2011: The Top Ten Stories in Colorado Politics

It’s the year that was–your top ten stories in Colorado politics for 2011 after the jump.

10. The End of the Dick Wadhams Era

9. Medical Marijuana, The Feds, and Jared Polis

8. The Rise and Fall of “Occupy Denver”

7. TABOR Author Doug Bruce Convicted of Tax Evasion

6. Hancock Beats “Class President” Romer, Survives Rocky Start

5. Scott Gessler–The “Honey Badger” of Colorado Politics

4. Mixed Messages: The Lobato Case and Proposition 103

3. Latinos, the RSCC and the Failed “Arizona Strategy”

2. GOP Historically Bungles Reapportionment

1. Redistricting and Colorado’s New Congressional Landscape

10. The End of the Dick Wadhams Era. On New Year’s Eve one year ago, former Colorado GOP chairman Dick Wadhams was likely to run for his third term. But by early February, Wadhams had pulled himself out of the running, telling FOX 31′s Eli Stokols that he “got tired of the people who see a conspiracy behind everything we do.” In the aftermath of the GOP’s disastrous 2010 gubernatorial primary, Wadhams was singled out for blame by many fellow Republicans for failing to properly “vet” the GOP’s eventual nominee Dan Maes. Others broke with Wadhams for publicly attacking Maes in his role as the state party chairman after Maes won the nomination, and all but endorsing the third-party entry of Tom Tancredo into the race.

The 2010 gubernatorial disaster was the last in a long history of meddling in Republican primaries by Dick Wadhams. In 2008, Wadhams was accused of muscling any challenge to longtime friend Bob Schaffer out of the GOP U.S. Senate primary, including both minor and (at least at the time) perfectly viable candidates. In the 2010 Senate primary, Wadhams is widely believed to have colluded with national Republicans to clear the field for former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton–another total failure that severely harmed Wadhams’ standing with the conservative base.

In the end, Wadhams was done in by his own arrogance. The sort of pre-primary wrangling that made Wadhams infamous is not new in politics, but coming during the “Tea Party” surge on the right and against the wishes of an increasingly restive GOP base, Wadhams discovered a hard limit to the power of the smoke-filled backroom.

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9. Medical Marijuana, The Feds, and Jared Polis. Colorado’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry, approved by the state’s voters under Amendment 20 in 2000 and greatly expanded by new rules allowing for commercial medical marijuana dispensaries in recent years, faces a growing challenge from federal law enforcement. Marijuana remains a “Schedule I” controlled substance under federal law, meaning no legitimate medical use of it is recognized. The federal government is in the process of cracking down hard on the state of California’s less-regulated medical marijuana indistry, and in Colorado, federal uncertainty has resulted in marijuana dispensaries legally operating under state law being unable to access simple business banking services.

In response, Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder has emerged as the state’s–and nation’s–leading congressional defender of medical marijuana and pot legalization in general. Polis has sponsored legislation to end the universal federal prohibition of marijuana and leave its regulation to the states. In questioning of Attorney General Eric Holder, Polis has tried to differentiate bewtween California’s medical marijuana industry and Colorado’s much more tightly-regulated model.

Polls are showing that the issue of marijuana prohibition is quickly shifting in terms of public support. The federal government is increasingly behind the curve as states pass greater and greater liberalizations of marijuana laws. It seems to us that Rep. Polis is very much at the vanguard of a winning long-term issue–and for a young guy in politics, that’s a great place to stand.

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8. The Rise and Fall of “Occupy Denver.” Late this summer, massive protests inspired by Canadian activist magazine AdBusters gripped cities across the United States. Called the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, these protests sought to call attention to widening income and economic opportunity inequality in America and around the world. Coming on the heels of the “Arab Spring” protests that ended despotic regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and eventually Libya, there were high hopes that these protests would result in meaningful reforms in American economic policy.

And then it started to get cold.

