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Democrats' struggle in the southeastern part of town sheds light on some inconvenient truths

Driving through southeast Colorado Springs, Rob Andrews points out the houses where his friends grew up, where he learned to play football, where he goes to church today. Along a stretch of South Academy Boulevard, he detours through a near-empty parking lot surrounded by shuttered storefronts.

"Mission Trace Shopping Center used to be thriving," he says. "We used to go there every Saturday, and they would have these shops like One Dollar Depot. We'd go shop, buy a slice of pizza. We'd go there every Saturday as a family."

Today, here at the intersection of Hancock Expressway, you don't see many families; just half-empty strip malls and fast-food restaurants. Worse, Andrews says, "We're not recruiting anybody to come in."

It's a responsibility, he argues, that should be assumed at least partially by the state politicians representing his community.

"If we don't get support from the leaders, then we are lost," he says. "It's a dead duck."

What the people in this district need, says Andrews, is a catalyst who understands the challenges that they face. They need someone who will inspire them. And Andrews, a 27-year-old African-American who rose to prominence from his local work on Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, believes that someone should be a Democrat.

State House District 17 is known in the political world as a "competitive district," with its 23,000 registered voters identifying roughly a third each as Democrats, Republicans and independents. With greater El Paso County so strongly conservative, Republicans here have long enjoyed better organization and fundraising possibilities. It is the only district in the county that has a majority minority population; it's 44.5 percent white. Drawn over much of the southeastern part of the city, many of the Springs' lowest-income neighborhoods fall within its borders. Historically, those are Democrat-friendly demographics.

In 2008, first-time candidate Dennis Apuan bested Republican challenger Kit Roupe, upsetting 14 years of GOP control. Coupled with the 2006 success of Democratic Sen. John Morse, whose Senate district includes many of the same neighborhoods, it seemed as though the Democrats might be gaining ground at the local level.

But in 2010, with anti-Democrat sentiment blanketing the country, Morse barely eked out re-election, and Apuan was unseated by relatively unknown Republican Mark Barker. With that defeat, the Democrats also lost across-the-board control at the state level; the House went 33-32, GOP.

As 2012 approached, Andrews himself looked ready to step in and try to rescue the seat for the Democrats. But what he views as a lack of support from the party has foiled that plan.

And now, with the Democratic caucus coming Tuesday, there's no candidate trying to take this winnable district from the GOP.

Empty-handed

Democrats don't represent his district, Andrews argues, because the local party isn't comfortable with the kind of campaigning necessary. "Politics has never involved many African-Americans in this city," he says. "I think that the way to engage them is different, and if you are not comfortable engaging them, then you won't do it."

The party, he adds, hasn't formed the critical relationships needed to find the southeast side's community leaders, who one day could become political representatives.

"Prior to 2008," Andrews says, "I had never been to a Democratic office here. I was never courted by the Democrats. I was courted by the Obama campaign."

It's not as though Democrats don't realize the opportunity that they have in HD 17. For months, says Robert Nemanich, people in the party have been "whispering, saying, 'Does anybody want to run? Do you want to move into the district?'"

Nemanich, who has sat on both the state and county party executive committees, describes HD 17 as "a funny place."

A successful candidate, he says, must be able to "walk into the beauty parlors and barbershops of the blacks, their churches, then go into the Latino communities, into their churches and various social groups and be able to be welcomed and gladhand, and still be able to go into working-class white places and connect with them."

This is not a district where you can run a campaign through TV, or robocalls; you have to run it through living rooms, he says. "And I don't know too many people who are willing to do that."

Morse, who represents roughly half of HD 17 in the state Senate, says that in his first race he personally knocked on 8,000 doors. And he found near-unanimous appreciation, "which makes sense to me, 'cause in this county, if you want to meet the candidates, you generally have to go the Republican committee meetings."

Morse says there's still time for his party to mount a successful House challenge in November, but he adds, "It would have been nice to have a candidate by now."

Christy Le Lait, El Paso County Democratic Party executive director, agrees.

"To raise candidates," she says, "you have to be working in communities to identify potential leaders. I think that the party has failed. We have failed."

