Published: September 11, 2013
Gun rights advocates across the nation claimed victory Tuesday when two Democratic state senators - John Morse and Angela Giron - were recalled from office.
The recall elections attracted money and attention nationwide but, ultimately, involved only about 18,000 voters in state Senate District 11 that includes central and western Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs, and 35,000 in Senate District 3 in Pueblo.
The unofficial results were close in El Paso County - voters supported ousting Morse 51 percent to 49 percent. The margin for Giron was wider, 56 percent to 44 percent.
"You're not judged by how you got knocked down but by how you got back up. Our last session was phenomenal and the next session will be even better," Morse said to a room full of tearful volunteers at the Wyndham Hotel. "The loss of this seat for the next 16 months is purely symbolic. Democrats, the party of working families, still holds the majority in both chambers."
Morse was poised to return to the state Capitol in January as sitting president of the Senate.
Instead, Bernie Herpin, a local Republican who founded one of the area's largest gun organizations, will take Morse's seat as a freshman lawmaker.
"Thank you for standing up for yourselves and demanding to be heard," Herpin told a packed room at the El Paso County Republican Party headquarters. "By your votes, you have sent a loud and clear message that you'll no longer tolerate elected officials who refuse to listen to their constituents and trample on our rights."
Before the recall Democrats had a 20-15 majority in the Senate. The margin is now 18-17, giving Democrats little wiggle room on issues when legislators cross party lines.
In Pueblo, voter turnout was significantly better in Senate District 3. But Giron also lost, with about 56 percent voting "yes."
Turnout was shockingly low in Colorado Springs, given the media blitz that hit voters in recent weeks. Of about 69,000 registered voters in Senate District 11 only 17,833 cast ballots, as of the count Tuesday.
The laws that sparked the recall efforts banned magazines that hold more than 15 bullets; required background checks on all gun sales, including those between private parties; charged a fee for those background checks; required concealed carry classes to be conducted in person and empowered judges to remove guns from suspects in domestic abuse cases.
At the Stargazers Theatre and Event Center, members of the Basic Freedom Defense Fund, which initiated the recalls, applauded and cheered upon hearing that Morse conceded.
"We're delivering a warning of the new reality of politics," founder Tim Knight, a 43-year-old married father from Durango, told a jubilant crowd.
"Call it the new Morse Code, if you'd like," he said, generating laughter. "We have remembered that you may be the temporary stewards of our freedoms, but we are the rightful owners, and we will not tolerate or continue to employ those who mistreat what is ours."
The recall efforts quickly spiraled out of control, fueled by Second Amendment fervor on one side and memories of the tragic shootings in an Aurora movie theater and an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., on the other.
Morse and Giron - and groups that rallied around them - reported raising almost $3.1 million to keep the senate seats, according to analysis of data from the Secretary of State's Office. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg - who founded Mayors Against Illegal Guns - donated $350,000 to the cause.
The groups attempting to oust the lawmakers took in just over $500,000, including about $361,700 from the National Rifle Association. But an untold amount of money was spent through political nonprofit organizations that don't have to report funds.
The election cost El Paso County about $190,000 to administer.
Nancy Henjum, 53, voted Tuesday to keep Morse in office.
"This isn't about gun rights, this is about our democracy," she said. "We don't recall politicians for how they vote. That's what elections are for."
Recall efforts began across the state in March following an epic day at the Capitol for gun control legislation.
As lawmakers considered a slew of stricter gun laws, people opposed to the bills flooded the hallways waiting to testify. An airplane circled the building dragging a sign that asked Gov. John Hickenlooper not to take guns.
But also testifying were victims of gun violence, including survivors of the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and the Aurora theater shooting that sparked the proposed laws.
Rob Harris, a resident in Morse's district, walked away from that day disillusioned with the democratic process. Despite hours of public testimony, Harris and other opponents of the gun laws were unable to speak.
It became a rallying call among gun law opponents that Democrats in the House and Senate had circumvented public comment and changed the legislative rules.
In fact, testimony is frequently limited for time purposes on hot-button issues that draw huge crowds with repetitive messages.
The vote Tuesday was the culmination of months of campaigning, millions of dollars in ads and a flood of national attention on the two southeastern Colorado districts.
The process was wrought with court challenges, uncertainty and legal wrangling.
Leading into election day, some voters were still figuring out if they lived in the district, where and when they could vote, and being bombarded with advertisements filled with lies and huge omissions of fact.
Morse thanked his volunteers for working so hard to overcome the fact that there were no mail ballots sent out in the recall election because of a court ruling that made it impossible to print ballots in time.
But the final outcome in Colorado Springs was heralded by recall supporters as a strong voice from the state's most conservative pocket of voters that gun legislation is not welcome in the West.
Cassandra Edwards, 27, who lives near the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, wore a white shirt printed with a pink rifle and the words "Come and take it" to the polls Tuesday as she voted against Morse.
"He's trying to take away something that is embedded in the Constitution," Edwards said.
She hopes the recall sends a clear message to elected officials who are whittling away at the rights of Americans.
"We have control of our government and our government should fear us, not the other way around," she said, proudly wearing an "I voted" sticker.
Gazette reporters Daniel Chac? and Jakob Rodgers contributed to this story.
Contact Megan Schrader: 719-286-0644