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Zabel, Johnson in unlikely battle for El Paso County Democratic party chair

Queen 'D'

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While the country is busy preparing the funeral pyre for the Democratic Party, two of El Paso County's most promising progressive political newbies are quietly waging a battle over who will become the next chair of the El Paso County Democratic Party.

It is not, in case you were wondering, a familiar scene.

Retired psychologist Kathleen Ricker has served as the county's Democratic chair for three two-year terms up to this point, and while a single candidate showed some initial interest in the seat two years ago, no one has formally challenged her. That's despite the fact that she has, at times, come out and asked if someone might like to relieve her of the seat.

While Ricker — who has proven an able fundraiser — hasn't begrudged her time in the chairmanship, she says she was relieved to learn that both Electra Johnson and Shari Zabel are vying to replace her.

"I do think they [party members] were very happy with me just staying there," she says of the past year's chair elections. "So, you know, I can't say we went out and shook the bushes."

Still, she adds, "This past year has definitely worn me out."

On Feb. 4, the precinct chairs and central committee members of the county's Democratic party will meet at the Local Union #58 Plumbers, Pipefitters & HVAC Service Technicians' hall on Janitell Road to vote for a host of new party officers and chairs. Both Johnson and Zabel will make presentations before a vote is taken.

Electra Johnson - FILE PHOTO
  • File photo
  • Electra Johnson

Many locals will remember the two would-be chairs. Johnson, a partner at SALT Workshop, an urban and architectural design firm, lost the 2016 race for District 3 El Paso County Commissioner to Republican Stan VanderWerf. Her campaign, while unsuccessful, was considered by many to be a model for future candidates ("Two women Dems looking to break political curse in county commissioner races," News, Aug. 3, 2016). Zabel, a retired Air Force major and fighter pilot, ran for state representative in House District 16 in 2016, but dropped out of the race early due to personal reasons ("Shari Zabel is trans. She's also a lot of other things, including politically ambitious," Cover, Jan. 13, 2016).

It's worth noting that both women say that if they are named chair, they will not run for office again for at least two years (though both do plan to run again at some point). That may come as a disappointment to some Democrats.

"I was hoping Electra would run for City Council [in April]," Democratic precinct chair Cyndy Kulp told the Indy. "I was sure she could run in District 3 and win."

Ricker, however, says she's glad to see two capable candidates vying for a position that she says reminds her of having a baby — joyful at times, but unimaginably stressful.

"Nobody," she says,"would have an interest in this if they knew how much work it is."

The job isn't likely to get any easier. The next chair won't just have to duel with Republicans — who hold nearly insurmountable majorities in most districts — but also other Democrats. In the wake of the Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton battle, locals are still butting heads about the direction the party should head in, Democratic insiders say.

Kulp says she's taken notice, and she'll be voting for whichever candidate doesn't stir up "negativity."

Both Zabel and Johnson say that they're running for chair for the same reason: They think they have what it takes to get more people involved in the party and win more seats.

Currently, there are just three El Paso County Democrats in the state legislature: Sen. Michael Merrifield in District 11, Rep. Pete Lee in District 18, and Tony Exum, who will soon be sworn in as representative for House District 17. No Democrat has been elected to the El Paso County Board of County Commissioners since 1970. Ricker says getting a Democrat elected to the Commission was one of her most sought-after goals, and she's hopeful her successor will be able to achieve it.

What Ricker was able to do was to convince the party to hire a paid, full-time executive director, and to step up fundraising efforts. She notes that when she started in 2010, the party had just $1,000 in its bank account. Now the party has about $7,000 to $8,000 a month in expenses. Ricker also was able to bring in sponsors to pay for major events like the election night party and annual gala.

She says that the vast majority of donors to the party give less than $100 — meaning that raising the party's annual $100,000-plus budget means reaching out to a lot of people and hopefully getting them more involved.

Shari Zabel - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Shari Zabel

Zabel says she can build on that legacy. She notes that when she was with the Air Force, she handled multi-million dollar budgets, that she's a comfortable public speaker, and that she's accustomed to managing teams. She says that the Emerge Colorado training she underwent — the program is geared toward training Democratic women to successfully run for office — gives her the know-how to help other new candidates manage their campaigns.

Zabel was also a state delegate. While she originally supported Sanders, she switched over to Clinton when she became the candidate. And that's important, she says, because the chair should be a moderate voice who includes everyone and supports whoever the Democratic candidate is.

"You can't go extreme left and disenfranchise the people who have been in the party," she says. "If you do that you're forcing the party to take a step backwards."

Johnson, meanwhile, says she also admires Ricker and that she too wants to bring people together. She says that her recent campaign shows that she excels in two key areas: community-building and branding.

"The right has been so powerful because they've completely owned the narrative," she says. "I want to figure out ways to bring that narrative back into left politics. I don't know anything about politics, honestly, not a damn thing, but what I do know about is people."

Johnson says she reached out "to anyone and everyone" who had run for or won office when she was running for county commissioner. She tried to figure out what had worked for people. She thinks that information — along with some coaching and tough questions — could help candidates to win seats. It's certainly a step up, she says, from what she was offered: a book that was "from like the '80s."

Johnson, who was also a Sanders delegate, says she wants to include all voices in the party, and that she hopes to bring in more community activities like film screenings and book clubs. She thinks if the community piece is in place, the money will follow.

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