Here in Colorado, a robust “Occupy Denver” encampment developed near the state capitol in late September, and was initially welcomed–even some lawmakers like Rep. Wes McKinley pitched a tent to “be close” to the protesters. Unfortunately, as this encampment grew, provisions for basic functions like sanitation and rudimentary safety policies (no tapping light posts for power, no blocking traffic) never materialized. This basic lack of organization, as time went on, began to squelch the larger message of the protests–and gave authorities all the pretext they needed to start breaking up “Occupy Denver.”

The fact is, “Occupy Denver” never had a viable plan for surviving the winter season. During the season’s first major snowstorm, it become obvious that many of the protesters were not concerned with their own safety or that of others. It became a situation where underequipped protesters were standing out in the cold without adequate protection–sorry, but a cheap dome tent is not enough to protect you in those conditions–and blaming the police for their resultant hypothermia. The fact is, if the tents had been permitted to remain, the police would have pulled frozen “Occupiers” out of them. All of which was plain to the average observer, the real “99%” that Occupy Denver was supposed to be speaking for.

The lack of organization and rational decisionmaking on the part of the “Occupiers” has today stripped them of much of their public support. The “Occupy Denver” contingent still present near the capitol has dwindled as winter has set in, and now seems to be composed of a core group of already-homeless people who really can’t be reasoned with. Their larger message points about income inequality and economic reform have been hopelessly sidelined by increasingly strained allegations of police brutality.

Bottom line: anyone who hopes to see something more productive in the spring from the “Occupy” movement had better be prepared to join it and change its course. There is a chance that “Occupy” could still have a political impact in 2012 if these public safety and organizational embarrassments that alienate “Occupy” from the real “99%” can be overcome–but not by the usual-suspect marginal types who have caused them.

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7. TABOR Author Doug Bruce Convicted of Tax Evasion. Republicans have a love-hate relationship with the mastermind of the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), anti-tax activist Doug Bruce. On the one hand, they, along with Bruce, don’t like taxes.

On the other, Doug Bruce takes his dislike for taxation to an extreme that Republicans should find most unsettling.

Bruce’s conviction for felony tax evasion and attempting to influence a public servant, related to a false charity he established to move money around between his personal wealth, business dealings, and his various local and statewide anti-tax initiatives, reveal the mind of the man who authored the labyrinthine Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. TABOR’s restrictions on the timing and operation of elections for tax increases go well beyond the talking point that TABOR simply requires such elections. The complicated and sweeping changes to fiscal policy made by TABOR cannot even be undone in a single initiative due to the subsequent “single subject rule” passed in response to its complexities.

In short, TABOR’s simplified explanation that it requires voter approval of tax increases conceals all of the sneaky things it does to make such an election very hard to successfully carry out. Fixating on that one popular provision also conceals the fact that TABOR stripped the state of the most straightforward method of socking away revenue when times were good for when they weren’t–something voters say they support as a measure of fiscal responsibility.

Now we know that TABOR’s author Doug Bruce is just a sneaky guy in general. And the same mind that produced TABOR has now produced a felony case of tax evasion. For Colorado Republicans, for whom TABOR is an inviolable article of faith however much they don’t like the author, this situation will either result in either introspection, or denial meant to be loud enough to drown out said introspection.

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6. Hancock Beats “Class President” Romer, Survives Rocky Start. We’re going to upset some of you by positing that Mayor Michael Hancock was an absolutely awful candidate, perhaps one of the worst we’ve ever seen who actually managed to win their election. The fact that Hancock is now the Mayor of Denver is principally due to the fact that he was running against an even worse candidate in the person of former state Sen. Chris Romer, and that both Hancock and Romer were were able to outspend everybody else in the initial race.

