About those chickens

Many of those involved with the campaign wanted to stay anonymous.

Editor's note: This piece was updated Oct. 27 to reflect that Jarred Rego is U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn's campaign spokesperson, not his campaign manager.

I am writing to explain to our readers and the community at large how and why I got involved with the "Colorado Springs Citizens For A Congressman Who Won't Chicken Out" campaign.

At the end of this note, I will acknowledge some ethical issues I tried to address on the fly, some important lessons I learned along the way, and why I have decided to inform the now 50 local citizens actively participating in this campaign that I will no longer be involved in this important undertaking.

In order to understand my quandary, I need to go into some details on events that led up to the chicken campaign.

Gazette publisher Dan Steever and I regularly lunch together. I have come to appreciate his wit, honesty, caring nature and love of newspapering. During my 21 years at the Independent, Dan is by far the fairest and most community-minded publisher the Gazette has ever had.

About a year ago, I proposed to Dan that instead of the Gazette and the Independent sponsoring separate election debates before the 2014 primary and general elections, we should team up to co-host these events.

After obtaining input from senior leaders from our respective organizations, we agreed to collaborate, because such an arrangement would resolve one major issue we both faced: Many Republican candidates would not participate in debates sponsored by the Independent, while Democratic candidates would shy away from Gazette-sponsored forums.

In addition, such an arrangement would place our newspapers at the center of the community conversation — a place we both very much wanted to be.

Last April, we made plans for four major debates before the June primary, all GOP races since they were the only ones being contested: U.S. Senate, Colorado governor, 5th Congressional District and El Paso County sheriff. Our plan was that each of these four debates would be hosted at a local college or university, and televised by a different TV station.

When Cory Gardner entered the race for Colorado's U.S. Senate seat, all the other major Republican contenders dropped out, thus eliminating the need for a Senate primary debate.

GOP gubernatorial candidate Bob Beauprez, evoking Ronald Reagan's pledge not to criticize fellow elephants, would not participate in any primary debates. Since his main rival, former Congressman Tom Tancredo, said he would only show up if Beauprez participated, the need for this debate evaporated. (Tancredo and Beauprez both pledged that if they won the GOP primary, they would debate their Democratic opponent in Colorado Springs at an early October 2014 debate hosted by our newspapers.)

And when only one candidate made the GOP primary ballot for El Paso County sheriff, that eliminated the need for another forum.

To our amazement, incumbent Congressman Doug Lamborn agreed to debate his feisty challenger, Bentley Rayburn. We were surprised because in the past Lamborn had rarely consented to debate any opponent.

Accordingly, with TV support from Joe Cole from FOX 21, the Gazette and the Independent, along with the Colorado Springs Business Journal, hosted a spirited debate in June.

Prior to the debate, both candidates pledged to the Gazette as well as to the Independent that if they captured the 5th Congressional District GOP nomination, they would participate in a debate sponsored by our newspapers before the ballots were mailed in mid-October.

After Lamborn squeaked by Rayburn in the primary, we repeatedly contacted the incumbent's campaign spokesperson, as well as the candidate himself, to give us debate dates. The Democratic challenger, Irv Halter, had informed us that he would debate "anytime, anywhere, with no conditions whatsoever."

Halter, who for years was a Republican, poses a credible threat to Lamborn because he has a commanding knowledge of military affairs, and is conservative on fiscal issues. Some Democrats wags called him a DINO (Democrat In Name Only).

In early September 2014, Lamborn's campaign spokesperson, Jarred Rego, in a phone conversation with Steever and me, said that since there was just no upside for Lamborn debating Halter, the congressman had decided to reverse his prior pledge and not debate. Rego added that another reason his candidate would not debate was that Halter had impugned Lamborn's integrity.

When Rego was pressed on what Halter had exactly said that had caused such distress for our congressman, he hemmed and hawed, then stated that Halter had repeatedly mischaracterized Lamborn's vote on several Farm Bill amendments. That was it.

In early September, local real estate agent Doug Carter called me asking what it would cost to place a 1/8-page ad in the Independent that simply featured Lamborn's name, with a red circle and a slash through it — the international symbol for No.

