The general impression — some call it mythology — of Colorado Springs in the world beyond Colorado Springs is that the southern Front Range city falls politically to the right of the far right, an Evangelical Republican promised land. That’s why the historic effort to recall Colorado Senate President John Morse, a Democrat, for gun-control legislation he supported and helped to pass last spring turns mostly around the question of how well Morse represents his district — or how well he ever could have represented it.
In his campaign to beat the recall and shut down the special election on the second week of September, Morse is determined to battle that dominant impression of his city. He points out that it is a large and complex place. The Springs covers 200 square miles and is the second-most-populous city in the state at nearly half-a-million residents.
“If you were to compare me to [residents of] communities near Focus on the Family, you might say ‘He’s not representing them.’ Well, of course I’m not,” Morse told the Colorado Independent. “They’re a whole other kettle of fish, and they have Kent Lambert representing them and, yes, they’re all conservative. Colorado Springs has this assumption about it, that we’re all one way.”
Morse’s Senate District 11 is, in some places, directly south of Lambert’s District 9. Lambert’s district includes the Air Force Academy and much of the Evangelical industry north of the city. It’s the most-conservative district in the state. Morse’s district, through, cuts broadly from east to west right through Manitou and the city of Colorado Springs. It’s essentially as liberal a district as could be drawn in El Paso County.
“SD-11 includes the oldest, poorest and most diverse parts of Colorado Springs,” said Morse. “Roughly 42 percent of the district is made up of communities of color. There’s also a big chunk of poverty, working families who are just barely keeping their heads above water.”
Extending out along Colorado Blvd., which once featured more than 20 pot dispensaries along a few miles of roadway, Morse’s district incorporates not just downtown Colorado Springs but also the historic, touristy town centers of Old Colorado City and Manitou Springs.
Morse said he’ll be knocking on doors six or seven days a week in all these mini-urban core neighborhoods. He said he’ll be talking gun control but also emphasizing legislation he supported and that he thinks will uniquely benefit district residents.
“There’s no question that we had a very productive legislative session and moved Colorado very far forward, as evidenced by the economic forecast that came out in June,” he said.
He calls Senate Bill 1 his favorite piece of legislation when it comes to representing his district. The bill, the first sponsored during the 2013 legislative cycle, creates an earned income credit and child care credit.
“It’s targeted to families who are doing everything right, but still live just on the margin,” he said. “An extra $500 a year goes a long way when it comes to fixing a car to get to work or paying for childcare when you didn’t expect to need to.”
That helps families and small businesses, Morse argues, by keeping employment steady and spending slightly up in the small-scale commercial areas that dominate his district.
“The bill provides a version of a stimulus,” he said, “because in most cases these folks aren’t able to save. They spend the credit on rent, transportation, or childcare, essentially putting it directly back into the economy.”
Morse said his district has elements of grit. It’s home to quaint western main drags but also a lot of violence.
“My district has the most deaths from guns, the most homicide, the most suicide. So maybe I do represent my district — who knew? Not the Jennifer Kerns of Denver or the Laura Carnos of Black Forest.”
Kerns is spokeswoman for the Basic Freedom Defense Fund, the organization behind the recall. Kerns was recently the subject of a Colorado Springs Independent report that underlined how she came to the area from California to represent an effort which billed itself as Colorado to the core. Kerns and Carno are among many recall supporters who argue Morse has no place representing the district from his own political perspective because he won his 2010 election by a margin of just over 300 votes or about 1.5 percent. The idea is that he has to vote more to the right than he has as a nod to the signifiant number of constituents who didn’t vote for him.
Morse says his district has always been competitive, particularly in 2010 — a presidential off-year that came just ahead of redistricting based on updated census data that gave a more accurate, less-conservative snapshot of the area. Out of roughly 125,000 people, and roughly 64,000 registered voters, only 28,000 came out to vote at all.
“My district is not known for turning out to vote,” Morse explains, “which is why they’re going after me for recall. I had the second-lowest signature count of any other state senator.”
When he won in 2010, Morse’s district was split fairly evenly between Democrat, Republican and Undecided voters. With 2010 census data redistricting in place, Morse’s district has swollen to include about 83,000 total registered voters and the balance of allegiance has shifted slightly. According to Colorado Political Watch, Morse’s district has morphed to include slightly more Democrats in areas with slightly lower voter-turnout and a Republican area with slightly better voter turnout.
“My district is about 34 percent Democrat, 29 percent Republican and 38 percent Undecided,” said Morse. “So being a conservative right-wing Republican won’t play that well in my district. Just like I am moderate. I can’t be a Denver liberal, that doesn’t play. We have as many registered Democrats in El Paso county as Boulder does, but you don’t see it play out at the county level because of redistricting. We haven’t had a Democrat elected at the county level since 1986.”
When it comes to getting out the vote in a newly expanded district, Morse predicts an off-year special election might not bring in the masses, but he has reason for a little optimism.
“This is the first election since the new voter law went into effect on July 1,” Morse said, referring to the major overhaul Colorado Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act passed in the spring over determined Republican opposition. “Mail-in ballots will go out 18 to 20 days before the election, but you’ll also have the option to show up at voter centers. It will be as easy to vote in this election as it has ever been in Colorado state history.”
The date of the special election caused intense scuffles. El Paso County Clerk Wayne Williams demanded an earlier date, which Morse’s team felt was a deliberate attempt to exclude Colorado College students. Registered to vote in Colorado and living in Morse’s district, they’ll be returning to campus just in time for the September 10 election.
When knocking on downtown doors in Colorado Springs, Morse is also facing his own impression of the community where he grew up, putting his assumptions and those of his opponents to the test. He thinks he knows this idiosyncratic town and its most diverse little district better than his opponents do. He thinks his policy views match those of the majority of his constituents better than the views of former Colorado Springs Councilman Bernie Herpin, who beat Jaxine Bubis in an informal GOP primary to become Morse’s opponent in the upcoming special election.
“[My opponents] are saying Briargate, communities like Focus [on the Family], matter more than Pikes Peak Park,” he said, comparing a wealthy suburban neighborhood in a nearby district with one rattled by gun violence his district. “I couldn’t disagree more vehemently. They matter equally.”
Colorado Springs is a beautiful western city but, like cities everywhere, is more complex than it is often portrayed. Colorado Senate District 11, the site of a historic recall election spurred by new gun-control legislation, is home to middle class families and struggling bedroom communities alike, service-industry strip malls and quaint local shopping streets, corporate mid-rises and pockets of post-industrial abandonment. It’s both more and less than the mountain parks, mega churches and military academies and bases most-often associated with the city. Photos by Tessa Cheek.
Correction note: An earlier version of this story identified SB 1 as the first piece of legislation sponsored and passed during the 2013 legislative cycle. Although the first sponsored bill, SB 1 was not passed until 5/6/13.