Voters were surprisingly willing to put aside the fact that Hancock had repeatedly betrayed an anti-science (or at least scientifically ambivalent) bias when answering questions about creationism being taught in schools. In a city as educated and overwhelmingly Democratic as Denver, we do consider this to be fairly remarkable. Part of the reason Hancock drew a pass was the gleefully over-the-top way that Romer’s supporters tried to drive the issue home–facts of the matter notwithstanding, the Hancock campaign was able to convince the press that “negative campaigning” was the real story here, not the fact that Hancock had repeatedly expressed support for creationism in school curriculum. We wouldn’t have predicted that.

But there is perhaps no better example this past year in Colorado politics of a political self-inflicted wound than the reaction of the Hancock campaign to a story about Hancock’s name and phone number appearing in the records of the Denver Players prostitution ring, the same operation whose meticulous bookkeeping had already destroyed the career of a federal judge. Many details surrounding this “June Surprise” scandal remain mysterious–the original records were reportedly stolen from their owner at the height of the controversy in a case that remains unsolved. Hancock has consistently denied ever using the Denver Players prostitution service, and while he admits the phone number in the records is his, he claims it is not there legitimately.

All of which would have remained in the land of inside-baseball gossip until Hancock’s campaign broke agreements they had made with the press to disclose exonerating phone records, prompting the Denver Post and other major outlets to damagingly expose the allegations to the lay public. Whether a miscommunication, or an unexpected delay, or whatever, it was stunning to watch the press holding an uncooperative politician accountable–and probably a very good thing. Hancock ultimately did produce phone records that satisfied the press in terms of showing no contact with the Denver Players, which ended the standoff, but in the process he reminded everyone in public life of the power of a media doing its job.

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5. Scott Gessler–The “Honey Badger” of Colorado Politics. We’ll be honest, folks: we didn’t think infamous GOP elections lawyer Scott Gessler was going to be elected in 2010. We’re pretty sure that Gessler didn’t expect to win, either. But when the GOP’s #1 defender of groups and persons accused of election law violations became the chief enforcer of election law, we knew it was going to be bad.

And it’s fair to say that Gessler has shattered our expectations.

Secretary of State Scott Gessler has set a new standard for openly, wantonly partisan manipulation of his office and duties. Gessler began his term by announcing a plan to continue working for his old law firm, a situation so potentially fraught with conflicts of interest it was downright laughable. Gessler has (unsuccessfully) sought sweeping new power to purge the voter rolls based on dubious, unquantified allegations of “illegal voters.” Gessler tried to stop counties from mailing ballots for this year’s elections to tens of thousands of registered voters flagged as “inactive,” losing in court in his injunction attempt with the judge rebuking him in strong language about protecting the right to vote.

Gessler has been so openly and boorishly partisan that it is making other Republicans routinely cringe. This was well-illustrated this past summer when Gessler’s office first slashed the fines owed by the Larimer County Republican Party, then hosted a fundraiser for the same Larimer County GOP to pay off the remaining fines. Gessler’s original plan to appear in a “dunk tank” to raise money for the Larimer County GOP was canceled after statewide ridicule, but the fundraiser itself still went ahead.

None of the criticism over these gaffes has slowed Gessler down a bit: after a judge struck down Gessler’s loosening of campaign finance reporting requirements, he simply tried again in new rules he is proposing–rules that allegedly exceed his rulemaking authority in all kinds of other ways, too. After Gessler’s unsuccessful manipulation of a legislative error to unlawfully strike a whole class of primary campaign finance reports, Gessler imposed a new rule that intentionally produces the worst possible consequence of that error out of pure spite.

There are those who tell us that Gessler in fact has no plans to run for re-election in 2014, and looks forward to returning to the much more profitable legal representation side of election law. In the meantime, Gessler’s first year in office portends three coming years of more or less open partisan warfare waged from the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. Gessler’s not going to be nice about it, and he’s probably not going to be all that sneaky about it either.

Because “Honey Badger doesn’t give a shit.”

