And so, in this long Colorado summer of failed recall attempts against Democrats, only one campaign targeting a statewide official is hanging on: the effort to remove Senate President Leroy Garcia.
On Tuesday, organizers of recalls against state Sens. Pete Lee and Brittany Pettersen announced they were shutting down. Last week, proponents of a recall targeting Gov. Jared Polis held a press conference announcing they had failed to gather enough signatures to oust him.
All three of the efforts followed in the doomed footsteps of a recall attempt against state Rep. Tom Sullivan, whose son died in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. One other effort was withdrawn, after the target, Greeley Rep. Rochelle Galindo, resigned amidst a sexual misconduct allegation by a former staffer.
All four Democrats were elected just 10 months ago. Republicans led every effort, but each was championed by different people and committees, with the exception of the attempted recalls of Sens. Lee and Pettersen — both headed by a committee called Recall Et All. (Pun intended.)
Republicans are now a minority in both chambers of the legislature and haven’t held the governorship since Bill Owens left office in 2007, and the recalls signified, among other things, an attempt to reclaim some of the power they’ve lost.
Despite the dismal track record of this summer’s efforts, organizers of the recall campaign against Garcia — a moderate former Marine from Pueblo who won re-election with nearly 74% of the vote — say they will persevere. The attempt to oust him might be the last of its kind. On Tuesday, GOP state Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial said he would be proposing a bill next year to set a higher bar for recalls.
“As a conservative, I believe in small government and I believe in the right to citizen recalls. But it is also our duty to protect Coloradans’ right to ethical elections and functional government, and the current process invites disruption,” Tate said in a press release.
Here’s where the move to recall Garcia stands, how the opposition stacks up and where we might see changes in the future:
The Push Against Garcia
Garcia was raised in Pueblo and leads in the centrist style Pueblo Democrats are known for. He was a Marine during the Iraq War, and served until 2007.
He ascended rapidly at the Capitol, serving one term in the House before winning a Senate seat in 2014. He became a favorite of former Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, a Denver Democrat who groomed him for leadership. He served as her assistant minority leader before taking over as minority leader in 2018.
When he ran again last year, Republicans didn’t even try to beat him. They ran no candidate in the general election, and Garcia cruised to victory, beating a Libertarian named John Pickerill by almost 50 points.
Democrats retook the Senate majority during that election, and Garcia assumed the role of Senate president. On the first day of the session, Minority Leader Chris Holbert warned that recalls would be in the offing if Democrats got too comfortable in power.
But Garcia, who chairs the Legislative Council and sponsored legislation on a variety of issues, from veterans affairs to energy, almost never played hardball during the session. At times he refused to throw his weight behind Democratic bills that weren’t sure to pass.
He broke with his party by voting against the “red flag” gun-reform bill and, when a death penalty abolition bill appeared to be dying, Garcia didn’t strong-arm the few Democratic swing votes whose hang-ups eventually killed the bill.
Midway through the session, Holbert praised Garcia’s leadership.
“There are some folks there who are proudly progressive,” Holbert told The Independent, and if the Republicans can’t wield the president’s gavel, he added, “I’m glad it’s Leroy Garcia.”
And yet, he finds himself facing a recall.
The move against Garcia is spearheaded by the Committee to Recall Leroy Garcia. Its largest funder is Victor Head, a Pueblo plumber and Republican activist. To force a vote, petitioners need to gather 25% of the ballots cast in last November’s race, or 13,506 signatures, which must be submitted by Oct. 18.
Among the grievances listed in the committee’s filing with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office are Garcia’s support for SB 19-181, which tightened regulations on oil and gas development, as well as the fact that Garcia was sued for deleting a comment on his official Senate Facebook page. That suit, brought by Pueblo resident Alexander Armijo, was settled this year for $25,000 in taxpayer dollars.
Garcia slammed the recall effort against him, saying the move is a waste of taxpayer money.
“The recall efforts this year are an attempt by Republican operatives to win elections they already lost. That’s not what recall elections are meant for,” Garcia wrote in a statement to The Colorado Independent.
Susan Carr, spokeswoman for the recall committee and a Pueblo respiratory therapist, defended the group’s effort, saying: “We love Colorado and we don’t want to see it go completely blue.”
But she acknowledged the signature process is going slowly. The opposition, she said, is “more focused” today than it was during the successful recall of Garcia’s predecessor, Angela Giron, who held the seat from 2011 to 2013.
