfair to the people of Colorado.”

Williams shrugged off the criticism. He pointed out that none of the critics contacted his office and that the polling hours in Colorado Springs began earlier than in Pueblo.

He also added that Pueblo was able finalize its ballot nearly a week and a half before El Paso County. Williams was forced to wait on a potential challenge from Libertarians, who had sought to petition onto the ballot in SD 11 but had not submitted sufficient valid signatures.

“We provided ample opportunity for anybody who wanted to vote in this election…” said Williams. “We knew our ballot on Wednesday and we opened the next day.”

Get out the vote

Despite the perceived setbacks, Democrats in Colorado Springs continued with their get out the vote strategy, making last minute arrangements to bus college students and senior citizens to the polls.

Former President Bill Clinton was even utilized on Monday, offering a robo call to voters in SD 11 telling them to get out and vote “no” on the recall.

Throngs of Democrats and their allies offered support in the last days: Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, the NAACP, Conservation Colorado, NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado and ProgressNow Colorado, among others. Hickenlooper penned a couple of letters urging a ‘no’ vote in the recall elections, but did not stump with the candidates or make any appearances on their behalf.

Victims of gun violence also hit the streets. In Colorado Springs, Lonnie and Sandy Phillips canvassed for Morse. The two lost their daughter, Jessica Ghawi, to the Aurora movie theater massacre last year.

When Morse offered his concession speech, he specifically mentioned Mr. and Mrs. Phillips. After Morse’s remarks, the couple stood in the front row, baffled by the fact that their “hero” had been recalled for what they considered to be a courageous move to protect Coloradans. But they said they are only emboldened following the vote.

“It means we fight harder, that’s all. It just means we fight harder,” said Sandy Phillips. “It’s unfortunate that the people of Colorado Springs didn’t get out and vote enough, but they didn’t understand the real issues, and they wanted to make it about one issue when it’s really about the good of the people.”

Colorado Ceasefire, which has been fighting for tougher gun control in Colorado since the Columbine Massacre, said Colorado “has been robbed of the exceptional service of two dedicated individuals.”

“We at Colorado Ceasefire have one word to describe Sens. Morse and Giron: heroes,” added Eileen McCarron, president of Colorado Ceasefire.

It’s unclear whether Morse and his supporters would have fared better had there been a more successful get-out-the-vote effort. Democrats had been hoping for more than 20,000 voters to cast ballots, as that was their best shot at victory.

Kjersten Forseth, one of Morse’s campaign advisers, was one of many political zombies walking around the watch party after Morse’s concession speech. She had tears in her eyes. All around Forseth, supporters hugged one another as they digested the bitter blow.

For Forseth, the loss was personal. She had worked with Morse for many years, developing a close relationship with the lawmaker. When asked what went wrong, Forseth simply replied, “Everything — from beginning to end.

“They’re losing a great leader,” she said, before disappearing into more warm embraces and teary eyes.

Republicans also launched an aggressive get-out-the-vote effort in the waning days of the recall election in Colorado Springs, supporting both the recall and Herpin. Herpin earned the support of former House Minority Leader Mark Waller, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, who is running for governor, and former Gov. Bill Owens, among others.

About 100 people showed up to his watch party at the El Paso County GOP headquarters in Colorado Springs. Those in attendance included state GOP Chairman Ryan Call, Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman and campaign co-chair former Rep. Larry Liston.

“By your vote, you have sent a loud and clear message that we will no longer tolerate elected officials who refuse to listen to their constituents and trample on our rights,” Herpin said following Morse’s concession.

Herpin is a retired Navy and Air Force officer and former Colorado Springs city councilman. He is also past president of the Pikes Peak Firearms Coalition.

“Thank you for standing up for yourselves and demanding to be heard…” he declared. “The people have spoken.”

Implications

With the vote out of the way, Democrats must now turn to the fallout. Most immediately, they’ll need to elect a new Senate president.

Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll of Aurora said the caucus likely wouldn’t vote until President Pro Tempore Lucia Guzman returns from a trip to Rome. Until a new president is elected, Guzman will assume the role of Senate president.

Carroll would not discuss potential successors. But rumors have circulated about Carroll herself. Sen. Pat Steadman of Denver also comes up in conversations, according to Capitol insiders.

The implications are far-reaching for Democrats. While they maintain a razor-thin majority, Democratic Sens. Lois Tochtrop of Thornton and Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge are known for their conservative perspectives.

Some Democratic bills this year passed with only one vote, including the measure prohibiting high-capacity ammunition magazines. That does not leave Senate leadership much room to work with.

But Carroll does not believe that the caucus will change its tone in next year’s legislative session.

“We’ve got a courageous caucus and we’re really not going to be pushed around by bullies,” she said, standing in the hallway outside Morse’s watch party.

Carroll does not believe that the recall votes were indicative of Democrats being out of touch with voters on gun issues. She was careful to point out that the laws remain in effect, despite a vocal minority.

“We knew even going into the election that anywhere between 80 to 90 percent of the public supports what we are doing on universal background checks,” said Carroll.

She believes the problem had more to do with alleged voter suppression and big spending by outside interests, despite Democrats crushing proponents in the fundraising category.

“Our elections are vulnerable, and they’re more vulnerable to outside interests,” she said. “It says that when people lose their right to vote, it affects the outcome of an election.”

But Democratic Sen. Evie Hudak of Westminster, who herself faced a recall threat over support for gun control but survived when proponents dropped the effort, said she does expect the tone of the legislature to change. She said lawmakers in swing districts — especially young legislators — may not be as likely to cast controversial votes.