Le Lait was hired by the local Democrats in March 2010. It was a change of direction, as up to that point, the party had been relying on volunteers to run its operations. "For years, we should have been out there building those relationships, and we weren't," she says. "And maybe we weren't in a position to, but it has been our failure."

Rosemary Harris Lytle, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, is often pointed to by the Democrats as a leader in this community. Le Lait says her organization turns to Lytle and the NAACP with questions, and Democratic House District 18 Rep. Pete Lee notes his own regular participation in the NAACP.

Lytle says that given her role with the advocacy organization, she shouldn't comment on the Democrats, or why they haven't found a candidate to represent the district where she lives. As she puts it, "We don't have permanent friends, we have permanent issues."

What Lytle does say is that the Democrats and Republicans both have "fallen short."

"Both parties should have a moral imperative, as well as a political imperative, of reaching out to as many people as possible, to cultivating leadership and to cultivating candidates before it reaches their own personal crisis moment," Lytle says. "The onus is on the party to do the work on the ground early enough to meet its needs."

Who wants the job?

There's no playbook to follow for recruiting candidates.

Apuan was an activist and nonprofit organizer who had worked on the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Bill Clinton. But it wasn't until caucus training for the 2008 elections that he considered his own candidacy.

"I found out that evening that we didn't have a candidate," he says, "and people were really urging me, encouraging me to consider the possibility of running."

On the Republican side, Barker had been active in the party as a precinct leader when he was recruited by House District 15 Rep. Mark Waller. They had gone to law school together, Waller says, and he figured that Barker would be a strong candidate. (For more on Barker, see "The incumbent," p. 17.)

Lee was working on Ken Barela's HD 19 campaign in 2008 when he was approached to run in Senate District 12. He did, and lost to Keith King, but was undaunted. In 2010, he ran in HD 18 and won.

Others come seemingly out of nowhere. As Le Lait puts it, "Someone who has been in poli-sci their entire life, they're fascinated by politics, and they want to run and all of the sudden they are just there."

Before 2008, Hal Bidlack wasn't on the Democrats' radar. But by March, the Air Force Academy professor was organizing a campaign against incumbent Republican Doug Lamborn in the 5th Congressional District. And in November, he scored almost 40 percent of the vote. Bidlack went on to work with the local Democrats, eventually acting as county party chair. (In fact, though Kathleen Ricker now holds the seat, he's still listed as such at peakdems.org.)

Regardless of how they come to run, says Nemanich, the most important quality for a candidate, especially for Democrats here, is determination. A candidate can't hope to win just by relying on the party. He points to former Rep. Mike Merrifield, who represented District 18 for eight years until he was term-limited, then replaced by Lee.

"Mike was a gift," Nemanich says. "He carved out a constituency. It was not the help of the party, it was Mike Merrifield creating his own organization."

But as attractive as it might sound to be a legislator, the job's not for everyone.

It requires an intense amount of dedication during the 120 days of session, from January into May. Legislators have to be in Denver, either commuting or renting a small apartment. They are paid $30,000 a year plus a per diem. For our legislators, as they live outside of Denver, that per diem amounts to $150 a day. (There's a debate currently over raising that amount by another $33. "I've had to dip into my savings," Morse says, to make ends meet.)

If they want to hold a different job in the off-session months, it has to allow them flexibility. Barker, for example, is a retired police officer who practices law on the side. Waller, an attorney, has a part-time job in the local district attorney's office.

"I'm at a point in my life where I can really enjoy it and embrace it," says Lee, a semi-retired attorney, "but for those people who are at the beginning of their career or in the middle of their career, to take off during prime earning years, to earn fairly moderate wages is a difficult thing to do."

And HD 17, he notes, "is a moderate-to-lower-income area. It's a transient area," Lee says. "So to find people with roots in that community, who meet that other criteria, is pretty challenging."

A few months ago, Lee approached Tony Exum Sr. about HD 17. Exum served with the Colorado Springs Fire Department for decades before retiring, and has lived at the same address for 28 years. With a recent City Council run having increased his name recognition, he was an ideal choice, Lee thought.

But Exum declined. He says he's not sure state politics would fit him. Plus, he adds, "with my run for City Council still fresh on my mind, I just didn't have the desire to get right back in a campaign."

Campaigning, he says with a laugh, is more stressful than being a firefighter.

