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Gessler fails the smell test 

Between the Lines

Let me introduce you to Colorado's new secretary of state, Scott Gessler. Because apparently many of you don't really know anything about him, or you would have voted for somebody else.

Like even — horrors! — a Democrat.

Gessler, as you probably don't recall, ran without opposition in the Republican primary last August. That put the Denver attorney on the November ballot against Democrat Bernie Buescher, a much-respected former state legislator from Grand Junction who had been appointed by Gov. Bill Ritter in 2009 after Mike Coffman was elected to Congress.

Gessler was anything but impressive during the campaign, tossing false accusations at Buescher (not even worth regurgitating here) and promising to end voter fraud — which wasn't considered to be even a slight problem with Coffman (a Republican) or Buescher in charge.

Perhaps the most damning judgment against Gessler came in October, when the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce released its endorsements for the 2010 general election. The local chamber, known for its support of GOP candidates, made headlines by recommending Democrat John Hickenlooper for governor over Dan Maes and Tom Tancredo. Of course, that really wasn't a choice. What most didn't notice was that our chamber, in its wisdom, also chose to endorse Buescher over Gessler for secretary of state.

It didn't matter, because Gessler had that (R) beside his name. He sailed to victory over Buescher, took office a month ago — and began challenging Hickenlooper as the state government's top newsmaker, intentionally or not.

First came the news that state Attorney General John Suthers, a lifelong Republican, had found a new job for Buescher. Not just any job, but deputy attorney general representing prominent state offices, including the governor and, would you believe, secretary of state. Suthers heaped high praise on Buescher (little-known fact: both are Notre Dame alums) and obviously saw no problem with Buescher "advising" Gessler.

Gessler soon made waves, using his new office to testify before a Legislature committee, pushing for a bill that would require everyone to prove citizenship when registering to vote. He made a big deal about how bad the "problem" was, dismissing the concern that many people (especially seniors and those born in other states) don't have a copy of their birth certificate. The bill died.

Then came the biggie. Gessler suddenly decided that he wouldn't be able to exist on his annual pay of $68,500 as secretary of state. Granted, that salary ranks near the bottom nationally. But Gessler knew that all along, and he never said a word about it during the campaign. Buescher, by the way, never complained about the pay and apparently was able to "get by" on his previous law work, even when he served in the Legislature for less than half of what the secretary of state makes.

Gessler wanted to "moonlight" for his previous law office, Hackstaff Law Group, which could be OK if it did mundane legal work, such as business transactions or handling clients' estates. But instead, Gessler and that firm do work related to elections. For example, as our fellow alternative Boulder Weekly has reported, Gessler "represented Western Tradition Partnership, a conservative group that runs attack campaigns against Democrats," and his clients include a right-wing organization that challenged the city of Longmont's regulations requiring candidates to disclose donors.

That doesn't pass the smell test, since the secretary of state oversees Colorado's elections. But then Tuesday, Gessler backtracked, saying he wouldn't work for Hackstaff because he wouldn't want to disclose names of clients. He says he still might do some teaching on the side, or some other part-time work, perhaps for a different law firm. Anything to stay in the headlines.

Oh, and lest we forget, Gessler also has decided not to hand over $3.5 million in unused funds to help balance the state's budget, as Buescher had planned. That surplus was the direct result of Buescher streamlining the secretary of state operation, saving a nice chunk of money. Buescher offered the $3.5 million to legislators, but now Gessler wants to renege. Maybe he needs a bigger expense account.

So we're stuck, at least for now, with a secretary of state who clearly wants to play by his own rules, and nobody else's.

All this after one month, with 47 more to go in Gessler's four-year term. Stay tuned.

routon@csindy.com

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