Democracy in Colorado Springs

by Charles C. W. Cooke
Leaders of the coalition to recall state senator John Morse are optimistic on Election Day eve.

Colorado Springs — In a small independent coffee shop in the center of Colorado Springs, Tim Knight and Luke Wagner tell me about their last few months. Knight, whom activists have nicknamed “the Godfather of the recall,” has made waves by arranging the first recall election in the state’s 137-year history. Tomorrow is Election Day, the ultimate test of all his work, and two state senators — John Morse, of Colorado Springs, and Angela Giron, of Pueblo — will be prematurely up for judgment.

“Earlier in the year, I was talking to a friend about buying a snowblower,” Knight tells me. “We were just talking about what was happening in Colorado and we were getting upset. My friend said, ‘Well, what about a recall?’ And that was just it.” And so, tens of thousands of signatures and a “lot of legal hassle” later, the date was set for September 10. Simultaneously, a separate group in the nearby city of Pueblo had its own recall attempt certified. Before long, the governor had combined the two efforts into one, a move that Knight welcomed.

I am the first person from the national press that Knight has spoken to directly. “This is not about us,” he explains. “The new gun laws were just the catalyst. A lot of people are very upset about being ignored, so finding vocal moral support hasn’t really been a hard sell. There’s a lesbian couple that’s been very happy in helping us.” I raised my eyebrows at this. “I start there,” he adds, “because people say to me, ‘Well, they couldn’t possibly be interested in helping you.’ Well, sure they can! They care about protecting themselves, too.”

Luke Wagner, one of Knight’s five brothers-in-arms at the Basic Freedom Defense Foundation, set up to fight back against the new gun-control measures passed earlier in the year, explains the wide appeal of the movement to the people of this area. “John Morse couldn’t have given us a better gift than to have thrown something in everybody’s face,” Wagner tells me. “He decided that rural Coloradans aren’t as important as urban Coloradans. He doesn’t like gun owners. He wants to take money from outside of Denver and bring it into Denver for schools. There’s something for everyone!”

“We’ve had a lot of signatures here from people who voted for John Morse,” Knight adds. “He’s made everyone mad. Whether it’s the issue of not listening, or the energy issue [the state has set energy requirements that rural areas say are impossible for them to meet], or the police department coming out against the new gun laws. Even the marijuana people have come out against him for trying to suspend legalization until he could tax and regulate it.” Indeed. The advocacy group the Marijuana Policy Project is so angry with Morse that it has named him the “Nation’s Worst Pot Politician.” In response, many legal-pot advocates have got behind the recall effort at the last minute.

Colorado Springs, a pleasant old western city of 425,000 people that sits quietly at the foot of the Rockies’ spectacular Front Range, is a mixed town politically, but overall it leans to the right. It’s home to both the Air Force Academy and a strong Evangelical presence, so there are plenty of conservatives to go around. At one point during my interview, the coffee shop is invaded by a pastor and a parade of children and teenagers, who use the upstairs of the venue for a Sunday-school lesson on the Book of Deuteronomy. The website GotReMorse?, which advocates the senator’s removal, explains Morse’s predicament well. Morse “promised to focus on jobs and the economy,” it complains, “but instead pushes gun control, civil unions, sex education, illegal alien tuition, etc.”

None of these issues sits too well with the majority here. “Colorado Springs is more conservative” than Pueblo, Knight says. “It’s always been fascinating that John Morse got elected anyway.” This is a key point: Opposition to the agenda that Morse has pushed does not break down neatly along party lines. “Our petition numbers are about broken into thirds, between Democrats, Republicans, and independents.”

Knight believes that Morse has grown increasingly worried as the effort has gone forward. “It’s interesting that we’ve managed to change his behavior from not listening at all to going door to door wearing a Broncos T-shirt,” Knight tells me. “Now he’s trying to appeal to any part of the voters’ nature he possibly can: ‘Oh, he’s wearing a Broncos shirt, so he must be a good guy!’ He’s desperate.” This, it seems, is a new attitude. “A few weeks ago,” Wagner tells me, “Morse went on national television and told everyone that he was proud that he ignored his constituents.” I ask which channel. “MSNBC!” Wagner replies, with a laugh.

I’m intrigued as to what can explain the decision of the state’s legislature to pursue an obviously unpopular agenda, including gun control, which traditionally is toxic. “Colorado is a weak landing place,” Knight tells me. “The government changed from maybe center-right, then to the center, then to the left.” Although Colorado remains very much a “purple state,” for most of the last six years the Democratic party has full control of the government for the first time in a generation — and has demonstrated a willingness to use it. Moreover, Knight explains, “the pro–Second Amendment forces here are so fractured that they couldn’t defend the state of Colorado. They’ve been more interested in fighting each other.”

