Between now and New Year’s Eve, Colorado Pols is recapping the top ten stories in Colorado politics from the 2012 election year.
We and many others predicted in 2010 that Scott Gessler, a Republican election law attorney unexpectedly elected Colorado Secretary of State, would easily prove to be the most partisan and controversial chief elections officer in the state’s modern history. In the two years since, he has certainly lived up to that prediction.
What we didn’t predict is that Gessler would be so very, very bad at it.
The narrative of Gessler’s tenure as Colorado Secretary of State up to now is one of two tracks: spectacularly failed attempts at misusing his power for overtly partisan aims, and surprising brushes with relatively petty financial scandal that could actually prove to be the more immediate threat to his career and credibility.
Since taking office, Gessler has been a darling of conservative activists around the nation who are convinced, among other things, that improperly registered noncitizen voters are committing large-scale election fraud. Gessler has repeatedly thrown out dubious claims of “thousands” of noncitizen voters on the rolls in Colorado without supporting evidence. This fall, Gessler sent letters requesting verification of citizenship to some 4,000 registered voters (less than half the 11,000+ figure Gessler had touted the previous year), and of those 4,000 inquiries, Westword’s Sam Levin reports they have ultimately resulted in the cancelation of 88 voter registrations–and it’s not known how many of them had actually voted. Based on previous results, a very small fraction of those 88 at most.
Bottom line: Gessler has perhaps done more to disprove the myth of widespread election fraud from “noncitizen voters” than his liberal opponents. The pitiful results of Gessler’s two-year effort to root out what is a tiny number of problem registrations, while so many other unresolved issues with our elections surely have resulted in the loss of many more than 88 votes, is a stunning self-administered rebuke to the conspiracist right wing. It’s even worse if you consider Gessler’s fixation on this while actively obstructing legislative attempts to sensibly resolve the “inactive voter” controversy from 2011, which involved so many more people.
Combined with all the other questionable incidents in Gessler’s two years in office, from hosting a fundraiser to pay off fines levied by his office on fellow Republicans to his now-infamous remark that a “good election” is when “Republicans win,” and what you have is a man fundamentally making a mockery of a solemn responsibility–and not even doing that very well. It’s so poorly executed, and so obviously improper, that it’s really quite tawdry.
“Tawdry” also sums up the other emerging narrative of Gessler’s time as Secretary of State. Gessler’s very first controversy after taking office in 2011 was his announcement that he intended to keep working part time at his old elections law firm–a decision brought about, according to Gessler, by the hardship of living on the Secretary of State’s salary of $70,000 a year. While we and others are not unsympathetic regarding the low salaries paid some of our highest public officials in Colorado, Gessler’s proposed solution was a conflict-of-interest disaster waiting to happen. After a public outcry, Gessler announced he had changed his mind.
As it turns out, Gessler discovered other ways to beat the high cost of living! Questionable reimbursements for travel expenses to partisan events, including a “True the Vote” press conference in Washington D.C. and events surrounding and including the Republican National Convention in Tampa this year, are now the subject of both an ethics commission inquiry and a Denver DA criminal investigation. Another instance of Gessler “sweeping” the entire balance of his discretionary account into his pocket at the end of the fiscal year has raised more questions.
Republican friends tell us that Gessler is exceptionally intelligent, so most of what he does has presumably been thought through. What we can’t understand is the ultimate goal for him. He apparently doesn’t think he can really rise to a high post as an elected official, because if he did, he wouldn’t do things like empty the petty cash account. The easy-to-see political damage is tremendously more harmful than the trade off of a small amount of money, and he must know that. Gessler takes heat for his behavior over and over, but he doesn’t seem to care–which makes him dangerous for every other Republican.
So many controversies in only two years have led to calls for Gessler’s recall (a highly improbable prospect under Colorado’s stiff recall petition requirements)–and more recently, changing the office of Secretary of State into some kind of nonpartisan position. Certainly Democrats will mount an aggressive bid for the office in 2014, and many insiders expect Gessler won’t run again for the job–perhaps opting instead for a sacrificial lamb campaign against Gov. John Hickenlooper, followed by a return to much more profitable private practice.
But it’s been a wild ride, made less of a shock only by his repeated failures.