This story begins in March, during the local Democrats' county assembly at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Tony Exum Sr. had just been announced as a candidate for the state Legislature, and now he was facing potential constituents for the first time in a breakout session of House District 17 delegates.
Exum walked into a UCCS classroom, faced about 30 hopeful people, and told them why he was running. Not just to give the Democrats a name on the ballot, but to win — and provide the oft-ignored southeast part of Colorado Springs a real voice in Denver.
He connected with everyone in that room, including a handful who had recently joined the district because of reapportionment. And over the next seven-plus months, the retired Springs firefighter and battalion chief worked relentlessly to win over hundreds — which became thousands — of voters. He knew it wouldn't be easy facing incumbent Republican Mark Barker, an attorney and former policeman who had the local GOP machine's backing. But Exum kept plugging away and making impressions.
He woke up Nov. 6 not knowing whether he would win or lose. His was a relatively low-profile contest in an election year featuring not only a presidential race, but also a marijuana-legalization question and prominent local ballot issues.
That day, Exum thought back to his first run for office, in which he fell short of a City Council at-large seat in 2011. But that time he had to work the entire city. This race was focused on the neighborhoods where he'd spent most of his life.
"I just knew I had done all the things I needed to do, pounding the pavement and knocking on doors," Exum says. "It felt like a lot of people were on my side. I was surprised how many of them said, 'I voted for you last time.' But I still didn't know."
El Paso County Democrats, inspired by Exum's sincerity and his willingness to show up everywhere, had rallied behind him during the summer and fall. It also didn't hurt that the local campaign for President Barack Obama, which operated more separately from the local party in 2008, maintained closer communication and cooperation with county Democratic leaders this time, helping Exum as well as incumbent Rep. Pete Lee in HD 18.
Still, the political world doesn't guarantee happy endings. And this end result was no less than stunning.
Exum not only won, he won with 54 percent on his side, unseating Barker by more than 3,000 votes (10,521 to 7,428).
Exum, who turned 60 during the campaign but is in better shape than most 20-somethings, isn't about to relax now. Especially not after talking in-depth with so many of the HD 17 residents whom he now will represent. Many of them have it tough, barely able to get by financially, and most families have kids who receive free or reduced-price lunches at school.
"I know those people," Exum says, "because so many of them have lived in that part of town for years, just like I have. They need somebody in Denver who knows what they're going through, and who will be trying to bring them more jobs and more for education."
He's not afraid to assert himself. After all, for years Exum has been one of Colorado's most-respected high school basketball officials, chosen perennially to referee state tournaments and championship games for the highest classifications.
In fact, he's already willing to admit one sour taste left by the election. With the state Democratic Party sensing a chance to regain the House majority (which happened, by a 37-28 margin), a Denver political action committee spent a lot of money here on radio ads that blasted Barker as well as Lee's challenger, Jennifer George, for their conservative positions.
"I didn't like those ads at all," Exum says. "That's not what my campaign was about. I told everyone, 'We're going to stay on the high ground.' We weren't negative. That's not who I am."
Definitely not. And now the Colorado Legislature is about to find out who Tony Exum Sr. really is.