Opposing DAs nothing new for Pitkin County residents

Chad Abraham
Cartoonist Chris Cassatt with a Sal A. Mander campaign poster. The cartoon lizard was a write-in candidate for district attorney in 1980 under the slogan Its your choice the lizard or the snake. Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.

If Colleen Truden is recalled or forced to resign, it wouldn’t be the first time a local district attorney has been pressured out of office.Twenty-five years ago, the citizens of Pitkin County were fed up with their top prosecutor.So at the polls in November 1980, they went with a slicker candidate. That’s right, they voted for a salamander.The lizard, it was believed, would send a message to the incumbent, Chuck Leidner. Leidner was planning controversial undercover police work that upper valley residents thought, and still think, to be nefarious.Sal A. Mander was the wiseass brainchild of cartoonist Chris Cassatt. He nominated Sal, who by then was familiar to Aspen Times’ readers, for a write-in campaign because Leidner was running unopposed for district attorney.

“It was going to be a slam-dunk,” said Cassatt, the Times’ editorial cartoonist. He also authors Jeff MacNelly’s popular strip, Shoe, and his own strips, Downe & Dirty and Sal A. Mander, which returned to the Aspen Times Weekly in 2004 after a hiatus of more than 15 years. “Running Sal was a way for people to express their displeasure with the incumbent’s policies.”Back then, Cassatt was the newspaper’s photographer. After hearing about Leidner’s plans involving the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, he and a few others decided the district attorney needed some competition. A write-in campaign was started, using Sal and the slogan, “It’s your choice – the lizard or the snake.”A poster featuring the salamander, which had endorsements from Pitkin County Sheriff Dick Kienast and the county commissioners, depicts him with a law book in one hand and a beer in the other.A Times editorial from that year clearly spells out the paper’s problems with Leidner. It called for citizens to vote for Sal as a protest against the district attorney.”Under his control, the district attorney’s office has dispensed justice with a far-from-even hand, has not supplied local prosecutors the help they need, so that he and they often arrive in court unprepared to argue their cases, and has neglected at least one important investigation,” the editorial says.

In the end, the votes for the animal weren’t allowed to be counted, so the county clerk weighed the ballots instead. It was a 3-to-1 advantage for Sal.That was too much for Leidner. A few days after winning the election, the incumbent resigned.”Thirty-one thousand dollars a year isn’t enough money to put up with this bulls—,” Leidner told the Rocky Mountain News in 1980.And now comes the case of Truden, who has sparked a firestorm of controversy since taking office in January. Some of the complaints against her are the same as what plagued Leidner. With so many deputy district attorneys resigning due to her management style, Truden is facing a logjam of cases with what critics say is an inexperienced staff. At least three people accused of felony crimes have accepted misdemeanor plea bargains from prosecutors in recent weeks. Additional criticism has centered around the truthfulness of her statements to commissioners from two counties and the hiring of her husband.

Glenwood Springs attorney Sherry Caloia has launched a recall effort that will kick off July 11. If Pitkin County voters are interested, Caloia shouldn’t have too hard of a time gathering signatures for a recall petition, said Commissioner Mick Ireland.”You have a very participatory community here in Pitkin County. People register, they vote, they petition,” said Ireland, who worked on the campaign against Leidner. “If you look at our voter turnout last November, we were among the most participatory of counties [in Colorado].”Cassatt said he wasn’t sure if Sal A. Mander will make another political appearance. The critter may not have to, he said.”I can’t see that this woman is going to last very long at the rate that she’s going,” he said. “She’s incompetent, she’s unprepared. She ran for an office that she didn’t know the full ramifications of. She’s put the system into jeopardy.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is