Call Keith King a phoenix. Four years ago, the former El Paso County state representative — and House Majority Leader to boot — was in line to become Colorado’s next Republican Speaker of the House. But things didn’t exactly go as planned. Rather than King ascending to gavel-wielding status, Republicans lost their grip on the Colorado Legislature. Two years later he was term-limited, and left the House without reaching the pinnacle he’d hoped for. And now he’s back, hoping to replace term-limited Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany.
King has no opponent in the GOP primary for the Senate District 12 seat, representing the southwestern quadrant of El Paso County. And with a voter registration in the district of 31,214 Republicans, 17,029 Democrats and 24,655 unaffiliated, King may well sail into office with relative ease.
However, Democrats are pinning their hopes on two things: a strong candidate of their own, who currently has twice as much money as King — and the claim that the same far-right policies that led Republicans to lose their control of the Legislature in 2004 will lead to King’s defeat in November’s election.
During King’s tenure in the House, he was known primarily for his support of charter schools and school vouchers. Since leaving the Legislature in 2006, he has served as the administrator for Colorado Springs Early Colleges, a charter program that he helped initiate. King says that his work on education led some of his former constituents to urge him to run again. If elected, King says that he would focus on these same issues, and look to expand programs to allow high schoolers to take college courses as they earn their high school diplomas. He would also work to make college more affordable and accessible to "at risk" high schoolers, and he would work on economic problems.
Mike Feeley, a Denver-based attorney and former Democratic Senate minority leader, says that King’s pro-privatization stance actually hurt him while in office.
"Keith focused on one major issue, and that was school choice," says Feeley. "He was a supporter of vouchers. But what the pro-voucher movement in Colorado has come to understand is that vouchers are not going anywhere in Colorado. So they have moved to school choice options in charter schools and online schools. They know vouchers don’t fly with the voting public. Keith never gave up on that."
King, claims Feeley, was viewed as an ultra-right-wing Republican during his time in office. He appeared to be out of touch with voters, which may have actually helped the Democratic takeover in 2004.
However, King disputes that characterization. A national frustration with the Iraq War — and not his own actions — led people to vote Democratic in 2004, he says.
"I am conservative," he says. "I was trying to become speaker. I worked hard to get that opportunity. I was extremely disappointed that that didn’t happen. But I don’t think the outcome would have been any different with another person."
Even so, Democrats in El Paso County see an opportunity to elect one of their own in a district that has historically been owned by Republicans. Pete Lee, a Colorado Springs attorney, is running on the Democratic ticket. Lee, who has never before held public office, is best known for his work to promote restorative justice programs in the state’s juvenile courts. Restorative justice programming sets up a conference between the offender and the victim, so that the offender can better understand the outcome of his or her actions.
If elected, Lee says that he would work to reduce our dependence on foreign oil by backing research into clean technology. He is also interested in expanding his restorative justice work beyond the juvenile population, to adult offenders. He would also work to decrease Colorado’s high school dropout rate.
"Does Pete Lee have a chance?" asks state Sen. John Morse, one of two El Paso County Democrats in the Legislature. "I think that is completely dependent on voter turnout. I think Republicans are sick and tired of right-wing Republican conservative policies. I think they will vote in droves for something other than right-wing conservative policies. And I think that Keith King is the epitome of a person with right-wing ideas."
Lee concedes that he can’t expect to win without support from Republican voters.
"No doubt about it," he says. "I am a moderate. There are Republicans who are frustrated with their own party. … They look at a person like me who has run a small business and has good credentials and recognize that maybe I represent or come closer to the ideas they believe in."
So far, Lee has nearly $17,500 cash on hand, while King has less than half of that. Most of King’s cash comes from an account set up to elect him to the House several years ago. King vows he plans to ratchet up his fundraising in July, but says he’ll naturally have an easier time because of the district’s voter makeup.
"I am out there working and trying to win the race," he says. "In these kinds of districts — not just this one — the person with less representative voter registration has got an uphill battle. It would be the same thing as if I ran in [Democratic-controlled] Denver.