GOP rift in CD 5 spills into debate

By Leslie Jorgensen

COLORADO SPRINGS — In politics, perception can cause havoc for an elected official or candidate. The same might apply to political organizations.

The local chapter of the Coalition for a Conservative Majority was elated. They’d managed to schedule a town hall meeting on Aug. 4, landing the only opportunity to hear all three Republican candidates in the 5th Congressional District race before the primary.

Candidates Bentley Rayburn and Jeff Crank had confirmed their appearances. Congressman Doug Lamborn, however, wanted to change the date to Aug. 8. After everyone agreed to his change, Lamborn canceled.

Undaunted, the chapter proceeded with their plans for the town hall meeting. Some were shocked when the CCM’s national headquarters ordered the chapter to cancel the forum because the incumbent congressman wouldn’t attend.

To do otherwise, “would give the appearance that we’re trying to advance a particular candidate in the race,” said CCM executive director Chris Perkins, speaking from his home in Washington, D.C. If the event took place without Lamborn, he said, the nonprofit organization might lose its tax-free 501(c)4 status.

Like Lamborn’s public appearances on the campaign trail, word of the cancellation didn’t materialize fast enough. More than 40 people, including Crank and Rayburn, arrived for the town hall meeting at the East Library in the Briargate neighborhood, northeast of Colorado Springs.

“We were told that it would be illegal for a 501(c)4 to conduct this type of activity within 30 days of an election,” Kyle Fisk, president of the local CCM chapter, told the audience. CCM also said “it would potentially appear to the community that CCM was supporting the challengers and opposing the incumbent in the race.”

“We have an equally large perception problem in canceling this event simply because the incumbent does not want to participate,” Fisk said. “It is the incumbent’s prerogative to not participate in these debates.

“I have the highest respect for the office of the United States Representative, but this is the people’s house,” Fisk declared, reminding folks that elections are held every two years. “This is a job interview.”

Fisk said the local chapter had met every condition set by the Lamborn campaign.

“Every single question that they had, every single issue that they had, from the moderator to the format to the date, we worked tirelessly to accommodate their requests,” he said.

It appeared that the incumbent would participate. Then, 24 hours later, Lamborn campaign manager Robin Coran nixed the appearance.

The message also was delivered to Perkins at the CCM’s headquarters on Capitol Hill, by Lamborn chief of staff Robert McCreary.

“I spoke to Chris Perkins,” Fisk told the audience. “He told me that Doug Lamborn’s chief of staff on Capitol Hill had called him and said that we are not coming and we don’t want it to happen.”

In a later interview, Perkins said the coalition’s attorneys insisted that all three candidates attend the event to avoid legal action that could threaten their nonprofit status. The problem had been getting Lamborn’s confirmation.

“I finally found out from Lamborn’s chief of staff that he was not going to this event,” Perkins recalled.

Fisk continued to question and denounce the CCM leadership.

“We should open and welcome dialogue,” Fisk said. “CCM National, Tom DeLay and staff at the top are protecting Doug Lamborn, and I won’t be a part of that.”

Fisk resigned as chapter president, adjourned the meeting and invited the audience to talk with Crank and Rayburn.

Applause, whistling and shouting rocked the room.

Folks settled back into their chairs to listen to an impromptu debate between Crank and Rayburn that was monitored by Brian Scott, a CD 5 American Constitution Party candidate.

As Rayburn shared his views on foreign trade, former state Sen. MaryAnne Tebedo espoused her views on the hijacked meeting with a security guard.

A few minutes later, Tebedo marched up to the podium to shut down the public debate.

“I was one of the charter members when we formed this coalition chapter with (former U.S. Rep.) Tom DeLay,” Tebedo said. “Some of you came here to hear the candidates speak. I was under the impression that we could not do a debate.”

“Just because the CCM will not sponsor candidate forums in primary races, we are indeed an issue-oriented, conservative group,” said Tebedo, inviting everyone to attend the September meeting.

Suddenly, Tebedo was bombarded by protests and questions.

