Support — and non-support — of ‘personhood’ comes back to haunt Republican candidates

Democrats, meanwhile, have to deal with the abortion issue
The Colorado Statesman

For the first time, so-called “personhood” supporters are actively opposing a Republican candidate, and that candidate is Weld County District Attorney and Congressional District 4 hopeful Ken Buck.

The pro-life movement, which aims to assign constitutional rights to the unborn in an attempt to ban abortion, feels like Buck stabbed them in the back when he reversed course on the initiative.

Buck, who says he is unequivocally pro-life himself, backed away from personhood toward the end of his unsuccessful 2010 U.S. Senate campaign following pressure from Democrats, who were painting Republicans as waging a “war on women.”

Critics of personhood say the initiative has unintended consequences, such as prohibiting birth control or abortions even in cases of rape and incest. Supporters, however, say nothing in the proposed constitutional amendment would give protections to eggs, nor ban contraception.

A variation of the personhood initiative is on the ballot for this year. The initiative is being called the “Brady Amendment” — it would add the words “person” and “child” in state criminal code and the Colorado Wrongful Death Act to include unborn children. The effort aims to better protect pregnant mothers and their unborn children from criminal offenses and negligent and wrongful acts.

The initiative is named for Brady, the unborn child of Heather Surovik, who was eight months pregnant when a drunk driver slammed into her car in Longmont, terminating the pregnancy.

Proponents gathered 139,650 signatures, the most ever for a personhood drive. The secretary of state’s office validated 109,612 signatures.

Coloradans twice rejected personhood by roughly three-to-one margins in 2008 and 2010.

Personhood advocates remain angry over Buck’s flip-flop — it has stuck out for them like a nightmare that lingers long into the day. They are calling for him to withdraw from the Congressional District 4 race, in which Buck received second-line ballot placement at the Republican State Assembly last Saturday, losing the top line to state Sen. Scott Renfroe of Greeley.

Renfroe is backed by the conservative Rocky Mountain Gun Owners organization and supports personhood.

But Buck is hardly the only Republican to disavow personhood. Recently, U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner of Yuma reversed course on the initiative as he battles to replace Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Udall. It is Gardner’s U.S. House seat that Buck is vying for.

Also, U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman of Aurora has also distanced himself from personhood, saying he no longer supports the initiative.

Personhood supporters have also attacked Gardner for reversing course. But Buck is the only Republican candidate that they’re actively calling on to withdraw from the race, and the only candidate for which personhood will use resources to oppose.

“Ken Buck sort of led the charge for stabbing pro-life and personhood people in the back,” explained Keith Mason, president of Personhood USA.

“We’ve never asked for a candidate’s support, nor have we come after a candidate when they stabbed us in the back…” he added. “But I think of Ken Buck as what’s wrong with conservative politics in Colorado today. This guy is just hiding behind the pro-life base, which in CD 4, we’re very, very strong. That’s one of the most conservative districts in the country.”

Whoever wins the Republican primary in CD 4 will most likely move on to Congress. The voter registration numbers in the district simply don’t bode well for Democrats.

Also vying for positions on the Republican ballot are Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer and businessman Steve Laffey, who are attempting to petition on.

But Mason believes the State Assembly was telling. Despite Buck’s statewide name recognition and admiration with establishment Republicans, he couldn’t muster the votes to take top line over Renfroe. Renfroe took 54 percent of the delegate votes, compared to Buck’s 46 percent at the Fourth Congressional District assembly. It takes 30 percent to make the ballot.

Mason points out that in 2010, Buck lost to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet by about 1.5 percentage points. He said personhood supporters easily make up that difference, indicating that Buck’s rejection of the initiative likely contributed to his demise.

Mason said he spoke with Buck in 2010 at a pro-life gala in Greeley for the nonprofit Barefoot For Babies. He said he told the then-U.S. Senate hopeful that his messaging on personhood was hurting him, though Buck’s campaign denies having any official meeting.

“I told him, ‘You’re pointing to things that sort of feed into a rhetoric that’s being projected by our opponents…’” explained Mason. “I said, ‘We’ve got to come to a solution here because there are a lot of good people who want to vote for you but won’t if you continue down this path.’

“He looked at me and said, ‘Keith… I will not pander to a special interest for 2 percent of the vote,’” according to Mason.

Buck’s campaign manager, Tim Griesmer, responded, “Ken Buck never met with Keith Mason regarding the subject of personhood. Ken respects all pro-life voters.”

Griesmer did not make Buck available to comment for this story.

The Colorado Statesman asked Griesmer if the Buck campaign is worried at all that personhood could influence the outcome of the election. He responded simply, “We take every vote seriously.”

Shortly after The Statesman reached out to the Buck campaign, a series of phone calls came in from pro-life advocates who support him. Buck’s campaign had informed them that The Statesman was working on a story about Personhood’s opposition to Buck.

One of those callers was Jayne Schindler with the Eagle Forum, a conservative pro-life group. Schindler said many pro-life groups disagree with the tactics of Personhood, and applauded Buck for taking a stand against the controversial initiative. She said she has total faith in Buck’s commitment to pro-life issues.

“We don’t feel that they were totally honest with the Republican candidates when they asked them to support personhood and passing it off as this is just pro-life, the life of the child and so forth,” said Schindler. “But when you get into the weeds and find out that there are a lot of unintended consequences, I’m really glad that those who signed on… came back and said this is not what I’m all about, which is what Ken did…”

Schindler said the personhood movement is too extreme, adding, “The Titanic could be going down and they would not send life boats to save any babies, and so they’re really the pro-abortionists because if they can’t save every child, we’ll just kill them all. It’s the all or nothing approach that other pro-life groups are saying ‘no’ to.”

She suggests that Buck coming in second to Renfroe was more about inter-party politics than personhood specifically.

“I just know that there are those who want retribution against Ken Buck because he has been a man of principle,” said Schindler. “He took that stand and he stood on it and they want to punish him… That concerns me, is that it might have been a tactic to attack the frontrunner and we’ll just use personhood as the hammer to do that…”

Another call to The Statesman came from Randy Wilson, who spoke on behalf of himself, although he is the field director for the national pro-life Family Research Council.

“As a Colorado resident, I know Ken Buck. He is a good man who is pro-life. We believe life starts at conception. I hear differing opinions on the personhood issue from a number of life organizations. I know Ken stands with us on the life issue,” Wilson said in Buck’s defense.

“We need to stop throwing each other under the bus… Let's work together to elect good men and women into office and hold them accountable and stop shooting our own.”

Mason, however, believes strongly that Buck’s heartburn over personhood is not over. He expects a similar scenario to play out in the CD 4 primary.

“I do not know who the campaign consultant is for these guys, but it’s not like the Democrats are going to let up on his pro-life stance, it’s not like personhood gets off the table,” opined Mason. “And now he’s completely deflated the energy of people who want to turn out and vote for a pro-life champion.

“Personhood was the issue,” Mason added of the CD 4 assembly. “It is the issue. You have a clear distinction between Scott Renfroe and Ken Buck, and what Scott said was very clear, and I believe him. I think Scott won’t turn his back on us.”

For his part, Renfroe would not offer an opinion as to whether personhood helped him win top-line placement. He said only the delegates can answer that question. But he acknowledged highlighting the issue at the State Assembly, and confirmed his commitment.

“Personhood is probably another difference between us right now…” said Renfroe. “Not just [to] delegates, but to voters, that’s a big issue…

“Attacking religious principles… does bring out people that have those values and have that faith… I’m a strong believer in life and protecting the sanctity of life, and I’ll always do that,” added Renfroe. “So, if people are going to support me for that stance, that’s an honor.”

Democrats experience their own anxiety over abortion

Republicans aren’t the only ones having inter-party struggles over abortion. Democrats apparently aren’t immune from the issue either.

A reproductive rights measure introduced by Democratic Sens. Andy Kerr of Lakewood and Jeanne Nicholson of Black Hawk would have prohibited any state or local policy that “denies or interferes with an individual’s reproductive health care decisions.”

