Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a Republican candidate for governor, announced Tuesday he would be suspending campaign efforts this week in order to help elect conservative candidates to the Douglas County School Board. The surprise move has political observers scratching their heads.
“Nowhere in this country is the battle for conservative reform more pronounced than in Douglas County, just south of Denver,” he wrote in an email announcing the decision. “If we’re able to defeat the union-funded liberals there, we have hope for defending education across Colorado.”
Although the announcement is typically Gessler — partisan and proud — it also strikes odd notes.
“I’m a firm believer that we conservatives need to be team players. That means sometimes we do something that’s inconvenient or difficult because it advances the cause of liberty that we all believe in. As you know, Conservative Education is one of my top priorities, and I’m proud that it’s a front-and-center issue in my campaign.”
Before becoming secretary of state, Gessler represented conservative clients as one of the state’s top election-law and campaign-finance trial attorneys. Although he touts his experience in education at his website, he has earned a living as a lawyer, Army Reservist and businessman. His campaign biography makes no mention of any kind of teaching or education administrative experience.
The announcement yesterday triggered concerns over possible conflicts of interest. Should the state’s election administrator be actively campaigning for candidates? But that question was just a variation on the question raised when Gessler first announced his run for governor. Should the state’s election administrator be allowed to run for office while the public is still trusting him, in effect, to count the ballots?
“There’s nothing illegal here. There’s no legal conflict. This is the system we have,” said Peg Pearl at Colorado Ethics Watch. Her organization last year proposed that Colorado move to a system where election administration is run by an appointed nonpartisan official, a system embraced in various forms in states like Delaware, Minnesota and Texas. Gessler’s controversial term as secretary of state has fueled and is likely to keep fueling support for the proposal.
“He says he’s planning to help these [Douglas County] candidates through his campaign for governor, not through his state office, and we have little reason to doubt he’ll report any spending,” said Pearl. “It’s the transparency that’s important. It’s the people who gave to his campaign who will decide whether this was a good use of their money.”
It’s unclear whether Gessler’s campaign will be directly shelling out money for the Douglas County candidates. It seems likely based on the announcement and from the paragraph he posted at his campaign website:[blockquote]“The Gessler campaign is taking the next several days to aid [the get out the vote drive] for the conservative school board candidates in Douglas County. If you would like to help we’re looking for walkers! It pays $11 per hour! “We must fight for conservative education reform. Our state demands it now.” [/blockquote]
In fact, it may be a very good use of campaign funds. As lefty blog ColoradoPols suggested, it can’t hurt a Republican running for state office to cast a large shadow in deeply conservative Douglas County. Voters there are probably thinking very little about next year’s governor’s election, but they’re deliberating right now and for the next six days on whom to vote for in the intense county school board races, where the advance of conservative reforms that center on school choice and tax vouchers is at stake.
But the move may also be a sign that Gessler isn’t taking his candidacy for governor very seriously. He’s one of a crowded field of hardline conservative candidates who have little chance of unseating moderate Democrat John Hickenlooper in 2014. What’s more, Gessler’s campaign reports only $88,000 in the bank to spend on his own statewide race and now too on the Douglas County school board races. According to documents filed by his campaign committee, Colordans for Gessler, the secretary of state took in $108,000 this past month. He spent $71,000. Perhaps his most notable campaigning so far came in the form of an internet ad in which he posed in a stetson — perhaps a very expensive stetson.
His email announcement: