Local lawns and television sets are eerily void of George W. Bush and Al Gore promising the moon to hopeful voters. This year, Colorado has not been targeted by either Bush or Gore.
"This is the first time I've seen absolutely no TV commercials in Colorado in the presidential election," Colorado College political science professor Robert Loevy noted.
That does not bode well for a large turnout during a presidential election year, where Loevy said maybe one million voters across the country will determine who will become the next leader of the free world.
And the non-appearance by Bush and Gore in Colorado does not bode well for legislative and other statewide races, whose candidates, in high turnout years, traditionally ride the party coattails of the presidency into office, said Loevy, who once worked as a speechwriter for Spiro Agnew.
Still, in Republican-dominated El Paso County, Democrats have mounted three high-profile campaigns that Loevy calls "very notable." Loevy predicts that Dems could actually win state House Districts 17 and 22, where the number of Democrats and Independent voters are higher than in other parts of the county. And, in those races, the Republicans are little-known, stealthy and have fairly extremist viewpoints.
"In many ways [House District 17] going Democratic this year would be taking El Paso County back to normal," Loevy said. "Back in the late '60s and '70s, when I first came here, the [local] Dems had one or two representatives in the Legislature."
Loevy is less optimistic about the chances that the third Democrat who has mounted a serious and high-profile local bid -- Laurie Picus -- can defeat Republican incumbent Keith King in House District 17. Loevy noted that the district includes the upscale Broadmoor and Skyway neighborhoods of southwest Colorado Springs.
"That's as solid as a Republican seat gets," he said.
However serious the Democrats might be this year, the powerful local special-interest groups have, as in past years, rubber-stamped Republicans down the ticket, regardless of the candidates' beliefs or community involvement. They tend to endorse Republicans, who for the past four years have held all 13 legislative seats that make up El Paso County's delegation.
But special interest groups aside, it's the voters who will be the ones deciding the election on Nov. 7 -- not only who represents them in the White House but in their own back yards.
It's time to meet the candidates.
Phantom in the midst
Democrat Michael Merrifield tries to find his House District Republican opponent in 22, but Dave Schultheis flies under the radar
In House District 22, Michael Merrifield is running against a phantom.
In theory, ultraconservative Republican Dave Schultheis does exist -- at least in cyberspace on his Web site, where he tells people to go to read about him. Powerful special-interest groups that Schultheis has courted -- including developers, realtors, the local chamber of commerce and gun-rights groups -- also swear that Schultheis exists. Because he has an "R" after his name, they have all endorsed him to replace the popular term-limited Republican Rep. Marcy Morrison in House District 22.
Yet to all others, Schultheis has been an invisible candidate who has drawn a line in the sand. If you want to outlaw abortion, embrace guns and have organized praying in public schools, you're on his team. As far as Schultheis is concerned, everyone else will go to hell.
"I find it very frustrating that the voters have not had the opportunity to know where he's coming from," said Merrifield, a former Manitou Springs city councilman who teaches at Wasson High School. The house district has historically been considered a swing district, and before Morrison was elected, the seat was held by Democrat Rennie Fagan.
Merrifield has been running an active campaign, appearing at candidate forums and making other public appearances to stump his platform, which emphasizes the need for more support for teachers and schools and calls for better planning for growth.
"As a teacher, I'm frustrated with [Gov. Bill Owens'] so-called educational reform bill," Merrifield said. "There is nothing to do with making classroom sizes smaller, nothing to do with the way schools should be equitably financed or making classrooms a better place to learn."
Merrifield is also frustrated with what he believes is the Legislature's refusal to deal with gun safety and its unwillingness to deal with growth-related issues.
Merrifield, however, does not support Amendment 24, the statewide initiative that would require municipalities to come up with a plan to deal with sprawl.
"The effects will be more than we bargained for," Merrifield said.
"Amendment 24 shouldn't be on the ballot; the Legislature should be tackling this issue."
During the campaign, Schultheis has made a point of refusing to appear at public candidate forums, and has declined a direct challenge to debate Merrifield a one-on-one.
