Tony Exum Sr. keeps a busy schedule. After spending much of a recent Thursday playing in a softball tournament, the 60-year-old retired Colorado Springs firefighter is out knocking on doors.
"I think that they're amazed that I'm still walking at 60," Exum says of his much younger teammates, "much less playing ball."
Exum is canvassing around Bricker Elementary School in southeast Colorado Springs, a typical neighborhood in lower-income, diverse House District 17. While the Democrats do have a statistical advantage, Republican Mark Barker, an attorney and former police officer, won the seat in 2010.
Exum has about 50 houses on his list today. Many people aren't home or don't come to the door. For those, Exum writes a personal note on his literature, copies of which are in Spanish, and places them into door handles.
Of the half-dozen who are home, only a couple seem aware there's a race at all. One woman apologizes for not knowing who her representative is. It gives Exum the opportunity to ask, "What issues are important for you?"
"I just pray that somebody gets in and straightens us out," the woman replies.
At another house, a shirtless older man, no doubt interrupted during dinner, dispatches Exum quickly, asking, "Is this about the election?"
"Yes, sir," Exum replies.
"I'm a Democrat. I'm going to vote for Obama, and that's all I'm going to tell ya. Obama's the man! Fuck that other asshole."
Exum, walking on, smiles and says, "I think I got his vote."
"Two days ago, my opponent went by my mom's house," Exum says of Barker. "So, it is on. I mean, you can go by my brother's house, my sister's house, but when you go by my mom's house, with my sign up in the window? Come on."
Exum isn't really bothered; this has been, so far, a friendly competition. But he doesn't believe Barker represents constituents' interests.
"Most of the bills he brought forth were out of the Judiciary Committee," Exum says. "One, he wanted to eliminate the use of video cameras on police officers when they got caught in a bad way. Most of the officers are good people, but you have bad actors in any group. But if you eliminate that, these people would never have been prosecuted." (Barker didn't respond to a request for an interview.)
Exum says the most important issues are jobs, infrastructure and schools.
"I want to do what I can to get people access to things that they need to improve their quality of life," he says. "When planning is going on, when companies are coming here or state projects, I want District 17 to be a forethought, and not an afterthought."
He admits having been pressed on social issues during the campaign, and while he acknowledges their importance (and voters' passion), he tends to take something of a pragmatic stance.
"Life begins at conception, in my view," he says. "But if you think you can put a law in place to stop abortions, you'll push them underground."
He adds, "I don't know how I'll vote on any bill until I see it."
Exum does support a bill sponsored last session by Democrat Rep. Pete Lee of HD 18, giving companies based in Colorado and employing Coloradans preference for state contracts. Republicans killed that bill in committee. Had Dems controlled the House, Exum suggests, it might have passed. "And at least you'd have an opportunity to get it on the floor, to have a discussion ... and make some compromises."
It's his first state race, but Exum isn't new to campaigning. Last year, he ran at-large for Colorado Springs City Council and lost. This time he has more volunteers and a campaign manager.
The Democratic Party has donated $4,400 to Exum; unions and other political committees have donated $12,000. To date, Exum has raised $33,000. Barker has raised $39,000.
That doesn't rival the $100,000-plus raised in the HD 18 race, where Lee is battling Jennifer George ("The race to watch," News, July 25), but it does signify some high-level interest. For good reason — as House Assistant Majority Leader Mark Waller, a Republican, notes, an Exum win could be critical if the Democrats are to take control of the House in 2013.
Pointing to the county's two competitive House races, Waller says, "As long as we win one of them, I don't see a way for the Democrats to get the majority. And I think that there is a very good chance that we win both."
Christy Le Lait, chair of the county Democratic Party, says the Dems must energize their base and get people back on the voter rolls; 6,000 Democrats in HD 17 are categorized as "inactive voters" by the county Clerk and Recorder's Office. Two years ago, there were roughly 9,000 votes cast here.
"If people registered for a permanent mail-in ballot in '08 and they didn't vote in 2010, they don't get a ballot and they don't know that," she says. "It's a huge educational push right now."
For Exum, the push is to go to 9,000 doors, at least once.
"This is the big key," he says, "getting people out to vote."