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Former County Democratic Party leader forms new club to keep politicking

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Liz Hershberger - COURTESY LIZ HERSHBERGER
  • Courtesy Liz Hershberger
  • Liz Hershberger
T

he aphorism goes, "If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck." It's usually sound, though not necessarily in party politics.

Take the Colorado Springs Dems Club as an example. It's a new social group in town that has Democrats for members, supports Democratic candidates and comes close to saying "Democrat" in its name. Its Facebook page — "Colorado Springs Dems" — has got that iconic red-white-and-blue donkey for a profile image. But, whether these Democrats constitute an official Democratic group is a question perhaps better answered by the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's logical proposition, the duck-rabbit. That is, it depends how you look at it.

A co-founder of the club, Elizabeth Hershberger, used to be the El Paso County Democratic Party's only paid employee. She left her role as executive director in late June, about halfway through her year-long contract. As the Independent reported at the time, her stated reason for leaving was "the hostile work environment" under the party's new leadership — namely, Electra Johnson.

Johnson is a former Bernie Sanders delegate, failed candidate for county commissioner and the elected chair of the county party, as of the Democrats' reorganization in February. Though a lifelong Democrat, she came into office vowing to shake things up. In particular, she says she's working to build their grassroots network, de-emphasize fundraising and embrace the leftward lean that's gained weight in the Trump era.

A month before calling it quits, Hershberger had filed articles of incorporation for an entity named "Colorado Springs Democratic Party." According to the Secretary of State's records, that nonprofit corporation formed on May 30. Soon after, the Colorado Democratic Party's attorney sent Hershberger a "cease and desist" letter, via email. Hershberger dissolved that entity on Sept. 8, after she had begun promoting a new social group, called the Colorado Springs Dems Club. The club now has about 10 members including the former chair of the county party, Kathleen Ricker, and several former party officers.

The duck-rabbit can be seen as a duck or, if you tilt your head, as a rabbit. - NO CREDIT
  • No credit
  • The duck-rabbit can be seen as a duck or, if you tilt your head, as a rabbit.

"These ladies are Democrats," Hershberger says of her fellow members. "It's not that they've left the party ... the party left them."

The club held its kick-off event on Sept. 11 at Navajo Hogan, where candidates running for school board, House District 18, Congressional District 5 and Colorado Attorney General gave short introductory pitches before the evening gave way to socializing. Over 50 people attended. Events like this, though perhaps with fewer guest speakers, are planned for the second Monday of every month.

"Basically it is a social club for us like-minded people to get together and discuss mutual interests," Ricker told the Indy by email.

Hershberger agreed, adding "This wasn't done out of spite; it's just filling a need ... We don't see the local party doing things to foster connections in the community." Plus, she says, "I mean, we used to see each other every week. We missed each other!"

They both noted that the club isn't incorporated; it's informal at this point.

That's fine for now, but the club may need to formalize if money starts moving. (Some members, like Ricker, are talented fundraisers, after all.) Melissa Polk, an attorney with the Secretary of State's office, says that when an entity or group of people spends more than $200 on a political candidate (for most state-level offices), they essentially become a political committee and ought to register as such.

Hershberger says they're aware. "Down the road, maybe," she says about fundraising through a committee, "but we're not going to go there yet."

So, how does the club relate to the local party? According to Hershberger, they're not competing, since they share a goal (getting Democrats elected), but they're not exactly collaborating either. "We're just going to pretend like they don't really exist, because they don't," she says frankly.

Indeed, information about the new club and its activities was never shared with party leadership, Johnson says. "It feels malicious because they've been so secretive," she says. "They haven't even approached us [so] the perception is they're trying to continue the old Democratic party."

Johnson says that remnants of the presidential primary race, which sharply divided the party, aren't far below the surface here. "All this, 'You're not a real Democrat because you supported Bernie' — I'm so over it," she adds. "It's damaging to target the local party like this."

Regardless of the intentions behind the club, its name violates party rules, according to appointed chair of the Colorado Democratic Party's rule committee, Skip Madsen. A self-proclaimed "rules junkie," Madsen quickly zeros in on page two, part one, article one, paragraph B in the state party's official rules, "Use of Party Name." The first statement in that rule is a copy/paste of state statute, C.R.S. 1-3-108, which says, "No person, groups of persons, or organization shall use the name or address of a political party, in any manner, unless the person, groups of persons, or organization has received permission to use the name or address from the executive committee of the political party." (That's why there are so many party committees, campus groups and outside organizations that bear the party's name but don't run afoul of this rule — they're sanctioned in one way or another.)

Dem Chair Electra Johnson - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Dem Chair Electra Johnson

The party's rule also states that the chair of the state central committee, a position currently held by former President of the Colorado State Senate Morgan Carroll, may make a motion to "take cognizance of any contest or dispute over the use of the party name" then "take action, as he/she deems necessary, to resolve disputes" as long as the action gets reported to the state central committee.

Madsen says his committee has discussed this issue several times but hasn't made any formal recommendations. Ultimately, he says, whether the state party will litigate the issue falls on Carroll, who was unavailable for comment on this story. The party's communications director, Eric Walker, insisted there's no story here, since "the issue has been resolved," per a weekend conversation between Carroll and Hershberger in which he says they agreed to either dissolve the club or change its name. Hershberger, however, says she hasn't heard from Carroll.

Earlier, she told the Indy, "our purpose is to have a social group that gets Dems elected, not to fight with anyone ... we could call ourselves 'mud' and it'd still be the same thing."

Johnson says she hopes to quell any confusion about the group and keep the focus on upcoming elections, which include the race for governor, secretary of state, attorney general, state treasurer, state legislators and U.S. Congress. Primaries, which will be open to unaffiliated voters for the first time, are in June.


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