Buescher wins secretary of state nod

By Chris Bragg

The morning after Bernie Buescher’s shocking Nov. 4 loss in his Grand Junction legislative district, Gov. Bill Ritter said in his election wrap-up press conference that he had a feeling the defeat did not mean Buescher’s work in state government had ended.

Former Rep. Bernie Buescher was appointed secretary of state by Gov. Bill Ritter on Dec. 19.

In another press conference in the governor’s office a mere month and half later, Ritter made sure his prediction came true.

Out of a colorful field of 20 applicants that was the winnowed to three heavyweight finalists, Ritter picked Buescher, a Democrat, as Colorado’s next secretary of state. Buescher beat out term-limited Senate Majority Leader Ken Gordon and term-limited House Speaker Andrew Romanoff — also Democrats — in a field Ritter termed an “embarrassment of riches.”

Before his defeat Nov. 4, Buescher, the former chair of the Joint Budget Committee, had been slated to take over for Romanoff as speaker. Instead, Buescher will replace outgoing Secretary of State Mike Coffman, a Republican, who is headed to Washington to represent the 6th Congressional District.

“The thought of another election was a difficult thing that I had to think through,” said Buescher, as he reflected on 2010, when the secretary of state’s post comes up for election.

That election will provide Colorado Republicans with one of their first opportunities to retake some ground, and it’s apt to be a tough fight for Buescher, who is still feeling the stress of his loss in House District 55.

He attributes that loss largely to a smear campaign by Focus on the Family.

He’s game for 2010, though.

“I am 100 percent excited about the job,” he said, adding that he will serve without regard to partisanship.

Considering that Democrats have not held the secretary of state’s office since 1963, electability was no doubt a factor in Ritter’s pick. Although Buescher lost his last election, he has proven his value to the Democrats by taking the traditionally GOP seat HD 55 seat in 2004 and holding it in 2006.

Buescher’s appointment also means there will be a Western Slope presence on the Democratic ticket, which may buoy Ritter, who is up for re-election
in 2010.

“He brings a statewide perspective to a statewide office,” Ritter said.

In announcing his selection, Ritter cited Buescher’s business experience and leadership skills, emphasizing the way he cleaned house at the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing during his term as executive director.

Before his selection, Buescher had expressed interest in a number of open positions, including the presidency of Colorado State University.

But good news for Buescher was bad news for Gordon, whose name has been at the forefront of talk about a replacement for Coffman ever since Coffman announced his intention to run for Congress more than a year ago.

Gordon has been much more involved in election-law legislation than either Buescher or Romanoff. Apparently, however, Gordon’s obvious passion wasn’t enough to land him the post.

“Yes, I’m disappointed,” Gordon said a half-hour after Ritter’s announcement.

The common wisdom was that Gordon, from Denver, might have trouble winning a statewide election, particularly considering that when he had the Democratic nomination for secretary of state in 2006, he narrowly lost to Coffman. Furthermore, Republicans have said many of the 37 election-related bills Gordon has introduced in the Legislature would favor Democrats.

Ritter’s chief legal counsel, Trey Rogers, had been charged with breaking the news to the outgoing Senate majority leader.

“When Trey called, he told me (Ritter picked Buescher) because Bernie had run a business that was about the same size as the secretary of state’s office,” said Gordon, who seemed unconvinced.

Gordon will serve as chairman of the Legislature’s Election Reform Commission through February.

When that’s done, he says he has no idea what’s next for him, or whether he’ll pursue future political office.

“I think it’s a good idea when something really big happens not to make any long-term decisions in your life,” Gordon said.

Two hours after the announcement, Gordon sent a melancholy e-mail out to his constituents in Senate District 35.

“There is a saying. I think it is Chinese. Maybe Zen. Not sure,” Gordon wrote. “It goes something like, House burns down, now I can see the sky. Or maybe another one works as well. When one door closes, another opens.”

As for Romanoff, the political future still looks bright. Many questioned whether he really wanted the secretary of state’s job, particularly since he’s a favored contender for the open Senate seat being vacated by Ken Salazar, who is off to head the U.S. Department of Interior. Nonetheless, Ritter said, Romanoff never pulled his name out of contention for secretary of state.

Romanoff did not return a phone call seeking comment, but he did issue a statement praising Ritter’s “outstanding decision.”

“Rep. Buescher is a man of unrivalled intellect and unquestionable integrity. I am proud to have served with him in the House and glad that Colorado will continue to benefit from his leadership,” Romanoff said.

Buescher, an attorney, said his first priority as secretary of state will be to mend relations with county clerks, some of whom were angry at Coffman for decertifying much of the state’s voting equipment a year ago.

“I was very pleased to get the news that Bernie was appointed as secretary of state,” said Mesa County Clerk Janice Rich in an e-mail. “I believe he has the skills necessary to make that office a success.”

Rich is a friend of Buescher’s, and frequently clashed with Coffman.

Buescher did not offer an opinion about whether Colorado should continue to use electronic voting machines or switch to using only paper ballots, a position favored by many Democrats. Buescher did note, however, that Colorado needs to come up with a permanent source for funding its election. Money from the federal Help America Vote Act is set to run out in 2010.

Buescher’s most immediate task will be addressing the fact that certification is set to expire next July for some of the state’s electronic voting equipment. Gordon still has a role to play in that issue; as chair of the Election Reform Commission, he’ll offer recommendations to the Legislature on the election process.

In a statement congratulating Buescher, Coffman said Buescher would be given a transition office in which to work until Dec. 31, when Coffman resigns. Buescher still has to be confirmed by the Senate after that, however. During the brief lag time, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Hobbs will serve as interim secretary.

Buescher also will have to appoint a new chief of staff to the secretary of state — assuming he decides to keep the position, which had not existed until Coffman came into office. Coffman’s chief, Jacque Ponder, is heading with Coffman to Washington D.C.

Meanwhile, the man who won the speaker’s position after Buescher’s unexpected Nov. 4 electoral defeat was glad that his former House colleague was going back to work.

“Brilliant!” reacted Speaker-elect Terrance Carroll, in a statement. “All of us — Democrats, Republicans, representatives, senators and staff — have grown very fond of Bernie Buescher over his years here in the Capitol.

“He is fair, exceptionally smart and easy-going. I know that he will oversee our elections and licensing with the same wisdom and integrity with which he ran the JBC (Joint Budget Committee), his business and his many other endeavors.”