Gay veteran drops out of primary, accepts newly created party post

Conservative blog suggests "illegal bribe" may have been offered
The Colorado Statesman

A gay veteran who last month launched a primary challenge against three-term state Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, dropped his bid Monday while at the same time accepting a newly created volunteer post to advise the state Democratic Party on veterans’ affairs.

The announcement that Lakewood resident Brian Carroll would be running against Kerr in the newly drawn House District 28 drew national attention because, his supporters touted, he would be the first openly gay veteran to seek public office following the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

Brian Carroll

Carroll, who grew up in Idaho Springs before enlisting for a six-year active-duty stint in the Army, said his intention was to run against state Rep. Ken Summers, the incumbent Lakewood Republican who represents parts of southern Jefferson County. But when the reapportionment commission drew both Kerr and Summers into a newly configured District 28, Carroll said he decided to take on both candidates.

Since leaving the Army, Carroll joined the Colorado National Guard, where he works as a systems administrator, and has worked for the office of U.S. Sen. Mark Udall handling veterans’ issues. He recently moved to a south Lakewood neighborhood, where he shares a house with several of his brothers, including one who was injured by an explosive device in Iraq.

Behind the scenes, Democrats seeking to stave off an expensive primary for what would be the term-limited Kerr’s fourth and final run were stymied until Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio brokered a deal this week that landed Carroll in charge of a brand-new council of advisors to the state party and Carroll decided to forego the primary challenge.

“Today the Colorado Democratic Party announced the launch of the Veterans and Military Council and CDP Chairman Rick Palacio has appointed me to serve as interim Chair,” Carroll wrote in an email on Monday afternoon. “I will work tirelessly to provide the necessary leadership on Veterans’ issues and make certain that those returning to Colorado get the support they need. I have decided to discontinue my campaign for the state House of Representatives, because the opportunity to help nearly half-a-million Veterans statewide is an immediate challenge that I feel a duty to meet.”

About an hour later, official word came from the state Democrats, who welcomed Carroll aboard.
“Today I am pleased to announce that Brian Carroll has agreed to serve as the Interim Chair of the Veterans and Military Council,” Palacio wrote in a statement. “Launching this effort will be a significant undertaking, and Brian’s background, energy, and commitment to his fellow veterans and service members will be incredibly valuable. Under his leadership, I expect that Colorado Democrats will deepen their relationship with our military and veteran’s community, and be their best possible advocates and allies.”

Kerr told The Colorado Statesman that Carroll called Monday with the news and offered to bury the hatchet. Kerr said he congratulated Carroll on his new position and said he was glad to have the support of his former opponent.

Colorado Democratic Party spokesman Matt Inzeo told The Statesman that Carroll’s interest in getting involved politically was a good fit with a need the party had only recently realized was going unmet.

“We didn’t have anything in our formal party structure that was veteran-specific,” Inzeo said. “That certainly seemed like a gap that was important to address.” He said that after a number of “good conversations” with Carroll, stretching back for weeks, both agreed that establishing a formal advisory council to address veterans’ issues made sense. Listing the subjects Carroll’s council will address, Inzeo said problems with employment, housing and traumatic injury issues are among “a whole new wave of stuff we need to be dealing with.”

The structure of the council — modeled roughly on a similar advisory board devoted to Latino youth launched by Palacio earlier this summer — hasn’t been set in stone, and Inzeo said Carroll would be responsible for helping populate the group.

“Some of those recruitment efforts are going to fall pretty heavily on him,” Inzeo said, noting that Carroll doesn’t seem at all reluctant to pick up a phone and make a splash.

Like other party positions — including a range of interest-group initiatives sponsored by state Democrats — seats on the council will be unpaid.

“As with most things in party politics,” Inzeo said, “we rely on the benevolence and good will of people to get most of the work done.”

The pressure on Carroll to step aside was intense.

Allies of Kerr — including every openly gay legislator, all Democrats, as well as prominent gay lobbyists and leaders of advocacy groups, plus a slew of current and former lawmakers, Capitol denizens and over-all political heavy hitters friendly to LGBT issues — immediately sprung into action and rallied around a powerhouse fundraiser for Kerr, described in the invitation as a “pro-equality hero.”

