Giron stares down gun-control recall, says she knows her constituents and her conscience

PUEBLO, Colo. — The last gasp of summer. The sun is merciless, the air choking. The real heat, though, has little to do with the weather. On a leafy residential street here, the sun glares off two “Recall Giron” signs — signs, as it happens, that are planted on a lawn directly across from state Senator Angela Giron’s Arts and Crafts bungalow.

Competing lawn signs dot the neighborhood. “Stand With Angela.” “Recall Giron.”  If you listen closely, you can almost hear the angry voices calling out from both sides of the historic, and historically divisive, Senate recall contest.

Giron’s house has a broad, shady porch. On another day, it might offer refuge, a perfect place to spend a slow afternoon. But this is the high-point after weeks of recall drama. By tonight, we’ll know if Giron has kept her Senate seat or lost it to a political novice in Republican George Rivera, Pueblo’s former deputy police chief now trying to ride a wave of political anger against Giron’s gun-control votes.

It may take a little longer, though, to determine how a recall vote against a Democratic senator would come to gain such traction here, in Pueblo, of all places.

With slightly more than 100,000 residents, Pueblo has the feel of a small, industrial prairie city. The EVRAZ steel mill looms on the southern horizon, and a century after the Ludlow strike and massacre, Pueblo is still seen as a labor-style Democratic, if not necessarily particularly liberal, stronghold.

There are 20 Democrats in Colorado’s 35-seat Senate. Only two are up for recall. One, Senator John Morse, the Senate president from Colorado Springs, is an obvious target for recall proponents. But why Giron, who lacks Morse’s name recognition and standing in the Senate?

Giron opens her door, dressed in a lime green linen blazer, floral skirt and wedges. Her thick dark hair turns up in a seamless politician’s flip, just above the shoulder. She is well practiced by now at answering questions about the recall against her and seems to welcome another opportunity.

Here is the woman who, according to progressive women’s coalition EMILY’s list, “bravely cast the deciding vote for common-sense gun safety legislation in Colorado six months ago.”

Here is the woman who managed to get way on the wrong side of her local paper, The Pueblo Chieftain, which most recently accused Giron of having a myopic and city-centric attitude that led her to vote against her suburban and agricultural constituents, not only on guns but also on issues impacting rural energy costs and water rights.

Under fire, short on sleep, but speaking quickly and forcefully from the head of her dining room table, the senator is clear about the origins of a political career that she didn’t plan.

“Well I never thought I’d be in politics at all,” says Giron, who spent 30 years as director of the Pueblo County Boys and Girls Club. “I was motivated to get into it because I did direct service. Eventually you realize that the people you’re trying to help, they’re doing everything they can and the systems are against them. So you go out and advocate, you get on committees, you try to pass ordinances. Then one day you see: ‘Wow, it’s about public policy.’ ”

Last winter and spring, in what was Giron’s third year in the Senate, politics and policy collided with unexpected force. Nearly everyone agrees the recall attempts are a backlash from the 2013 legislative session. Disagreement comes in what to make of the session, typically called either the most effective or the most radical in years.

Democrats held a Senate majority, women held the majority in the majority, and together they passed 441 of 613 bills. Though 95 percent of these measures passed with bipartisan support, the only ones anyone will remember spurred the attempts to recall Morse and Giron.

This year, a slew of Colorado’s long-standing legislative tensions suddenly broke to the left. Same-sex civil unions passed with only a handful of Republican votes, as did a bill providing in-state tuition for undocumented college students. The fate of similar bills, which had been turned away just the year before, probably helped turn a split legislature into a Democratic one. There was more, of course. A sweeping election-reform bill, sponsored by Giron, passed on strict party lines late in the session. The law put in place statewide same-day voter registration and a system that would mail ballots to all registered voters. Giron sees the measure as her greatest legislative achievement. Opponents say it’s an invitation to voter fraud.

Still, what has come to define Giron are the gun-control laws, which passed without a single Republican vote, and without a few Democratic votes as well.

Giron says she went to the Senate to work on issues that disproportionately affect women, at-risk youth and communities of color — an agenda which, to her mind, very much includes curbing gun violence.

“The whole fact that the NRA has convinced us that more guns equals more safety is just such bullshit,” she says. “I’m happy to be a poster child for this issue.”

Along with Morse, Giron has definitely become a poster politician. Giron’s peer at the statehouse, Rep. Leroy Garcia, took a more standard Pueblo Democrat stance on the bills, splitting his gun-control votes with a ‘yes’ on background checks and a ‘no’ on magazine limits.

“Most Pueblo legislators have stayed clear of gun control,” says Joe Koncilja, a lawyer and Democratic activist from one of Pueblo’s long-standing labor families. “Between 15 and 20 thousand people in Pueblo are in the NRA… You have to understand the community.”

Meanwhile, Jon Caldara, president of the Independence Institute, a Colorado libertarian think tank, expressed hope that successful recalls based on gun control would go national, sending a “wave of fear” across the country, leading legislators coast to coast away from ever messing with “those gunnies” again.

Although she asserts that she’s not afraid of the attempt to unseat her, Giron does believe fear is, in fact, at the heart of the effort.

Since coming out in support of the gun-control bills — mandatory background checks for all sales, including private, as well as a limit on magazines to 15 rounds — Giron has received thousands of messages both for and against the bills. Legislators are used to critiques of legislation, but this time many of the messages became unusually personal, sometimes with violent, sexist or racist language.

