Former legislator seeks senate seat lost in recall

...But incumbent Herpin is mounting strong defense
The Colorado Statesman

Following a bitter recall election in which former Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs was ousted from office over his support for gun control, Democrats are eager to take back the Senate District 11 seat.

They have chosen former Rep. Mike Merrifield of Manitou Springs to lead them to victory. But Sen. Bernie Herpin, R-Colorado Springs, who was elected to succeed Morse, is mounting a campaign that he believes will defy odds in the Democratic-leaning district.

Sen. Bernie Herpin (R)

Democrats say the only reason Herpin was elected was because of a unique recall election last September — the first in Colorado which a state lawmaker was ousted from office. The strategy for the recall election evolved on the fly, and Democrats never truly figured out how to activate their base of voters.

Mike Merrifield (D)

But with the general election staring them in the face, Democrats say the dynamics have changed and they are poised for victory. For one thing, they expect a significantly higher voter turnout because of the general election. They also point out that the election is not based on one issue, such as it was in the case of the recall where gun issues dominated the spotlight.

In the end, the recall only resulted in turnout of about 21 percent of 84,336 registered voters at the time. A limited 9,131 people voted in favor of recall, and Morse lost his seat by only 319 votes. In comparison, turnout was about 11,000 more in Morse’s 2010 Senate election.

Assuming Democrats see a jump in turnout come November, they are well positioned to beat Herpin. The district now includes 83,806 registered voters, of which 27,453 are Democrats, compared to 20,990 Republicans. Another 33,693 are unaffiliated.

That means that both sides of the aisle have turned their attention to not only motivating their base, but also wooing unaffiliated voters. Democrats believe they will prevail with a middle-of-the-road electorate.

“I’ve been knocking on the doors for six weeks now of unaffiliated voters, and talking to them about who I am and answering their questions, basically a listening tour, and getting good response at the door,” said Merrifield.

“My task will be to get Democrats to vote, number one, and then persuade some independent voters as well, and I think we’re doing that,” he added.

Merrifield also believes that Democrats are more charged up than ever following the recall election.

“A lot of Democrats suddenly woke up the next day and realized, ‘Oh, man. We should have voted,’” explained Merrifield. “There are a lot who are angry and frustrated with the results and are determined to help me take that seat back.”

Christy Le Lait, executive director of the El Paso County Democratic Party, said Democrats are busy registering voters and educating the public on the candidates.

She said the race would be very different than the recall, pointing out that Democrats will also have the advantage of mail-in ballots. Court rulings during the recall effectively made mail balloting impossible.

“We certainly didn’t go out of our way here to make voting as accessible to the people in the recall as we could have, but we lost by 319 votes,” said Le Lait. “That’s about turnout, that’s all that that’s about.”

Le Lait also pointed out that there are several high-profile races and issues facing voters in El Paso County, including the Congressional District 5 race in which Democrat Irv Halter, a retired Air Force major general, is challenging incumbent Republican Doug Lamborn of Colorado Springs.

Coupled with issues that voters will likely face over hydraulic fracturing, as well as statewide races for U.S. Senate and governor, Le Lait believes that voters will be motivated to show up in large numbers.

“Michael’s well known here; he is popular,” said Le Lait, pointing out that he was term-limited in House District 18 when he finished his term in 2010. “That’s what’s really going to matter here. Who are the candidates? What are they offering? What have they provided?

“Bernie Herpin got lucky…” opined Le Lait. “Bernie certainly won’t be able to hide on this election.”

Senate Majority Leader Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Fund, which works to elect Democrats to the Senate, said Democrats are employing a ground strategy for the election season. Democrats are fighting to maintain control of the Senate, where they hold only a one-seat majority.

“By knocking on doors, making phone calls and harnessing the power of grassroots donors, Democrats have a clear advantage this November and we will expand our majority in the state Senate,” said Heath.

For his part, Morse has a similar viewpoint. Immediately following his recall from office, Morse turned to reporters on that late summer night and promised that Democrats would take back the seat in 2014. He has not changed his opinion.

