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The GOP took Senate District 11 in the September recall. Now the Dems want it back 

Instant recall

For Colorado Sen. Bernie Herpin, the battles haven't gotten easier.

The Republican gun-rights activist and former Colorado Springs city councilor won a recall election against then-Senate President John Morse, a Democrat, in September, following a nasty campaign centered on new gun-control laws. Since then, Herpin has seen his attempts to repeal those gun laws fail, along with other bills he's sponsored. He most recently made the news for comments about the Aurora shooting that many deemed insensitive.

And less than a year after starting his first legislative session, he will face voters again in Senate District 11, where registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans. This time it's in a general election, with a well-known opponent in Democrat Michael Merrifield.

"It's going to be a tough race, but we knew that from the outset," says Daniel Cole, executive director of the El Paso County Republican Party. "I think that the more time that Bernie spends with his constituents after the session is over, the better his chances will be, because he's such a nice guy."

Herpin didn't return multiple phone calls over a period of weeks for this story. But Cole says it's been frustrating to see Herpin meet with roadblocks for even "bipartisan" legislation, and have comments "blown way out of proportion."

As for Merrifield, the former four-term state representative is in many ways the antithesis of his opponent — a strident liberal who was once the state representative for Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Merrifield also has a mixed record to run on, having scored some major victories but also attracted controversy during his time in office.

"I'm going to work my butt off," he says. "I'll knock on more doors, I'll shake more hands, I'll kiss more babies. I just can't imagine Bernie having the energy and the intensity that I will."

A twisted path to office

Morse's death knell came via a series of gun-control bills that, in part, limited magazine sizes to 15 rounds and created universal background checks for gun buyers. Morse also proposed a bill that would have made manufacturers and sellers liable for assault-weapon violence committed by those "negligently entrusted" with guns, which he eventually withdrew.

In September, voters ousted both Morse and Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo, leaving Democrats with a one-vote majority in the Senate. For Morse, it was close — 17,943 people voted, with 50.89 percent supporting his recall.

Elections tend to be tight in District 11, but of the district's 84,782 registered voters, just 20,995 are Republicans, while 27,798 are Democrats. Another 34,434 are unaffiliated. So it would seem that Herpin would need to appeal to a large number of moderates if he wants to hold his seat. Whether Herpin fits that bill depends on how you look at his record.

Herpin spent most of his career with the U.S. Navy submarine service and the U.S. Air Force, and worked for Lockheed Martin. In 2006, he was appointed to City Council to fill a vacancy. He lost that seat in the 2007 election, but won a seat on the Council again in 2009, then lost it again in 2013.

On Council, Herpin became known as a moderate. But originally, Herpin was known mostly for his views on gun rights. While working for the Pikes Peak Firearms Coalition, he challenged an initiative in the state Supreme Court aimed at closing a loophole for background checks at gun shows. And since taking his Senate office, Herpin has sponsored a bill to repeal the new magazine limits, while co-sponsoring a bill to repeal universal background checks. Both met quick deaths.

Christy Le Lait, executive director of the El Paso County Democratic Party, says she thinks Herpin's continued focus on guns won't sit well with general election voters.

"I hope that the major issues [in the election] are things like jobs and education and the things that impact our area daily," she says. "I can't believe the amount of time that has been wasted in this session revisiting bills that worked and trying to do away with them."

Herpin has seen a few bills he's sponsoring survive, including House Bill 1224, which has been assigned to a Senate committee. It would require at least 3 percent of state procurement contracts to go to small businesses owned by service-disabled veterans.

But many of Herpin's bills have met with early deaths, most notably Senate Bill 034, which would have strengthened the state's press shield law, making it more difficult to subpoena a journalist for confidential information. Cole says the death of that bill is a clear sign that Herpin is being targeted by Democrats still angered by the recall.

"The shield law is the example that I'm really interested in because it's such a good bill," he says. "It's one that Democrats in other states have supported; it's one that usually garners bipartisan support."

In the other corner ...

For his part, Merrifield thinks Herpin's inability to get many of his bills passed is a sign that he's not a strong legislator. He recalls his own time in the minority.

"You know, [then-House Majority Leader] Keith King famously said to me at that time, 'How's it feel to know none of your bills are going to pass?'" Merrifield says. "I bet you nobody said that to Bernie Herpin ... I would say Bernie needs to be more persuasive in getting his issues bipartisan support."

Herpin's record aside, Merrifield will be able to pull plenty of campaign ammunition from Herpin's recent controversial remarks. Speaking in front of family members of the Aurora theater shooting victims, Herpin said, "[It] was maybe a good thing that [suspect James Holmes] had a 100-round magazine because it jammed. If he had instead had four, five, six 15-round magazines, there's no telling how much damage he could have done until a good guy with a gun showed up."

Herpin has apologized for the statement. Cole defends Herpin, saying he wasn't attacking victims, and may have had a good point. Cole says a gun expert with whom he spoke said a magazine can be reloaded in a matter of seconds.

But Merrifield — who notes that he's a gun owner who supports "reasonable" gun control measures — counters that argument.

"It's proven not to be true by what happened in Tucson, the Gabby Giffords shooting," he says, referring to the attempted murder of an Arizona congresswoman in 2011. "That shooter was tackled to the ground while he was attempting to switch magazines." He calls Herpin's comments "a tremendous misunderstanding of the grief that people go through, and of the logic of the legislation that limited the magazine capacity."

Merrifield has had his own gaffes over the years. A music teacher for 30 years, he served as a Manitou Springs city councilor before being elected to four terms as a state representative in District 18 (2003-2010). He was the chair of the Education Committee. In 2007, he wrote in an email to another senator, "There must be a special place in Hell for these Privatizers, Charterizers [sic] and Voucherizers! They deserve it!" The comments were made public and created an uproar.

Today, Merrifield says he stands by the statement. "I stand by it because what I said was an authentic emotion to a friend," he says, adding, "My frustration that I expressed is that kids were being used as pawns with a profit motive behind it."

Cole, however, points to the remark as a sign that Merrifield is abrasive. And he also notes that since his long reign in the House, Merrifield has lost two elections, one for the El Paso County Commission and another for Colorado Springs City Council.

Merrifield, for his part, says the makeup of Senate District 11 is far different, and he takes umbrage at the charge that he's "not nice."

"I can be abrasive because I'm passionate," he says. "I'm very committed to standing up strongly for the things I believe in. And it's hard for me to put sugar-coating on the truth."

In fact, he notes, he only missed one day at the Legislature when he was undergoing chemotherapy for throat and neck cancer — though he did take a leave of absence as education chair shortly after his charter comments became public. He says the timing was a coincidence.

Merrifield, an avid cyclist and outdoorsman, lists among his proudest achievements the protection of open space, including the city's purchase of Section 16, which was made possible by his legislation. Merrifield also passed bills that protect renters and give more kids access to music and arts classes. He says he'll emphasize education and the economy in his campaign.

stanley@csindy.com

  • Instant recall

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