"He's made it an art of disguise, and his stealth tactics are to be neither seen nor heard," Merrifield said. "It's a very poor example of how democracy should work."
Schultheis may have learned his craft as a full-fledged, dues-paying member of the Council for National Policy, an ultraconservative group of big-name and moneyed interests. In that group, Schultheis rubs elbows with more high-profile members including Oliver North and Phyllis Schafly. They all meet in secret to set the agenda for hard-line conservative political causes including opposition to gays, abortion and secular humanism.
Several top Focus on the Family executives, including president James Dobson -- a friend who Schultheis followed to Colorado Springs from Southern California in the early 1990s, and who he will personally represent if he is elected to the state House -- also belong to the CNP.
Many of Schultheis' campaign contributions hail from Southern California, where he owns property. His campaign filings indicate he also owns several properties in Douglas County and in Denver.
David Noeble, the founder of Manitou Springs--based Summit Ministries, a Christian youth camp with historically close ties to the John Birch Society, is also a CNP member and Schultheis supporter.
During one rare public campaign appearance on Oct. 18, Schultheis told before a small group of military veterans that the biggest issue facing America is education.
"If we don't get a grip fast on this education issue, we're going to have some serious problems as a country," he said.
Schultheis later defended his refusal to participate in more public forums, and told the Independent that, on the campaign trail, he has to make the best use of his time. And that best use, he said, is to address groups who are apt to have "open minds." All others, he said, can feel free to access his campaign Web site at www.daveschultheis.com.
Morrison chastises promise-breaker
Though ultraconservatives have taken over the inner workings of the local Republican Party, Schultheis, who swears he is a Christian first and foremost, may have made a tactical error when he took the stage at the county's Republican assembly in May.
There, he launched into a diatribe about the outgoing moderate Morrison. During his attack, Schultheis accused Morrison of having voted with Democrats "70 percent of the time" during her eight years serving in the state Legislature.
The accusation appalled Morrison, the popularly elected, longtime community leader. While the moderate Republican has carved a reputation for being ethical and accessible to all constituents, Morrison, who defeated Schultheis when he tried to unseat her two years ago, challenged him to prove his claim. He initially promised he would, then never did, she said.
"Here he was, claiming high morals and very strong principles, and he didn't have the least bit of a problem lying about my record," Morrison said. "When you leave office, the only thing you leave behind as a legacy is your record, and I take my record very seriously. When [Schultheis] lied to the county delegates, and he got up and attacked me, I thought it was unforgivable."
Morrison endorsed Schultheis' opponent, Kent Olvey in the Republican primary. In the past, Democrats and unaffiliated voters have registered as Republicans in their support for Morrison, whose popularity has crossed party lines and who has faced tough challenges by stealth candidates, including Schultheis.
But, citing her allegiance to the GOP, Morrison will not endorse the Democratic Merrifield in the race, though she said he seems like a nice guy. Morrison has pointedly opted not to endorse Schultheis, and declined to say who she will vote for to replace her on Nov. 7.
"It's a personal decision, and we'll leave it at that," she said. "There are a number of people who have been trying to change me for years, but the bottom line is, I'm a Republican, even though I'm not enthusiastic about my candidate."
The Donkeys want it back
Well-known Democrat Ed Raye faces newcomer in House District 17
After four years of Republican control, the Democrats want House District 17 back.
The south-central Colorado Springs district incorporates the most diverse, ethnically mixed and poorest constituents in El Paso County.
The number of Republicans, Democrats and independent voters is virtually the same in that district, which for the past four years has been represented by GOP Rep. Andy McElhany, who is departing to run for the state Senate. Before McElhany was elected, the seat was held by Democrat Daphne Greenwood, who voluntarily left the seat in 1996 in her unsuccessful bid for state treasurer.
Now, prominent Democrat and longtime community activist Ed Raye is running a tough race against a little-known Republican who seemingly came out of nowhere to challenge him.
Taking the money
Mark Cloer staged an upset at the county Republican convention in May when he won more party votes than the better-known Steve Hester, who holds a seat on the Harrison School District. Hester withdrew from the race, eliminating a primary run-off.