“Very few people were voting for Herpin, so Merrifield will mop the floor with him,” declared Morse. “We tried to tell people that even during the recall. Yes, you can toss me one session, but the laws stay on the books and the Democrats will come back and take that seat back in 2014. That’s exactly what will happen. I wasn’t making that up then, and I’m not making that up now.”

Morse said he is throwing his support behind Merrifield, though he hasn’t decided how much campaigning he will be doing for him. The former Senate president has since moved to Denver where he is starting an accounting firm.

Morse said he is not bitter about the loss, suggesting that he did what was right for Colorado by pushing for universal background checks and limiting high-capacity ammunition magazines.

“Elections have consequences,” he said. “I was certainly frustrated that a very small percentage of the voters in my district got to claim they represented the district, but that’s how things work.”

Still, the gun issue is going to play large in the district. Merrifield is the former state director for Mayors Against Illegal Guns, an anti-gun group formed by former New York City Mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg. Gun rights groups and Republicans claimed that Bloomberg, with Democrats blindly following his lead, held the legislature hostage.

Bloomberg later responded by personally contributing $350,000 to the Democratic effort to stop the recalls, which also included former Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo, who was ousted from office last year along with Morse.

But Democrats point out that at least 85 percent of Coloradans support universal background checks. And a federal court recently upheld the constitutional legality of the laws.

“Guns this year is going to be a losing issue for the Republicans,” predicted Morse. “And on Nov. 5… you and I will be able to… say, ‘See, told you.’”

Merrifield carefully pointed out that he is a gun owner himself and an avid hunter. He received a Marlin .22 rifle for his 12th birthday and has never looked back.

“My fondest memories are hunting and fishing with my dad,” he said.

“One advantage that it gives me is a real understanding of gun policy, what gun legislation really effects…” Merrifield added of his stint with Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

As for any relationship with Bloomberg, Merrifield commented, “I’ve never met Michael Bloomberg, he certainly hasn’t written any checks and given it to my campaign.”

Beyond the gun issue, Merrifield has also made controversial comments on education reform, a splintering issue for Democrats who are often divided between charter schools and a more traditional neighborhood-oriented approach. Merrifield served as chairman of the House Education Committee and worked for 30 years as a music teacher.

In 2007, he wrote in an email to a colleague, “There must be a special place in Hell for these Privatizers, Charterizers [sic] and Voucherizers! They deserve it!”

Of the email, Merrifield told The Colorado Statesman this week, “That email will never die.

“Of course it was misquoted, and of course it was taken out of context, and of course it was meant for a personal friend, but I’m still concerned about the privatization,” he continued. “I think it’s even a bigger concern over the last six or seven years as you see the privatization and corporatization of education; the huge emphasis on testing that’s driving a huge cost that’s not being answered.”

Merrifield also hasn’t had the best luck with elections since his tenure at the statehouse. He lost two elections, one for El Paso County commissioner, and another for Colorado Springs City Council. But he isn’t worried about a potential hangover with voters from those bids.

“They were different races…” he explained. “Hugely majority Republican; you never go into a race thinking I’m going to lose, but I knew it was a long shot.”

He said he is more motivated than ever to get back into public office, having beaten throat and neck cancer.

“It’s made me more passionate about public service, about making a difference, and it’s certainly given me more empathy, especially with people who are suffering illnesses…” said Merrifield. “And it’s also showed me how much you can really take. People ask me, ‘How can you stand jumping into the political ring again,’ and I say, ‘It’s nothing compared to having daily radiation.’”

Republicans prepare to defend seat

But Republicans are preparing to inflict whatever pain they can on Merrifield and his fellow Democrats in an effort to defend the seat. Herpin said he has more work to do at the legislature, and he is very hopeful that constituents will give him that opportunity.

“We have much to accomplish,” he said. “We didn’t get some of the things done this last session that we would have liked to have done, so I would like to go back and finish what we started.”

In fact, Herpin had a pretty tough year at the legislature. He lost bills to Democratic party-line votes, some of which weren’t very controversial, including a measure that would have strengthened the state’s press shield law.

