Many Pitkin County Democrats worked over the summer to help two Colorado state senators who were forced into recall elections because they sided with new gun-safety measures passed by the state Legislature in March.
But in the Sept. 10 recall elections, the gun advocates were victorious, and Republicans have taken over the seats formerly held by state Sens. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Angela Giron, D-Pueblo.
Former Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland — who as a Pitkin County commissioner survived two recall elections over a rural zoning issue and almost had to face a third over another issue — said he and several other local Democrats went to Pueblo the weekend before the election, going door-to-door in 98-degree heat on behalf of Giron.
“The two senators got ‘gunned down.’ It’s unfortunate for them, but I don’t think it represents any statewide trend. I think Republicans are making a mistake if they think they are going to sweep to power on a statewide level based on the gun issue,” Ireland said.
He said voter turnout was low, as usually is the case with recall elections. Despite the losses, Democrats maintained their majority in the state Senate by one seat, 18 to 17.
There’s a chance that the slim advantage could be reversed in a few months, however, given that gun advocates are working to gain signatures to put another recall election on the ballot early next year. They are targeting state Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, whose district northwest of Denver is considered to be more conservative than Morse’s or Giron’s. The deadline to turn over the necessary number of voter names is Dec. 3.
In the two September elections, a lot of money was spent on both sides of the debate, raised from donors inside and outside of Colorado. National pundits viewed the contests as a microcosm of the national gun-control issue. Contributions to Morse and Giron reportedly neared the $3 million mark, but a lot of money was pumped into the effort to recall them by independent groups that didn’t have to report spending.
Ireland said the recall effort was fueled by misinformation.
“I was down there, going door-to-door, and people were saying they thought they would have (to submit to) background checks or they would have their guns taken away,” he said. “People actually said things like, ‘That’s how the Communists took over Russia, they took away all their guns.’ People said that to our face.”
Blanca O’Leary, who chairs the Pitkin County Democratic Party, said she and many other local Democrats, including Ireland, were “in the trenches” working on behalf of Giron and Morse, who was the Senate president. (The Democratic senators have since chosen a new president, Morgan Carroll, of Aurora. Her selection must be confirmed by the full Senate when the Colorado General Assembly reconvenes in January.)
The recall victories by gun advocates and Republicans could be short-lived, O’Leary and Ireland pointed out. Elections for state Senate seats will be held in the fall of 2014, meaning the Republicans who took the two seats will only hold office for a little more than a year.
The Democrats’ narrow hold on the Senate means the 2014 elections will be that much more important, O’Leary said. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, whose Senate District 5 includes Pitkin County, cannot run for re-election because of term limits.
Kerry Donovan, a rancher who holds a seat on the Vail Town Council, intends to run and is seeking support from Democrats throughout the sprawling district, which is bounded by (all or parts of) the counties of Eagle on the north, Delta on the west, Chaffee on the east and Hinsdale on the south, with Pitkin, Lake and Gunnison sitting in the center.
“We’re going to have to work really hard to keep the Senate,” O’Leary said.
O’Leary said the work by Pitkin County Democrats on behalf of Morse and Giron also included phone banks in the days preceding the recall elections. She said the local party organization took its direction from state party leaders.
“We found in Pueblo, where there are a lot of hunters, that people didn’t understand the new gun-safety laws,” she said. “We would tell them that the laws passed in March and then ask them, ‘Is your gun gone?’”
It was difficult trying to counter the efforts of the National Rifle Association and other special-interest groups, she said, because they spend a lot of money and use scare tactics.
“We explained to people that what the (Colorado General Assembly) did was not ‘gun control,’ it was ‘gun safety,’” O’Leary said.
Pitkin County’s two advocates in the General Assembly, Schwartz and state Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, also had to deal with the fierce opposition of the gun lobby. Hamner, O’Leary said, caught some “push-back” at one of her town hall meetings earlier this year. But she explained to those voters what the law actually accomplishes, and they became comfortable with her votes on the issue, according to O’Leary.
Reached for a quick comment as she was traveling out-of-state Thursday, Hamner said some people in geographically diverse House District 61 were “disappointed” with her votes.
“I had to vote in a way I thought would best represent the wishes of my entire district,” she said.
As for the two state senators who were recalled, “I had a lot of respect for them and thought they did a good job,” said Hamner.
O’Leary noted that Schwartz was deeply involved on behalf of Morse and Giron, helping to raise money and traveling to Colorado Springs to assist his election on the same weekend that she, Ireland and the other Pitkin Democrats were in Pueblo.
Schwartz could not be reached for comment, but in a letter to newspapers in Senate District 5, she explained her position on the gun laws and the recall effort against her colleagues.
Of five bills that Gov. John Hickenlooper signed into law, two introduced and funded universal background checks, and both had overwhelming public support, she wrote. Another measure placed a limit of 15 rounds for the “legal transfer of large-capacity ammunition magazines.”
“The main intent of creating magazine limits was to help prevent future mass public shootings like the one Colorado suffered in the Aurora movie theater tragedy of 2012 — where the gunman entered the peaceful theater brandishing a rifle equipped with a 100-round drum,” Schwartz wrote.
Schwartz said every Colorado lawmaker was bombarded with information and input on guns and public safety during the legislative session earlier this year.
“These discussions actually led to a number of good amendments to some of the original bills, and I believe the final drafts struck a balance between public safety and individual freedom. Making Colorado safer for our families while protecting our Second Amendment rights is an objective that I think most of us can agree on, and I have been committed to while serving in the state Senate,” she wrote.
But like O’Leary, she expressed regret that voters would turn to a recall process over a disagreement on a mainstream political issue. O’Leary said that recalls should be reserved for breaches of ethics or criminal wrongdoing.
“Of course, Coloradans have the constitutional right to petition for a recall without the presence of the ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ that many people associate with legitimate grounds for removal from office. However, we are certainly finding in 2013 that the current campaigns are precedent setting, divisive and they may not contribute to the process for good public policy,” Schwartz wrote.
Conducting recall elections during election off-years is extremely costly to taxpayers, serving to create a never-ending elections cycle, Schwartz’ letter concluded.
“We’re going to have to work really hard to keep the Senate.”
Chair, Pitkin County Democratic Party