Gessler jumps into school-board fray

The Secretary of State, a gubernatorial candidate, focuses on Douglas County

Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler addresses local concerns about the upcoming Nov. 6 election at a public meeting on Aug. 13 in Cripple Creek. Because of concerns about the county’s election process, his office sent two staff members to work with the Teller County Clerk’s office on the June 26 primary. On election night, there was also an independent observer. Photo by Norma Engelberg
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In what one political analyst called a tactic to garner support for his gubernatorial race, Scott Gessler, Colorado’s Republican Secretary of State, announced Oct. 29 that he temporarily will focus on Douglas County’s school board elections.

In an email entitled, “The Cavalry is Coming!”, Gessler wrote: “Against the advice of the Denver political elites, I’ve ordered my campaign for governor to shift focus for the next week until the Douglas County elections, to ensure that conservatives are victorious this year.”

Gessler asked for support from other conservatives to knock on doors, and said he also would have some paid opportunities.

As Secretary of State, Gessler is charged with overseeing and administering Colorado’s election code, voter registration and campaign finance laws.

Gessler’s political director did not respond directly when asked if the Secretary of State’s involvement in the board election was appropriate, given the office’s stated mission to “ensure the integrity of elections.”

Gessler “is not afraid to lead when the future of education in Colorado is at stake,” Rory McShane responded through an email, adding that election integrity is Gessler’s top priority. “If not Scott Gessler, then who? Where are the other candidates with the courage to fight for the future of education in Colorado?”

Denver political analyst Katy Atkinson said such political involvement in a nonpartisan race isn’t unusual.

The secretary of state “oftentimes gets involved and takes positions, helps other candidates, even though they have responsibility for overseeing elections. That’s a longtime practice from both parties.”

Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer agreed.

“On the other hand, I think essentially using the county party apparatus brought it to a brand new level;  I’m not sure to a productive level at all,” he said. “And if Gessler is using his campaign apparatus to get involved, that’s just doubling down and trying to convert a nonpartisan system into a purely partisan and party-driven operation.”

The Douglas County Republicans endorsed school board candidates in 2009, 2011 and this year. Local party chairman Craig Steiner said the school board methodology is part of a larger, national-scale strategy to gain seats at all levels of government.

Atkinson sees Gessler’s involvement as similarly political.

“My sense is he’s doing it to appeal to Republicans in Douglas County for his primary race for governor, and not necessarily because he’s going to make a huge difference in the school board election,” she said.

Gessler’s appearance comes late in the election. Ballots were mailed to Douglas County residents in mid-October, and the Nov. 5 election day is a week away.

“Most of the people who are going to vote have voted,” Atkinson said. “It’s not the big deal he’d like it to be.”

McShane said the “political elites” who advised Gessler against focusing his campaign on the school board elections are establishment Republicans.

“Establishment Republicans aren’t used to someone like Scott who will fearlessly fight for what they believe in,” McShane wrote.

The Douglas County GOP-endorsed candidates are Doug Benevento, Jim Geddes, Judi Reynolds and Meghann Silverthorn.

Challenger candidates who want to see major change on the board are Barbra Chase, Bill Hodges, Julie Keim and Ronda Scholting.

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