In November 2010, political junkies in Colorado anxiously awaited results of the nail-biter race for House District 29, waiting days before election workers could confidently announce that Republican Robert Ramirez beat incumbent Democrat Debbie Benefield by 197 votes, giving the GOP a one-seat majority and control of the House.
Today all eyes are on HD 29 again, as Democrats seek to win back the Arvada-Westminster seat. “Because this was the race it all came down to last time, there’s really a spotlight on the district again this time,” said Chris Kennedy, Jefferson County Democratic Party chair.
This year’s challenger is energized and well-funded. Democrat Tracy Kraft-Tharp practically bubbles with excitement as she talks about the campaign and why she is seeking public office for the first time.
She told the Independent that she loves knocking on doors and that, in general, people are very happy when they find a candidate on their stoop.
“I thought, ‘What kind of person knocks on a person’s door and interrupts their life?’ But most people are thrilled. They’ve never had a candidate at their door. This has been the experience of a lifetime. I’ve already achieved the American Dream: I’ve had a great education. I’ve had great jobs. And now I’m running for the legislature.”
Kraft-Tharp knows the balance of power in the General Assembly hinged on this seat in the last election, and recognizes that both parties look at the HD 29 contest as a must-win again. But she insists she has been thinking of running for this seat since long before Ramirez’s 2010 victory.
According to America Votes, Republicans hold a slight edge over Democrats in the district, 13,609 to 13,373 with another 15,391 unaffiliated voters. Linda Cerva, Democratic chair for the district, told the Independent that reapportionment did not have much effect on the district, with voter registration numbers by party being very similar today to what they were in 2010.
Kraft-Tharp has already opened a wide fundraising lead over Ramirez. In the most recent reports, filed with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office this week, Kraft-Tharp had raised a total of $100,358 compared to $60,267 for Ramirez. More importantly, she had $76,750 on hand compared to $40,669 for Ramirez.
“Our campaign momentum continues to build,” she said. “The grassroots support behind this campaign shows that Coloradans want leaders that put partisan bickering aside and work to solve the real problems Colorado families face.,” Kraft-Tharp says.
Ramirez won in 2010 despite being outspent and says he is not worried about the fundraising differential this time around either.
“They will outspend me. What I do is I talk to people, and I listen. When I knock on doors, I find people who are experts in their fields, and I listen to them,” he told the Independent.
Kraft-Tharp says she has no interest in partisan bickering. When asked about votes Ramirez has cast or statements he has made, she’s quick to change the subject.
“As a first-time candidate, my focus is on what we are presenting. I know there are issues where we disagree, but I’m not running against his platform; I’m running on my platform. I don’t want to talk about what he is doing. I’m not going to say he did bad and I’ll do good. When the legislature is defined by partisan fighting, the people in the district are the ones who pay the price,” she said.
Although she won’t talk specifically about Ramirez’s positions, she happily states her own positions on issues where Ramirez has made waves.
Kraft-Tharp supports the Asset Bill– a Colorado version of the DREAM Act. The bill would allow some undocumented students who graduate from a Colorado high school to attend a public college in Colorado at a tuition rate slightly higher than in-state students pay but dramatically lower than the rate out-of-state students pay. Ramirez voted against the bill in committee each of the last two years, saying he supported it in principle but that it had flaws.
In the 2011 session, he was a swing vote in a committee that killed the bill. He said then that he would work over the summer to help craft a bill he could vote for in 2012, but then he voted against the 2012 version of the bill as a member of the Education Committee in the spring. It passed that committee with a one-vote majority anyway, but was defeated by one vote in the Finance Committee.
Ramirez acknowledges that the kids who would be helped by the Asset Bill “didn’t do anything wrong” but he says the bills that have been presented have too many problems. One change he wanted to see was that students be required to have attended not only high school in Colorado but also middle school.
“I wanted to address a concern that some Republicans have that families would move here just to get discounted tuition, and I think requiring kids to have been here through middle school does that,” he said.
He said his proposals also raised the tuition undocumented students would pay, while still keeping the rates well below those for out-of-state students. Both of his proposals, he said, were rejected by the bill’s House and Senate sponsors.
He said “a lot of Hispanics are upset with me,” but added that he has heard from even more who were supportive of his position. “They said they came here the right way and they thanked me for standing up for what America is.”
Kraft-Tharp says the bill would benefit the state by helping to educate as many residents as possible.
“I support a quality education for all of our kids, so I support the Asset bill. These are our kids too,” she said. “It is good for all of us to educate all of our kids. We all need the chance to reach our potential. We can’t turn to these kids after they graduate from high school, and say to them, ‘Sorry, no.'”
She says the 2012 Colorado Legislature “blew it” on the Asset bill and also on the chance to pass a civil unions bill that would have granted greater partnership rights to same-sex couples.