One of the groups opposed to the recalls, Our Colorado Way of Life, went so far as to lease the vacant lot next to recall committee’s building, hanging signs that read, “Decline to Sign.”
“We’ll be here if they want to keep going,” said Michael Whitehorn, co-director of Our Colorado Way of Life.
The Committee to Recall Leroy Garcia has raised just over $10,200, according to the latest secretary of state filing on Sept. 9, half of which came from Head, who, along with Carr and another Pueblo man, Earnest Macarenas, presented the petition to the secretary of state.
This isn’t Head’s first recall campaign. In 2013, after the state legislature passed gun control measures, he organized Pueblo Freedom and Rights, the committee behind Giron’s recall.
This isn’t the first recall attempt against Garcia, either. In 2013, when Garcia was a first-term state representative and the gun debate was raging, a recall committee prepared to target him. But Garcia split from Democrats and voted against the gun legislation, leading the recallers to step back.
Wendy Underhill, who studies elections issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said that because a recall already has been successful in Garcia’s district, the precedent might smooth the path for the current recall effort. But, she said, it’s still very difficult. Only one other state official has been recalled in the entire U.S. since Giron and state Senate President John Morse in 2013 — California state Sen. Josh Newman.
“If there were a hotbed of recalls, Colorado would be it,” Underhill said.
Reforming the Process
Tate, the Republican senator who wants to make the recalls tougher, is proposing a few changes to the process:
- Making recall petitions stick to statements of verifiable fact without any defamatory statements.
- Preventing petitioners from filing and circulating recalls while legislators are in session — that is, from January to early May.
- Requiring full disclosure of the estimated cost of a recall election to taxpayers on physical petitions
Garcia’s recall petition was approved for circulation by the secretary of state after the session ended in May, as were the recalls of Gov. Polis, Sens. Lee and Pettersen, and Rep. Sullivan. So, the portion of Tate’s bill concerned with timing would not have affected those petitions. The ban on language that is not verifiable fact may have disqualified Garcia’s petition, which stated he “betrayed the trust of his constituents,” acted with recklessness and put thousands of taxpayers “at risk from another lawsuit.”
None of this season’s petitions had cost disclosures on them, so if Tate is able to pass a bill proposing disclosure, that would guarantee at least one change to Colorado’s recall process moving forward.
Tate is also “exploring adding additional transparency measures on recall campaign finance,” a spokeswoman said.
In an interview Tuesday, Tate noted that there have been more recalls in Colorado in the last 10 years than in the previous 90.
“It’s the fact that it’s now a process that’s being used more often. It’s a great opportunity to look at it and make things better,” Tate said.
While Tate stopped short of condemning his fellow Republicans leading these recall efforts, his press release made clear he believes the process as it stands can create “dysfunction” and hurt democratic institutions.
Two committees — Democracy First Colorado and Our Colorado Way of Life — have been fighting the recall efforts, including that of Gov. Polis. OCWL formed to oppose recalls of Democrats on March 14 and has raised more than $233,000, with the largest contributions coming from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee — the D.C.-based arm of the Democratic Party focused on state legislatures — and the Colorado Democratic Party.
Democracy First has raised more than $614,000 and is heavily backed by the DLCC.
“From the extremists who started these recalls to the special interests that finance them, the whole process is disingenuous — and doesn’t serve the interests of Coloradans,” Democracy First’s website reads.
Its largest donor, at $132,500, was the DLCC. Other large donations include $100,000 from Everytown for Gun Safety Action, $75,000 from Education Reform Now Advocacy, $75,000 from Conservation Colorado and $75,000 from America Votes. In total it received $464,500 from addresses outside of the state.
Our Colorado Way of Life’s website urges supporters to donate or volunteer “to show that Colorado cannot be corrupted by out of state special interest attacks on our local leaders.”
However, according to information on the secretary of state’s website, contributions to the committees supporting the recall efforts — Dismiss Polis, Committee to Recall Leroy Garcia and Recall Et All — only about $750 of donations required to report an address — meaning they were above $20 — came from out of state.
So while Our Colorado Way of Life’s website accuses the recall campaigns of being funded from outside of the state, it took in more than $60,000 associated with out-of-state addresses. The committee did receive hundreds of contributions from inside Colorado as well — a much larger percentage than out of state. Whitehorn said the out-of-state money, which came primarily from the DLCC, was a jumpstart to the committee’s efforts.