I have known Doug for two decades, ever since he served as the treasurer for two campaigns I spearheaded: the unsuccessful November 1995 as well as the successful April 1997 Trails, Open Space and Parks (TOPS) ballot measures.

Doug, a mild-mannered man, was royally pissed at Lamborn not only for his debate flip-flop, but also for his having likened the president to a "tar baby" back in 2011, his boycott of the State of the Union address in 2012, etc.

I told Doug to save his money — that a small ad like his would have no meaningful impact. Moreover, there were numerous federal campaign laws that would need to be adhered to before such an ad could be placed.

Doug said that since Lamborn was our congressman, it was our responsibility to do "something, anything." Doug and I agreed to make some calls in order to take our community's temperature on Lamborn.

To our surprise, there was widespread disgust with our congressman, even among leading local Republicans. People were upset at Lamborn's rude, racist statement about America's current president (an office people hold in high esteem no matter who the occupant), and his State of the Union boycott. Later, many would also cite his more recent attempts to get generals to resign in a time of war.

Several military contractors said they believed Lamborn's reputation would harm our district's ability to protect local military bases from future cutbacks.

But while people wanted to do something, no one had an idea of what to do.

Doug and I invited the folks to whom we had talked to informal brainstorming sessions, the first on Monday, Sept. 22, the second a few days later.

On Wednesday, Sept. 24, Lamborn was scheduled for a phone interview with the Independent's editorial board.

As is my right as publisher, I serve on this board, though I rarely participate anymore in our endorsement interviews. Against objections from some members of my editorial staff, who thought it unfair for me to sit in on some interviews and not others, I decided to participate in this conversation.

During our interview, I aggressively but politely pressed Lamborn about why he would not debate his general election opponent, particularly when he had repeatedly promised to do so during the primary election campaign. I wanted to hear from Lamborn himself, not just from his campaign spokesperson, exactly why he had reversed himself. Lamborn just repeated that he would not debate anyone, such as Halter, who had challenged his competence and integrity.

Meanwhile, to our surprise, more than 50 people participated in our brainstorming sessions. After much discussion, we agreed that we would do something, even if it was futile, to try to pressure Lamborn to debate. We also decided that was the only goal of our fledgling organization.

We had no specific plan, but agreed we would use humor to get the attention we needed, and that the campaign's symbol would be a chicken.

Many of the people participating in our brainstorming meetings were fearful of being publicly involved in this campaign. Specifically they were fearful that Lamborn, Colorado's most senior Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, might make their lives a "living hell." Others were fearful of getting on the wrong side of major local foundations and businesses whose leadership had held fundraisers for Lamborn.

Accordingly, everyone agreed that we would only have one spokesperson, Doug Carter. Everyone else would remain totally anonymous.

A local film crew volunteered to video our pre-campaign activities as well as the campaign itself. Our hope was to create a viral digital campaign that would encourage local and national Republican leaders to pressure Lamborn to debate his opponent.

At our meetings that were filmed, certain participants wore white armbands to indicate that their faces could not be videoed.

After consulting with several election lawyers, we were told that since we were not advocating for any particular candidate, just for a debate between candidates, we did not need to file federal election paperwork. But after much discussion, we decided to register as a political action committee: Colorado Springs Citizens For A Congressman Who Won't Chicken Out. We did so because we wanted to ensure that our activities complied with campaign finance laws.

Our committee has been steadfast about not coordinating with any other campaign.

Our PAC also decided to only accept donations from those living inside Colorado's 5th Congressional District.

In late September, I informed the Independent and the Business Journal's senior editorial and management teams that I was part of a local campaign working to encourage — OK, embarrass — Lamborn enough that he would agree to debate his opponent. I asked if I should do this work as part of either paper or as an individual.

To a wo/man, they all said keep their papers 100 percent out of this initiative, because they wanted to preserve their neutrality to cover this and other campaigns.

I WANT TO STRESS THAT no one at either the Indy or the CSBJ knew the extent of my involvement, or had any knowledge of what we were up to. Heck, we hardly knew what we were going to do, since our plans kept changing.