The Kerr fundraiser, planned for Wednesday night at the home of state Sen. Pat Steadman, one of four openly gay lawmakers, was scheduled on the eve of Carroll’s official campaign launch, set for Thursday at a Lakewood restaurant. The host committee debuted with a bang, including Steadman’s fellow gay lawmakers, state Rep. Mark Ferrandino of Denver and state Sens. Sue Schafer of Wheat Ridge and Lucia Guzman of Denver. Also on the list — which grew by the day — were another 40 current and former state lawmakers, legal mastermind Ted Trimpa, lobbyists Jeff Thormodsgaard and Benjamin Waters and the heads of prominent gay-rights organizations, Brad Clark of One Colorado and Bobby Clark of the Gill Foundation.

About a week before quitting the primary race, Carroll sounded undaunted by the array of powerful Capitol gays and their supporters.

“While I respect the work of our Progressive and LGBT leaders, these tactics are simply politics as usual and politics as usual has not made the lives of hard working Coloradans any better,” Carroll said in a statement.

But behind the scenes, Democratic Party officials said they were working to steer Carroll away from a primary since word first leaked earlier this summer that he might be considering a challenge to Kerr. And on Monday, just days before the dueling fundraisers, both Carroll and the state Democrats announced their agreement.

On Tuesday afternoon, organizers of Carroll’s campaign launch party sent out word the event had been cancelled. A spokesman for Carroll said the former candidate planned to attend Kerr’s fundraiser during a busy day of campaigning that would also include helping launch the Obama campaign’s new office in Fort Collins.

The Carroll campaign raised some money, former campaign manager Aaron Cohen said, but after taking care of minimal expenses, the contributions would be returned to donors. He declined to say how much the month-old campaign took in.

Conservative political blog cries foul

Meanwhile, the reaction to the news wasn’t all smiles and congratulations. A day after Carroll said he was dropping his bid and accepting the party post, the anonymous authors of a conservative blog wrote that the deal smacked of a quid pro quo that could constitute an “illegal bribe.”

“The whole situation has the foul aroma of pay-to-play politics emanating from it,” wrote the anonymous owners of the Colorado Peak Politics website. The blog post cited unnamed “sources” who had raised questions about whether the offer of a party post in exchange for dropping a bid for office might run afoul of public corruption or bribery statutes.

While the Peak Politics authors weren’t clear whether Carroll’s new position would be a paid one — it won’t be — they said that, ultimately, that didn’t matter. “Even if Carroll isn’t paid, but money is spent on the Council, a law may still have been broken.”

The bloggers went on to compare the deal to a scandal that erupted briefly during the 2010 Democratic Senate primary when news broke that the White House had contacted primary challenger Andrew Romanoff to discuss federal jobs he’d applied for before he launched a bid against U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.

Other ripostes on Twitter questioned whether the deal amounted to routine political horse-trading and asked whether the situation was comparable to prominent Republican candidates who dropped primary bids during the past several election cycles in exchange for rumored jobs or well-paid positions running campaigns.

While declining to reveal their identity, the owners of Colorado Peak Politics engaged in an email exchange with The Statesman to clarify their complaint.

“Carroll’s new gig is a political perch from which he can build his public profile, given to him at the same time he stepped out of the race in order to let Andy Kerr avoid the primary electorate,” they wrote. “For a political candidate with future aspirations like Brian Carroll, that very much seems like a ‘thing of value’ in exchange for withdrawing his candidacy. The law, as we understand it, forbids a ‘thing of value’ being offered to someone to withdraw their candidacy.”

Regardless, they concluded, “whatever the legal ramifications might be, the optics are pretty bad for all parties involved.”

Inzeo scoffed at the suggestion that finding a position for a political up-and-comer constituted anything other than good politics.

“Rick (Palacio)’s decision to ask Brian to be the interim chair was based on the fact you have a guy with tremendous energy and passion and a really unique background,” Inzeo told The Statesman on Tuesday. “That was the long and the short of it. I can’t tell you why Brian chose one avenue to get involved over another. Frankly, he’s going to be in a position with this starting tomorrow to impact the veterans’ community and Colorado.”

He said that other than anonymous chatter on blogs, he hadn’t heard anyone raise questions over Carroll’s appointment.

“If Republicans are trying to make hay, that’s their prerogative,” he said. “We have no concerns about offering a qualified member of the community to play a leadership role in our activity. If Republicans have a distorted views of the law, that’s their problem.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com