Even from his seat in the front row, Tony Exum had no idea what to expect last Saturday at the local Democrats' county assembly.
Exum knew he would be introduced to the 300 or so delegates as the Dems' candidate for state House District 17. It seemed like just a quick chance to confirm his decision to run for the Legislature against Republican incumbent Rep. Mark Barker.
But as Exum stepped up to the stage, the crowd rose to its feet with enthusiastic applause. That standing ovation clearly moved the low-key Exum, who's used to crowds from his many years as one of Colorado's top high school basketball officials.
The 59-year-old, retired African-American firefighter made his first run for office a year ago, seeking an at-large City Council position amid a gargantuan field of 16 candidates seeking five seats. He impressed many people, and his 35 years with the Colorado Springs Fire Department made him an authority on public safety. But without as much money or organization as others, he wound up among the also-rans.
This time, Exum sees the difference in having a political party's support.
"I was real excited about that reception," he said later. "Obviously a lot of people were really jazzed about it, and I was honored by their response."
It went beyond those cheers. Many constituents, "several pages worth," signed up as volunteers, providing immediate validation. Exum says his approach is "no different than the last campaign — I just want to serve." But he feels more inspired because this race focuses on the area of Colorado Springs where he's lived the most since his family came here in 1957.
He rattles off streets that have been his addresses, all in the central or southeast parts of town. He's lived at his current residence, not far from the junction of South Academy and Fountain boulevards, for 28 years.
"The good part about that," he says earnestly, "is that I know what matters to people in this district."
Party leaders approached Exum about HD 17 not long after that Council election, "but I just wasn't in the right frame of mind." As time went by, though, he realized the seat's importance, "so when they approached me again, I had a change of heart. I felt like it was something I needed to do."
Exum plans to make the rounds of the district's humble neighborhoods, knocking on doors, visiting churches and businesses, building grassroots support. He'll have to deal with the inevitable negatives that come with a key legislative race. But this time Exum will have a single opponent, not 15.
There are several plot lines at work. First is Exum's desire to provide a voice for the thousands of largely forgotten, lower-income people and families of his area. Second is being part of the Dems' determined effort to regain control of the state House, a slender 33-32 in favor of Republicans since the 2010 election. Already, the Dems have the wherewithal to assist in contested races.
Exum has been assured of help from the state party, but those volunteers from the party faithful will be just as vital. "It's gonna take a lot of effort," Exum told them, "from everybody here and about 100 people you know."
He'll also benefit from the local crusade to register (and reactivate) voters by the campaign to re-elect President Obama. Four years ago, that well-funded machine impacted HD 17 when Democrat Dennis Apuan was elected. But in 2010, Apuan lost to Barker.
Here's the difference: In 2008, Apuan picked up more the 7,700 votes and defeated Kit Roupe by about 600. Two years later, Barker won with just 4,807 to 4,155 for Apuan.
Realignment has changed HD 17 slightly, but unaffiliated voters still rule. It's also a safe assumption that many voters will remember Exum from last year, because he did come away with about 23,000 votes, many from "his" part of town.
Exum already can count on one vote in this race, from his mother, Lucille Richardson, still going strong at 83.
"She's very soft-spoken," says Exum, who picked up that same trait. "All she said was, 'That's really nice. I think you'll win this time."
A lot of people in House District 17 would agree.