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House District 17 swings back and forth every election; will 2016 be different? 

Call it the "incumbent curse."

Every two years, Colorado House District 17, which covers central and southeast Colorado Springs, changes hands. The people in District 17 aren't necessarily any angrier than people in other parts of the state, but they are more likely to sit out off-year elections.

For close to a decade, Republicans have taken District 17 in lower-turnout, off-year elections and Democrats have won it back in higher-turnout, presidential-election years. In 2008, Democrat Dennis Apuan snatched the seat from conservatives, defeating Republican Catherine "Kit" 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.

Thomas "Tony" Exum Sr. beat Barker in 2012, 54.57 percent to 37.76 percent. There were 20,545 votes. Then, in 2014, Roupe beat Exum by 289 votes. Just 14,994 ballots were cast, the lowest number of any of Colorado's 65 House districts. The turnout for the district election was 36.7 percent, also the lowest of any House district in the state.

The diverse House District 17, which includes many military members, also has just 39,961 registered voters, fourth-lowest in the state. Of those, over 16,700 are unaffiliated, over 12,779 are Democrats and over 9,600 are Republicans, according to data from the Accountability in Colorado Elections program on the Colorado Secretary of State's website.

This year, Exum again is challenging Roupe in the district, with the "incumbent curse" odds on his side. Monetarily, it appears to be a close match. As of the end of the year, Roupe had raised $24,629.63 to Exum's $22,881.02.

We spoke with both candidates about what legislation they have supported and why they think they're the better person for the job.

click to enlarge Roupe will fight to keep her seat. - COURTESY KIT ROUPE
  • Courtesy Kit Roupe
  • Roupe will fight to keep her seat.

Catherine "Kit" Roupe says she can empathize with the struggles of her constituents. She's been there.

After serving in the Army, Roupe was a military contractor. She raised two kids and was a single mom for seven years. During that time, she says, she relied on the bus and remembers occasionally having to take a day off work to care for her children because she couldn't afford child care. She got through those tough years only to be laid off in 2011, well after her kids were grown. She ended up starting her own pet-sitting business to pay the bills.

Roupe says when she hears stories of struggle from her constituents, she feels their pain. And it's their input, she says, not partisanship, that guides her vote in the Legislature.

"If it's a good bill for my district," she says, "it's a yes."

In the last session, she voted yes on six bills intended to better relations between law enforcement and the public, called the "rebuilding trust" package. They went on to pass. Roupe was excused during the affirmative House vote on four "rebuilding trust" bills this session; a fifth has yet to be voted on. A longtime law enforcement advocate, Roupe says she does support the package. She sees it as a way of showing the public that the police are their allies.

Roupe also voted in favor of failed House Bill 1194 last session, which would have continued funding for free and low-cost, long-term contraception for needy young women. The bill died in the Republican Senate.

"I'm a representative of my district; I've lived there a very long time," Roupe says. "I know their struggle."

In the last session, Roupe says she was proud to co-sponsor House Bill 1327, which was signed by the governor. It put limitations on proxy marriages, or marriages in which one party isn't present. Roupe says it was thought that proxy marriages were being used by human traffickers.

This year, Roupe sponsored House Bill 1125, which has been signed by the governor. It changes the definition of "veteran" in Colorado Statutes to match federal law. Roupe says the change will make it easier for veterans to access their benefits.

She also sponsored House Bill 1104, which has passed through the House. It allows police officers to use their discretion in certain situations to issue a summons rather than a warrant to those accused of lower-level felonies. Roupe says she thought it was unfair that people without the money to post bail can end up in jail for relatively minor offenses. This bill, she says, gives them a chance to continue to meet job and family obligations while awaiting their court date.

On the other end, she's a sponsor of House Bill 1066, which makes a person's fourth misdemeanor domestic violence offense a Class 5 felony. Roupe says that means abusers can be locked up for a long time, protecting victims from continued attacks and encouraging them to make reports to the police. Roupe says some victims have told her they were reluctant to report abusers because jail stints were so short. Often the abuser was back on the street within hours.

"If you had someone who just walloped you," Roupe asks, "would you report them?"

click to enlarge Exum says he thinks he can win the district again. - COURTESY TONY EXUM
  • Courtesy Tony Exum
  • Exum says he thinks he can win the district again.

Tony Exum says he was a little down after losing the last election. It was his pastor, he says, who got him out of his funk.

"My pastor challenged me," he remembers. "He said, 'Is this about you or the people you serve?'"

Exum says, for him, it has always been the latter. He remembered that the election had been close, and he began to focus on all the people who had voted for him, instead of those who hadn't. He decided to run again.

The retired Colorado Springs Fire Department battalion chief, who volunteers and serves as a referee for youth sports in his spare time, has spent his entire life in or near House District 17. When talking with people in his district, Exum says they make their priorities clear: jobs, the economy, education, health care and infrastructure. Those are the areas he says he'll focus on if he's elected again.

When he was in the Legislature, many of Exum's bills seemed tailored to his struggling district. They included 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.

He also ran a number of bills addressing fire prevention, firefighter safety and fire awareness. Given his career background, those bills were natural for Exum, but he says they were also timely given that the state had recently been ravaged by wildfires, including the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires.

Exum says that in his time away from the Capitol, he's been very interested in the growing movement to make police more accountable following the growing publicity surrounding the deaths of African-Americans by police. "Rebuilding trust" packages of bills have aimed at bettering relations between police and the public, often through greater accountability.

Exum says he understands and sympathizes with how difficult the job of police is — he worked with police officers nearly all his adult life. But he also knows firsthand that interactions between African-Americans and the police can occasionally be less than respectful.

He recalls being pulled over twice in the past decade for no apparent reason. One officer, he says, called him "boy." The other, who pulled him over when he was traveling out-of-state, made him sit in the back of the police cruiser, later explaining — after finding out Exum worked for a fire department — that the area had seen a lot of drug trafficking. Exum says he acted respectfully and was given a warning in both instances.

He says he hopes legislation can encourage mutual respect and trust between police and the public.

"You have to put yourself in both shoes," Exum says, "and there has to be accountability on both sides."

  • Call it the "incumbent curse."

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