[dropcap]S[/dropcap]ecretary of State and GOP gubernatorial primary contender Scott Gessler has had a big week.
On Monday, The Gazette, the legacy paper in the GOP stronghold of El Paso County, issued their second scathing editorial directed towards Gessler. They demanded that he and Mike Kopp get out of the race to give establishment frontrunner Bob Beauprez a chance of keeping loose-cannon Tom Tancredo off Republicans’ November ticket.
On Tuesday, Gessler found out he’d raised more than anyone else in the GOP gubernatorial primary. Though it was by a narrow margin, Gessler’s fundraising win indicates that he does have strong, leverageable name identification from winning the statewide Secretary of State race in 2010.
“Not only will it [the funds] help us augment an aggressive media buy, but it also continues to show that Scott Gessler has the real grassroots momentum, despite Beauprez’s DC connections,” said Gessler’s political director, Rory McShane, adding that the $452,266 the campaign has raised in total so far comes from 3,482 donations, the majority of which are in-state.
Gessler’s also got a smart campaign on his hands that’s been rallying volunteers to do internal primary canvassing. The Denver Post notes that they’ve made more than 14,000 calls and have Gessler slightly in the lead. Many of these volunteers were heavily recruiting and touted online with the campaign’s social media-friendly taglines like #Grassroots4Gessler and #Team HB.
“Team HB” refers to Gessler’s now several years-old Democrat-bestowed nickname the “Honey Badger.” The name’s drawn from the popular YouTube video which follows a honey badger in the wild as it tears into various food sources — beehive, snake in a tree, etc. All the while the narrator repeats versions of the lines, “honey badger doesn’t care … honey badger isn’t afraid of anything … honey badger does what he wants.”
And on Wednesday, the Honey Badger finally unsheathed his claws and did what the Honey Badger does best. Which is to say, Gessler did what he wanted. In his own Gazette op-ed Wednesday morning, Gessler took a big swipe at the grand old hive. He appeared not to care if his critique ruffled establishment feathers and not afraid of being the first one in the race to get nasty.
Gessler slammed current GOP establishment frontrunner Bob Beauprez, pointing out that Beauprez lost his last bid for Governor by nearly 17 astonishing points. He slammed Tancredo, saying the ultra-conservative lone wolf “spells disaster for Colorado Republicans.” He threatened that a Tancredo-tainted race could rally minority voters in record numbers and turn Colorado as blue as California.
Critique is a risky business, though it certainly sets Gessler apart from the pack.
“Many Colorado Republicans have gotten too comfortable with failure. By contrast, I’m a newcomer to elected office, and I’ve stood for principle in the face of nasty attacks. That sometimes makes people feel uncomfortable,” Gessler concluded.
If one thing can be learned from Gessler’s biography, it’s that he’s not comfortable with much except a relentless push forwards. His parents divorced young and he moved at least five times before graduating public high school in Chicago’s suburbs. By then he’d founded the school’s soccer team and run its newspaper, drive enough to earn him a spot at Yale and later in law school.
He says he fell in love with the West on 10-week, 5,300-mile solo bike ride, a trip his campaign biography speaks of almost lyrically:
“Sometimes he rode with others, sometimes he stayed at stranger’s homes and farms; he pitched his tent anywhere there was flat ground, and shared stories and experiences with people from all walks of life.”
Gessler later served in the military, earned an MBA from Northwestern at night while managing his father’s construction company and helped found a law firm.
The focus on action, tenacity and drive is big for Gessler. On the trail he likes to say that he doesn’t have a voting record, he has a doing record.
That’s true, particularly since he’s never been a legislator. Whether that doing record will be a strength or a weakness for Gessler come June’s primary remains to be seen, it has certainly been a headline-grabbing one.
Before he was Secretary of State, Gessler worked in private practice at his election law firm. Ivy league-trained and as tough as the Honey Badger nickname he later embraced, Gessler was widely considered a heavyweight go-to attorney for largely conservative clients.
In 2010 Gessler beat Democratic incumbent Bernie Buescher for secretary of state in a tough race. That’s a statewide success Gessler alone can claim among this cycle’s batch of GOP gubernatorial primary candidates.
Almost immediately after assuming office, Gessler asked the state Attorney General to sign off on a plan that would allow him to moonlight at his old firm.
“There are a lot of Coloradans who have to work a second job and that’s what I was looking to do, work a second job for income,” said Gessler of the Secretary’s salary of $68,500. The median household income in Colorado is just over $58,000. Ultimately, Gessler admits, the publicity of the whole issue made representing anyone privately too complex.
Once in office, the newly minted Secretary of State took an ambitious and active approach to his work, earning large measures of praise, and of criticism, at nearly every turn.
Gessler cut a total of $3.5 million in filing fees for businesses, nonprofits and political groups. He also came to verbal fisticuffs now and then with the state legislature’s Joint Budget Committee about his office’s budget.
