The backlash against Colorado’s toughest gun restrictions in a decade intensified as the laws took effect this month, with two Democratic state senators fighting unprecedented recall efforts and seven rural counties pushing to secede and form a 51st state.
State Senate President John Morse, who represents a district in conservative Colorado Springs, the state’s second-largest city, and Senator Angela Giron, whose constituents are in Pueblo, south of Morse’s district, face a Sept. 10 election. They’re the first state lawmakers in Colorado history to be targeted for recall.
Morse and Giron hosted telephone town-halls this week as their opponents held a campaign kickoff party in a six-week race to raise money to reach voters during the summer in an off-election year.
“If I’m not knocking on doors, I’m on the phone calling and raising money in order to get our message out -- especially since it’s been so distorted,” said Giron, a first-term Democrat elected in 2010 and a former administrator at the Boys & Girls Club.
“I had my most successful year this year,” she said. “I introduced 26 pieces of legislation and 21 of them are now law - - that’s almost a career.”
The recall efforts began in April, a month after Governor John Hickenlooper, a first-term Democrat, signed measures passed by the Democrat-controlled legislature requiring background checks for all firearms sales and limiting the capacity of ammunition magazines. The laws, which went into effect July 1, were inspired by a shooting in an Aurora movie theater in July 2012 that killed 12 people and wounded 58.
Both recall-backers and opponents in this gun-friendly state assert that outside money is propelling the race and turning it into a battle between the National Rifle Association and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns for the second time this year. Bloomberg is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
“Recalls are very disruptive of the whole process -- generally odd-numbered years are spent governing and even-numbered years are spent politicking,” said Morse. “If we can’t defeat this recall effort, then special moneyed interests will be able to use it as a weapon in 19 different states.”
Morse, who was first elected to the Senate in 2006, won re-election in 2010 by just 340 votes in a district that largely reflects the political makeup of Colorado, with Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated residents comprising a third each of registered voters. Under state law, the former police chief and accountant can’t campaign again for his senate seat after his second term ends in 2014.
Campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State show recall proponents and opponents collecting large sums from 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations that aren’t required by law to disclose their donors.
The El Paso Freedom Defense Committee created by recall proponents accepted at least $56,798 in in-kind contributions from IACE Action, a 501(c)(4), and used the money to pay Kennedy Enterprises to collect signatures, records show.
“One hundred percent of that is Colorado money, including a mixture of large and small donors and zero NRA money,” said Laura Carno, a Black Forest resident and founder of several groups that contributed to recall efforts. “This isn’t a difference of opinion on the gun laws, this was the constituents saying, ‘Senator Morse you’ve changed dramatically from the guy we hired, we would like to talk to you about that.’”
The NRA gave recall advocates $985.20 on May 22 for mailing and phone banking, according to filings.
A Whole Lot of People for John Morse reported donations from as far away as Hawaii, California, Georgia, Washington, Connecticut, Michigan, Vermont and Maryland, as well as a $35,000 contribution from the Washington-based Sixteen Thirty Fund, a nonprofit that promotes “progressive politics,” records show.
Morse’s committee raised about twice as much since April as recall proponents, bringing in about $160,865 in monetary and non-monetary contributions, compared with about $84,118 reported by the El Paso Freedom Defense Committee.
Tougher gun-control laws in Colorado also brought to the surface frustrations in more conservative rural areas, whose residents say their interests are overlooked by Democrats in urban centers.
‘Way of Life’
“Guns was just the tip of the iceberg,” said Weld County Commissioner Douglas Rademacher. “We took it as an assault on our way of life.”
Weld lawmakers and representatives from six other counties in the northeastern corner of Colorado, including Logan, Sedgwick, Phillips, Yuma, Morgan and Washington, will meet in coming weeks to discuss placing a measure on the November ballot asking voters if they wish to secede and form a 51st state. The question would appear on ballots in each of the counties.
At least 60 percent of the voters in Weld would need to approve of the idea before the county would move forward, said Rademacher, acknowledging such a move is a long shot because it would also require approval from the state’s General Assembly and the U.S. Congress.
Rural counties will also discuss putting forward a statewide ballot initiative in 2014 that would allow each of Colorado’s 64 counties a representative in the legislature, Rademacher said.
Adequate representation is what the recall effort is about, proponents say, adding that Morse failed to acknowledge his constituents’ wishes when he pushed gun-control measures through the Senate.
“We want the message to be sent to folks that are standing up for their constituents that we’ll work for you and not for anyone in New York City,” Carno said.
Recall opponents say some of the 10,000 or so signatures collected to call a special election are invalid. Second Amendment advocates needed 7,178 signatures to qualify.
“We want everyone to be questioning the idea of grassroots support for the recall of an elected official when we’re really not sure whose signatures are on there, or where those signatures came from,” said Christy Le Lait, campaign manager for A Whole Lot of People for John Morse.
At a press briefing on July 22, Le Lait called on 4th Judicial District Attorney Dan May to conduct an investigation into invalid signatures on recall petitions.
“There are many categories of faulty signatures including: petitions that were not properly notarized, signatures from voters residing outside Senate District 11 as well as those that have been forged,” according to an affidavit filed by Le Lait.
Recall proponents countered that they conducted their own investigation and found 50 signatures “may be invalid or inaccurate,” said Jennifer Kerns, a spokeswoman for the Basic Freedom Defense Fund, which oversees the El Paso Freedom Defense Committee.
“This is a pattern we’re seeing in this campaign of false allegations,” Kerns said following Le Lait’s press briefing. “They are blown up to try to detract from the real message here which is Senator John Morse’s failure to represent his constituents.”
The Secretary of State’s office and a Denver judge both validated signature gathering efforts over the protests of recall opponents, prompting Hickenlooper on July 18 to declare a special recall election.
Nineteen states allow recalls. Referendums on state legislators are rare compared with those conducted on the municipal level, according to data compiled by the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures.
About half of the 36 state legislators in U.S. history who faced recall lost their seats, NCSL data show.
“We’ve had recalls in about 10 other states, so they are not unusual, but Colorado has never had a statewide, or state official, recalled,” said Tom Cronin, a political scientist at Colorado Springs-based Colorado College. “My prediction is that turnout will be higher than expected and there will be a lot of money spent on both sides.”