Is Jared Wright the right GOP candidate for HD 54?

Not everyone thinks so
The Colorado Statesman

GRAND JUNCTION — Embattled Republican State House District 54 candidate Jared Wright said on Wednesday that he is staying in the race, despite a call from those within his own party to drop out.

Wright has been plagued by controversy since easily winning his party’s nomination in March when he walked away with more than 80 percent of the delegates to run for the seat being vacated by Rep. Laura Bradford, R-Collbran.

Bradford declined to seek re-election, citing personal family reasons. Her husband, Linton Matthews, suffered a heart attack back in February after Bradford had been accused of drunk driving. No charges were brought against Bradford and she survived a legislative ethics hearing, but she decided to stay out of the race this year to care for her ill husband.

Jared Wright, Republican candidate for HD 54

The district was reapportioned this year so that the House District 55 seat currently held by Bradford was moved into HD 54. Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, who currently holds the HD 54 seat, moved into HD 55 in time for the election, so he is running for re-election in HD 55.

That left only Wright and Republican primary challenger John “Rusty” Price to face-off for their party’s nomination. Republicans in Mesa and Delta counties overwhelmingly selected Wright, noting his experience as a Fruita policeman and a former Republican Party activist.

But many who supported Wright back in March are experiencing a case of buyer’s remorse. In early August, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel broke news that Wright — who had campaigned on a platform of being a fiscal conservative — had filed for personal bankruptcy in 2011. Wright’s character also came into question when the newspaper reported that he had been the subject of a Fruita Police Department internal affairs investigation that revealed a pattern of dishonesty related to reporting late to the job. He was forced to resign from the department as a result.

Republicans immediately began calling for Wright’s resignation from the ballot. Most recently, Grand Junction businessman Alex Chaffetz — a high-profile Republican known for his campaign contributions and in-kind support of the party — paid $400 of his own money for automated telephone calls Monday to 6,000 voters to ask Wright to step down.

“We should be focused on defeating Barack Obama, but instead Jared Wright continues to embarrass our party on the front page of The Daily Sentinel. His unethical behavior as a policeman and his unwillingness to take responsibility for his own actions speak volumes about his instability to represent us in Denver,” states the robo-call, according to Sentinel reporter Charles Ashby.

The automated call goes on to explain that Wright must step down in time for the Republican Party to legally name a new candidate.

“There’s still time for our Republican Party to select a candidate we can proudly support as our representative,” continues the robo-call. “There’s still time for Jared Wright to do the right thing and step down.”

The party is in a bit of a bind, as it has already endorsed Wright for the seat. Without Wright voluntarily stepping down, there is little that it can do to force change, explained Mesa County Republican Party Chairwoman Ruth Ehlers.

“The Mesa County Republican Party, the Delta County Republican Party and the HD 54 Central Committee can not overturn the results of these elections,” Ehlers said in a prepared statement last Friday. “Jared Wright won his elections and won them with wide margins. Jared Wright is the Republican candidate for HD 54. At this point, it is up to Jared Wright to decide if he wants to continue his campaign or step aside.”

But the statement goes on to chastise Wright for having not brought his personal and professional quandaries to light before the party made its decision.

“Most of us were unpleasantly surprised when details of Mr. Wright’s work record and personal bankruptcy became public,” the statement continued. “It is unfortunate that voters did not have this information before the elections took place. As a result, we find ourselves with a candidate working to restore his credibility.”

Wright himself told The Colorado Statesman that he is indeed working around the clock to restore his credibility. He showed remorse for having withheld the information before the primary, and he is beside himself that his friends and colleagues learned of his personal and professional situations through local media.

“Inexperienced,” the 29-year-old candidate answered for why he withheld the information. “I would also say that it was embarrassment. It’s not something that I’m proud of. I don’t disagree with you that it would have been the right thing, but some personal pride got in the way. Looking back on it, I wish I let them know first thing where I stood and the rough times I’ve been through.”

In his Chapter 7 bankruptcy proceedings, Wright cited more than $74,000 in consumer spending as the reason why he wanted protection from his 48 creditors, according to reports. He reportedly was borrowing the money to purchase automobiles for a business of buying and selling cars. Wright also said that he had a $1,900 medical bill and that the loss of his wife’s job contributed to the bankruptcy proceedings.