Cloer was highly critical of his then-opponent, who has publicly advocated the John Birch Society, a fringe conspiracy theorist group with a history of anti-Semitism and racism.
Yet Cloer has since accepted a $100 campaign donation from Hester, and now says he appreciates Hester's money.
"I appreciate the support within the Republican Party, and Steve's a Republican," Cloer said. "We agree on quality education for the children."
Cloer, who turns 33 years old this week, attended Fountain/Fort Carson High and said he obtained an associates degree at Tulsa Junior College in Oklahoma. Cloer spent two years in Mexico, first as an exchange student, then as an English teacher.
Now a substitute teacher -- he prefers the more amiable term "guest teacher" -- in the Fountain School District, Cloer said he returned to El Paso County six years ago.
Cloer is not a full-time teacher because he hasn't had the time to go back to school to obtain his Colorado certification, he explained.
"I'm working hard to make sure I can feed my family," he said.
In a somewhat bizarre and unsolicited testimonial during a March telephone interview with the Independent, Cloer broke down in tears describing the depth of his pro-life commitment. His wife, he said, has had two miscarriages and they were outraged because the law prohibited them from bringing the fetuses home for a proper burial. The couple also has two young boys.
The keys to education
By contrast, the pro-choice Raye is the former chairman of the local Democratic Party and was a state delegate to the National Democratic Convention in 1996. Raye, 45, is married with two children. He is a family counselor with Chins Up Youth and Family Services and has served on a number of community boards and agencies, including a stint as a gubernatorial appointee to the Colorado School for the Deaf and Blind. He is a life member of the NAACP and is a member of the Urban League of the Pikes Peak Region and the local Black Concerned Citizens committee.
"I believe the next representative of House District 17 should have lived here for a substantial amount of time and have put in substantial volunteer efforts into the community," Raye said.
The Republican Cloer asserts that Raye is a proponent of big government, a charge that Raye dismisses as a "typical Republican scare tactic" that has no merit. "I can't think of one instance where I have suggested that we create a new agency in Colorado," he said.
Raye said that, if elected, he wants to work to ensure vulnerable senior citizens aren't being taken advantage of. Cloer is claiming a hard line on crime, and, unlike Raye, favors enacting a statewide concealed weapons law.
Both say they support lowering taxes and refunding surpluses.
Both also list education as a top priority of their campaigns, but the two candidates differ on how to improve the quality of education in the state.
Cloer advocates increasing high school vocational training for students who aren't interested in going on to college.
"We need to give them education and training," he said. "As teachers, we fail our students in training them for real life. We need to prepare the next generation -- for those that aren't college bound -- and we need to give them a reason to stay in school and get a degree to go on."
But Raye is pushing a broader approach.
"I'm not saying vocational education isn't important, but it's a piece of the pie. We also have talk about lowering class sizes, implementing preschool programs and after-school programs and recruiting, retraining and retaining certified quality teachers," Raye said. "That will get more to the root of educational quality."
Both candidates oppose Amendment 21, the statewide ballot initiative authored by Douglas Bruce. "I don't want people to take away fire protection and other important [special] districts," Cloer said.
However, in an interview last week, the substitute teacher was unfamiliar with -- and therefore had no position on -- Amendment 23, another statewide initiative facing voters on Nov. 7. If passed, Amendment 23 would require the state to fund public school education programs at one percent over inflation for 10 years, and at inflationary rates every year after.
Supporters argue the measure would force the state to fund key education programs. "I haven't read through Amendment 23," Cloer said.
By contrast, Raye said he fully supports Amendment 23. "Our schools are in trouble, and if we're going to provide a level of education to see to our kids' success, we need to be brave about asking the voters for new tools," he said.
"If the voters say no, then fine, but it's important enough to at least ask."
The Short and the Tall of It
Democrat Laurie Picus challenges Keith King in House District 21
Laurie Picus says she wants to bring a moderate voice to a state Legislature that is rife with ideological splits across party lines. Her opponent, Republican incumbent Keith King, argues that he has shed his previous mantle of rigid partisanship and is currently working happily with everyone.