“MaryAnne, you chose to support the guy who didn’t show up tonight. You’ve got to be honest about that,” Crank said.

Like a piqued mom dealing with a misbehaving child, Tebedo grabbed Crank’s face in her hands, forcing him to look her in the eye.

“Get your hands off me,” Crank protested in a near whisper.

Rayburn ran out the door.

The CD 5 race “is a hot issue around here,” said Tebedo, releasing Crank.

Delayed political perceptions

The local CCM chapter is not affiliated with any political party. The members and officers support different candidates in the CD 5 primary. Tebedo, chapter secretary, favors Lamborn. Connie Gaudette, treasurer, supports Rayburn. And Fisk favors Crank.

Fisk nailed the “hammer” in the town hall meeting, but did former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay have a hand in slapping down the town hall meeting to appease Lamborn?

Delay, a former Republican Texas Congressman, is a co-founder of CCM, a nonprofit organization to “identify, recruit, train, inspire, activate and mobilize conservatives to take specific action on policy issues and political causes across the country.”

DeLay traveled to Colorado in 2007 to introduce the organization to local conservatives, and again in February 2008 to finalize the Colorado Springs chapter.

His knowledge of CD 5 and Colorado Springs dates back to Lamborn’s predecessor, Congressman Joel Hefley.

In 2005, DeLay was indicted on criminal charges of money laundering and conspiracy to engage in money laundering in connection with a campaign finance investigation. The following year, he resigned as House majority leader. The trial has been delayed by appeals, including a request for a change of venue from Austin.

Hefley, as chairman of the House Ethics Committee, admonished DeLay for having “created the appearance that donors were being provided with special access to Rep. DeLay regarding the then-pending energy legislation” and for having “used federal resources in a political issue.”

Hefley was removed from the chairmanship because, as chairman of the House Ethics Committee, he did not acquit DeLay.

Neither Hefley nor DeLay sought re-election in 2006. That year, Hefley endorsed Crank in a primary against five candidates, including Rayburn and Lamborn, who won by a slim margin.

Hefley again endorsed Crank this year.

Fisk asserted that DeLay was involved in canceling the intimate town hall meeting, which would have been broadcast to radio listeners.

Perkins said DeLay was unaware of the events unfurling in Colorado Springs until he e-mailed a copy of his correspondence in response to Fisk’s resignation letter.

The town hall meeting had been in the works for several weeks before Perkins slammed on the brakes. In an Aug. 3 e-mail, he wrote, “… I think it would be a good idea if one of you clarified how tomorrow’s meeting is going to run, as I am assuming that CCM will not be sponsoring any forum (nor have I or legal approved such a thing, as far as anything sent to me).”

Perkins said he told Fisk the event had to be reviewed by CCM’s attorneys and approved by the national headquarters. Before receiving the nod, Perkins said Fisk had issued a media release.

“If he had not resigned on his own that night, he would have been asked to do so,” said Perkins. The forum without the incumbent congressman would have given “the appearance that we’re trying to advance a particular candidate in this race.”

In response to Fisk’s resignation, Perkins sent a letter in an effort to rally the troops.

“Unfortunately, there has been an attempt to divide us as conservatives in what has become a bitter fight in Colorado’s 5th congressional district. At a time when Mark Udall is supporting an extreme liberal agenda in his race for the U.S. Senate, Barack Obama is heading to Colorado to accept his party’s presidential nomination and, just today, Gov. Bill Ritter was extensively quoted in the Rocky Mountain News championing a ballot initiative that would raise taxes and the cost of gas prices on all Colorado residents, CCM’s action items should be to engage in the debate on these issues so that the public is aware of the liberal policy agenda being spewed out by these extremists.”

“It is regretful that the intense primary situation in the 5th Congressional District has spilled over with personal politics and emotions that are misdirected and not accurately communicated to you as CCM members. However intense the primary situation is, it should not take our eyes off the primary goal: to beat the liberals at their own game on their own turf by effectively organizing our activists and communicating conservative values in the public policy arena.”