In El Paso County's sea of political red, Democrats have only a few, small islands of purple that they can hope to win.
Rep. Pete Lee occupies one of those islands. The Democrat was elected in 2010 in the state House district that covers much of downtown Colorado Springs, Old Colorado City and Manitou Springs. HD 18 is one of two House seats, out of eight in the county, that a Democrat has held in the past decade.
And Republicans want it back in the worst way.
"It goes without question that they are gunning for this district," says Michael Merrifield, the Democrat who held the seat prior to Lee. "Ever since I took that seat, they've been determined to take it back. They were furious that they lost this seat."
This time, Republicans are banking on newcomer Jennifer George.
According to the latest campaign finance reporting filed with the secretary of state, as of the end of June, George had raised $76,000, outpacing Lee by around $30,000.
"The feedback has been overwhelmingly supportive," George says of her campaign. "We are united in wanting this seat."
Enter the contender
George, a 45-year-old political neophyte who says she has never been involved in the local party, comes to the race with a background in law, business and nonprofits. She and her husband, Jeff, moved to the Springs in 1995 from Dallas. They are both attorneys. She landed a job locally with the law firm of Sherman and Howard, but quit after two years to raise her daughters.
"I was trying to figure out how to straddle family and business life," she says, "and I had to create my own way to do that."
So she took her experience as an employment lawyer and started a consulting operation that, in part, assisted businesses in preventing workplace discrimination and harassment. She did that for 10 years, then found herself drawn into the nonprofit community. She currently serves on the board of Discover Goodwill and volunteers with Silver Key Senior Services and Care and Share Food Bank for Southern Colorado, among others. She also served on the board of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center for seven years, including stints as vice-chair and chair.
George tends to avoid the social issues. On her website, she makes no reference to the usual conservative tropes, such as civil unions.
"I spent my professional career dealing with and trying to prevent workplace discrimination," she says. "Although I believe that the voters spoke on it in 2006, when they voted, and we have that constitutional amendment to deal with, I am personally not opposed to civil unions."
George is referring to the 2006 state constitutional amendment effectively banning gay marriage. Regardless, this is clearly not the issue she wants to discuss.
"I am coming from outside the political arena," she says. "I am a business candidate. My issues are economic, and fiscal, and smart-government, and get the economy moving in Colorado." Those issues concern voters, she adds.
Lee, likewise, believes the economy and jobs are the most prominent of his constituents' concerns.
"And that's where I've had my focus for the past two years," he says. "That, and restorative justice."
Lee's first year at the state Legislature was marked by passage of his restorative justice bill, facilitating conversations between victims and offenders. However, his second year, when his bills dealt with economic issues, was filled with defeats in the GOP-led House.
Take, for example, Lee's bill that would have given preference to Colorado companies bidding for state contracts. The bill, known as Buy Colorado, he says, would have addressed the roughly $750 million to $1 billion the state invests annually in contracts with out-of-state companies.
"Why contract with a company out of New Jersey," he asks, "when you have a Colorado company employing Colorado workers who will spend their earnings in Colorado businesses?"
Another portion of the bill recognized veteran-owned companies in the state contracting process.
"It is absolutely the most gut-wrenching issue that we are facing, getting the economy turned around," Lee says. "And to play politics with that, to me, is just intolerable."
Playing politics, he claims, because House Republicans killed the bill. "I was specifically told that I would have a difficult time passing legislation," he says, "because it was a political year."
To George, whose economic ideas tend toward the traditionally conservative, Lee's bill was just too costly.
"Any kind of preference, it drives up the cost. If you read the fiscal notes to the legislation proposed, they recognize that from the start that it could drive up the cost of doing state business 5 to 7 percent" on certain contracts, she says. "The state government's role is to do state business as efficiently as possible with taxpayer funds. And that's not efficient."
As to Lee's claim that the Republicans killed his bills last session for political reasons, George responds, "Successful bills in a bipartisan Legislature are powerful. ... They weren't the right solutions at the right time. So it just sounds whiny to me."
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