Picus, a clinical therapist, has lived in Colorado Springs for 23 years. She has waged a high-profile campaign against King, the Waterbed Palace store owner who is seeking a second term in office to represent House District 21, which encompasses the Broadmoor and Skyway neighborhoods and stretches south to Fort Carson.
"When you mention that you're a Democrat from El Paso County and you have an interest in politics, the eyes start to roll," said Picus. "Colorado Springs has a reputation of not being open to diversity and the openness of ideas, and I'm tired of that. It's embarrassing and frustrating because we do have a diversity of ideology and political thought."
Democracy in action
To his credit and unlike many other Republicans who are facing challenges this year, King has willingly participated in candidate forums that give voters a chance to see the differences and hear their positions on the issues.
"I participate in all the forums, even if it's a group of people who aren't likely to agree with me," he said. "I'm not embarrassed about my performance or the way I represent people in my district."
For example, King was one of only two Republicans who showed up to an Oct. 12 forum sponsored by Citizens Project and a host of other progressive organizations including the NAACP, the Urban League, the ACLU and the Independent. During the forum, King noted that he adamantly opposes RU486, the abortion pill that was recently approved by the Federal Drug Administration.
"I knew that wouldn't be a popular position there, and that the drug will probably never be made illegal, but I feel strongly that we shouldn't take a life once the child is in the mother's womb," King said.
"I don't care what the issues are -- whether it's schools or abortion or insurance, every issue has two sides and everyone, whether they are Republican, Democrat or Independent, has a right to be heard," he said.
Toady of the special interest
For her part, Picus said she has appreciated her opponent's willingness to enter into debate. However, she questions King's claims that he has worked across party lines, noting his voting record shows that he can be counted on to rubber stamp proposals backed by special interests and big business.
Early in her campaign, Picus hired Denver political consulting group Ritter-Braden to conduct a poll to get a sense of the issues on the minds of constituents and how theirs meshed with the staunchly pro-life King.
Picus claims that the poll showed King has low name recognition and his positions are out of sync with the majority of his constituency. People in District 21, Picus claims, are fed up with the Legislature's refusal to develop reasonable land-management plans, ease traffic congestion and minimize sprawl.
"Moderacy is the key word here," she said. "If I'm elected, I would work to solve problems rather than just to further my party's position on the issues."
There is a screaming need, Picus said, for representatives to sit down and seriously tackle growth and health care in particular, she said.
As for education, King's pro-voucher, pro-charter stance is out of touch with the majority of the district, Picus said. And, if he's re-elected, King -- who before he was elected to the Legislature lost a bid for a second term on the Cheyenne School Board because of his extremist positions on education -- stands a good chance of being named the chairman of the House Education Committee.
Picking and choosing committees
But King says that he has done a commendable job in the past two years and cited four awards that he's received -- three of them from business groups, including the state's largest business interest group, CASI -- as an indication of his hard work.
King said his most notable achievement was the bill he sponsored this year to allot $190 million in capital construction funds to poor school districts, including those in Pueblo and Leadville. If the Legislature hadn't acted, then the state faced a class- action lawsuit from those districts.
King said that he got involved after a Colorado Supreme Court justice he was lunching with advised him that it would be better for the Legislature to deal with the issue than have it go before the court.
"That was a huge thing I accomplished; it was one of the most significant bills of the year," King said. "It was a very complicated and controversial issue, but we came to an agreeable solution."
King is proud of another bill he carried to reduce the registration fees for commercial and privately-owned vehicles in Colorado, which he said will save car owners across the state $32 million a year.
King said that if he's re-elected, he does have a good shot at becoming the next chairman of either the education or finance committees. He's also vying to become the assistant majority leader.
Of the two committee chairs, King said he currently prefers the idea of heading up the House Finance Committee, which oversees the budget. That is, unless the statewide initiatives 21, 23 or 24 pass.
King opposes all three citizens initiatives, which would force the state to find additional tax dollars for special districts that would be gutted by the Douglas Bruce proposal, force the state to fund education and require municipalities to adopt plans to deal with growth and sprawl.
"If 21 passes, I don't want to be finance chair because it will be a bloodbath," King said. "If any of those three passes, I'd rather go with being the education chair."