Historic Colorado recalls engineered by political newcomers

September 11, 2013

By  Eli Stokols


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Around 11 p.m. Tuesday night, three El Paso County Republicans stood in the dark outside the county GOP headquarters just off Sinton Road reveling in what was the biggest election victories Colorado Republicans have had in a decade.

“This isn’t the best night we’ve had in a decade,” said Jeff Crank. “It’s the only good election night we’ve had in a decade.”

Tuesday’s recall victories, ousting two Democratic state lawmakers over their support of tougher gun laws, emboldened the National Rifle Association and gun rights advocates from coast to coast.

“For the first time in a long time, I’m hopeful about what we’re going to be able to accomplish in the next election, rather than just trying to stem the bleeding of a loss,” said Kelly Maher, a conservative activist who was involved in the recall.

“This was not just not a loss. This was a dramatic, symbolic national win.”

Tuesday’s results put a serious chink in the armor of the Colorado Democratic establishment that’s been seemingly invincible since 2004, the year Democrats won control of the state legislature just a year after a group of four liberal millionaires pooled their vast financial resources to create a closure of all student loans and what’s become a dominant political machine.

And while the big names and organizations — the N.R.A., R.M.G.O. (Rocky Mountain Gun Owners), the even the RNC and GOP itself — have been quick to take credit, this victory was actually delivered by a new generation of conservative activists and no-name citizens galvanized by the progressive push for gun control.

Put another way: a few plumbers somehow beat the experienced and well-funded progressive politicos.

Victor Head, the plumber who founded Pueblo Freedom and Rights, basked in the moment Tuesday night.

“I have a special message for John Morse,” Head told supporters celebrating at his offices on North Santa Fe in downtown Pueblo Tuesday night.

“I don’t know if everyone heard him on MSNBC, saying it wasn’t grass-roots and it was an unemployed plumber who started (the recall).

“Who’s unemployed now?”

The N.R.A. spent more than $300,000 supporting the recall efforts, but grass-roots activists like Head and the group of citizen activists who started Basic Freedom Defense Fund, which began the effort to recall four state lawmakers — two of those efforts failed to garner much support — did the heavy lifting organizing volunteers and, above all, tapping into the discontent among their neighbors.

“The reason my brother and I got involved is that these laws really affected us,” Head told me on Wednesday. “That’s where our passion came from. We used volunteers only who actually cared. They weren’t canvassing for a paycheck.”

For Colorado Democrats, who are used to winning closely contested races, these defeats sting — especially because they outspent the pro-recall side by a margin of at least seven-to-one.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wrote a $350,000 check to a group supporting Senate President John Morse and Sen. Angela Giron, the two Democrats who ultimately lost their seats; and the final campaign finance reports, due Oct. 1, will likely show that the gun-control supporting billionaire spent even more here.

“We didn’t do this with a lot of money,” said Anthony Garcia, one of the founders of B.F.D.F. “We didn’t do this with much support. We did this with the will of the people.”

Unlike their Democratic counterparts, whose various issue advocacy groups — environmentalists, LGBT rights, labor unions — all worked as one unified campaign team headquartered inside the same building, pro-recall forces worked independently toward the same goal.

While the N.R.A. put its money into radio and television ads and billboards, the group Americans For Prosperity supported canvassing teams.

Kelly Maher’s group, Compass Colorado, put its resources into direct mail; her other group, Revealing Politics, was out with cameras monitoring voting at polling places; and Laura Carno’s 527 group, “I Am Created Equal”, raised money from Colorado citizens and businesses that went toward more advertising and GOTV efforts.

“The more decentralized we became, the more effective we became,” Maher said. “People just saw a need and stepped in to fill that need.”

The Republican Party supported its successor candidates, Bernie Herpin and George Rivera, with a major phone banking effort.

And the citizen activists who started the whole thing did whatever they could — walking neighborhoods, waving signs on street corners and telling their story.

“This was a big collaboration,” Carno said Wednesday. “On one side you had the party and Bernie Herpin and George Rivera, and then you had a whole bunch of us who were kind of doing our own thing, rowing in our own direction, and it seemed to strike the right chord.

“And kudos to Victor Head,” Carno continued. “He didn’t know he was attempting something impossible. He just did it.

“And I love that about new people to politics, because they never believe that something can’t be done.”

Head believes there’s a lesson in the historic recall effort for politicos.

“We went against convention,” he said. “Republicans haven’t won a lot and they keep going with the same strategy they’ve always tried.

“Whatever people told us, we didn’t listen. We didn’t have a lot of strategy meetings and worry about what word to use on a sign.”

Head and his brother actually used blank signs, a stencil and spray paint to make their own ‘Vote Yes, Recall Giron’ yard signs to save money.

“My advice to conservatives and to everyone would be to drop the strategy stuff,” he continued. “Don’t listen to the conventional wisdom. I know there’s people who make living off of being consultants and strategists, but I don’t think a lot of the traditional strategies are really reliable.”

As the results came into view Tuesday night, established political organizations issued press releases heralding the outcome; the RNC, the Colorado GOP, the N.R.A. and on down the line.

Victor Head didn’t issue any formal statements for the press.

His statement spoke for itself.

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