Peter Marcus
The Colorado Statesman
December 16, 2013

Former Rep. Sara Gagliardi was stunned after fellow Senate District 19 Democrats on Tuesday night passed her over and elected Arvada City Councilwoman Rachel Zenzinger to replace Sen. Evie Hudak following her resignation last month.

Hudak announced her resignation on Nov. 27 in the face of a looming and costly recall election over her support for gun control. Zenzinger was sworn-in on Friday, Dec. 13.

Gagliardi, of Arvada, walked into the Westminster recreation center on Tuesday night where the vacancy election was held, believing that she had the commitment of enough delegates to secure the position left by Hudak. When the 39-27 vote came in favor of Zenzinger, Gagliardi was more than just a little surprised.

“I had the commitments and I had the votes from people,” Gagliardi said with red eyes, suggesting that delegates changed their minds on Tuesday. “I’m not sure what happened. I’m sure I’ll find out.”

For Gagliardi, the vacancy election was a chance to make her way back to the legislature following a tough loss in 2010 to Republican Rep. Libby Szabo of Arvada. Given her prior experience, Gagliardi was believed to be an attractive successor. But the Democrats who made up the Senate District 19 Vacancy Committee had another direction in mind.

“I fought the good fight and did what I needed to do, and I’m glad I did it,” Gagliardi told The Colorado Statesman following the vote at the West View Recreation Center.

She said she might consider a run for the seat in 2014. The seat would not normally be up until 2016, but because of the vacancy election, Zenzinger is required to defend it next year. That could pave the way for a messy Democratic primary.

In her remarks to the delegates prior to the vote, Gagliardi explained that she was the best candidate to protect the seat from a Republican political insurgency in 2014 when the fate of the Senate is up for grabs. With the successful recall elections of two Democratic senators this summer — President John Morse of Colorado Springs and Angela Giron of Pueblo — Democrats have held on to the upper chamber by only one seat.

SD 19 is a vulnerable district, with the electorate split evenly between Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters. Hudak defeated Republican Lang Sias by only 584 votes in 2012.

Had Hudak faced her recall election and was ousted from office, a Republican would have likely been elected as her successor, thereby flipping control of the Senate. But the battle is sure to continue next year at the polls.

Gagliardi committed to knock on at least 20,000 doors in an effort to maintain the seat for Democrats.

“I have the infrastructure in place; I have a campaign account; I have volunteers; I have dollars; and I can begin this campaign tomorrow,” declared Gagliardi.

Former Sen. Sue Windels, D-Arvada, endorsed Gagliardi and spoke on her behalf before the vacancy committee.

“Sara has served for several years in the Colorado House of Representatives, she knows the process, she knows the issues, she knows the people, she knows the bill drafters, the lobbyists — she is ready to hit the path running,” opined Windels.

Vacancy committee member Bob Banzin also nominated Gagliardi, stating that she was the best candidate to take on the Republicans.

“All I know is that after spending all the time… on the line trying to fight these idiots trying to take over the Senate, we need to realize we’re in for a big fight,” said Banzin, referring to recall proponents. “We’re in a time of zealotry that I’ve not seen since Vietnam.”

Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp of Arvada, who considered running for the vacancy but instead decided to endorse Gagliardi, said both Gagliardi and Zenzinger were formidable candidates.

“I’ve worked with Rachel for the last 10 years in the district. She’s sharp, she’s got a lot of potential. I think she’ll do a great job,” said Kraft-Tharp, who acknowledged that she was surprised by the vote.

But Zenzinger, who is Hudak’s former campaign manager and remains a close friend, said she is not surprised she won, suggesting that the district desires a new face. Though she sits on the Arvada City Council, she is a relative newcomer to the larger political scene.

“In order to win Senate District 19, we cannot rely on Democrats alone. Republicans cannot rely on Republicans alone. In fact, we have to be able to appeal to the unaffiliated voters who make up one-third of our district,” Zenzinger addressed the delegates.

She pointed out that in her first campaign she walked to 5,826 doors, and that even though she ran unopposed this year for re-election, she still raised the most money of all of the city council candidates.

Zenzinger also made no attempt to distance herself from Hudak, proudly pointing out that she served as her campaign manager. Zenzinger said that she would carry the torch for Hudak in the upcoming legislative session that begins in January.

She pointed to a host of bills that Hudak had been working on, including poverty reduction, early childhood readiness, adult education and literacy, child care expenses and assistance, school turnaround, elder abuse, and alternative education.

Hudak had been a champion for education issues. As a program coordinator for Regis University, Zenzinger said she has the credentials to continue Hudak’s education efforts.