But Senate Democrats killed the so-called Reproductive Health Freedom Act after an outcry from religious leaders and contention within the caucus itself this week.

Upon introduction of the bill, the Archdiocese of Denver issued a letter from Samuel J. Aquila, the archbishop of Denver, who blasted Democrats for pushing what the church described as a “very troubling” bill.

“This over-reaching piece of legislation would essentially shut down any attempt to pass life-affirming legislation in Colorado ever again,” wrote Aquila. “More than that, it enshrines the ‘right to abortion’ into Colorado law… It enshrines the culture of death into law and ignores science.”

Catholic preachers across Colorado took up the cause and instructed congregations to oppose the measure. They said it would prevent common-sense regulations and eliminate abortion clinic health code regulations, though sponsors maintained that nothing in the bill would have done that.

Still, the message rang loud within religious circles. Hundreds showed up on the west steps of the Capitol on Tuesday to hear Aquila denounce the legislation. Slowly they made their way to the stairs, praying while they followed their religious leaders, “For the sake of his sorrowful passion, have mercy on us…”

The timing of the bill was remarkable considering it was Holy Week.

“You the laity are the ones who are responsible for getting out to vote, for giving witness, and for being the leaven in society,” remarked Aquila.

Following the rally, the religious protesters took to the Senate gallery, where they waited for a vote. But a vote never happened.

Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, was excused. Some say he was feeling sick, but Kefalas himself acknowledged that he wanted additional time to consider the measure, as he was struggling with voting for it. He had backed the legislation in committee, but later questioned whether it was the right “tool” to protect a woman’s right to choose.

On Wednesday, it became clear that there was still apprehension. As evening approached, the Senate began second reading debates. When Senate Bill 175 was called, Senate Majority Leader Rollie Heath of Boulder made a motion to lay the bill over until after the legislative session, thereby killing it.

Kerr said that despite the concerns within his own caucus, he had the votes to pass the bill. Democrats needed all 18 members to support the measure, as they hold only a one-seat majority in the chamber. Republicans were locked into rejecting the bill. If even one Democrat bucked the party, it would have died.

“I’ve talked to every single Democrat in the caucus and every Democrat stands up for individuals in Colorado making their own decisions when it comes to their reproductive health care, and every single member of the caucus has said that they’re ready to vote ‘yes’ on this,” explained Kerr. “All 18 of us together decided that we weren’t ready to let this session be overshadowed by D.C. tea party style tactics to delay everything.”

Kerr alleged that Republicans had vowed to filibuster the majority of the remainder of the calendar in an effort to stall the legislative process in retaliation for passing the Reproductive Health Freedom Act.

But Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs pointed out that Democrats control both chambers, and therefore control the calendar. He said it would have been impossible for the Republican caucus to stop anything from moving forward.

“I don’t know where they get their information, but this is the first I’ve heard of that,” Cadman said after Kerr made his statements.

“That’s ridiculous,” he continued. “What they ran into was a firestorm of public dissent… to this political hatchet job… and they got called on it, and unfortunately they put their caucus and this entire institution through significant turmoil…”

Perhaps more significant is that after Kerr made his comments that the caucus had the vote, at least two Senate Democrats said that they were still concerned, including Kefalas and Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada.

When asked how she was planning to vote, Zenzinger said, “I honestly don’t know.”

The first-year lawmaker filled a vacancy left by former Sen. Evie Hudak of Westminster after Hudak resigned in the face of a looming recall election. Zenzinger will face a tough battle in her split district.

Asked if she was relieved that she didn’t have to vote on the controversial bill, she responded, “Yeah, I think so; being a Catholic woman.”

Kefalas, who was visibly distraught and tired of talking about the abortion issue, added only, “I’ve expressed concern about this and I listened to constituents, that’s it.”

Kerr acknowledged that the bill had become a political football. Some suggested that he only introduced the measure to compete for female votes in a contentious district.

He responded, “This is a policy bill. I certainly think the politics behind it speak for themselves. I’m a well-known critic of the personhood amendments and of the movement behind those, and I think that for those reasons I’ve worked with the stakeholder group to bring this bill forward.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com