Giron recalled; Pueblo voters ambush the pundits

The Colorado Statesman

Fighting your way south from Denver through the quasi-permanent orange cone zones that beset I-25, you are abruptly reminded of the character of El Paso County politics as you cross the Douglas County line. A discreet sign announces you will henceforth be traveling on the Ronald Reagan Memorial Highway. Then, crossing into Pueblo County, I-25 becomes the John F. Kennedy Highway. However, there was no ‘yin and yang’ between these neighbors on Tuesday evening, when voters in both counties tossed their Democratic Senators in favor of replacements. Ostensibly an expression of discontent regarding their votes in favor of gun restrictions during the past legislative session, it was readily apparent that there was more to these ballot box floggings than universal background checks.

At 4:30 p.m. on Election Day, the Pueblo Freedom and Rights office on Santa Fe was a quiet place. Half a dozen volunteers were wandering around in a desultory funk, anticipating the worst. A folding table was covered with Cricket phones, providing evidence there had been a get-out-the-vote phone effort somewhere along the line. A volunteer who had been waving a “Vote YES on the Recall” sign at a traffic intersection wandered in and asked what else he could do. He was put to work carrying out trash bags. When I inquired where their election night party would take place, it took a few minutes to confirm it would be right there — no grandiose hotel ballroom for these rebels. Once identified as a scrivener from Denver, I received an earful of complaints about the bushels of Bloomberg money Sen. Angela Giron’s campaign had burned through.

Sen. Angela Giron tells supporters in Pueblo on Sept. 10 that the numbers don’t look good as Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia looks on.

At the 3 Below Zero bar on Union Street, the bartender, a young man wearing a bicycle event T-shirt, expressed his opinion that Giron would win handily. “The paper claims the recall organizers received tons of money from the National Rifle Association, but there hasn’t been much evidence of it,” he noted. “The only ads on TV and radio have been in support of Angela. I don’t expect it will be close.” He inquired whether I would sample a free shot of a new chocolate/banana liqueur with my Fat Tire. Always polite, I gave it a try — ghastly, I’m sorry to say. Properly fortified, I was off to the Democratic rally at Union Station. Starting about 6 p.m., a steady stream of volunteers began to fill the neo-classical train room. Then about 6:30p.m., the skies opened in a torrential rain, and the bedraggled, sopping wet remainder arrived in a rush.

Senator-elect George Rivera, Republican from Pueblo, gives his first interview to a reporter on Tuesday night following the results of the recall election that ousted Democratic Sen. Angie Giron.

Much to everyone’s surprise, there was an open bar — free beer, wine and well drinks for all. As one young woman, who was wringing water from her T-shirt exclaimed, “Thank God for Michael Bloomberg!” This was an exultant bunch that had been trudging door-to-door through most of the day. Efforts to keep the noise down as President Obama gave his Syrian address failed. Soon three or four hundred volunteers were working their way down the buffet line. It was a raucous room, at least half of which had driven down from Denver for the Election Day push. One labor organizer told me she had managed a team of 45 union members. Pete Maysmith and a handful of Conservation Voter volunteers were also in evidence, as well as a handful of Democratic legislators including Sen. Irene Aguilar of Denver and Rep. Joe Salazar of Thornton. Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia could be seen aggressively working the crowd. A little after 8 p.m., the first 1,600 votes were posted and they broke 58 to 42 percent in Sen. Giron’s favor. Then results stalled, amidst rumors of counting problems in the county clerk’s office.

Pueblo County Republican Chair Becky Mizel addresses supporters of the recall.

By 9 p.m. the crowd was beginning to thin out as volunteers opted to commence the two-hour drive back to Denver. They departed confident that Senator Giron would still be a Senator in the morning. But, your intrepid correspondent began to detect signs that something was going haywire. Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio went to the microphone shortly before 9 p.m. and reminisced about how many wonderful Democratic events had been held at the train station in previous years. He expressed admiration for Pueblo Democrats but said little about the election beyond a passing reference to what a terrific legislator Angela was. Returns from Colorado Springs were showing that Senate President John Morse was likely to be recalled. An election judge who shared a barstool with me grumbled that the Giron campaign hadn’t paid attention to how many Democrats signed the original recall petitions. She told me it was going to be very, very close at the end of the night.

The recall campaign headquarters in Pueblo was a sparse storefront with few amenities.

