In 2012, when he was term-limited after six years in Colorado House District 21, former Rep. Bob Gardner says he did not suspect anyone would ever accuse him of "not being conservative enough."
"I have been at times, in the Legislature, so obstreperous with respect to opposition to the 'dirty dozen' tax increases, that the Democrat majority leader was trying to find ways to have me physically removed from the committee," Gardner says, proudly.
Despite his opposition to those tax increases, and other notably conservative moves while serving as a lawmaker, Gardner is being painted as "liberal" by his opponent for Colorado Senate District 12, the seat now held by the term-limited Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs.
District 12 is located mostly on the east side of Colorado Springs, but swings south around Security-Widefield and toward Cheyenne Mountain. It claims 91,150 registered voters, according to the Colorado Secretary of State's Office, with 19,955 Democrats, 36,599 Republicans, and 33,160 unaffiliated voters.
In the race for the seat, Gardner is facing none other than Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, R-Colorado Springs, a former Navy chaplain known for his extreme views, especially on social issues. Klingenschmitt has served a single term in the House, and runs a website and TV show called "Pray in Jesus Name."
Klingenschmitt was selected by acclamation at the El Paso County Republican Assembly in March after Gardner declined a nomination, petitioning onto the ballot instead.
While Gardner would not directly criticize Klingenschmitt's record in his interview with the Independent, many say Klingenschmitt is too conservative. The former chaplain, who often refers to himself as "Dr. Chaps," is known for his vocal attacks on women and LGBT people, once calling a 6-year-old transgender child "a demon." He was reprimanded by House leadership and removed from a committee after saying a horrifying attack on a Longmont woman, in which her fetus was cut from her womb, was "the curse of God" against abortion.
Recently, Klingenschmitt was skewered by Jessica Williams on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," in a segment called "The Trans Panic Epidemic," because he opposes allowing trans people to use the bathrooms of their choice.
Klingenschmitt appears to take criticism of his positions in stride. He says he's not afraid to discuss social issues, and he thinks his constituents appreciate that about him.
"I heard somebody say the other day, 'I like Gordon; I wouldn't have said it the way he said it, but at least he's out there saying something,'" Klingenschmitt says.
Gardner, an attorney, says he's running because he misses working in the Legislature, because there was an open seat and because he was encouraged by supporters. Klingenschmitt, meanwhile, says he's running because he has confidence in the two Republicans running for his House seat, but none in Gardner.
Klingenschmitt often cites legislative scorecards from Principles of Liberty, a "coalition of persons dedicated to liberty and government's role in protecting and preserving that liberty," according to its own website description. Its membership is not listed. Klingenschmitt notes the group gave Gardner "two Fs," and says that means Gardner "is a RINO [Republican in Name Only]."
For his part, Gardner questions why a single website should get to decide who is and is not conservative.
One of the major issues between the two candidates is 2013's House Bill 1266, which Gardner co-sponsored.
The successful bill aligned state requirements for coverage offered by health insurers with Obamacare's mandates. Klingenschmitt claims the move led to many people losing their "cheap" plans and will prevent those plans from automatically reappearing should Obamacare ever be repealed. In response, he has tried to repeal what he calls "Bob Gardner care."
"I don't always swing for the fences," Klingenschmitt says. "Sometimes I try to let down a bunt single, but at least I'm batting for my own team and not for the opposition."
Gardner counters that the bill was simply meant to protect constituents by ensuring they would not be penalized for buying a nonconforming plan and would be able to collect a tax credit. He says he opposes Obamacare, but was trying to make the inevitable a little easier on constituents. "I didn't think it was appropriate to have anyone punished any more than they were already being punished," he says.
While defending a sometimes pragmatic approach, Gardner says he wasn't usually viewed as a compromiser in Denver. He recalls former Colorado House Minority Leader Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, "calling me the most partisan member of my caucus."
Gardner also remembers opposing a package of gun-control bills whose eventual passage led to a conservative outcry, and resulted in the 2013 recall of State Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo. "It was worth the battle on the gun bills," Gardner says.
But to Gardner, not everything is worth "the battle," or a "no" vote or a refusal to compromise. For instance, in what is perhaps a litmus test, he says he'd like to see no limits on ammunition magazines — a conservative goal ever since a limit was created by the aforementioned gun-control bills. But if a bill comes along that would significantly expand the size of allowable ammo magazines, he'd vote for it. You can't, he says, always toss away the good for the perfect. "It's not hard to find someone who will vote no on everything," Gardner says.
In contrast, Klingenschmitt — who says he isn't always opposed to incremental progress on conservative goals — says he'd nevertheless vote against a more lenient ammo limit.
"To me, the Constitution says there should be no limit on the number of bullets," he says, "and for some RINOs to compromise on a 30-round magazine would betray the Constitution."
While in office, Gardner sometimes worked with Democrats. For instance, he co-sponsored a bipartisan package of bills to protect crime victims with Rep. Ronda Fields. It was one of the few issues they agreed on, he says.
Klingenschmitt says he's known for "being the friendliest and funniest member of the Legislature," and is also not opposed to reaching across the aisle when the occasion calls for it. He notes that he co-sponsored a bill to investigate bringing local control to standardized tests in the state's public schools with Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs.
Both candidates say they are proud of their records. Gardner cites his work on behalf of those with developmental disabilities, saying a bill he passed prevented the community from being underserved during the recession.
Klingenschmitt, meanwhile, highlights his efforts to protect children from marijuana and advocate for religious freedom (he does not think, for instance, that a baker should have to make a wedding cake for a gay couple).
With the June 28 primary approaching, both candidates have been campaigning and fundraising. As of Jan. 15, Klingenschmitt had raised $23,883.63. He's his own largest donor, having given himself $6,550.
In the same time period, Gardner raised $46,092.64. His most generous donor is Homes for All Coloradoans Committee, which gave him $2,000. The committee states its purpose is "to fund candidates for political office who promote a pro-business, pro-property rights agenda." It lists its website as hbacolorado.com.
Both candidates have also run into campaign problems. Klingenschmitt has been accused of using funds from his nonprofit online ministry inappropriately. He notes that he has released his financial documentation to the Gazette, which wrote an article stating it found no irregularity.
Meanwhile, Campaign Integrity Watchdog filed a complaint against Gardner, alleging he violated the law by failing to accurately report multiple contributions and failing to comply with affirmation requirements for contributions from limited liability companies. The Gardner campaign was ordered to return the contributions and pay a $300 fine. Gardner says the complaint was simply an error on the part of his unpaid treasurer, and he says the state's campaign finance laws often unfairly villainize those who make simple mistakes.
Klingenschmitt, however, takes issue with Gardner's multiple donations from interest groups and nonprofits, as well as ads they have run on his behalf. He says the groups aren't transparent enough.