4. Mixed Messages: The Lobato Case and Proposition 103. Earlier this month, Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport handed down a 180+ page ruling in the case of Lobato vs. Colorado. The Lobato case’s plaintiffs, led by rural school districts in the San Luis Valley but eventually including many other districts and individuals, alleged that Colorado’s public education funding system is not rationally related to the increasing requirements imposed on the system–and that the state is unconstitutionally violated the Education Clause in the Colorado Constitution obligating a “thorough and uniform” public education system.

In 180+ absolutely damning pages of meticulously-compiled evidence, Judge Rappaport agreed with the plaintiffs. The combination of so many limits on the funding of public education with the increasing requirements that standardized testing and school accountability programs have placed on the system has, ruled the judge, resulted in an irrationally underprovisioned and broken system that is failing in its charge to thoroughly and uniformly educate Colorado’s children.

Obviously there is a wide range of debatable positions in the argument of what constitutes a “thorough” education. But there are structural minimums in place as a result of standards now imposed on public education. If Judge Rappaport’s decision is upheld by the state Supreme Court, we will have a situation where the legislature, and also the voters, will be called out by the judiciary to take major action–possibly to the tune of billions of dollars per year.

Anyway, somebody really needs to explain this situation to the voters of Colorado, who rejected this November in overwhelming numbers a modest, temporary return to 1999 sales and income tax rates to raise some $500 million per year for public education. The Proposition 103 campaign in hindsight really didn’t have a chance: it was not supported by the governor or key institutional players beyond traditional education advocates. The campaign was never funded to the extent required to overcome the natural propensity against tax increases by voters. To the extent that the public was aware of the debate, there was an intense campaign of out-and-out misinformation waged by opponents.

What we have today in Lobato vs. Colorado decision and the results of Proposition 103 is a microcosm of the fundamental cognitive breach that exists in American politics after years of “small government” drum beating. The problem for the right is that they have in large part succeeded in their goal of depriving the public sector, through legislative, initiative, and executive policy, of the resources it needs to function. And they’ve swayed the public with their repetitious axioms.

But that’s why our system of government has checks and balances.

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3. Latinos, the RSCC and the Failed “Arizona Strategy.” The fastest-growing demographic in the United States is the Latino population. They are also the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. Throughout the West and the whole nation, Latinos are increasingly showing political strength, and are expected to become a decisive factor in coming election cycles.

Just as the Republican Party is doing their level best to permanently alienate them.

Led by the passage of the controversial anti-immigrant SB-1070 in Arizona, the “Tea Party”-influenced GOP is creating a long-term demographic disaster for itself as Karl Rove, former Colorado GOP chairman Bob Martinez, and many others have warned with increasing urgency. In Colorado this year, Republicans in the General Assembly repeatedly introduced legislation that attempted to mimic Arizona’s law in whole or in part. All of them were defeated, but be assured the Latino community took notice of what was happening and who was responsible.

In some ways, it seems as though the GOP can’t help itself on the issue of relations with Latino voters. Rep. Mike Coffman, a staunchly conservative congressman now running in a highly competitive district, still championed ill-advised legislation to relax federal requirements regarding the distribution of bilingual ballots–not targeting illegal immigrants but legal American citizens.

There remain some voices in the Colorado Republican Party who are opposed to the anti-immigrant posturing of many of their colleagues. Rep. Robert Ramirez, for example, told the New York Times that the GOP needs to become the “party of inclusion”–right after he voted against the ASSET bill to allow undocumented students in Colorado access to in-state tuition.

It’s still possible that reasonable voices in the GOP will prevail in the long run, especially if this continued anti-immigrant posturing begins to be felt negatively at the polls more than it helps shore up the conservative base. But in Colorado, even among those who claim they would like to see that, they did themselves no favors in 2011.

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2. GOP Historically Bungles Reapportionment. The story of state legislative reapportionment in Colorado this year, which established General Assembly district boundaries for the coming decade, is one of partisan overreach, self-destructive belligerence, and bogus recriminations.