A labor volunteer confided that there were divisions of opinion among the Pueblo unions, with several of them quietly supporting the recall. Pueblo may be a blue collar, union hall town but that doesn’t mean everyone swallows the entire liberal litany of policy prescriptions. Hundreds of corrections officers working in the Fremont County prison complex live in Pueblo West. For the most part, they love their guns and are skeptical of immigration reform and the ASSET bill. Apparently still others were angry about votes on water policy and the renewable energy standard for rural electric co-ops. Recall opponents failed to speak to any of these concerns, opting for an around-the-clock attack on the legitimacy of the recall itself.

A pro-Angela Giron sign welcomes supporters at the Union Station party.
Photos by Miller Hudson/The Colorado Statesman

Sen. Giron was holed up with her staff in the Koncilja law offices across the street from Union Station. About 9:30 p.m., Palacio, Garcia and others began to slip across the street — never a good sign. The free bar was shut down. Then, shortly before 10 p.m., the county clerk updated the count. With 18,000 votes tallied, the ratio had flipped and the recall was suddenly winning 57 to 43. A little math indicated the remaining votes would have to break 60/40 in Giron’s favor in order for her to pull even. That didn’t seem likely. Angela crossed the street and bravely announced she would wait for the final count, but everyone understood what had just happened and didn’t have a clue why. Those who remained were stunned at this reversal of fortune.

It’s rare in politics when the winners are just as surprised as the losers. Throw in a dollop of anger and resentment for good measure and you get a surly bunch of losers and a triumphant crowd of winners. The recall elections were singularly nasty, relying on personal attacks and ample hyperbolic rhetoric on both sides. Recall proponents painted Morse and Giron as breakfast buddies with Michael Bloomberg and charter members of a Denver cabal of Illuminati intent on urbanizing every corner of Colorado. Adams County Rep. Joe Salazar related his encounter with one voter who venomously explained his support for the recall by saying, “Giron’s a lesbian. That’s why she supports gay marriage.” When Salazar corrected him and pointed out that the Senator is married, has children and her husband serves on the Pueblo City Council, he stalked off. A few minutes later he returned to say, “I used the wrong word. She’s a feminist who doesn’t support God’s plan for men and women.” Probably not a persuadable voter.

On the other hand, the Democratic campaigns indulged in attacks on the motives, qualifications and honesty of the proponents, painting them as the pawns of national organizations — most particularly the NRA. The three Pueblo plumbers who initiated the Giron recall effectively countered these attacks with a grassroots effort that belied any reliance on outside help. Aside from T-shirts and the Cricket phones, there was little evidence of money making a significant difference. Undoubtedly, the Pueblo Freedom and Rights Campaign was vastly outspent. Once I returned to the headquarters, a steady trickle of supporters began to return for their unexpected victory party. Entire families arrived, ebullient at what they viewed as a David and Goliath contest in which David had won.

When I asked one supporter why he thought they had prevailed, he surprised me with his answer. “Did you realize only 3 percent of Americans participated in the Revolution? This is that 3 percent! You’re looking at them.” He wouldn’t give me his name, but this theme of beleaguered struggle would be echoed during the remainder of the evening. Perhaps the best rejoinder of the night came from one of the plumbers, Victor Head. Apparently John Morse had appeared on MSNBC earlier and dismissed the recall organizers as unemployed plumbers. “Who’s unemployed now, John?” was followed by a deafening roar of approval. Newly elected Sen. George Rivera similarly roused the crowd with a modest demeanor that acknowledged the contribution of the volunteers. Emphasizing the election had not been about him, he said, “When your children or grandchildren ask you what you did when they tried to take away our rights, you can tell them you were here tonight.” Choking up and with tears running down his face, he quipped, “John Boehner has nothing on me.”

Almost every speaker pointed out that this victory had not been a partisan effort — that it had been both non-partisan and bi-partisan. In fact, one irate volunteer patrolled the door to catch Ryan Call, State Republican Chairman, and tell him he was unwelcome — that he had worked against them and it would be remembered. Although Call made an appearance late, he did not speak. Bill Cadman, Senate Minority Leader roused the crowd with his declaration that, “This is what a miracle looks like!” Even God’s intervention on behalf of the recall was acknowledged during a moment of prayer. Although it was noted that the Legislature would better understand the Second Amendment admonition that gun rights “…shall not be infringed,” the political frustration that had been expressed at the polls appeared far broader than bullet clips and background checks.

Both Democrats and Republicans have a lot to digest moving toward 2014 elections in Colorado, if for no other reason than the fact that no one saw this coming. As I left Pueblo for my own return drive home, perhaps a dozen uniformed police officers were on the sidewalk outside the victory rally. They were trading genial barbs with the recall supporters; with whom it was evident they had been allied. I overhead one remark, “I think people have just had enough.”

Enough of what? Enough of politicians for sure. Cue the focus groups.