“Younger, less-experienced legislators might be more hesitant to stick their neck out,” she said. “But if you really believe in something, you have to stand up for what you believe.”

Hudak has endured relentless criticism since the gun control debate began this year. She’s received personal threats and attacks that she says have crossed the line.

“They called me a dumb cunt,” Hudak shouted in an interview with The Colorado Statesman from inside Morse’s watch party. “This is the kind of bullying that I have been withstanding since March, and they never let up.

“That is not the kind of society I want to live in,” she continued. “If you lose, you lose. You work in the next campaign. You don’t recall everybody.”

Hickenlooper said a “vocal minority” won the election: “We are certainly disappointed by the outcome of the recall elections,” he said.

“It’s now time we refocus again on what unites Coloradans — creating jobs, educating our children, creating a healthier state — and on finding ways to keep Colorado moving forward,” the governor added.

Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio said his party’s loss was only a “symbolic win for a very vocal group.”

“Even though we are disappointed in today’s losses, nothing about this day will change the laws already on the books, nor does it change the Democratic majority held in the Colorado Senate,” said Palacio.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which involved itself in the election, said Democrats should not be worried.

“More voters will turn out in the 2014 election, and Democrats across the country are poised to build on the gains they made in the 2012 elections,” said Michael Sargeant, executive director of the DLCC.

For Republicans, however, the recall win offers an opportunity to rally its base.

With Democrats still controlling both chambers and the governor’s office, there is little chance they can reverse any of the recently passed gun control laws. They will instead have to wait to see what happens with ongoing lawsuits.

But the party is looking ahead. First it will use the election as a rallying cry to defeat a $950 million education tax ballot question. Looking even further ahead, the party plans to take the newly accrued momentum to defeat Hickenlooper in 2014 and elect a Republican to the governor’s office for the first time since 2002. It’s also been that long since the GOP won a U.S. Senate race.

Republicans are also targeting HB 1303, the election reform bill. With numerous questions raised over the law as a result of the recall, the GOP is considering taking more aspects of it to court.

Republican Sen. Kent Lambert of Colorado Springs said Tuesday night that he is excited about the message sent by the recall, which could mean progress for his party.

“It’s going to be momentum building up to 2014 that they may not be able to stop,” Lambert said from the SD 11 recall proponents’ watch party at the Stargazers Theatre in Colorado Springs. “It’s a gubernatorial election and this can’t be real good news for John Hickenlooper.

“People are listening to this… they’re saying, ‘My gosh, what are these guys doing up here?’” Lambert continued. “I think we’re winning the message, I think we’re winning the debate, and we simply haven’t had enough votes to stop it. Now in the future we may.”

Chairman Call said the recall victories should serve as a wake-up call to Democrats: “These victories serve as a warning to arrogant politicians everywhere that they must stop ignoring their constituents,” he said. “It is my hope that now Gov. Hickenlooper and Democrats in the Colorado statehouse will heed this warning.

“These recall elections also prove that Colorado Republicans are energized, organized and ready to fight and win in 2014,” Call added.

Kelly Maher, executive director of conservative think tank Compass Colorado, who offered assistance in recalling Morse and Giron, said it is clear that voters are dissatisfied with Democrats and looking for new leadership.

“Starting tonight, Colorado is fighting back against the onerous policies of Colorado Democrats,” she said. “Hickenlooper and his allies are one step closer to joining Morse and Giron come next November.”

The Republican State Leadership Committee is also hoping that the recall elections might swing the pendulum.

“These stunning results put Republican control of the Colorado Senate within sight in 2014,” said Chris Jankowski, president of the RLCC.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus agreed: “Republicans are going to compete for every vote in Colorado and tonight is only the beginning of our path to victory in 2014.”

Proponents fired up

Proponents are also looking to seize the opportunity. In Colorado Springs, El Paso Freedom Defense orchestrated the successful recall effort. They acknowledged on Tuesday night that they were surprised by their own success, suggesting that they had accomplished the impossible.

“The people did speak… A lot of people got off the couch who had never been involved with politics before,” said Timothy Knight, one of the lead proponents. “That alone is a gift to this republic — either side of the issue.”

He and his recall partner, Anthony Garcia, were political neophytes until they launched the effort. They have since learned a lot about politics, but vow to maintain a grassroots effort in any endeavors moving forward.

“We went up against two major political parties,” explained Knight. “Neither party wanted us to succeed. They’ve come around in the end, but they didn’t want us to succeed.”

Groups both inside and outside the state have contacted the proponents to gauge their interest in working on other issues. They say that could include more recalls in Colorado.

Both Knight and Garcia said other lawmakers are already being targeted, though they would not identify specific legislators. They said recalls could come even before the next legislative session begins in January.

In addition to Hudak, Democratic Reps. Rhonda Fields of Aurora and Mike McLachlan of Durango also faced failed recall attempts this year.

But proponents said people shouldn’t abuse the recall system.

“Recalls shouldn’t be done often. I get it,” said Knight. “But you know what, they can’t be, because they’re brilliantly hard. It just so happened that the Lego pieces fit together this time for the right team to do it.”

Proponents added that after the stress they went through working on the recall of Morse, they doubt that they’ll be back again too quickly.

“This has all affected our lives, not always for the better,” said Knight. “It has stressed marriages, it has taken away from our children. But people who go through hard things in life, they always have those things.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com