Nonetheless, both sides seem to be adapting to the new reality.

The state legislative reapportionment commission, composed of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans with one tie-breaking unaffiliated voter, originally produced new House and Senate maps that were approved with bipartisan support. But some Republicans, led by state party chairman Ryan Call and House Speaker Frank McNulty, weren’t entirely happy with these bipartsan-approved maps, and led the effort to appeal them to the Colorado Supreme Court.

When the Supreme Court sided with Republicans and ordered the maps remanded with instructions to reduce the number of county splits between legislative districts, Republicans cheered. The commission went back to work, and the unaffiliated chairman Mario Carrera ultimately voted with Democrats in a 6-5 vote to approve their proposed maps. The Democratic maps, as ordered by the Supreme Court, reduced the number of county splits and were duly affirmed. But it’s critical to understand that it was Republicans who led the fight against the original maps, and it was this second round of belligerence and exposure to risk that proved to be their cardinal error.

Following the commission’s 6-5 vote to approve the Democratic maps, Republicans exploded in a fury of accusations that the process was rigged–that Republicans didn’t get as much time as Democrats, than chairman Carrera had somehow “misled” those who recommended his appointment by having made political donations as an unaffiliated voter. On examination of the procedural record, these claims didn’t hold up. Republicans were submitting late proposals just like Democrats, and the idea that an unaffiliated voter isn’t “allowed” to make political donations, which Carrera has to both parties, is frankly kind of ridiculous.

One effect the new maps do have, compared to the first approved maps, is a number of incumbents who were either drawn out of their old districts, or drawn into districts represented by other incumbents (or both). Since approval of the final maps, some Republicans, and at least one Democrat, have announced their intentions to step aside in 2012. In HD-19, a high-profile primary between two GOP incumbents is getting underway–even though one of them, Majority Leader Amy Stephens, had been guaranteed a primary regardless of the outcome of reapportionment. Claims that these changes were an intentional “misogynist” attack on conservative women have been debunked to the point of backfiring on the accusers. And Democrats insist these changes were necessary in order to comply with the court’s directions in remanding the original maps.

And the funny part is, as Republican commissioner Bob Loevy discovered when he actually started looking at these new maps, is that they really don’t give the kind of advantage to Democrats that Republican accusations about them presuppose. In fact, what you have in Colorado are far more truly competitive districts, districts that don’t lend themselves to political extremism on either side. Districts that a moderate reasonable Republican could win or a moderate reasonable Democrat. To the extent that Republicans may have fewer such moderate reasonable candidates in their farm league, well, that might be a short-term issue for them.

But objectively, most of the state’s voters fill find this a positive development.

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1. Redistricting and Colorado’s New Congressional Landscape. In response to significant changes in the makeup and distribution of Colorado’s population in the last ten years, Democrats came into the congressional redistricting process thinking big. And through a combination of savvy politics, expert map-drawing strategy, and persistence, they got much of what they wanted.

Much like the legislative reapportionment process described above, Republicans were never really able to articulate a coherent strategy for congressional redistricting. Their arguments as the divided General Assembly’s redistricting committee futilely attempted to agree on a map essentially boiled down to status-quo preservation and accusations of bad faith on the part of Democrats.

Democrats responded by drawing better maps. Starting with maps that made the biggest changes to Colorado’s congressional districts in 30 years, Democrats answered criticisms and feedback by scaling back those proposals while preserving many of their overall goals. As a result, relatively incremental changes were made to CD-3 on the Western Slope. But CD-6, created as a safe Republican seat in 1980, was dramatically changed into a hotly competitive and diverse district centered on the city of Aurora. This change firmed up CD-4, held by freshman Rep. Cory Gardner, as a safer GOP seat at the direct expense of CD-6 incumbent Mike Coffman. CD-2, represented by the wealthy and liberal Jared Polis, becomes somewhat more competitive, and Ed Perlmutter’s CD-7 becomes more compactly centered on his home turf of suburban Jefferson County.