Another Herpin measure killed by Democrats would have repealed the ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines. It was during testimony on this bill that Herpin found himself in trouble, making a comment about the 2012 Aurora movie theater massacre.

Herpin opined that it was a good thing that the shooter — who claimed 12 lives and injured 58 more — had a 100-round magazine because it jammed during the shooting spree, perhaps saving additional lives. Herpin pointed out that the shooter could have used multiple 15-round magazines, which are more reliable and could have resulted in additional lives lost.

“Perhaps James Holmes would not have been able to purchase a 100-round magazine,” Herpin said in February during remarks on his bill. “As it turned out that was maybe a good thing that he had a 100-round magazine because it jammed. If he had instead had four, five, six, 15-round magazines, there’s no telling how much damage he could have done until a good guy with a gun showed up.”

Herpin quickly apologized for the comment, though he believes much of it was taken out of context. He understands that Democrats will likely use the gaffe against him this election season.

“I expect to see it in commercials. I don’t know that that’s going to be a big detractor because people who know me understand my stand on our rights and the recall was successful mainly because people were concerned about their rights,” explained Herpin. “So, I think it could backfire on them.”

The retired Navy and Air Force officer and former Colorado Springs city councilman stopped short of saying Democrats inflicted retribution on him this year following the recall. But he added, “Democrats would certainly like to take this seat back, and so I’m sure the mood was, ‘Don’t let Herpin look too good.’”

Herpin also faced his share of Republican infighting during the recall, facing attacks by Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, who endorsed another Republican candidate who became embroiled in controversy after pornographic writings were revealed. Herpin was assaulted by RMGO, despite having once served as the president of the Pikes Peak Firearms Coalition.

Herpin was also considered a bit of a moderate voice on the Colorado Springs City Council, at least on a couple of issues. He supported same-sex civil unions and implementing regulations for medical marijuana.

He said he probably would have bucked his party and voted for the civil unions bill when it was making its way through the legislature, had he been a state lawmaker at the time. Republicans killed the bill in 2012 when they controlled the Capitol, but it was then passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature in 2013.

“I saw that as a contract between two consenting adults… I probably would have supported it,” said Herpin.

“There were things that could have been looked at as being a little bit more moderate,” he added of his time on city council. “I think I’m a little more conservative than moderate, but certainly my goal was to do what was best for my district and the city, and so I frequently met with groups on both sides of the spectrum.”

Herpin does not believe that he will face many attacks from conservatives in the current election cycle.

“We all want to elect the best people who will protect our rights, and certainly having Merrifield as my opponent, who worked for Bloomberg for a while… that helps,” he added.

Jeff Hays, chairman of the El Paso County Republican Party, agreed that having Merrifield as a challenger benefits the party.

“Bernie has always been a staunch defender of Second Amendment rights… but in stark contrast, Mr. Merrifield was part of Mayor Bloomberg’s… initiative,” said Hays.

The county Republican Party is working with state party leaders to help get out the vote and reach unaffiliated voters, said Hays. He believes that after Herpin’s first year in the legislature, voters are more likely to support him.

“There were a lot of people who weren’t really sure, he was somewhat of an unknown quantity at that level, but he’s proven to be a very reasonable, thoughtful and affable legislator,” opined Hays.

As for a motivated group of Democrats passionately looking to take back the seat after the recall, Hays believes that energy has dwindled.

“I’m not sure where that enthusiasm comes from,” he said. “Anger can only take you so far as a motivator because that fuse burns very rapidly and very brightly, but it doesn’t burn long…”

Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, who leads the Senate Majority Fund, which works to elect Republicans to the Senate, believes that the SD 11 seat is fair game for Republicans.

“All these seats are competitive for a reason…” he said. “So, it’s up for grabs.

“Bernie Herpin is a great candidate, a great senator and he’s got a phenomenal reputation of public service in that community,” Cadman continued. “So, we’re increasingly excited about this opportunity.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com