The buzz from Sen. Barack Obama's presidential victory is still fresh as the local Democrat running for Congress takes the stage in an Antlers Hotel ballroom to give his concession speech.
In spite of disappointing results, Hal Bidlack stays true to form in a short statement.
"I forgot to get more votes than Doug Lamborn," Bidlack deadpans, before going on to speak of "President Obama" and "Senator Udall."
Bidlack's tone of upbeat disappointment is perhaps appropriate for an energized but still outnumbered Democratic Party in El Paso County. The Antlers crowd thins as candidates in numerous local races wait for results.
Among the diehards who dance with abandon until music stops at close to midnight are the youthful Obama campaign staffers and volunteers who orchestrated an unprecedented get-out-the-vote operation. Most of them will be asleep by the time the county clerk and recorder finally releases all the local numbers (minus provisional ballots), around 4 a.m.
The results are mixed: Dennis Apuan narrowly edges out Catherine "Kit" Roupe to win state House District 17, but other Democrats lose three county commission races and nine legislative races.
One of them is Pete Lee, who fell to Republican Keith King in Senate District 12 by about 6,000 votes, or 8 percentage points.
Waking up to the news Wednesday morning, Lee is upbeat about his showing in a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-to-1.
"I think we ran a terrific campaign," he says.
The obvious question is what comes next, both for Lee and for the local Democratic Party. Lee hedges on the first question, but suggests that coming up short in local races hardly means the massive local efforts this election season will have been for naught.
"People tend not to go back into passivity once they've become active," he says.
Obama and Rep. Mark Udall both
approached 40 percent of the vote in El Paso County, and that was enough; President-elect Obama won Colorado by nearly 7 points, while Senator-elect Udall won by almost 9.
The ground game that got them there was inspired. Obama's campaign staffed polling places across the county with up to a half-dozen poll-watchers, volunteers who tracked turnout and looked for problems.
Tom Hart, a retired educator, was among them. He spent election day at Ridgeview Elementary School in northeastern Colorado Springs, having been recruited to help after stopping in recently at an Obama office to buy a bumper sticker.
"This is the first time since Kennedy I've been that excited about a campaign," he says. His assessment of the Bush administration is harsh, suggesting it came "very close to making us a Third World country," enacting tax cuts that "didn't make two cents' difference to my paycheck."
A lot of people got involved where they hadn't before; the county saw 20,000 new voter registrations and an election day turnout of 71 percent. Obama earned 27,000 more votes here than John Kerry did in 2004.
A ways to go
Despite the exuberance about Obama's victory among the Antlers crowd Tuesday night, there's also a shot of realism about politics in El Paso County.
Speaking in a hallway to escape the growing roar in the ballroom, John Morris, the county's Democratic Party chair, suggests the local party is at something of a crossroads. He and other volunteers worked overtime to cope with the crush of Democrats who participated in the February caucuses and later at the county assembly. Now, he says, the time has come to look for ways to fund a paid executive director at the county level.
"We need a professional who can keep track of what's going on," he says.
That and the broader question of how to keep new people involved will be subjects at a meeting planned for 10 a.m., Nov. 22 at Hillside Community Center (925 S. Institute St.). One goal will be the search for candidates who will compete in future races for City Council (next April), county commission and state government. Another will be how to scrounge for funds to keep the local party organization healthy.
Mike Merrifield, who easily won a fourth and final term representing state House District 18, says he plans to organize parties and other gatherings. But for the moment, there are few specific ideas about how to harness new interest.
Jay Fawcett, who lost to Lamborn in the 2006 election, says one thing working for Democrats is the weakness of some Republicans.
"I think [Lamborn] will succumb to his own mediocrity," he offers.
For his part, Bidlack, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, suggests in his speech that he'll keep fighting.
"We might even try this again in a couple years."
A cent of worry
Though final results wouldn't come until much later, returns flashing on several TV screens painted a bleak picture for county question 1A, the so called "safer-community initiative," early Tuesday night.
"I'm not conceding it's over yet," said El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa.
A reluctance to give up may have been the only thing keeping tears from flowing as the unhappy election-night party wore on. Question 1A, which would've funded regional public safety and health agencies, was ultimately defeated, 60 percent to 40 percent. The one-cent tax measure would have funded a variety of local agencies, but its effect on the El Paso County budget could be most severe: County commissioners will have to cut about $10 million from their 2009 budget, likely hitting almost every department.
Kandi Buckland, acting administrator of the county health department, faces a half-million dollars in fresh cuts, after having trimmed the same amount in the summer. Officials are already fearful about their ability to respond to disease outbreaks.
"We'll have to prioritize what we are able to do," she says.
Maketa, largely spared earlier budget cuts, will lose out on new deputies and a jail expansion. Instead, he expects to make cuts of $1 million or more, which will eliminate more than a dozen deputy positions.
The Department of Human Services faces $1 million in cuts, which translates into a total loss of around $7 million when federal matching dollars are added. The measure would have boosted the department's child and adult protective services. Its failure will make it even harder for DHS to provide mandated services, according to director Barbara Drake.
"I think the county's going to have to do something," Drake says, "because it's really not meeting its responsibility to the citizens."
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