GOP candidates already trading barbs in SD 22

The Colorado Statesman

The 2014 election for Senate District 22 is already heating up with two Republicans trading barbs in what is shaping up to be a contentious primary for the relatively new seat.

Republican attorney Mario Nicolais flew to the defensive on Monday when Littleton businessman Tony Sanchez announced his candidacy. Nicolais questioned Sanchez’s loyalty to the district, pointing out that Sanchez only moved to Colorado from San Francisco two years ago. He said professional political operatives “specializing in divisive primary campaigns” recruited Sanchez, but would not elaborate.

What truly irked Nicolais was a comment in Sanchez’s news release announcing his candidacy that read, “With Democrats overreaching and out-of-control at the Capitol, the last thing we need are more candidates who only seem to care about their lawyer and lobbyist friends who helped cause our problems in the first place.”

Nicolais is an attorney at the Hackstaff Law Group, the former firm of conservative Secretary of State Scott Gessler. He points out that he is not a lobbyist. Nicolais also served on the state’s Reapportionment Commission, which re-drew all 100 House and Senate districts in 2011.

Out of that reapportionment process, Senate District 22 was redrawn, throwing then-Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, into a tight race in 2012 with then-Rep. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood. The two battled it out in a contentious race with Kerr coming out the victor, 53 percent to 47 percent.

Because the seat was newly created, Kerr has the bitter task of having to break the war chest out again in 2014. Normally senators are elected every four years.

The new district includes Lakewood and Edgewater in the north and goes down to Littleton and Ken Caryl in the south. The numbers of registered Republicans, Democrats and independents are practically even.

Given the background, it makes sense that any primary in this district would be an explosive one: “I hope that day one of this campaign isn’t a sign of what is to come,” attested Nicolais.

“Attacking fellow Republicans is exactly the type of campaign tactics that have cost Republicans a majority in the state Senate,” he continued.

“I’m not a lobbyist. Never have been. Never will be,” added Nicolais. “As a lawyer, I pride myself on being an affordable option for small businesses setting up shop and navigating the maze of government agencies and regulations. I expect Democrats to attack my pro-jobs record. I would have expected better from a fellow Republican.”

When questioned, Sanchez said he did not view the news release as an attack. He said he was simply trying to point out what he considers to be the legislature’s problem, powerful interests controlling policy.

“I’m not running because of Mario, I’m running because I want to represent my district, and I’m concerned about the government overreach, and I’m concerned about people losing control of their lives, and so I’m getting involved because of my concern for the community and the needs of the community…” explained Sanchez.

“There’s plenty of lawyers and lobbyists at the Capitol. If he feels that was about him, that’s just his business,” Sanchez continued.

The rootsiest candidate?

But Nicolais didn’t buy Sanchez’s explanation. Instead, he turned it into a discussion over who is more dedicated to the district.

Nicolais points out that he grew up in Jefferson County, specifically Lakewood. He graduated from Green Mountain High School, the same alma mater of Kerr. Nicolais has been a part of his district’s community for 35 years.

“It really matters to me what’s going on there,” he declared.

Nicolais said he believes how he got into the race is indicative of his commitment to the district. He said he wasn’t even considering it until Jefferson County activist Sherry Collins approached him at her annual Christmas party. She was still upset over Summers losing to Kerr and asked Nicolais if he might consider a run.

“I was recruited by grassroots activists and volunteers in the district, not by the party,” explained Nicolais, pointing out that Ryan Call, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, was one of the last to know he was going to announce.

“I think I’m going to win,” Nicolais continued. “That has a lot to do because I have the grassroots support and I’m working with grassroots activists…”

Nicolais questioned Sanchez’s motivation for entering the race: “I started by asking around and no one in Jefferson County knew who he was,” he jabbed.

But Sanchez is not quite the stranger that Nicolais has illustrated. He may have only moved here two years ago, but Sanchez jumped right into the political fray, becoming a state delegate for the party. He also handles outreach and advocacy for Colorado Hispanic Republicans.

“That was how it happened,” Sanchez said of his run for office. “I got elected [as state delegate] and people saw my passion, they saw what I want to do, that’s when I got interested.”

In the news release announcing his candidacy, Sanchez said, “Just as Colorado is changing, so too must the Republican Party change by nominating genuine conservatives from the grassroots who not only care about their fellow neighbors, but who will actually fight for them in Denver.”

Sanchez would not discuss who specifically encouraged him to enter the race, nor who his supporters are, instead describing them as, “People who just want to help on my campaign, who like the fact that I’m somebody who is concerned about our communities, somebody who is concerned about the government overreach.”

Sanchez could be an attractive candidate for the party, as it struggles with messaging and wooing Latino voters. His father’s side of the family came from Mexico and his mother’s side came from El Salvador.

“My grandmother… she came from humble beginnings,” added Sanchez. “She sold pineapples... she had this dream about coming to America…”

But Sanchez shrugged off the importance of his Hispanic background as a Republican: “I don’t know if I’m the Latino spokesman,” he laughed.

“Some things are common to all of us as Americans, and I think sometimes that’s very important for us to remember as opposed to try to curtail your message and be politically correct and say the right thing to somebody,” added Sanchez. “I think it’s much more important to be yourself and to be genuine as far as what you believe and what you stand for, and let your electorate, let your community decide which is the better direction, or the better message that they would like to hear.”

When pressed on his positions on Colorado ASSET — which provides in-state tuition to undocumented students — and civil unions, Sanchez would not elaborate. Those are two issues that split Republicans in the last year.

“As we get into the campaign we can talk more about the issues,” said Sanchez.
Nicolais also breaks the old fashioned Republican mold, which could lead to an interesting debate between the two candidates. Nicolais supported civil unions, going as far as to form the group Coloradans for Freedom last year, which united conservatives in favor of the legislation extending legal rights to same-sex couples.

“I’m not going to change who I am…” Nicolais promised. “Furthermore, I have always said that my positions have always been conservative… My positions have always been about limited government, getting government out of things that I don’t believe it belongs in. That’s what the entire civil unions debate was for me.”

Andy Kerr, the Democrat

Waiting on the sidelines is Kerr, a school teacher who is already preparing for another tough race. He said it does not bother him that both Nicolais and Sanchez aren’t the usual Republican suspects.

“Regardless of who wins the primary, there’s only one candidate in this race who actually voted to expand civil rights in Colorado, and that’s me in voting for civil unions; there’s only one candidate in this race that has actually voted to make access for all Colorado high school students to higher education more affordable with ASSET, and that’s me,” opined Kerr.

“So, it doesn’t matter who my opponent is at this point,” he continued. “There’s only one candidate who actually has a voting record that stands up to questions like that.”

Still, Kerr will face an onslaught of attacks by Republicans after Democrats this year passed several controversial bills, including expansive gun control and elections reform that caused the Republican Party to lock down.

He said it does not bother him that he must run again in 2014, pointing out that he ran every two years in the House.

“I knew in the beginning what it would be…” said Kerr. “I was very successful in all my races in the House running every two years… I knew it going into it, so it’s really nothing I didn’t expect.

“I go out and knock on doors and talk to people, I show up, I have my town hall events on a regular basis,” he continued. “So, yes, it’s going to be another tough race, but I won’t be changing anything that I don’t already do.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com