Stranger in a strange land 

Sharpton stirs up Democrats in El Paso County

Hoping to scratch the edifice of Republican control in El Paso County, Colorado Democrats sent serious firepower to their summit in Colorado Springs last weekend -- including their national party's flamethrower.

Al Sharpton strode into the Sheraton Colorado Springs on Saturday afternoon with a bounce, and a wave in his slicked-back hairdo.

He had targets in sight.

In the days leading up to his appearance, Sharpton had requested a briefing from the El Paso County Democratic Party on the city's evangelical organizations, including Focus on the Family.

Known as a liberal gadfly, the controversial 2004 presidential candidate and Pentecostal minister from New York came out swinging as soon as he stepped to the press conference podium.

"There's a difference between the Christian right and right Christians," he said, adding that right-wing religious organizations such as Focus on the Family "try to put sheep's clothing on wolves."

Sharpton also conjured the debate over school choice in Colorado Springs, saying that privatizing schools could lead to discrimination against the black community. "The whole concept of vouchers is, at best, selective."

Be not afraid

Asked if he thought his visit made a difference in Republican-dominated El Paso County, he responded, "Too many are afraid to go into Republican strongholds."

He recalled a song he learned as a child about being "willing to walk into hell for an impossible cause." Walking into El Paso County, he said, was no problem.

Other Colorado politicos in attendance included U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar and U.S. Reps. Mark Udall and Diana DeGette, along with various state representatives. The summit, attended by roughly 300-400 people, was designed to promote discussion and organize the party's positions on various issues facing the state.

That Democrats should prepare to make a stand in El Paso County, where Republicans outnumber Democrats more than 2-to-1 and hold a lock on virtually all elected offices, was repeated through the weekend.

"It makes sense to crawl into the belly of the beast," said Pat Waak, chair of the Colorado Democratic Party. "We made a specific decision to hold this summit [in Colorado Springs].

He'll be back

Salazar stumped for Colorado budget-fix Referenda C and D at a Saturday afternoon event, pledging that Democrats "will have a presence in every county of this state."

El Paso County's lone Democrat in the legislature, Michael Merrifield, concurred.

"If El Paso County doesn't come forward strongly, [Referenda C and D] will fail," he said.

Independent City Councilman Richard Skorman, who attended the event with fellow Councilman Tom Gallagher, remarked that "the Democratic party is stronger than it's ever been here." Gallagher, a Republican, was more guarded, allowing only that Sharpton's visit "fills hotel rooms -- it's good for the economy."

Not everyone was pleased with Sharpton's sudden decision to cancel initial plans to preach at Emmanuel Baptist Church on Sunday. Instead, Sharpton traveled to Texas to meet with anti-war protester Cindy Sheehan outside President Bush's ranch.

"We were obviously all disappointed," said John Morris, chair of the El Paso County Democrats, who was hoping Sharpton's visit would connect with the African-American community.

But Sharpton said he'd promised to be in Texas for Sheehan's last weekend there. And he made another promise: "I have said to Emmanuel that I'll come back."

-- Dan Wilcock


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