Of such general interest is next Tuesday’s recall election in Colorado — and so ubiquitously has the event been characterized as a national “litmus test” or “referendum” — that it is easy to forget that there are real candidates involved in the process. Invariably, it is the more powerful political forces that garner the attention of the media: the NRA, Michael Bloomberg, “the gun lobby,” and the “advocates of stricter gun control” are typically the proxies of choice. But on the ground it is a different story. There, in Districts 3 and 11, the fights are personal, and the larger forces at work are distilled into the candidates representing them. Thus, while Americans fixate on the undercurrent, in Pueblo talk is of “Giron vs. Rivera” and in Colorado Springs the question is whether voters are “for Morse or for Herpin?” It is the answers to these questions, not the national debate, that will ultimately determine the outcome.
Pro-recall forces insist that their movement is a grassroots response to government overreach — a spontaneous reaction initiated by the apolitical and fought by the unspoiled. This claim is lent some credibility by the personal stories of the two challengers. George Rivera, who is taking on state senator Angela Giron in Pueblo, was born and raised in that city, and has served as a law-enforcement officer there for 34 years — enough time, he tells me bluntly, to learn “that evil people will do evil things.” “I don’t believe that gun control works,” he explains. “It’s common sense. You can pass what laws you want, but it won’t make a difference.”
Bernie Herpin, who is running against the president of the state senate, John Morse, was assigned to the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) in Colorado Springs in 1980 and has lived in the area ever since. His wife of over 50 years has been resident in the city since 1952. “As a Navy and Air Force veteran,” Herpin tells me, “I took an oath to defend our Constitution. When I saw our rights being stripped away by Senator Morse in Denver, I had to take action.” Herpin, too, has experience in law enforcement, having been a volunteer for the Colorado Springs Police Department for 27 years. Carpetbaggers the two are not.
Like so many of their fellow critics, both Herpin and Rivera were as vexed by the manner in which the new gun-control laws were passed as by the laws themselves. “Not only did we disagree with Senator Morse’s decisions, we disliked the arrogance he showed towards his constituents,” Herpin says. Rivera agrees. Before this year, he had “never thought” of running for public office: “I had never been in politics, and had no desire to get involved,” he admits. But when the Democratic party took over both houses of the state legislature, and the government started to “push its extreme” agenda and to shut out opposing voices, Rivera started to think about a run.
“The way things have gone this session, the gun bill was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he explains. “Actually, my wife convinced me that I had to do something. She’s a Democrat, but she’s seen a change in the party, and she doesn’t like it one bit.” I ask Rivera if he has always been a Republican. “No. I was a Democrat until 1995.” Why did he change? “Well,” he replies, “in law enforcement, I saw the effects of what I consider to be Democratic policies. So I left. Then I went independent for a while, and I finally switched in 2000.”
After the governor signed the gun bill, Rivera decided to challenge Senator Giron in 2014. “She thinks that the gun bill is ‘awesome,’” he says. “She walks around saying it.” But “when the recall came along, I brought my plans forward and entered the race.” Rivera, the son of a Mexican immigrant, talks of the broad base of support that he has managed to attract. It “goes across ethnicities and party lines” to all people who are “jealous of their rights,” he tells me. The “conventional wisdom,” he continues, “is that a recall wasn’t even possible. We’re defying all the odds. This is a Democratic area. I’ve had Democrats say to me that they wish they could have signed my petition but couldn’t because they aren’t registered Republicans.”
Rivera not only is faced with the challenge of putting his case to an electorate that tends to vote for Democrats, but is also working against a torrent of money, much of it from out of state. New York’s Michael Bloomberg contributed $350,000 to the anti-recall efforts, while California’s Eli Broad chipped in $250,000. By my calculations, the pro-recall side is being outspent about 8 to 1. But this might turn out to be counterproductive. “People see the money that’s coming in, and I don’t think it’s sitting well with them,” Rivera says. “Colorado is an independent state.” Still, he tells me, he is “working as if I’m 15 to 20 points behind.”
Unlike Rivera, Herpin has some political experience under his belt. In March 2006, after he retired from the military, he was appointed to the Colorado Springs city council, and he served there for five years. But he is not a traditional political animal. An aerospace engineer, he has spent his career on submarines in the Navy and as a private contractor for the Air Force. “This election is about having our voices heard,” he tells me.
Odd as it sounds for a single-issue recall, the primary focus of the pro-incumbent commercials isn’t gun control, but other issues such as abortion. “Senator Morse and his allies are trying to deceive voters and change the subject from his liberal agenda and his unwillingness to listen to his constituents,” Herpin says. “People are fed up, and it isn’t going to work.” Still, for his part, Herpin seems more than happy to discuss other issues: He has made much political hay out of his support for Jessica’s Law, a proposed measure that would put convicted sex offenders on probation for life. (Senator Morse opposes the idea, arguing that it is impractical, and possibly unconstitutional.) “They’re trying to deflect from the core issue,” Rivera tells me. “It’s a typical political ploy.”
The potential consequences of the challenges are significant. If John Morse is deposed, the Democrats in the state senate will have to choose a new leader, which may well mean a significantly moderated agenda. If Angela Giron goes, too, the Democrats’ advantage in the senate will be cut from 20–15 to 18–17. As it takes 18 votes to pass legislation, the Democrats’ power would be seriously curbed — just one dissenting voice, and the party’s agenda is in trouble. And, perhaps most powerful of all, if the pair is removed, then sitting among the ranks of Colorado’s legislators will be two men who were ultimately sent to the senate for one reason only: to remind the government who is boss.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer for National Review.