Divisions in El Paso County Democratic Party revealed in defections and drama 


click to enlarge Electra Johnson and Liz Hershberger are among those battling for the party. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Electra Johnson and Liz Hershberger are among those battling for the party.

From a distance, the El Paso County Democratic Party seems energized. Opposition to the new administration has inspired more frequent and better-attended public demonstrations, concentrated campaigns against Congress members and an influx of fresh-faced activists. Circumstances are ripe for the region's minority party to get fiercer than ever.

But venture into the party's inner circles and you'll find painful fractures that first splintered during last year's passionate presidential primary, which weren't exactly healed by Hillary Clinton's surprise loss in the November election. Now, with the 2018 midterms already in focus and the politics of resistance playing out daily, Democrats have to grapple with their philosophical differences while also strategizing for the future. And here in the second most populous county of a key swing state, the real-world stakes — for health care, education, environment, etc. — are high.

Fate of the nation aside, the local party's internal conflict is as much about personality as it is about principle. Feelings raw from November were stung again months later when the so-called DemEnter movement swept the party. DemEnter refers to the portion of the populist left that, after Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic presidential primary, decided to stay with the Democratic party and try to change it from within, rather than unaffiliate (DemExit).

Here's how that's played out locally: At its biennial reorganization in February, the El Paso County Democrats' central committee elected Electra Johnson, an unsuccessful county commissioner candidate and former Sanders delegate, to be the party's new local chair, replacing Kathleen Ricker, who decided not to stand for reelection after her third term in the volunteer position.

Johnson, a charismatic political rookie, brought along other DemEnters eager to build a wider grassroots network, de-emphasize fundraising and do their part to pull the party left. But their arrival made some longtime members feel unwelcome. After all, here was a group promising to transform a party they were proud to have built. So, soon after Johnson became chair, a handful of loyal volunteers and donors quietly backed away from the party.

From there, the dominoes began to fall.

For years, the county's Democrats rented office space south of downtown at 22 E. Rio Grande St., a building owned by Chuck Murphy, local developer and longtime Democrat. Then, last month, the party moved into a new building at 332 W. Bijou St.

Johnson, who initiated the move, says the party will save $6,000 a year in rent. Nonetheless, two party officers resigned in protest because they didn't feel thoroughly consulted and they object to paying a Republican landlord. (Property owner Doug Wasson says he "tries to keep politics out of business," but the County Clerk and Recorder's office confirmed his Republican affiliation.)

click to enlarge Liz Hershberger - COURTESY LIZ HERSHBERGER
  • Courtesy Liz Hershberger
  • Liz Hershberger

By that point, a majority of the party's officers had already quit. Liz Hershberger, the party's only paid employee, was the next to jump ship. She was halfway through serving a year-long contract as executive director, but says new leadership made the job she once loved unbearably stressful.

In an "effective immediately" resignation letter dated June 30, Hershberger explained that "the hostile work environment that has developed is a detriment to my well being." She's got a doctor's note to back that up. "This patient resigned due to health issues related to stress from the job and safety issues on the job," reads a letter from nurse practitioner Laura Jo Fitts, shared by Hershberger, that doesn't go into any medical detail.

As for those "safety issues," Hershberger filed a complaint to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) alleging that an improperly installed electrical box and unsecured cords created hazards in the workplace. The party was not cited by OSHA for any wrongdoing. Hershberger also filed for Workers' Compensation alleging she suffered a back injury while moving boxes from one office to another. That claim is pending.

In conversation, it's clear that hurt feelings are a major part of the equation.

"It's not the Democratic party anymore now that the 'old guard' is out," Hershberger says, adding that the "old guard" included some of the party's biggest funders. "And to isolate the people who have money just because they have money really isn't fair because they're the ones who built the party. This is a blatant takeover, as advised by Bernie. And you know what? Kudos. They did it."

But Johnson has praise, not spite, for her predecessors' work, saying: "I want to give Kathleen [Ricker] recognition. She and Christy LeLait [former executive director] did a phenomenal job of organizing this party, and really bumping it up a notch. It's not like I'm trying to create something out of nothing."

Indeed, during Ricker's tenure as chair, the party grew its funding and members. Ricker first got involved back in 2008 by throwing a hit fundraiser in her Old North End backyard for then-candidate Barack Obama, whose first presidential run inspired similar enthusiasm and infighting as Sanders' run recently did. Ricker's garden soirées proved to be healthy for both camaraderie and the party's pocketbook, a unifier especially as candidate Obama rose to the presidency.

Her prolific fundraising allowed the party to hire a full-time executive director — a first for a county Democratic party in Colorado. In 2016, the state party named Ricker its Democrat of the Year for raising El Paso County's profile such that it's now accepted wisdom that margins here often dictate Dems' prospects statewide. Indeed, though this is a red county, more Democrats live in El Paso County (almost 95,000 registered voters) than in either Pueblo or Boulder counties.

Asked about the current state of affairs in the local party, Ricker said, "Transitions are hard, this one especially because of how long I was in there. ... But I think if people can be positive and respectful, understanding who has what strengths and how they can be used, this can be a big tent."

That's a goal shared by the county's Democratic elected state legislators: Rep. Pete Lee, Rep. Tony Exum and Sen. Michael Merrifield. "We're somewhat disassociated from everything going on when we're in Denver," Lee says, "then when we returned to the Springs and saw this dissension within the party, we decided to bring folks together to talk about those issues."

In line with his work on alternative sentencing options, Lee called for a group mediation. On July 7, two professionals trained in restorative justice, including Lee's wife, Lynn, facilitated a reconciliatory conversation between 15 local Democratic leaders. Without going into too much detail, he says that such sessions are designed to form "a commitment to moving forward and healing as opposed to focus on blaming and shaming." The session was productive and promising, according to Lee, who adds that among large groups, it's rare that mediation "works" in just one session.

Meanwhile, the party just threw a successful "Red, White and Blue Collar" cookout, and volunteers are busy reaching out to new partner organizations and building support systems for candidates.

One of those volunteers is John Jarrell, a 33-year-old former Sanders delegate who worked on Johnson's campaign for county commissioner. He left the party after Sanders' loss, only to join again after acknowledging that party infrastructure is critical to winning elections. Jarrell says the party is now well-positioned to reach independents, noting the recent liberal-moderate takeover of City Council.

"I think what's going on now is a personal thing among a handful of individuals that doesn't extend to all the Democrats in the county," Jarrell says. "The burden is on us now to prove that we can win.

"It'll be about results in 2018, whether Electra can unite the party."

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