Anna Lord says her grassroots campaign to become a state representative is going so smoothly that her foe, Bob Gardner, a notorious political strongarm, must be secretly planning a last-minute smear.
"I have been warned by a lot of people that he is a skilled manipulator and an experienced political player, and to expect attacks," says the 45-year-old Democrat from Green Mountain Falls. "I keep waiting for that moment when the shark comes up."
But with the Nov. 7 election for House District 21 quickly approaching, she says the expected volley of negative campaign literature and slurs save for a few jabs in the press has not come.
That leaves Gardner, a 52-year-old lawyer and adviser to several divisive political campaigns in recent years, complaining that Lord is the one on the offensive.
"The only attacks in this campaign have been by her against me," he says.
In years past, barbs like these were rare in the expansive district that includes parts of El Paso and Fremont counties. Republicans like term-limited Keith King have sailed into office with little competition in a district where 49 percent of 45,000 voters are with the GOP. Democrats constitute just 20 percent of district voters and unaffiliated voters another 30 percent.
Schools at the fore
But Lord, a married mother of three children, a former cost analyst for NASA and the Capitol liaison for the Manitou Springs School District 14 Board of Education, is undaunted by the numbers. She says Gardner, a former El Paso County Republican Party chairman, is vulnerable because of his opinions about public schools, an issue she says crosses party lines.
"People know strong public schools are important," she says.
Gardner argues that he backs "education reform" and is against "continuing and preserving the status quo" of public schools.
It is a frequent theme in Colorado Springs school board politics, particularly in School District 11, where two board members including Eric Christen, a supporter of dismantling and privatizing public schools are facing a recall vote in December.
Gardner has long been linked to the charter-school movement. He was spokesman last year for All Children Matter-Colorado, the state affiliate of a national "school choice" campaign that stirred anger with mailers criticizing D-11's leadership.
His past involvement in the movement has Lord's door-to-door campaigners warning voters that if Gardner is elected, he may bring turmoil to their schools.
"The voters Anna is contacting don't want to see D-11-type shenanigans occur in their school districts," says Lord campaigner Cyndy Kulp. "Fortunately, that hasn't happened in the school districts that Anna would represent in the Legislature. Many voters are worried Bob Gardner will bring divisiveness if he's elected."
Is past prelude?
Even beyond school choice, Gardner has been a central figure in past election brouhahas.
In 2001, for instance, he distributed fliers reading "Unwanted: The Gang Against Progress," with photos of then-City Council candidates Sallie Clark, Margaret Radford, Charles Wingate and Tim Pleasant. The literature included an allegation that one of the candidates was caught "red handed" ripping up an opponent's campaign sign, and that the group's aim was to reduce city staff and services.
Radford, a city councilwoman and Republican, remembers the bitter fight.
"I don't like negative campaigning," she says. "Unfortunately, our electorate has indicated it works."
She says she put the matter behind her long ago, a sentiment echoed by Clark, now the chairwoman of the El Paso Board of County Commissioners. Clark avoids talking about Gardner's tactics, offering only, "I've never supported negative campaigning."
Asked if she has endorsed Gardner's campaign, she says she has not.
Gardner, who this year is also overseeing Republican Sen. Ed Jones' campaign against Democratic challenger John Morse, defends his past actions as merely outlining issues for voters.
He says he'd rather focus on "school choice" and other issues, such as increasing water storage to ensure continued growth in the Pikes Peak region.
For her part, Lord says she is focused on issues such as making higher education more affordable and attracting industries to the region that pay employees wages that keep pace with the ever-rising costs of living. She also says she wants to make health insurance more affordable.
"A single health issue or illness can wipe out everything you've worked for," she says. "I don't think that's right. I think we can do better than that."
Asked if he'd run a clean campaign, Gardner sidestepped the question. He went on to accuse Lord of attempting to make the race about personality, and summed up his view of political campaigns.
"I tell my clients, if you run for public office that anything can be said against you, and will be," he says.