Democratic challenger forges ahead in HD 59 race

Swonger to petition on to ballot despite state party roadblock
The Colorado Statesman

Just ten days after Democratic hopeful Patrick Swonger announced his run for the House District 59 seat, the Colorado Democratic Party derailed his candidacy; but the Silverton resident plans to petition his way onto the ballot.

Swonger was disqualified after a committee appointed by Colorado Democratic Party Chair Rick Palacio determined that he had failed to register as a Democrat before the party’s eligibility deadline.

According to state election laws, a candidate must register his or her party affiliation at least 12 months prior to the date of the general election, unless otherwise specified by party rules.

Patrick Swonger

The “controversy committee” — comprised of Spencer Ross, a Denver attorney and former staff member of the Colorado Democratic Party; Anne Wilseck, a member of the party’s rules committee; and Michael Callihan, the former Lt. Gov. who is a resident of the House district — was tasked with interpreting and applying the language of the party rules. They found that Swonger had missed the deadline by three to four days.

In a press release issued on Thursday, Swonger announced his decision to petition onto the ballot. He said he had been urged by his supporters not to let a technicality end his run for the House seat.

In order to obtain ballot access through the petition route, Swonger needs 1,000 signatures from district residents by April 2.

The district’s borders, redefined during reapportionment last December by a Democratic-drawn map, have made the Republican-leaning district competitive by swapping out the conservative city of Cortez with the more liberal Gunnison. The district also includes Durango, Ignacio, Lake City, Ouray, Silverton, and other communities in the Southwestern part of the state.

In the 2010 election for HD 59, Republican state Rep. J. Paul Brown defeated Democratic challenger Brian O’Donnell with 55 percent of the vote. O’Donnell trailed Brown by a margin of 3,019 votes.

Brown has been a highly visible public servant in La Plata County throughout his career, serving as county commissioner for four years and on the Ignacio School Board of Directors for twelve years. He serves on four legislative committees: Agricultural, Livestock and Natural Resources; Capital Development; Health and Environment; and Transportation.

Swonger, an Air Force veteran, described himself as a “victim of friendly fire” on his campaign’s Facebook page shortly after he was informed of the decision. He later told The Colorado Statesman that he accepts full responsibility for missing the registration deadline.

Matt Inzeo, communications director of the Colorado Democratic Party, said the disqualification was “strictly a party rules issue.”

“There is a process in place,” Inzeo said. “The state statutes put a very heavy onus on the parties to create a set of rules and abide by them. That means that when a committee of non-interested individuals identify where the line is, and someone’s on the wrong side of that line, we have to be sticklers about it.

La Plata County Democratic Party Chair Denise Bohemier said she was “very surprised” by the sequence of events.

“I am disappointed in the ruling and I don’t necessarily agree with the ruling,” Bohemier said.

Inzeo sympathized with the La Plata County Democratic Party, describing long hours in the car and mountain passes as contributing to a “geographic gap” between the county in Southwestern Colorado and state Democratic Party headquarters in Denver.

“There is a unique difficulty to their situation and I think that we never feel like we’re doing everything we could,” Inzeo said. “We see our JeffCo, or Adams, or Arapahoe folks during the week, they can pop by on a Wednesday. We’re just not able to enjoy that level of familiarity with [La Plata County] folks, so that’s a constant thing that we battle and try to be sensitive to.”

Michael McLaughlin, a Durango attorney, said he plans to officially announce his candidacy for the Democratic nomination in HD 59 after he sets up his website and files the necessary paperwork.

McLaughlin said he was contacted by the state party earlier but only because they had heard he was interested in running. He said that he was not recruited to enter the race. He supported the committee’s ruling.

“I think it’s unfortunate and I’m sorry that it happened,” McLaughlin said. “On the other hand, I’m pleased that they ruled the way they did. I don’t think anybody wants a primary challenge if they don’t have to face one.”

Bohemier said that McLaughlin has already been vetted by the executive committee of the La Plata County Democratic Party, but would not comment on what kind of candidate she thought he would be. She did, however, describe him as a “loyal Democrat.”

Impendent candidate Jaime McMillan, who told The Colorado Statesman two weeks ago he was considering withdrawing his candidacy, said that the committee’s decision encouraged him to get back into the race.

McMillan said he used to be registered as a Democrat but that he grew frustrated with the party’s treatment of moderate candidates. He described the state party as a “top-down organization” and questioned their willingness to allow county officials to choose their own candidates, saying that he believes the party’s decisions usually come down to the preference of Chairman Palacio.

“On the one hand, they’ll say that they’re not there to stop you from running,” McMillan said. “On the other hand, they’ll have other intentions.”

Inzeo rejected the notion that Palacio was involved in the committee’s decision to disqualify Swonger.

“The controversy committee consisted of three people,” Inzeo said. “None of them were Rick Palacio. He was on the receiving end of this issue. That is what our rules demand, and that is how he followed it.”

Inzeo said that HD 59 Chair Wanda Cason first notified the party about concerns over Swonger’s eligibility on Jan. 16, but that there were informal discussions about a potential issue before the official notice was filed.

Swonger registered as a Democrat on Nov. 7, 2011. He believed at the time that while he had missed the 12-month mark for party affiliation by one day, the deadline would be rolled forward to the next business day, since the official date fell on a weekend.

The committee, however, based its decision on language in a state statute concerning the computation of time in election deadlines. The statute indicates that the deadline actually gets rolled back to the last business day before the weekend, which would mean that the deadline was Nov. 4, 2011.

Committee member Ross said the committee’s decision was straightforward.

“We were taking a plain reading of the language in the statutes,” Ross said. “We felt that the deadline was spelled out fairly clearly. There was not a lot of leeway given.”

Inzeo said the current language of the party rule was first put into place after Arapahoe County Republican Martha Ezzard filed to change her affiliation to Democrat in an attempt to sabotage the Democrats’ chances to win the race for Congressional District 6 in 1988.

Swonger grew up in a family of second and third generation Republicans, but said that he has always voted for the candidate and “never just checked the R’s and D’s.”

He reaffirmed his commitment to the Democratic Party, and said that he did not change his party affiliation just to get into the race.

“I’m not changing my registration,” Swonger said. “They’re stuck with me one way or another.”

Ben@coloradostatesman.com