Last week, recall efforts aimed at two prominent Colorado Democrats, state senators Brittany Pettersen and Pete Lee, cratered mere days after one directed at governor and fellow Dem Jared Polis suffered an equally ignominious fate — and a similar effort directed against a fourth Democrat, Representative Tom Sullivan, whose son, Alex Sullivan, lost his life in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, was withdrawn in June.
The following month, Sullivan told us that he plans to present legislation to alter the recall process, which he sees as having been hijacked by right-wing obstructionists, during the next legislative session, scheduled to get under way in January 2020. And now, with a fifth major recall attempt still pending against Senate President Leroy Garcia, also a Democrat (13,506 valid signatures must be presented to the Colorado Secretary of State's Office by October 18 in order to trigger a vote), Senator Jack Tate is announcing a reform measure of his own, to be dubbed the Colorado Valuing Open, Truthful and Ethical Recalls (Colorado VOTER) Act.
Yes, Tate is a Republican. But even though folks from his party have been the most energetic about using recalls of late, he views the issue as bipartisan.
"Frankly, the most recent major recall was a Democratic recall of a conservative school board in Jefferson County in 2015," Tate points out. "The teachers' union mobilized a very successful recall effort there."
He adds: "I think we need to tweak things a little bit. We need to keep in mind that citizens should have the right to recall public officials, but they also have a right to representative government and consistent services. We need to strike a balance."
There's certainly an appetite for recall-related change among power players on the other side of the ideological fence from Tate.
After the Pettersen-Lee news broke, Polis issued the following statement: "Coloradans are tired of political games and I am pleased to see these sideshows have failed. Senator Pettersen and Senator Lee are dedicated public servants who work hard every single day for their constituents and their communities. They have served as thoughtful and strong partners in our administration’s efforts to address the opioid crisis and reform our broken criminal justice system. This announcement simply reiterates that Coloradans are not interested in divisive politics and distractions that take away from the pressing needs of our state like improving education, solving traffic problems and saving money on health care. Coloradans want real results, and that is what I believe — regardless of political affiliation — we can continue to deliver, together.”
Colorado Democratic Party Chair Morgan Carroll seconded that emotion in remarks of her own.
"Considering that both Senators Lee and Pettersen won their 2018 elections overwhelmingly by double digits, it is hardly surprising the sore losers running these sham recalls are throwing in the towel," she wrote. "As has been the case with the previous failed recalls, this was never about their votes. These were far-right activists who are upset they lost so badly in 2018 and were desperate for a redo through these ridiculous recalls."
In a recent conversation with Westword, Carroll said that while she doesn't want to eliminate recalls entirely, she believes "they need to be rare and reserved for misconduct in office, and not just be a brand-new political tool that anybody can use anytime for any seat." Sullivan, too, has griped about the lack of parameters for recalls. "They could say, 'We don't like you because you wear green shoes' and that would be good enough," he told us this summer. "That's all they have to do right now."
Indeed, according to state statute, outfits wishing to oust eligible officials (judges and members of the state's congressional delegation are the only listed exemptions) need only to create "a general statement, of 200 words or less, stating the grounds on which the recall is sought. Proponents draft the statement, which cannot include any profane or false statements."
This last directive strikes Tate as "somewhat vague, which is why I'm proposing to put an emphasis on factual language" in his bill, which is currently in the drafting stage. "I believe factual language needs to be part of the ballot, as opposed to it being an opportunity for taxpayer-funded political rhetoric. I think voters are looking for statements that are factual and verifiable, and that spirit of transparency generally informs my whole proposal."
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Another example: Tate wants to require recall organizers to inform potential petition-signers about the price of recall elections, which can be substantial. Note that in 2013, recalls of Colorado Springs Senator John Morse and Pueblo Representative Angela Giron, two Democrats ousted over their support for progressive gun legislation, wound up costing taxpayers in their respective counties a combined $420,000, by one estimate — and that was six years ago.
Finally, the Colorado VOTER Act would restrict filing for or circulating a recall petition during the 120 day period when the state legislature is in session, to ensure that the people's work is being done. "We're elected to make tough decisions," Tate points out. "There are a lot of complicated things we have to deal with that take time to investigate and understand, and when you have a recall during the governing phase, it takes away from the ability to make those tough decisions and negatively impacts the rights of citizens to have an elected representative who's not suffering from a fairly large distraction."
Dollars and cents come into this equation, as well. "If you are the subject of a recall election, campaign finance limits don't change for you as a candidate," he stresses. "So now you have a redundant election to finance in addition to what you may be funding for the general election — and that's complicated by the ridiculously low finance limits on campaign committees."
At present, Tate hasn't committed to putting further limits on what kinds of behavior can prompt a recall, and that could lead to a disconnect with Democrats such as Sullivan. But he feels that when the Colorado VOTER Act is ready for reading, it will represent common ground. "There's no consensus as to what the right solution should be," he acknowledges. "That's what I'm trying to find."