Colorado Lawmakers Ousted in Historic Recall Vote Over Gun LawPosted: September 10, 2013
COLORADO SPRINGS — Two Colorado Democrats who provided crucial support for a slate of tough new gun-control laws were voted out of office on Tuesday in a recall vote widely seen as a test of popular support for gun restrictions after mass shootings in a Colorado movie theater and a Connecticut elementary school.
The election, which came five months after the United States Senate defeated several gun restrictions, handed another loss to gun-control supporters. It also gave moderate lawmakers across the country a warning about the political risks of voting for tougher gun laws.
The recall elections ousted two Democratic state senators, John Morse and Angela Giron, and replaced them with Republicans. Both defeats were painful for Democrats – Mr. Morse’s because he had been Senate president, and Ms. Giron’s because she represented a heavily Democratic, working-class slice of southern Colorado.
In an emotional concession speech, Mr. Morse called the loss of his seat “purely symbolic” and defended the record of the last legislative session as “phenomenal.”
“We made Colorado safer from gun violence,” he said afterward, as his supporters trickled away from a hotel ballroom here in his district. “If it cost me my political career, that’s a small price to pay.”
For advocates on both sides, the stakes in Tuesday’s elections were far bigger than the fates of two state politicians. As money and national attention poured into Colorado, a state of hunters that has been stained by two mass shootings, the races became a symbol of the nation’s bitter fight over gun control, with one side bolstered by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and the other by the National Rifle Association.
While both sides campaigned vigorously, knocking on doors, holding rallies and driving voters to the polls, gun-control advocates far outspent their opponents. A range of philanthropists, liberal political groups, unions and activists raised a total of $3 million to defend Mr. Morse and Ms. Giron. Mr. Bloomberg personally gave $350,000.
It was not enough to help Mr. Morse overcome the conservative outrage that erupted this winter as Colorado’s Democratic-controlled statehouse passed several gun laws over near-unanimous opposition from Republicans and Second Amendment advocates. Among other things, the new laws require background checks for private gun sales and limit ammunition magazines to 15 rounds.
Mr. Morse’s hand was on the tiller during much of that debate. A former police chief, he said he found himself in a position of not just rounding up votes, but actually explaining the mechanics of guns to fellow Democrats. He brought a magazine to show his colleagues how it worked. In an emotional speech in March, as the debate reached its peak, Mr. Morse stood on the Senate floor and spoke of gun violence and “cleansing a sickness from our souls.”
His opponents pounced on the remark, framing it as a sign of Mr. Morse’s disregard for his gun-owning constituents, as well as a symptom of the widening gap between Colorado’s urban Democrats and its rural Republicans.
Mr. Morse represented a slice of Colorado Springs that straddles those fault lines. His district is closely split among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters. And on Tuesday, despite huge voter-turnout drives and Obama-style neighborhood canvassing, more of Mr. Morse’s opponents showed up to cast him out.
The passions ignited by the vote were on full display on Tuesday, as opposing sides lined up side by side outside polling places here in Colorado’s second-largest city. They spoke of knowing survivors of the mass shooting inside the Century 16 theater in Aurora, Colo. Two of Mr. Morse’s sisters held up a banner, and complained that their brother’s opponents were twisting his record and his words in bitter attack ads.
A few feet away stood Steven Martin, 53, a recall supporter with a Beretta handgun holstered on his hip.
“It’s a deterrent,” he said. “I love my country.”
The recall movement drew support from as far away as New York and California. Organizers say it began locally, in living rooms and backyards, as a response to new gun-control laws that were the marquee achievements of Colorado’s new Democratic majorities.
Angry constituents around Pueblo and Colorado Springs started to ask one another what they could do. In living room conversations and on Internet message boards for gun enthusiasts, the idea for a recall campaign against gun-control supporters began to jell.
“We’d never been to a rally or town halls,” said Victor Head, a plumber in Pueblo who borrowed money from his grandmother to kick-start the recall against Ms. Giron. “We’d never done much politically other than voting.”
Colorado is one of 19 states where voters can recall state officials, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and no evidence of fraud or official misconduct is needed to gather the signatures necessary to schedule a special vote.
All spring and summer, volunteers fanned out across grocery store parking lots, parks, street corners and residential neighborhoods in Pueblo and Colorado Springs, to make impassioned arguments for and against the recalls.
To many recall supporters, the elections were a way to reinforce their right to bear arms. Others hoped that the votes could stall what they called Colorado’s leftward drift — a shift exemplified by recent votes on gun control, tuition benefits for illegal immigrants and civil unions for same-sex couples.
As he left a polling place in Pueblo, Gordon Seybold, 56, nodded to the “Recall Giron” bumper sticker on the back of his white pickup. He felt Ms. Giron did not represent the rural, moderate voters in her district, and said the flood of contributions to her from Mayor Bloomberg of New York and philanthropists and liberal groups in Washington and California underscored his suspicions.
“It’s our election,” he said. “It’s not D.C. It’s not New York. It’s us.”
Nick Stephens, 21, a student at Colorado College here, though on the other side of the issue, shared the resentment of outsider involvement. The National Rifle Association spent nearly $362,000 to oust the two Democrats, and Mr. Stephens said he felt a “duty” to oppose that effort.
To many opponents of the recalls, the campaign felt like an attempt to bully legislators who had taken tough votes, and represented a costly hijacking of the democratic process. The election in Ms. Giron’s district could cost taxpayers $300,000, officials have said. A statewide poll in August by Quinnipiac University found that Coloradans overwhelmingly opposed the recalls.
Several political analysts said despite the vote’s symbolism, its immediate impact on state policies would be limited. “The sound and the fury, the noise and the money are far larger than the consequences,” said John Straayer, a professor of political science at Colorado State University.