His crusade against voter fraud drew criticism from Democrats. He fought an election reform bill supported by county clerks, earning praise from conservative Republicans.
Critiques of Gessler include that his efforts to prevent voter fraud by advocating ID laws and opposing that mail ballots be sent to inactive voters constituted vote suppression. Of all the stings the Honey Badger has shrugged off, in conversation it was this one that seemed to frustrate him most.
“I think the people who criticize me are completely divorced from reality,” he said.
“In 2012, under my leadership, military voting skyrocketed. Colorado turnout jumped while in other battleground states it went down. We went from sixth best turnout in the country to third.”
While Colorado turnout did stack up better nationally in 2012 than 2008, the turnout rates stayed relatively static, hovering slightly above 70 percent during both elections.
Gessler also notes that he spearheaded the online voter registration system govotecolorado.com, which he says has registered more than a million new voters since he took office.
“I put together a massive advertising program to show people how to use that system to register to vote, the most aggressive voter education effort in entire country. It was a huge success. No election official in the country, I believe, has made more proactive efforts to make it easier for people to register to vote than I have.”
Elena Nunez, the executive director of Common Cause Colorado, a non-profit government accountability group, agreed that online voter registration was helpful in 2012, but she said it was just one factor among many — including a ton of outside money and effort on both sides — which lead to such high voter participation in that election.
“I think it’s more accurate to say that Colorado has seen strong voter participation in spite of the Secretary of State’s efforts,” said Nunez. She cites Gessler’s decision to sue clerks in Denver and Pueblo for sending mail ballots to inactive voters, as well as the many letters he sent to voters suspected of ineligibility.
During his tenure as Secretary of State, Gessler has tangled frequently with non-profit watchdogs like Common Cause and Colorado Ethics Watch. Gessler maintains that these conflicts, which have resulted in years of heavily appealed court cases, are the liberal response to his firm, principled and conservative leadership. Those who’ve actively taken him to court, Nunez among them, also think the conflict has arisen out of his leadership.
Both Common Cause and Ethics Watch have challenged Gessler on his use of the Secretary of State’s rulemaking process to effectively, they argue, rewrite aspects of the law he doesn’t like. For example, Gessler attempted rulemaking for issue committees — the groups that rally to put ballot initiatives before voters — that would have exempted them from any campaign finance reporting if they’d raised less than $5,000. The rules would also have allowed issue committees to not report their first $5,000 even if their fundraising efforts exceeded it.
Nunez notes that both district and appellate courts found that these rules were an overreach of the Secretary of State’s authority. Never one to back down from a fight, Gessler has appealed that decision and it will soon go before the state’s Supreme Court.
“Most of these campaign finance laws have really backfired, they just make it harder for grassroots campaigns to get involved,” said Gessler.
Beyond campaign finance reform, Gessler and Ethics Watch have come to court over the Secretary’s use of public funds. Based on a complaint made by Ethics Watch, the state’s Independent Ethics Commission found that Gessler was responsible for misusing several thousand dollars on a political junket. Gessler appealed that decision but lost.
Gessler has said, and continues to say, that his ethics violation is a product of a corrupt commission comprised of political hacks.
“I don’t think [the ethics charge] is a huge issue. It’s relatively small dollars,” he said. “It’s become very clear that the Ethics Commission is corrupt. They’re all Democratic appointees and the majority of them are maxed-out donors to Hickenlooper. When you have people personally and financially committed to making sure Hickenlooper is reelected, that’s a corrupt commission.”
Contribution figures on the Secretary of State’s TRACER website do not support the Secretary’s claims about the Commissioners. Only two members of the Commission have given money to a Hickenlooper campaign: Rosemary Marshall gave $50 in 2010 and Bill Leone $1,000 in 2011. The maximum donation a single person can make to a gubernatorial campaign, inclusive of primary, is $1,100.
It’s also not the case that all the members of the Commission were appointed by Democrats, as the state’s law for the formulation of the Commission prohibits that. The Governor, House Speaker, Senate President and Chief Justice make the first four appointments to the Commission and can select a maximum of two appointees from each party. Then the first four Commissioners, by definition not all Democrats, elect the fifth.
“The bigger issue is that all of this is a distraction from the fact that he’s guilty as hell,” said Ethics Watch’s Luis Toro of the complaint his organization filed against Gessler for misusing public funds.
With a reputation as a partisan Republican and litigious Secretary of State, Gessler certainly has a battle on his hands, particularly if he should win the primary and go on to a statewide race against a relatively docile and well-liked incumbent. But if there’s one thing Scott Gessler does better than just about anyone in the game right now, it’s fight. When we asked about the Gazette’s call for him to drop out of the race Gessler said one thing twice, “It ain’t gonna happen.”
[Photo by Michael Brown]
Editing note: This article has been updated and a graphic removed for clarity.