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Ritter's pivotal choice



Sometime in the next few weeks, Gov. Bill Ritter will make a decision that, on the surface, doesn't appear to be that big a deal.

Ritter will appoint a new secretary of state to replace Mike Coffman, who was just elected to U.S. Congress. Though Coffman is a Republican, that doesn't mean Ritter has to choose someone from the same party, and the Democratic governor most certainly won't.

But this situation is much more than just choosing a new person for one of Colorado's top state-level offices. It's also about political opportunism, as was the case in late 2004 after then-Attorney General Ken Salazar, a Democrat, was elected to the U.S. Senate. Former Gov. Bill Owens named fellow Republican John Suthers of Colorado Springs as attorney general and Suthers remains in office today, with a brighter personal future as a result. Depending on which rumor you believe more, Suthers could be a candidate in 2010 against Sen. Salazar or Ritter, or perhaps for one of the state's U.S. House seats.

In this case, Ritter certainly has to find someone capable of tackling the high-pressure, poorly compensated secretary of state position. The salary is just $68,500 a year, which means that high-profile job pays about $15,000 a year less than El Paso County commissioners receive.

Money aside, though, Ritter surely must see the importance and the potential in this decision. It's not a reach to suggest the governor's selection also could turn out to become Ritter's own replacement down the road.

For now, the state's Democrats assume Ritter will run for a second term in 2010, and Republicans will face an uphill battle trying to stop him from serving through 2014. But there are several "what ifs" to consider, starting with this one: What if, sometime in the next couple years, Barack Obama invites Ritter to join the presidential administration? Or, what if Obama, at some point, asks Salazar to take a Cabinet position, and Ritter decides to pursue the Senate vacancy himself?

In either scenario, what Democrat would be able to step in and run for governor? Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper? Maybe, maybe not.

Then again, if Ritter has appointed a strong secretary of state, that person easily could be in a good position to run for governor even if it's not until 2014.

There are 20 applicants for secretary of state, and Ritter has designated a special panel to sift through that group and choose three finalists. Just from looking at the list, which includes 2006 congressional candidate Jay Fawcett of Colorado Springs, it's fairly easy to come up with four possibilities:

Sen. Ken Gordon of Denver, the outgoing state Senate majority leader. As long as the focus is on addressing election problems, Gordon is qualified: He's headed the Colorado Election Reform Commission. Gordon also ran for secretary of state in 2006, losing a close race to Coffman. Gordon's application lists references including former Gov. Richard Lamm and former Denver Mayor Federico Pea. Less certain is whether Gordon could be governor material.

Rep. Bernie Buescher of Grand Junction, who would have become Colorado's speaker of the House had he not unexpectedly lost his seat in the November election. Buescher has an interesting ally in Cary Kennedy, the state treasurer.

Rosemary Rodriguez of Washington, D.C., a former Denver County clerk and Denver city councilor. She's now in Washington, chairing the federal Election Assistance Commission. Her supporters include Republican Donetta Davidson, former secretary of state and also an ex-chair of the EAC. If Ritter decides not to look for a future governor, Rodriguez could be the choice.

Rep. Andrew Romanoff of Denver, the outgoing Colorado House speaker. Despite his successes in the Legislature, Romanoff found himself without a natural office to pursue in the 2008 election. He has been mentioned widely as a future governor, but his possibilities range from a bureaucratic spot in Washington to running for Congress if, for instance, U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette eventually lands an administration job. Romanoff knows the election scene as well as anybody, and being secretary of state would keep him in a prominent role until something else develops, for him and/or Ritter.

The guess here would be Rodriguez or Romanoff and the actual choice might also tell us more about how long Bill Ritter expects to be governor.

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