“I’m sad. Those are not, or shouldn’t be, party-line votes. Both of those issues come down to supporting families, all of our families,” she said. “I just felt very sad with where we went on both of those. When I talk to people in the district, I hear that people want those rights.
Kraft-Tharp, who has spent most of her career in mental health, social work and education, said access to both health care and education can be economic drivers for the state.
“Quality education, for all our kids, stimulates jobs. Health care will be a big issue, and that also comes back to jobs. Not having access to good health care stops people from getting jobs,” Kraft-Tharp says.
About civil unions, Kraft-Tharp said, “I can’t believe we are still talking about this, I mean it is 2012. This is basic justice. It is not a hard issue for me.”
Like his position on the Asset Bill, Ramirez has said he supports civil unions in theory, but that the bill considered by the legislature went too far, and was too much like marriage. He says his constituents support his position on the issue.
Ramirez has been a staunch advocate of gun rights, voting in favor of a bill to repeal background checks of people trying to buy guns. In 2010, he received a 92 percent rating by the NRA and an “A” grade from the Colorado State Shooting Association.
Several legislators have told the Independent they expect some sort of more restrictive gun legislation to be introduced in 2013.
In the aftermath of so many horrible attacks on schools, the question of gun control keeps coming up. We as Americans have many rights and one of them is the right to bear arms. The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States has often been misunderstood. Over the years I have asked many people what this Amendment meant to them, and many felt it was to protect themselves from thieves, or animals. In truth they are not far off. The problem is those thieves are the ones who wish to take our guns away, and our rights. The animals are those that would attack innocence. The combination of those two and the sheep (those who fear both and the right to bear arms) present a dilemma for our country. This right is one of many that were written in order to provide Americans with liberty and freedom from oppression.
The Second Amendment is written as such: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a Free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
Understanding what this means to our freedom is extremely important. When a government is the only holder of Arms, the people are at their mercy. When the people hold Arms, and the Constitution is written so that the Government is beholden to the people, balance and order can be kept and Liberty can be achieved.
The Second Amendment, Ramirez argues, is a safeguard of the First Amendment, which guarantees citizen freedoms against governmental power. “The Second Amendement is only to make sure the First Amendment is never taken away,” he said.
Another issue likely to come before the legislature next year is voter ID and other measures intended to prevent voter fraud.
“I’m not sure voter fraud is a big issue,” Kraft-Tharp said, suggesting that the Republican-led national drive to protect against polling-place voter impersonation is counter productive.
A recent News21 investigation of records from all 50 states found that since 2000, only 10 cases of polling place voter impersonation have been reported. That’s about one reported case for every 15 million registered prospective voters in the country, according to News21. Polling place voter impersonation is the only kind of fraud that the nearly 40 more-restrictive voter ID laws enacted or considered in statehouses this year can guard against, yet many hundreds of thousands of legal voters would and will find it difficult to meet the new ID requirements.
“A lot of people in long-term care would not be able to vote if they had to show [new forms of] ID to do so,” Kraft-Tharp said. “Voting is our right. It is who we are as Americans. [Older Americans] have fought for that right,” she said.
Colorado Democratic Party Chair Rick Palacio is less reticent than Kraft-Tharp to go after Ramirez for his votes on controversial issues.
“Ramirez’s Tea Party politics are simply too extreme for Colorado,” Palacio wrote to the Independent. “His support for fringe policies like the personhood amendment puts him far outside the mainstream values of his district.”
Palacio said that in opposing civil unions, for example, Ramirez was “pander[ing] to partisan extremists” and was part of a “failure of leadership in the state house.”
Don Ytterberg, GOP chair for Jefferson County, said Ramirez was representing the views of his constituents.
“He cast his vote [on civil unions] according to what he and his constituents believe,” Ytterberg said.
Noting that Ramirez won by just 197 votes, Ytterberg said Ramirez had to “represent a lot of people who didn’t vote for him.” He called Ramirez a “very principled man.”
Ytterberg said lots of Latino voters, for example, would have had Ramirez vote in favor of the ASSET tuition bill but he looked beyond that single bloc of voters.
“He could have simply voted along with that interest group, but instead he took the interests of the whole district into account and cast a very principled vote,” Ytterberg said.
Ramirez said he does support the personhood amendment.
“I signed the petition, but it has been voted down.” He says if personhood was introduced in the legislature, he would vote against it, because the people have already spoken twice. “I will sign it and I will fight for it every day of the week, but I won’t bypass the voters,” he said.
Recently, Ramirez came out in support of a flat tax, a position he reiterated when interviewed by the Independent.
“A flat tax? Oh yeah, I support that. It would benefit everyone. You would know how much you will have to spend. The government would know how much it has coming in,” he said.
He said he would support some sort of “subsidy” for people with income below a certain level. “The government will still have to help the people in the streets,” he said.