SD 19 shapes up as Dem-GOP battleground

Once red district purple at least

By Chris Bragg
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Republicans see the open seat in Senate District 19 as a must-win if they have any shot of retaking the state Senate in November. But Democrats aren’t about to give up the swing district without a major fight. And that’s led some to speculate that this northern Jefferson County district made up of parts of Arvada and Westminster could be 2008’s most important Statehouse battleground.

“I think it could be,” said Evie Hudak, the Democratic candidate in the race and current State Board of Education member for the 2nd Congressional District. “The Democratic majority in the state Senate is not very large, and when I look at the other seats that are open, they’re not as competitive in terms of registration.”

Her Republican opponent, Libby Szabo, agrees the seat is a top target for both sides.

“My party has been saying that to me for months,” said Szabo, a mortgage broker and four-time campaign manager for former House District 27 Rep. Bill Crane. “There’s a lot hinging on this seat.”

Voter registration slightly favors the GOP in SD 19 — it’s 35 percent Republican, 30 percent Democratic and 34 percent unaffiliated. For the last eight years, however, Democratic Sen. Sue Windels has held the seat. But Windels has reached the end of her term, and, with the power of incumbency gone, the GOP sees its chance.

With all that’s at stake, neither party expects that the sole determining factor in the race will be the quality and charisma of the candidates. Republicans worry small-donor committees funded by unions could buy the race for Hudak. Democrats fear 527 groups could exploit a controversy over State Board of Education expenditures in Szabo’s favor.

The GOP fear about small-donor committees harkens to the 2004 race in the district. In that race, then-25-year-old Jessica Peck Corry, now a policy analyst for the free-market think tank the Independence Institute, lost to Windels, the incumbent, by 7.5 points.

Corry contends that Democrats outspent Republicans in that race by a margin of $500,000 to $100,000, with indirect support for Windels coming from the $4,000 contributions of small-donor committees, which, Corry says, are fed by union dues. Corry contends that a campaign finance amendment passed in 2002 by Colorado voters limits the ability of individuals and small businesses to give money to candidates, while strengthening the union hand by promoting small-donor committees.

“The Right doesn’t have anything equating these membership organizations that have thousands and thousands of people to fund them,” Corry said. “A normal person cannot run for office in a competitive district in Colorado and make it without the support of unions. It’s directly counter to what people passed, when they passed the toughest campaign finance law in the country.”

Hudak, however, doesn’t buy the argument that Democrats are getting an unfair advantage.

“I think you could say the same things about small-donor committees that give money to the Republicans,” she said. “We can all claim sour grapes. In the end, it’s pretty even. When the law changes, you just change your methods.”

Corry and Szabo expect money to pour in this fall for Hudak, especially since she is a State Board of Education member. The GOP contends much of 2004’s money came from teachers’ unions. (Windels was chair of the Senate Education Committee.)

“I was a teacher,” Hudak said, “and I hope [education unions] do support me, because I’m one of them. ... But that doesn’t mean I agree with everything the unions want.”

Where do they stand on education issues? Szabo says she’s unabashedly in favor of ensuring school choice; two of her children attended vocational school.

And Hudak?

“If people try to say I’m anti-charter, they are wrong,” she said. “I’m against bad charter schools.”

Meanwhile, Hudak says she has her own outside groups to worry about from the Right, in the form of 527 groups. She says those groups could run TV ads unfairly sensationalizing her personal expenses as a member of the State Board of Education.

“It’s a tempest in a teapot,” Hudak said. “It’s so silly.”

An Associated Press report last February portrayed the board holding a lavish dinner in Telluride, getting valet parking service at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs and taking limo rides to the airport in Washington, D.C.

Hudak had the second highest personal expenses on the seven-person board, claiming $11,316 last year.

Those expenses became a hot topic of debate during the Legislature’s budget debates last spring, and Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Fort Collins, has requested that state audit look into them.

“I need to see why she’s spending the money,” Szabo said. “That’s taxpayer money, and to me, taxpayer money should be held sacred.”

Some board of education members, including Republican chairwoman Pamela Jo Suckla, who had the highest spending at nearly $26,000, say their expenses are inflated because they live so far from the Capitol. Hudak lives near Denver, but says her expenses are high because she travels around the state and around the country on behalf of the board without being paid.

“There’s virtually nothing they can use against me. I am an exemplary public servant,” she said. “What are they going to find? That I had a steak dinner one night after meeting for 15 hours?”

Republican member Bob Schaffer, who is running for the U.S. Senate, on the other hand, put in for only $521 of expenses. But Hudak said that’s only because Schaffer wasn’t nearly as involved with the board as she was.

“But you don’t have the ability to express nuance to people when you have a 527 doing TV ads against you,” Hudak said. “I think they will grasp at any straw they can to find a way to win, because I think they want it that badly.”

It would seem Hudak wasn’t getting rich off her work as a State Board of Education member, where she has served since 2000. Hudak says she was laid off the job she held when first elected because she was spending too much time working for the board. And she subsequently had to quit another job in 2006 for the same reason, she said.

In terms of traditional campaign donations, Szabo has out-raised Hudak so far, with a cash-in-hand advantage of about $34,200 to $22,400.

What’s Szabo’s pitch to voters as she goes door-to-door in the predominately white, middle-class suburb?

“I tell them I am in their district, a taxpayer and a mother trying to make ends meet just like they are,” she said.

Szabo says she frequently hears concerns about bills passed during last two years of Democratic control in state government, including the mill levy freeze that was recently found unconstitutional, Gov. Bill Ritter’s executive order concerning unions and bills putting burdens on small businesses.

Meanwhile, Hudak says even though she has specialized in education issues, education would come behind the economy and health care on her legislative “to do” list.

Northern Jefferson County has turned from Red to Blue over the past decade — something Hudak knows well, as an unsuccessful candidate for House District 29 in 1994. Hudak credits the turnaround to the ineptitude of Republicans when they controlled the state Legislature.

Corry, meanwhile, attributes the shift to changes in campaign finance laws. The last round of redistricting also resulted in slight Democratic gains in Jefferson County.

Whatever the reason, GOP weakness in Jefferson County was on full display recently as three Jefferson County Republican House candidates were appointed at the last minute by vacancy committee, after the candidates selected through the district assemblies dropped out of their respective races. Those three candidates all failed to meet a June 5 deadline to file as candidates with the secretary of state’s office, inciting controversy about whether the secretary of state had improperly let Republican candidates slide on the deadline.

In other words, GOP influence in northern Jefferson County has waned to the point that the Republicans are struggling even to field candidates in some districts.

As the race in SD 19 heats up, the candidates will be watching closely for the influence of small-donor committees and 527 groups. Both say they wish the process was left up to the candidates themselves, and that there was more transparency allowing outside forces exerting influence on the race to be seen.

But for now, they understand that’s just the lay of the land — considering this is likely to be the most hotly contested local race of the 2008 election season.

Hudak says despite the outside influences, personal connections still will make the ultimate difference. And she says as she goes around the district, voters know her and greet her by name. They don’t, she said, yet know Szabo.

“People in my community have seen me. People know that I’m out there talking to them and listening to them,” Hudak said. “I don’t know many people in my district who have ever heard of her. And I think I would clearly be the front-runner for that reason.”