In all, the affirmed changes do result in an excellent chance for Democrats to recapture the majority of the state’s congressional delegation, today 4-3 GOP. Apart from the hardening of CD-4 for the GOP and the continued uncompetitive nature of El Paso County-centered CD-5, there’s really no place in the state where Democrats cannot strongly contend for these seats. But as with reapportionment, this should not breed complacency: they are competitive seats, not partisan freebies by any stretch.

As with reapportionment, the GOP’s engagement in the redistricting process was simply not constructive, and ended up distracting and self-injurious. Their proposals were unimaginative, and based on a rote defense of the status quo that judges rejected. Their public relations strategy of stoking public outrage over minute details in this inside-baseball process was a failure with both the media and the judiciary–for whom their pouting was never a factor anyway.

We won’t really know the full story of redistricting until after the 2012 elections, of course–you can make the argument that it won’t really be known until it’s time to do this again in 2021. Last time, Republicans turned the story of redistricting into a scandal by attempting an unconstitutional do-over in 2003 after electoral gains the previous year.

No such scandal this time. Assuming these maps play out as the sides expect them to, Republicans were simply beaten, fair and square, in the biggest game of the decade.

17 Community Comments, Facebook Comments

  1. BlueCat says:

    Good picks for top ten.  Keep up the good work  ColPols. Maybe a poll on predictions for what will be the top ten for 2012? Can’t predict actual breaking news type events but maybe guess top ten political developments? Then we can see how we did at the end of the year.

  2. fatboy says:

    that an event in early November 2012 will be the top political story for the year.  Assuming we get past December 2012 in one piece.

  3. tall4562 says:

    It’s still possible that reasonable voices in the GOP will prevail in the long run, especially if this continued anti-immigrant posturing begins to be felt negatively at the polls more than it helps shore up the conservative base.

    I am afraid that this is more a HOPE than a reality.  Why?  The number of moderately conservative (i.e.: sane)Rethugs probably can be counted on one hand.  They have either left the party, or have been hounded into irrelevance.  What is left is a rump of knuckle dragging, mouth breathing, IQ less than a igneous rock types.  They would rather go down in flames with their ideology intact rather than make any compromises.  His will be a LONG TERM problem for the Rethugs not only in Colorado, but nation wide.

  4. Gilpin Guy says:

    Thanks Pols for coming up with a visual of what a nasty character Gessler is.

    Of course he isn’t going to run in 2014.  His mission is to deliver Colorado’s electoral votes by any method possible.  He has no other role except to destroy a free election and suppress voter turnout for a Republican victory.  Talk about the classic kind of government employee that Republicans hate because he allows his personal bias to override his duties to all his constituents.  

  5. ArapaGOPArapaGOP says:

    10. Treasurer Stapleton demands accountability and transparency for taxpayers from mismanaged public employee retirement funds

    9. GOP House works with Democrat Gov. Hickenlooper to pass balanced budget

    8. New CO GOP chairman Ryan Call brings youth and energy to state party

    7. Democrats kill bills to ensure election fairness and vote fraud protection

    6. The Denver Post calls Secretary of State Gessler a “folk hero” to conservatives for fighting for election fairness and vote fraud protection

    5. Cory Gardner becomes the intellectual and policy leader for Colorado Republicans, Democrats decline to “Brandonmander” him in recognition of his strength

    4. Democrats swindle Mike Coffman’s constituency away from him and gerrymander congressional districts to set up decade long majority

    3. Democrats commit “worst gerrymander in Colorado history” (says left-beloved Bob Loevy) by deliberately targeting female incumbents and GOP leadership in reapportionment

    2. Historic “shellacking” (Colorado Pols’ word choice) of Proposition 103, a multibillion dollar sales and income tax hike proposed during a recession

    1. Total failure of Gov. John Hickenlooper to lead re: any important issue in 2011

    Happy New Year!

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