Recall Efforts Rattle Colorado’s Political Scene

The contested petitions appeared as evidence in the Morse recall protest hearing. Dep. Sec. Staiert ruled that the contested petitions were valid and sufficient to merit a recall. Photo by Tessa Cheek.

In a year fraught by gun violence across the nation and with the anniversary of the Aurora theater shooting fast approaching, tempers over gun control have flared so high, the issue may invite the state’s first-ever lawmaker-recall votes. The efforts mounted so far have fast made a battleground of Colorado’s local politics, with organizers on both sides accusing each other of harassing petition signers, undermining the democratic process and undercutting hard-won balanced budgets.

“It’s a pure grassroots movement,” said Jennifer Kerns, spokeswoman for the Basic Freedom Defense Fund, the political action committee behind the effort to recall State Senate President Morse of District 11 in Colorado Springs. “In 137 years of Colorado history there has never been a single recall, but in the last two weeks we’ve seen two, so that speaks volumes about how much people care and how far we’ve come.”

That second recall effort, directed at Sen. Giron of D-3 Pueblo, was started by 28-year-old Victor Head and his brother, founders of Pueblo Freedom and Rights. In that campaign — unlike the Morse recall effort which is currently under fire for potentially fraudulent signatures — an all-volunteer team gathered 12,648 signatures with just a 6 percent error rate, catching a degree of national attention.

“It’s cool, it’s definitely history,” Head said. “I’m just a regular guy. My brother and I run a plumbing business and we’re not political at all. We started the recall because we didn’t feel represented.”

Voices representing both parties worry that policy disagreement is not a valid reason to interrupt the democratic process with a special election.

“I have never embraced the idea that we should have recalls,” said Dick Wadhams, a Colorado-based Republican political consultant. “We have elections for everything short of political corruption or some sort of malfeasance.”

Democratic Party Chair Rick Palacio agreed that recalls should be used as a weapon against criminal politicians and little else, saying, “What we’re looking at right now are two instances of an abuse of the recall process — people attempting to bring legislators to a special vote because they have policy differences. That should be solved at the polling booth during the election cycle, not in expensive recall elections.”

In addition to opposing policy-motivated recalls, Morse and Giron’s on-the-ground defenders argue that a much more strategic, partisan affiliation underlies recall efforts supposedly motivated by a single-issue gun control debate.

“The Republican Party is seeing that they’re having a hard time winning elections, so this is a new way for them to attack that problem,” said Christine Le Lait, a staff member of the El Paso Democratic party and the campaign manager for A Whole Lot of People for John Morse.

“The Legislature is controlled by Democrats and the Governor is a Democrat … Republicans need to make up for lost ground and this is a way to do that which tends to be low cost and low risk, but potentially high reward,” agreed Chris Shallow, the manager for the issue campaign Pueblo United opposing the recall of Sen. Giron.

In Colorado, five attempts have been made in the last year to recall Democratic lawmakers, ostensibly for their stance on gun control. Efforts to recall Sen. Evie Hudak (District 19, Arvada) and Rep. Mike McLachlan (District 59, Durango) fizzled out earlier this year. So too did a first attempt to recall Sen. Morse. That effort was followed by Basic Freedom’s more organized petition drive that managed to hand in twice the required signatures by June 1, though to date some 40 percent have been found invalid. About two weeks later Pueblo Freedom and Rights submitted their squeaky clean petitions to recall Sen. Giron.

Even at the national level recalls are unusual. To date just 36 state legislators have found themselves up for a recall election and only half were voted out of office. If put to election, Morse would only be the 5th legislative leader to go up against a recall. If Morse were to loose that election, he’d only be the second such leader to to be ousted by recall in national history, according to Joshua Spivak, recall historian and Senior Fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York City.

With their Senate President and an additional State Senator under fire, many are looking to the State and National Democratic Parties for a show of allegiance and support, which has been somewhat thin. Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, billed as a bipartisan coalition, has contributed some $25,000 to Morse’s defense and local Democratic headquarters have come in with support at the level of shared office space and staffing for both issue defense campaigns.

Despite a clear focus on Democratic legislators, many Republicans argue that the recall efforts really do reflect a political and cultural breaking point around gun control, especially as the strictest gun-control laws in the west take effect.

“I think this transcends partisan lines, especially in the case of Pueblo,” Wadhams said. “I haven’t seen the stats, but I have been told that a fair number of Democrats and Independents signed the petitions.”

Those behind the recall efforts maintain that Second Amendment rights were a major rallying point. Even so, they don’t shy away from interpreting the recent recall efforts in a broader political light.

“Everyone knew that the legislature this year achieved a Democratic majority and that’s really how this recall got started,” said Kerns. “They really overreached from gun rights, to taxes, to education. You’re seeing a backlash to that sort of unchecked power. We live in a government of checks and balances and this is one mechanism people have: the right to recall your elected official when they no longer represent you.”

Much debate has surrounded the legal foundations of a politically, versus criminally, motivated recall. In this case, however, state law appears to fall on the pro-recall side.

“It’s obviously always a matter of personal opinion, but legally the argument that recalls should just be used for corruption and malfeasance doesn’t stand up in Colorado,” said Spivak. “There are 18 states with recall law for state level officials. In 7 of those states they have malfeasance standards, essentially a legislator has to have done something criminal. The recall law in Colorado is very clear: there is no malfeasance standard.”

Although Colorado law makes room for politically motivated recalls, many feel the recent recalls are on a slippery slope to threatening democratic process and local budgets.

“If the recallers are successful in knocking off one or two seats, this will become the norm. They’ll take it as huge victory and look to replicate. That would be an unfortunate disruption of the democratic process,” said Shallow.

“Conceivably if Republicans are doing it, Democrats could go the that way too and we’d be stuck having expensive special elections every other year. If every legislator is thinking ‘will I get recalled for this’ before they cast a vote, we’ll end up with major gridlock — we already see that at the national level with legislators who are up for election every two years. The terms are structured the way they are for a reason.”

Le Lait agrees with her counterpart in Pueblo, arguing that in contrast to what recallers have been saying, their efforts actually undermine voter representation. “What you have right now is a minority of the registered voters in a district dictating a huge expense for the county to promote their own views, instead of waiting to run a different candidate in a standard election,” she said of the current political situation in Morse’s Colorado Springs district.

The Secretary of State’s office, responsible for deciding on the legal protest Morse supporters filed, announced Wednesday that the petition to recall Senator Morse is valid and sufficient to merit an election. Morse defenders have indicated that they will appeal the decision, taking the protest to the Denver district court. Whoever loses there is likely to appeal once more, which would send the recall debate all the way to the Colorado Supreme court.

“Morse will stick in until the bitter end,” said Kerns, “and it will be a bitter fight.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that only 4 Senate Presidents have ever been recalled. In fact, Morse would be the fifth legislative leader (one of them was a Speaker) to face a recall vote. Three of those leaders actually survived the vote — only one (Russell Pearce in Arizona in 2011) lost their seat.

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