Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been...?

Sam Zakhem has this to say about Steve Curtis: "I don't think he knows the truth when he stumbles over it."

And Steve Curtis has this to say about Sam Zakhem: "He called me last week and said, 'Either you drop out of the race, or we're going to the press with this.' It's that old style of dirty campaigning, trying to find any little thing."

The race between Zakhem and Curtis for chairmanship of the Colorado Republican Party began nicely enough. It looked to be a classic but well-mannered duel pitting the crafty veteran Zakhem, an ex-legislator and former U.S. ambassador to Bahrain, against the relative newcomer Curtis, the Denver County Republican chairman.

But that was before the Zakhem camp discovered that Curtis was even more of a newcomer than they'd thought. In fact, Curtis wasn't even a registered Republican when he participated in his local party caucus and served as a county delegate to the state convention in 1994. Voter-registration records indicate that he didn't change his status from "unaffiliated" to Republican until the primary election in August of that year.

While denying any effort to pressure his opponent out of the race, Zakhem has blasted Curtis for being "less than candid" about his hazy history with the GOP; Zakhem has also suggested that Curtis may have committed three misdemeanors by participating in party functions in 1994. Curtis has dismissed the brouhaha as a "non-issue" and a "desperate move" on Zakhem's part in the waning days before the election, which will be decided March 22 by a vote of the Republican State Central Committee.

"We're going to win," Curtis predicts. "We're running on ideas, and all he's talking about is my registration. I think it's backfiring on him."

Zakhem says the issue isn't Curtis's length of service in the party but whether he has adequately explained how he managed to be a convention delegate without being a Republican. He raised the matter at a debate in Larimer County last month, he adds, but Curtis declared that he wasn't going to "respond to lies by Sam Zakhem."

"It's really not important, if he'd come clean rather than call people liars," Zakhem says. "He violated the statute, and he himself is not being truthful."

Such public acrimony is rare in state party elections, but this year's three-way race for the GOP chairmanship has been unusual in several respects, with candidates scurrying across the state to woo every possible vote. The early favorite was incumbent Don Bain, who rushed into the fray belatedly and withdrew early, after expressing his disfavor with the selection of Colorado developer Jim Nicholson to head the Republican National Committee. For Zakhem, the chairmanship represents a comeback bid, a chance to rebound from a federal investigation into his Gulf War lobbying efforts that knocked him out of the 1992 U.S. Senate race ("Party Crasher," January 16).

A rising star in local GOP circles, Curtis has positioned himself as a grassroots conservative eager to reach out to minorities and young people and to "promote harmony" among Colorado Republicans. He says he's always voted the Republican ticket and notes proudly that his wife Teresa's parents were Reagan and Bush appointees. Yet the 37-year-old activist never got around to registering as a Republican in Denver until 1994.

Curtis says his Republican affiliation somehow got dropped when he moved from Arapahoe County to Denver thirteen years ago; in any case, his 1984 Denver registration card carries the notation "una" (for unaffiliated) next to his signature. "I've always considered myself a Republican," Curtis says. "Frankly, I'm certain I declared and somebody else wrote down [that I was] unaffiliated."

The mistake wasn't discovered, he adds, until he attended precinct caucus meetings in 1994. He says party officials instructed him to "write out an affidavit and sign it, swear under oath you're a Republican, and participate. That's what I did. Apparently, that affidavit never made it to the Denver Election Commission, but I never gave it another thought. I kept running for things and winning."

Denver Clerk and Recorder Rosemary Rodriguez, who also serves as an election commissioner, says her office has no record of any such affidavit. It isn't clear of what value a self-declaration like the kind Curtis describes might be, either. While the election commission has been known to issue affidavits clarifying a voter's status when a change of affiliation was omitted because of clerical error, Colorado law states that a voter must be affiliated with a political party for at least two months before voting in its assemblies and conventions. A last-minute declaration is allowed only in the case of recently naturalized citizens or voters who have just turned eighteen.

City officials, though, regard Curtis's untimely registration as a party issue rather than a statutory offense. "If the party recognizes him as a Republican, that's their internal situation," Rodriguez says.

"If he's going to caucuses and conventions and saying 'I'm a Republican' and the record doesn't show that," adds Stan Sharoff of the Denver city attorney's office, "we, from an official point of view, don't really care. It's strictly the party's business."

That position infuriates Zakhem campaign aide Nia Bender, who points out that, under the law, "fraudulent" participation in party voting by an unaffiliated voter is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to a year in jail. "This isn't mudslinging," Bender says. "These are facts."

Zakhem says the registration flap shows that Curtis never attended any Denver caucuses or voted in any primaries before the 1994 elections, despite his claims of being a Republican at heart.

"There is a wide difference between the two of us in terms of leadership, experience and fundraising ability," boasts the former ambassador, who received millions of dollars from the government of Kuwait to lobby on behalf of American intervention in the Persian Gulf. "For a person running for state chairman, he speaks for all Republicans, and his character reflects on all of us."

But Curtis says the sniping is a misfired attempt to scare him out of the race. "Let's say he's right and I'm wrong," he says. "I'm still a Republican longer than Ben Nighthorse Campbell, and who's going to tell him he's not qualified to be our Republican U.S. senator?"

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast