The weekend before the Sept. 10 recall election of state Sen. Angela Giron, a North Carolina polling company surveyed 579 voters in District 3 to see how Pueblo’s nationally watched political fight over gun control and gun rights was trending.
Tom Jensen, of Public Policy Polling, wrote on the PPP website later that week that he didn’t release the survey immediately because he didn’t believe it. Giron, a Democrat in a Democratic majority district, was losing her election 54 to 42 percent.
More stunning, 33 percent of Democrats surveyed were voting against her. And the anti-Democrat attitude included Gov. John Hickenlooper as well because only 39 percent of those surveyed liked his performance while 44 percent — including 39 percent of Democrats — didn’t.
And this was Pueblo County, where President Barack Obama had easily won the local vote just 10 months before. But the PPP survey was right, as the election results confirmed. Giron was recalled and Republican candidate George Rivera will take her place Oct. 3.
Also recalled — but by a much narrower margin — was state Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs. The National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups had made Morse and Giron their targets while gun-control advocates, like New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, had put money into the Giron and Morse war chests.
“This election was a significant turnaround,” said Floyd Ciruli, the well-known Colorado pollster and Pueblo native. Not only did it cut the Democratic majority in the Senate to one vote — 18 to 17 — “But it threatens their entire agenda. It’s certainly energized Colorado Republicans.”
Rick Palacio, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, insisted it was a limited result. Giron’s foes accused her of not representing her constituents and a majority apparently agreed, he said.
“We lost this one and the lesson here is that lawmakers have to stay engaged with their constituents,” he said.
On that, Pueblo County Republican Chairman Becky Mizel agreed. But she also sees Democrats as vulnerable on a wider front.
“The recall was about gun rights but it was also about legislators not listening to the people,” she said. “Democrats have been promoting a radical agenda that Pueblo citizens can’t relate to. We intend to follow the lead of the recall and listen to our citizens.”
During the election, the GOP broadened their attack on Giron to other issues besides gun control, claiming her votes on renewable energy would raise rural electric rates and faulting her on water legislation.
Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace, a former legislator with a strong gun-rights voting record in Denver, said it was a mistake to try and draw larger trends from the recall fight.
“This wasn’t a typical election,” he said, “This isn’t Boulder or Denver. There are local Democrats who are conservative on some issues.”
Fellow Commissioner Liane “Buffie” McFadyen, another former legislator who voted for gun rights during her terms, said she wasn’t surprised by the backlash against the new gun laws that Giron and Morse supported.
“People should keep in mind all the Department of Corrections employees, federal Bureau of Prisons, law enforcement officers and military veterans we have in this region,” she said.
Pace said a key statistic in the PPP poll was that 53 percent of voters said they had a favorable impression of the NRA — even though a strong majority, 68 percent, also supported background checks on all gun purchases.
The PPP poll also showed local voters were evenly split on the new law limiting gun magazines to 15 rounds. In the poll, 47 percent were in favor and 47 percent opposed.
“That NRA rating was the better indicator of how voters were reacting overall,” Pace said.
“But it wasn’t all about guns,” said Ciruli. He noted Giron was a political newcomer appointed to the seat in 2010 after state Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, took the job of Colorado Lottery director. And she only had the one election campaign later that year where she won the seat.
“A more veteran politician may have fared better,” Ciruli said.
City Councilman Chris Nicoll is a gun-rights Democrat who thought the Legislature blundered into a political minefield on gun control.
“The Legislature needs to focus on fixing the economy and creating more jobs,” he said. “I think voters looked at the new gun laws this year as an affront to their right to personal safety. Washington D.C. has lots of gun-control laws and look what happened there this week (at the Washington Navy Yard).”
Similarly, it didn’t surprise Nicoll that Hickenlooper’s support has declined. He thinks the governor’s decision to give convicted killer Nathan Dunlap an indefinite reprieve from his death sentence — essentially postponing a final decision for the next governor to make — angered many voters.
“People want accountability for crimes like that,” Nicoll said, referring to Dunlap’s conviction for murdering the employees of an Aurora pizza parlor during a robbery.
Ciruli agreed and both Hickenlooper and Democrats in the Legislature will be on the defensive in the upcoming session.
“You’ll remember that Hickenlooper didn’t veto a single bill passed by the Legislature this year. That will change, I’m sure,” he said.
State Rep. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo and gun-rights supporter, said he never had any doubts that Pueblo-area voters were cool to new gun-control laws. He supported the law expanding background checks on gun purchases, but went no further.
“I see it as a conflict between urban and rural attitudes,” he said. The push to set magazine limits at 15 rounds was arbitrary and political, not based on any knowledge of guns being sold today, he said.
Denver-area Democrats wanted to do something after the mass shootings at the Aurora movie theater and Newtown, Garcia said.
“They ended up trying to put a band-aid on the problem,” he said. “The way I see my job is I go to Denver to represent my constituents.”
McFadyen said Pueblo Democrats ought to be “humbled” by the effectiveness of the recall campaign in getting signatures on recall petitions and then turning out their supporters to vote.
“This really was a grassroots campaign by people who were upset,” she said.
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