House Democrat Lee faces tight race in conservative Colorado Springs

Pete Lee has served one term in the Colorado House, and as a Democrat from conservative Colorado Springs, he is a marked man. He calls himself a moderate, but he supports abortion rights and same-sex civil unions, which makes him a radical liberal in the eyes of some El Paso County Republicans.

Lee’s opponent, Jennifer George, is someone El Paso County Republican Party Executive Director Bill Roy calls a “staunch conservative.”

In fact, Lee is probably best known for policy stands that would seem to transcend party lines.

His signature achievement as a lawmaker came when he sponsored a bill advancing restorative justice, a sentencing reform proposal that passed both houses and was signed by Gov. Hickenlooper this June. The bill promotes restitution and dialogue between victims of crimes and the people charged with those crimes, sometimes as an alternative to prison.

His signature defeat, meanwhile, came when he sponsored a bill that would have required the state to give preference to Colorado companies when awarding contracts.

George has said she would oppose such a bill if she is elected, citing it as too expensive, saying one of the state’s primary jobs is to hold spending down and that bills that award preferences do the opposite.

Lee told the Colorado Independent that, while his bill might have cost the state a little more upfront, it would have reduced costs in the long run because it would have kept state money in state as employees of businesses with state contracts would pay taxes, and also because the bill would decrease unemployment in the state and otherwise reduce the burden on state social services.

Like so many other Colorado districts, Lee’s HD 18 is roughly one third Democrat, one third Republican and one third unaffiliated. It is also one of a handful of competitive districts that has attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside spending this cycle.

For observes who lean left, Lee is fairly mainstream in his support for abortion rights and civil unions, even if those positions act as lightning rods in Christian-right Colorado Springs.

“Those are big issues,” says local GOP director Roy. “[Lee] is on the wrong side of civil unions. Civil unions are not supported in El Paso County by a huge margin,” he said. “That’s why George is a better candidate. She supports marriage as only between a man and a woman. This could be an issue that makes a difference.”

Lee agrees that social issues are important in the district.

“I am about fairness, equality and treating people equally. The state should treat people equally and my opponent opposes that,” Lee said. George could not be reached for comment.

Both Roy and El Paso County Democratic Party Executive Director Christy Le Lait agree that Lee works hard.

“Pete has worked hard for his constituents and this is going to be a close race. There is no doubt about that,” says Roy.

He concedes that even though El Paso County is overwhelmingly Republican, HD 18 itself is an urban district that has long leaned Democratic.

“It is a largely Democratic district,” Roy said. “Just like in virtually every other state, city centers are often Democratic and Colorado Springs is no different.”

Still, he said, he feels like the seat should be held by a Republican in order to “better reflect the values of the county as a whole.”

“Republicans don’t like having this blue reservoir in the middle of the red sea,” laughs Lee.

Le Lait, Roy’s Democratic counterpart, said she loves being a Democrat in El Paso County.

“It’s a lot of fun. I’ve lived here 32 years and I love it. I can’t imagine living in Denver or Boulder where people agree with me.”

Although the district leans left, particularly in recent years, the two parties have traded off holding the seat. It was held by Democrat Michael Merrifield, who served from 2002 to 2010, and by Democrat Renny Fagan from 1986 to 1992. But Republicans held the seat both before and after Fagan.

When asked about restorative justice, Lee grows passionate. An attorney, he explains that he has spent 25 years working in the criminal justice system and that he doesn’t believe the system as currently practiced in the U.S. works very well.

“We are the most incarcerating nation in the world. We have 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prisoners,” he says, adding that a disproportionate share of America’s prisoners are people of color.

With restorative justice, he says, you change the emphasis of the criminal justice system from punishment to restoration and you help build a sense of responsibility. Criminals see that they are members of the community.

Lee explains that restorative justice programs bring together people charged with crimes and their victims. Victims get a chance to explain how the criminal act has affected their lives, and the perpetrators get a chance to take responsibility for their actions, sometimes compensating the victim or explaining and/or apologizing for what they’ve done.

“It can be transformational,” Lee says. “If you rely on punishment to change behavior, you will be disappointed. You need transformational change in people, you need to create empathy.”

Not surprisingly, Lee opposes the death penalty.

“I see it at cruel and unusual. It is utilized disproportionately against minorities.”

He says numerous studies have proven that innocent people are put to death regularly.

Roy scoffs at the idea that restorative justice or the death penalty are important issues in the legislature or in the district.

“If you asked people in the district about restorative justice, 90 percent would shrug their shoulders and say ‘That’s great, but we have 9 percent unemployment. What are you doing about that?’”

Lee, of course, believes his bill to give a preference to Colorado companies when dishing out state contracts would have helped address unemployment in the state. Republicans thought otherwise.

Images of candidates from their campaign websites.

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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