Luke Wagner concurs with this assessment. “It’s a nice linchpin between the West Coast and New England. If they can take Colorado, they can take anywhere. We said it could never happen here — but, boom, it happened!” So, Knight continues, “it was the perfect landing place with the perfect issue with the usual suspects not ready. And after Sandy Hook, the NRA was busy in Washington.”

“You’re familiar with the book The Blueprint?” Knight asks me. It explains how Democrats won Colorado and how, in the publisher’s words, “progressives believe they have found a blueprint for creating permanent Democratic majorities across the nation. “Well,” Knight continues, “other states are on their list. And Nevada and Texas are both on their short list. This is an experiment to see what they can get. It’s going to be quite interesting.”

I ask Knight and Wagner why Governor Hickenlooper, who had been solid on Second Amendment issues, changed his mind. And what about Durango-based state representative Mike McLachlan, the traditionally pro-gun Marine veteran who proposed the law that limits magazine size to 15 rounds?

“Hickenlooper seemed to change his mind the day after he had a meeting with Obama in Washington, D.C.,” Wagner says. “After Aurora, he said, ‘It could have been a bomb, it could have been anything. It was a criminal act.’ Well, that was a very intelligent thing to say. But after Sandy Hook, he came out after his meeting with Obama and said, ‘Now gun control good. Let’s do it.’” McLachlan changed his tune, too: “He got a call from Joe Biden,” Knight says. “All of a sudden, he was getting a lot of pressure to change his vote. The whole 15-capacity thing was because McLachlan asked a question of an ATF agent who was testifying in the house, ‘How many rounds do you have in your gun?’ The agent said, ‘Fifteen.’”

If the recall is successful, Knight believes, “it really sends a couple of messages. For those states that have recalls, especially, it says that you really have to listen to your constituents — you can’t just make stuff up, you can’t just take the one call from Joe Biden or Bloomberg or anyone else and say, ‘Oh, okay, I’ll just do that.’ And as far as the gun debate goes, I think it’s going to warn them, ‘Don’t come here, and don’t do that.’ If we win, I think this issue will be mostly left alone. I think it’s going to put a dent in their ability to get stuff done for 20 years.”

“On its face,” Wagner adds, “if we do win the recall, it’s largely symbolic. We’ve removed two people. It doesn’t remove the law or change history. But hopefully it sets an example for the rest of the people that you can stand up, that it’s okay to stand up, and that if you’re diligent, you can win.” “You say that this is ‘symbolic,’” Knight says to Wagner. “It is, but it’s sending a huge symbol: Don’t do that!”

“There are two messages that are resonating with people in Colorado Springs,” Knight says. “First, that Morse didn’t listen; and, now that Bloomberg had interjected his money, that Coloradans can’t be bought.” I ask if that’s what the group is focusing on. “We don’t have much control,” Knight says. “We have one TV commercial and one radio commercial. We will run the TV spot on Monday, and the radio spot all week. The official proponents of the recall — us — have no money. Contrary to reports, the NRA didn’t give us money. Friendly groups can focus on what they want, but beyond showing us the commercials as a courtesy, we can’t afford to be involved.”

The recall has certainly become a national story, although contrary to the insinuations of the press, the anti-recall side has benefited significantly more from the influx of out-of-state cash and attention than have its champions. The NRA has sunk $361,700 into its own efforts in the state, and Americans for Prosperity is spending here too. This is not an insignificant sum, certainly. But it pales in comparison to progressive efforts. Michael Bloomberg has written a $350,000 check to an anti-recall group, Taxpayers for Responsible Democracy; the entreptreneur Eli Broad has contributed $250,000; and, in total, more than $2 million has been collected to defend the lawmakers fighting the recall. Meanwhile, former Obama staffers are flooding into the state to help with the ground game.

By my tally, the pro-recall coalition is being outspent by a little under 8 to 1, adding to a structural disadvantage that is rendered worse by the establishment’s evident wariness of the recallers’ tactics. “This was an interesting sword that was given to the people of Colorado — the recall sword — and nobody wants to go near those of us who are drawing it,” Knight says. “The gun groups are fractured” and “the Republicans don’t want anything to do with us because they think, ‘Next they’ll recall us.’”

“Are you confident?” I ask Knight. “Every vote is really going to matter here,” he says, tightly. “It’s going to come down to every vote.”

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.

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