As for the internal police investigation, Wright was accused of lying multiple times to superiors about his whereabouts to avoid being considered tardy. According to the report, obtained by The Sentinel, Wright was accused of radioing in that he was on duty while still at his house for 45 minutes.

The issue is an important one, as it could affect the fate of several criminal cases to which Wright had testified. The finding of professional dishonesty could discredit his testimony in criminal cases as a police officer, thereby resulting in those cases being tossed.

But Wright says he was the subject of a political attack at the hands of government officials who did not want to see him run for office.

“I went to the chief early on and said I was thinking about running; that I had been approached to run. He said it was not against city policy and that there was nothing stopping me from doing that,”recalled Wright. “But I believe there was a whisper campaign behind the scenes in city government that basically they didn’t want the public attention.”

Wright points out that his annual evaluations by the department had always been positive.

“When I was in the internal affairs investigation, at that same time in that same week, while under investigation I received an employment evaluation, which said I had done an outstanding job,” said Wright. “It just smells.”

Trouble for GOP?

Depending on the outcome, the issue could be big trouble for the Republican Party, which holds only a one-seat majority in the Colorado House.

There is no Democrat registered to run, which bodes well for the party’s chances of holding HD 54 as a Republican seat. But as Bradford explains, a loss of credibility could doom Wright’s ability to work both within and outside the aisle to effect positive change, if he survives the election.

“He’s starting out on Day 1 without the advantage of people assuming that they can work with him,” Bradford said from her home in Collbran. “He’s starting out with a disadvantage of people wondering, ‘Should I? Can I? Would I? Will I?’ So, to start — as hard as it already is — to start off Day 1 knowing that the rest of your colleagues, regardless of the side of the aisle, are thinking that’s tough.”

“Is he a lame duck?” asked Bradford. “Everyone agrees that he’s most likely going to be primaried.”

Bradford said she has no regrets about not running, pointing out that she declined to seek re-election to care for her husband, not to benefit the Republican Party.

“My tenure in the legislature has been different; unique,” said Bradford. “Not to say it’s not easy being a member of a caucus who has a one-seat majority, but for somebody who is an independent thinker and doesn’t always vote with the caucus, it just becomes difficult to be a part of the caucus.”

“The decision I made was not based on the fact that we had a one-vote majority,” she continued.

Wright’s former opponent, Rusty Price, would not get into name-calling, nor would he suggest that Wright should drop out so that a less impeached candidate such as himself could run.

“I would like to see him do what is right for his family and for the Republican Party of Colorado and Mesa County, and what that central theme is, I honestly don’t know — that is truly up to Jared,” said Price.

Price had endorsed Wright immediately following the primary. He said he has no immediate intention of withdrawing that endorsement.

“I’ve watched this pretty closely and I’ll be honest with you, I have concerns, a lot of people have concerns,” said Price. “But I don’t feel we know the whole story. We’ve heard parts of it… but we weren’t there, and I’m not going to judge somebody for something that I don’t know the whole story of.”

Wright’s only opponent on the ballot, Libertarian Tim Menger, also would not point fingers.

“I’d rather not get into a mud-slinging match. I don’t want this campaign to be like that,” said Menger. “It’s interesting to hear what’s happening to him day-to-day, but I don’t really have any comments on that.”

Missed opportunity for Dems?

Democrats have to be feeling like they missed an opportunity to take advantage of the turmoil by not fielding a candidate in this legislative race. But as Colorado Democratic Party spokesman Matt Inzeo pointed out, the party doesn’t have a “crystal ball.”

“This was a very Republican seat… and when it came time to filling the slate, this was a seat that was going to be at the bottom of the list when you looked at it on Jan. 1,” said Inzeo.

“Without the crystal ball to see just what a string of strange news would come out of this area between Bradford and now the latest controversies, maybe we shoot a couple of e-mails around to folks to see if there’s someone interested, but that’s still a tall order to be pulling resources away from what needs to be our top priority, which is winning and having a majority in the state House so that [House Minority Leader Mark] Ferrandino can run the body in a manner that Coloradans expect their government to work,” he said.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com