“I do think it has changed me,” Giron says of the hate mail that has filled her inbox. “I am a little sad. I always said all I wanted when I finished was my integrity and to believe that people are good. This is a challenge, but I still believe that.”

Still, when it comes to the specific recall effort against her, Giron doesn’t believe that it’s only about guns. “Look closer,” she says, “and it’s really about ethnicity, it’s about race and women’s voices. They’re fearful of what that means.”

Koncilja agrees there is a dark side to the recall that goes beyond Second Amendment issues.

“Here’s the formula for this recall: You take a highly charged issue, you rally the homophobes, the xenophobes, the people who don’t like Hispanics, and the people who think women shouldn’t decide these issues. You put together a coalition of extremists and try to do via recall what you couldn’t do in general elections.”

Giron and Morse have both been accused by recall advocates of turning a deaf ear to their constituents and ramming through unpopular legislation despite a groundswell of local opposition. Polling shows a more nuanced picture of voter views on gun control. Still, Morse has faced blistering critique for style as much for legislation, including his scheduling public hearings for all seven of the original gun-control measures on the same day.

Giron was the chair of the committee hearing testimony on universal background checks. Many more people arrived to testify against the bill than could speak in the  allotted 90-minute-per-side time frame. It was the same scene at most of the other gun hearings. At the end of hers, Giron did ask those who were unable to speak — but opposed the bill — to stand. She may have seen it as a gesture to opponents, but the gesture seemed not to satisfy anyone.

“I had three town halls. I went to gun show and a shooting range. I did more than any other legislator, to be honest,” Giron says. “On this particular issue, I knew I was voting my constituency and also my own values. I tracked the emails and calls coming into my office … so I know I was voting my constituency. I have the values of Pueblo. Here is what I know.”

It is a small irony that Giron is being accused of failing to pay attention to her constituents. Pueblo legislators are generally framed as being Pueblo-centric to a fault. That’s one label Giron doesn’t mind. In her campaign, she regularly touts her support in the Senate for Pueblo-based programs and institutions.

During the session, Giron often arrives at the Capitol around 6:30 in the morning and sometimes stays as late as 10:00 at night — except on Fridays, when she tries to leave in time to make it to happy hour at The Shamrock, a brewpub in downtown Pueblo frequented by Giron and her friends.

“I would think that very local focus is unique to Pueblo — we have a strong identity,” she says. “When I first got to the state legislature, it was like ‘Oh, Pueblo is always complaining. They want this. They want that.’ I have no problem carrying that torch.”

Somehow, though, the torch burned out of control. Now Giron is in the middle of a raging battle between the NRA and gun advocates like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It’s hardly where she expected to end up.

“If I never have another day as a legislator, I’ll know that, in that one session, the work we did for this state was historic,” she says.

Giron tells of a Pueblo waitress who thanked her for helping pass civil unions, noting that she and her partner had just made their union complete and legal under state law. This year, a decade after it was first proposed, the ASSET bill passed, providing in-state tuition to undocumented college students. Giron carried the bill and wells up as she talks about running into a Pueblo teacher who had a favorite student forced to leave the state for college because he was undocumented. “She told me, ‘Angela, he’s coming home.’ “

For all the national attention and money the recalls have drawn, the race will be won or lost where such races always are won or lost — on porches and street corners, in bars, coffee shops and classrooms. Even with all the money in the race, all the mailers, yard signs, TV and radio ads, the candidates are still out there walking from one home to the next, trying to make their case.

Sitting in her own home, Giron gets increasingly anxious towards the end of our interview. Noon approaches and her phone is blowing up — a series of chimes and thrums and beeps as messages pour in.

It’s clearly time to get back to knocking on doors, where she occasionally runs into the grown-up versions of kids she first met through the Pueblo Boys and Girls Club. Some of the kids from today’s Boys and Girls Club, which is now directed by Giron’s daughter Melanie, are now knocking on doors for the senator.

“I always say our family business must be nonprofits,” Giron says, noting her husband Steve Nawrocki, the president of Pueblo’s City Council, is also the executive director of the area’s Senior Resource Development Agency.

“I’m a community organizer at heart,” she says, fully aware that her campaign has become a national bellwether. “I keep telling people, ‘The light and eyes of the nation are on us. This is an opportunity for Pueblo to shine’ …This recall is way bigger than guns. It’s precedent setting. We really want to say no to this so people don’t try this every time a vote doesn’t go their way. This is really not how democracy works.”

Her opponent Rivera says the recall process is exactly how democracy works. And it may be that Pueblo voters will be voting on that issue – whether or not the recall process is fair – as much as on gun control or on which candidate they prefer.

Giron hasn’t backed off her support for the gun-control legislation. Of course it’s much too late for that. There’s only enough time now for constituents to finish voting and then, after it’s done, for politicians and pundits to try to tell us what the whole exercise was about.

For the NRA and its allies, it’s about making a statement on post-Newtown, post-Aurora thinking about how U.S. gun culture overlaps with U.S. gun violence.

Gun laws failed in Congress. They passed in some Eastern state legislatures. But Colorado, a Western state, was supposed to be different. The recall votes may help decide how different.

Giron has her own take. It’s the one Colorado Democrats and gun control advocates across the country are counting on.

“When you know that 90 percent of Americans believe in background checks but we can’t get that passed nationally, then it’s not about representing your constituents, it’s about money and power and bullying,” she says. “When John and I cross that finish line, we’ll show them.”