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.”