For example, at first we were going to have Big Bird as our campaign symbol, partly to subtly tie to Lamborn's efforts to de-fund Sesame Street.

Then three thespians agreed to serve as our Chicken Lamborns, and we pivoted to live, speaking and singing chickens to serve as our foil.

Our campaign was set to launch at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 14. A press release went out, and it became clear to editors that this campaign was going to make news. So less than an hour before the launch of the campaign, the Indy's main number popped up on my screen. I thought the call was about a plumbing crisis we were having at our old building, so I answered.

If I had known the call was from the Independent's senior reporter, Pam Zubeck, I would have ducked the call, since I am not a campaign spokesperson. When I answered, Pam, ever the no-nonsense newswoman, asked whether I was involved with the campaign.

Since I had pledged to my chicken comrades as well as my senior staff that I would remain behind the scenes as much as possible, I told her, "Maybe I am and maybe I'm not." I then told Pam that I knew of someone who was the campaign's spokesperson, and I would see that he called her back as soon as he was able.

Pam was disgusted, and she wasn't alone. I was called into an emergency meeting at 3 p.m. that day with Indy senior managers, editors and reporters.

Why did I duck Pam's question? Why was I compromising their hard-earned integrity? How could they credibly cover Lamborn in the future if the majority owner of their paper was secretly involved in seeking to embarrass him? We call for transparency and openness from other institutions — why was I being duplicitous?

A senior editor stated that several employees were on the verge on resigning over the position I had placed them in. Their credibility was on the line.

I fought back at first, thinking that I had not embarrassed Lamborn, but that he had embarrassed himself. Then I got to thinking — that my staff, as usual, was right. I cannot separate my public and private civic engagements.

So after much discussion, I agreed that I owed it to our readers and our reporters to come clean about my involvement with this campaign, as well as to publicly apologize to our reporters for the difficult situation I placed them in.

Like all good news organizations, we have strong conflict-of-interest and disclosure requirements for all our employees. When in doubt, we avoid even the appearance of a conflict. While I do not think I crossed the ethical line, I did come too close for comfort.

I also agree that I should not have made a flip statement to Pam when she called me. I thought my non-denial denial (a term made popular by both President Nixon as well as anti-Vietnam War activists in the late 1960s and 1970s) had indicated that I was involved in the chicken campaign, but that because of promises made to others, I was not able to answer her question. But that was not understood by Pam. I thought wrong.

I have also realized that I need to revisit what I can do as a private citizen, since I sign the checks of the people who sign the checks at the Independent and the Business Journal.

I now recognize that I need to be more transparent with my civic activities, just like I did when I recused myself for eight months from all editorial discussions when I worked for my good friend and former Independent reporter/arts editor Richard Skorman in his unsuccessful run for mayor four years ago.

The Independent has formed a committee to explore what, if any, changes are needed in our already strong conflict-of-interest policies.

A word to Republicans: Just as in the past, Independent reporters will treat Republicans (even Douglas Bruce) fairly and respectfully. And I can assure everyone, that if a Democrat had done what Lamborn had done, I would be equally, if not more, upset. (By the way, I consider myself a hybrid — a Liberal-tarian, someone who simultaneously supports the wonderful power of the free market, while also believing that government can be a force for good — such as with the TOPS campaign — and a necessary check on businesses' excesses and externalities.)

I am a child of the 1960s who has always been a small "d" democrat, deeply committed to an open, participatory political process. When Lamborn broke his pledge to debate, it was like the old Peanuts cartoon, where Lucy sets up the football for Charlie Brown to kick, then snatches it away at the last minute. In my opinion, Lamborn had played us for fools. Not just me, but everyone in our community.

While I wish I had done several things differently, I am glad our chicken campaign highlighted his hypocrisy. But in order to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest, with the publication of this note, I will no longer be active in the Colorado Springs Citizens For A Congressman Who Won't Chicken Out campaign.

For those who took the time to read this entire note, thank you.

John Weiss, publisher