That, in fact, is why Apuan declined when he was approached by the Democrats to run again.

"It takes a lot of time and money to really do a campaign," he says. "It is very draining, to be asking people for money."

In Apuan's first bid, in 2008, he raised and spent $37,000. In 2010, that amount was nearly doubled.

Apuan adds that during the last 90 days, a candidate needs to pour six hours a day into door-to-door canvassing.

A considerable burden, Lee admits, "especially if you have little kids. ... You're working for a long period of time for no compensation, and then you go into a job that pays 30 grand."

House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino of Denver, who heads up the Democrats' political action committee, House Majority Project, agrees that it's a problem.

"It's a working-class district," he says of HD 17. "And it's hard to find people who can travel up to Denver, making $30,000. While not a bad salary, it's hard on families."

But Andrews laughs when he's told that, saying, "That's more than most people make in that district."

It's also the median income of Coloradans. Add on the per diem, Andrews says, and there are a lot of people in District 17 who would be happy making that kind of money.

The potential contender

Last summer, Andrews met with Democratic leaders to tell them he was interested in HD 17.

"I put a team together; it consisted of people in the area who are loyal to the brand of the Democratic Party," Andrews says. "Christy Le Lait suggested that I talk to the House Majority Project."

According to Morse, the Project relies on the counties to find candidates and bring them to the table. Its support has no bearing on whether someone can try to make it to the ballot, but it does provide access to party insiders and donors.

As Nemanich puts it, the PAC will come in and support candidates if they can show viability.

"If you raise 11, 10, 15 thousand dollars, they'll come in with 50 thousand dollars, through a variety of means," he says.

Nemanich was the one who actually introduced Andrews to the PAC staff.

"Robert has a lot of promise," Nemanich says. "As a résumé goes, here is a kid that graduated from Sierra High School, went off with an athletic scholarship to a small school. He came back to the community, and got involved in the campaign, and really did an effective job of organizing that troublesome area. He did the best he could with the resources that were there, and the quicksand-like electorate that is there.

"So when he called and said that he wanted to run for state rep, I was excited about it. I thought that he had the potential of having a career, and he had ambition, ambition beyond what the position would hold."

Andrews says that as he went through the paces, he even interviewed with Ferrandino.

"We had a nice little conversation and, these were his words: 'We couldn't package a better candidate for this district,'" Andrews remembers. "They required me to fill out some information. I told them that I had had traffic tickets, and the nature of them."

According to a search of the state courts database, in 2009 Andrews was cited for failure to provide proof of insurance, driving with expired license plates and a tail lamp violation. Those charges were dismissed, however, twice he missed his court hearing and a warrant was issued for failure to appear. That case was settled, according to court documents.

In 2010, he was ticketed twice. In El Paso County, he was cited and pled guilty to driving without a license. He was also cited in Arapahoe County with driving under restraint and failure to provide proof of insurance. When he failed to show up for that court hearing, a warrant was issued. In November of that year, he had to pay a bond of $1,000, and that case was finally settled for $134.

Nothing he's proud of, Andrews says, but nothing terribly scandalous, either.

However, he says, the Democrats told him "that was not going to be acceptable. They said that they would have trouble finding people within the caucus who would support me."

It's left a bad taste in his mouth.

"I struggled with this mentally, over the past couple of years," Andrews says. "Why weren't they helping me out? In other places, they build leaders. They bring leaders along."

Andy Kabza, with the House Majority Project, says that they can't really discuss their internal vetting process.

Nemanich calls the traffic issues "minor crap," and adds that Andrews could still press on without the PAC's support. "That's politics. You can be in the 'in' crowd or part of the 'out' crowd, but once you go get the nomination, you're usually part of the 'in' crowd regardless."

But the idea doesn't interest Andrews, at least not right now. With a new job at Goodwill Industries, he says he's got other things on which to focus.

"I will help them find a candidate," he says. "I will take them places, and help them find a candidate. It's not about me, it's about the best interest of House District 17.

"It's a winnable seat," he says. "No one should come close to touching us from the other party. If you have an engaging figure who will represent the district for what it is, it's a winnable district every time."

chet@csindy.com


The incumbent

So what's wrong with Mark Barker, exactly?

— Chet Hardin

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