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Liston challenges incumbent in a tense Republican primary 

click to enlarge Larry Liston is running in District 16. - COURTESY LARRY LISTON
  • Courtesy Larry Liston
  • Larry Liston is running in District 16.

In House District 16, an unusual — and increasingly ugly — Republican primary race is underway between current Rep. Janak Joshi and his predecessor, former Rep. Larry Liston, who was elected to the seat in 2004 and held it until the end of 2012, when he reached his term limit.

Ahead of the March 26 El Paso County Republican Party Assembly, Joshi's campaign sent an email to "Fellow HD16 Republican[s]," accusing Liston, who announced his candidacy in November, of all sorts of Republican no-nos, like supporting Obamacare and taking money from pro-choicers. But Liston is prepared to fight back.

It's no surprise tensions are high in this race. Incumbent legislators rarely face a primary election challenge, says Joshua Dunn, associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Aside from partisan courtesy, Dunn adds, incumbents are typically difficult to unseat, and challengers find it harder to attract resources to what might be perceived as "an unnecessary fight" within the party. That's especially true if the winner faces a general election battle after the primary — as is anticipated in District 16, where Democrat Shari Zabel is also vying for the statehouse seat (see "Shari Zabel is trans. She's also a lot of other things, including politically ambitious," from the January 16 edition, at csindy.com).

Liston, however, does not appear to be stunted by resources: His total campaign contributions at the end of 2015 (the most recent available) were reported as $22,270, while Joshi had raised just $4,243 in the same period.

Both candidates have racked up important endorsements. Liston, for instance, is backed by Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder and Colorado Springs City Council President Merv Bennett. Joshi has the support of Republican state legislators like Sen. Kent Lambert and Rep. Dan Nordberg of Colorado Springs, and Rep. Paul Lundeen of Monument.

Rather than vie for a nomination to the primary ballot during last month's county assembly (which would have required at least 30 percent of total votes), Liston turned in 1,500 petition signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State's Office (1,000 are required). Liston says he and his volunteers spent 42 days going door-to-door, gathering signatures in all 28 precincts within the district, which is located in north-central Colorado Springs. That left Joshi to be declared the "candidate by acclamation" at the assembly and put both men on June's primary ballot.

The El Paso County Republican Party appears to be taking the Liston-Joshi battle in stride.

"Of course, every elected official would rather not face a challenge, but competition makes the competitors stronger," Daniel Cole, the county GOP executive director, tells the Independent via email. "That idea is central to the conservative faith in free markets. Whoever wins this primary will be a little tougher, a little smarter, a little more experienced than he is right now. And the same goes for whoever loses."

House District 16 has 54,555 registered voters, according to the Colorado Secretary of State's Office. Of those, 19,849 are unaffiliated, 11,659 are Democrats and 22,161 are Republicans.

Though redistricting has shifted the district's boundaries some since Liston was first elected, HD16 is still an area he knows, where, he says, the people know him. Liston lives just two blocks from the house where he grew up in the Nancy Lewis Park neighborhood of central Colorado Springs. Based on his conversations with constituents, Liston claims many of them don't know much about Joshi. "With all due respect," Liston says, "my opponent is an enigma."

Joshi, who did not respond to voicemails from the Independent, launched his political career in 2010, winning the HD14 seat vacated by Lambert, who had been elected to the state Senate. That time, Joshi ran unopposed. Two years later, redistricting landed Joshi in District 16, just as Liston's term was up. Joshi was the sole Republican in the race, and he won the heavily conservative district handily.

Liston, meanwhile, ran for state Senate District 10 against newbie Owen Hill in 2012. Interestingly, Hill had the same political consultant for that race that Joshi has now, John Hotaling. Hill's attack ads against Liston in that race are markedly similar to those from Joshi's recent email.

Hill won that primary with 9,528 votes to Liston's 6,118 and went on to take the seat, which he retains now.

Given the history, it's no surprise that Liston was livid when Joshi sent out the email to constituents accusing him of being pro-Obamacare, voting for a large tax increase, not immediately approving a bill that would have more stringently screened immigrant workers, and — perhaps most incendiary — of not being pro-life.

(The ad doesn't mention what many might consider the major embarrassments of Liston's political career, like being accused, twice, of stealing the campaign materials of other candidates — no charges were filed — and calling unwed parents "sluts," for which he publicly apologized.)

Liston claims the email twists the facts, adding that he's adamantly pro-life, though he says he doesn't background everyone who donates to his campaign. He says he has also long opposed illegal immigration and amnesty. He voted in favor of a state-run insurance marketplace — not because he supported Obamacare, he says, but because the other option was to accept the federal system, which would have meant losing local control.

The tax accusation, he says, is a reference to the voter-approved, five-year time-out on the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights known as Referendum C that passed in 2005. The state Legislature referred that question to the ballot. Liston explains that he voted to approve the language of the question (which could be viewed as a formality) but voted against sending it to the ballot. He later campaigned against Ref C.

Joshi gave a brief speech at the county assembly that was well-received. He emphasized that he had run bills based on his four principles: "smaller government, lower taxes, less regulations and, of course, sanctity of life." He also indicated, in a celebratory tone, that he was disliked by Gov. John Hickenlooper.

"I am there to do your work and I will do it," Joshi said. "If I make the governor mad or anybody else, so be it."

His statements get to the heart of one of Liston's main complaints about Joshi. Liston describes his opponent as an ineffective ideologue, pointing out that Joshi has repeatedly — and quite proudly — sponsored a bill that would make killing a fetus in the commission of another criminal act a crime. The bill has failed every time.

"While he's huffing and puffing, other people are getting things done," Liston says, noting his own record of accomplishments, particularly in passing bills aimed at growing businesses and the economy. For instance, in 2012, during a special session, Liston was a lead sponsor on House Bill 1002, which aimed to make Colorado's Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund solvent again following the Great Recession and allow business owners to reduce insurance-associated costs.

And then Liston offers this nugget: "With all due respect, my opponent was a doctor. Was."

In 2008, Joshi admitted to "unprofessional conduct" with a patient, according to state records. He surrendered his medical license after he failed to take the "recommended training" assigned to him by the Colorado Medical Board following the incident. (According to the Division of Professions and Occupations, in fiscal year 2015, ending July 30, 2015, the medical board revoked or accepted the surrender of just 16 licenses. As of June 30, 2015, Colorado had 22,290 active physician licenses.)

The fact that Joshi is no longer a doctor could hurt his campaign because his medical knowledge is viewed as a meaningful asset by his supporters. At the county assembly, state Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, and Lambert, speaking on Joshi's behalf, focused on Joshi's stance on health-related issues, like his "no" vote on a state-run health insurance marketplace, his bill to protect "the unborn" and his opposition to Amendment 69, the 2016 ballot initiative that would provide universal health care in the state.

"[Joshi] is really our champion in the state House against Obamacare, against Amendment 69," Lambert said. "He has the technical knowledge that we need to fight off these ludicrous claims that are destroying not just our healthcare system, but our economy."

Liston, a retired investment executive, hints that he won't hesitate to remind voters of Joshi's professional status, saying, "I certainly was not thrown out of my profession."

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