Tony Exum Sr. goes door to door every day but Sunday, hoping to persuade voters in Colorado House District 17 to re-elect him in November. One might wonder why he makes the effort.
A former firefighter, Exum grew up in the area and has given back through volunteer work for years. He holds monthly meetings to connect with constituents. His legislation shows concern for the poor, important in low-income District 17, which covers central and southeast Colorado Springs.
Exum's history, incumbency and voting record might make him the favorite to win this November, and then there's the money. He's handily out-raised his Republican challenger, Kit Roupe. He had $34,555.72 in his war chest as of June 25, compared to Roupe's $2,644.07.
But while all that might suggest one outcome, District 17's record would suggest another: No incumbent has been reelected there since 2006. Thus, Exum says, "I just impress upon folks, when I talk to them, the importance of voting and that it's going to be a close race."
Can't be faithful
District 17 has approximately 78,000 residents, which includes many military members from nearby Fort Carson. They are generally lower-income and more diverse than the city overall; for example, while the 2010 Census found that Colorado Springs was 78.8 percent white, a 2011 legislative study found District 17 was 44.52 percent white, 33.13 percent Hispanic and 16.32 percent black.
The district also leans Democratic. It has 40,300 registered voters, of whom 9,906 are Republicans, 13,011 are Democrats, and 16,125 are unaffiliated. However, according to the county clerk's office, many of those people aren't regularly voting. The office lists 7,487 active Republicans, 9,093 active Democrats, and 10,640 active unaffiliated voters.
In 2000, Republican Mark Cloer beat Democrat Ed Raye in the district, 48.62 percent to 47.83 percent. Cloer held the district through the 2006 election, then resigned due to family issues. Republican Stella Garza Hicks was appointed to fill his vacancy, but didn't run for reelection.
Since then, it's switched hands in every election, with Republicans taking the seat in lower-turnout, off-year elections and Democrats winning it back in higher-turnout, presidential-election years. In 2008, Democrat Dennis Apuan defeated Roupe the first time she ran for the seat, 51.79 percent to 48.21 percent. In 2010, Republican Mark Barker defeated Apuan, 53.64 percent to 46.36 percent. Only 8,962 votes were cast in that race. Exum beat Barker in 2012, 54.57 percent to 37.76 percent. There were 20,545 votes.
Because of those trends, El Paso County Democratic Party executive director Christy Le Lait says she has volunteers working to help people register to vote and make sure their registration is correct.
"People get more excited about presidential elections," she says, "forgetting that presidential elections may be exciting, but if you call Tony, he'll answer the phone."
Exum has lived in or near his district since the 1950s; in his formative years, he says, he spent his time at the neighborhood teen center, where he met adults who encouraged him to stay on track. He's repaid that by refereeing kids' softball and basketball and serving on the advisory board for the Southeast & Armed Services YMCA. He was a Colorado Springs firefighter for 35 years.
In the past two years, Exum's bills include one that created tax credits for child care for the poorest families, one that offered children free breakfast at school, and one that increased aid to needy people with disabilities. If re-elected, he says, he'll focus on jobs, affordable education, fire and flood recovery and helping small businesses. But he'll have to beat Roupe before that happens.
Asked how she thinks the off-year election will determine participation, Roupe says, "I think it will benefit me."
Roupe says she thinks Exum votes with the Democrats too often, calling him "unbelievably agreeable." Exum counters that he's co-sponsored bills with Republicans.
She says that Senate Bill 5, the "Wage Protection Act," which Exum co-sponsored, puts small businesses in peril. The bill purports to help workers whose employers fail to pay them; Exum says it only affects "bad actors." Roupe says it will lead to frivolous lawsuits that could hurt small businesses.
Asked what bills she'd like to sponsor if elected, Roupe says she'd like to see all bills with financial implications have a sunset. She says she also hopes to help rural and poor school districts create vocational campuses. And she says she'd like to increase urban renewal projects without condemning private property.
Roupe is a former soldier who's lived in the area for 35 years, is an alternate on the Pikes Peak Regional Transportation Authority's Citizen Advisory Committee, and has a pet-sitting business. She says her biggest focus will be helping other small business owners — a message she too is carrying door-to-door in volatile District 17.
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