“The best way to honor Evie’s sacrifice is to carry forward together and to continue the work already begun in addressing our community’s needs,” she said.

Delegate Zachary Noriega nominated Zenzinger, pointing to her principles, having been the only member of the Arvada City Council to oppose a new Walmart at West 58th Avenue and Independence Street.

“She has not been afraid to stand by her convictions… Her conscience and her convictions compel her… We need a leader like her in the state legislature,” said Noriega.

Delegate Chris Rose seconded the nomination, stating, “She will vote her conscience all the time, and that’s the kind of leader we will continue to need in the state Senate.”

Zenzinger downplayed the impact her friendship and professional relationship with Hudak may have had on the committee. She said she has not spoken to Hudak since her resignation, and that Hudak did not involve herself in the vacancy election.

Hudak told The Statesman in October that she would not get involved in a vacancy election, stating, “That’s not my role… I typically don’t intervene in any inter-party competition. There are people who do that sometimes, but I try to stay out of those things.”

Hudak did not attend the meeting on Tuesday.

“She respected the boundaries and really stayed out of it,” Zenzinger said of Hudak. “We were not really able to have any conversations. I’m looking forward to talking to her now because we’ve been on a talking ban.”

Hudak offered a letter that was read by Kathryn Wallace, chairwoman of Senate District 19 for Jefferson County Democrats.

“Serving you in the state Senate has been a great honor and privilege, in fact it has been one of the highlights of my life,” wrote Hudak.

“My decision to resign was very difficult, and honestly, rather heartbreaking,” she continued. “But I know that it was the right thing to do to ensure that the progress made by the Democratic majority in the state Senate will be preserved.”

Also in attendance was Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, the acting Senate president until Sen. Morgan Carroll of Aurora is confirmed in January.

“We are ready to go…” Guzman addressed the delegates. “We’re ready to continue the fight for more jobs, for better jobs, to continue to reform and move our educational opportunities for all students here in Colorado.

“We’re ready to move forward,” she continued. “We don’t want to be held back any longer, or have to stop one more time, to listen to some opponent who wants to drag us down back into an arena that is not the most popular arena for most Coloradans here in Colorado.”

Rick Palacio, chairman of the Colorado Democratic Party, also spoke, adding that Hudak should be remembered as a courageous leader.

“We owe former state Sen. Evie Hudak a round of applause and a huge thank you for her service…” he said. “We had in this district an absolutely amazing, hardworking senator in Evie Hudak, someone who worked hard every single day, even when she was not being paid to knock on doors and hold town hall meetings.

“We know that we’re going to have a pragmatic leader,” Palacio added of Hudak’s successor. “Someone who is going to be hard at work making s
ure that the people of Arvada and the people of Westminster are well represented in the state Senate.”

Conservatives dismayed by ‘Democratic machine’

But conservatives immediately expressed concern with the choice of Zenzinger. Mike McAlpine, who led the recall attempt against Hudak, said he is not familiar with Zenzinger, but he is concerned about her past professional experiences and friendship with Hudak.

“Once again this is the Democrat machine’s politics moving forward,” opined McAlpine. “Several people have said… that in fact this is no different at all and that this is therefore not consistent with the wishes of Arvada and Westminster.”

McAlpine and other recall proponents are disappointed that they were unable to force a recall election and allow voters to choose whether to oust Hudak and elect a successor.

“We would have felt much better with an election where the citizens of Arvada and Westminster would have a voice, but they were denied that, so this is what has come as a result,” said McAlpine.

Recall proponents had been working with Rocky Mountain Gun Owners to collect the 18,900 valid signatures needed to have a recall election. RMGO had been paying for signatures, and claimed to be 92 percent to their goal of about 25,000 signatures when Hudak resigned. Proponents suspended their efforts following the resignation and never submitted signatures to the secretary of state’s office.

Zenzinger has said that she supported the gun control bills pushed by Democrats in the legislature this year, including a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines of more than 15 rounds and universal background checks.

RMGO said of Zenzinger, “Don’t expect Zenzinger’s votes on guns to be any better than Hudak’s — they are both cut from the same cloth.”

As Hudak cleaned out her desk at the Capitol on Tuesday, RMGO Executive Director Dudley Brown said in a statement, “This historic event should put every gun-grabber in the Capitol on notice for the 2014 election… Any politician that dares infringe on our rights will be made an example of, just like Hudak.”

Kelly Maher, executive director of the conservative Compass Colorado, expects Zenzinger to fight for unions and special interests.

“Sen. Hudak’s constituents were hungry for change and liberal activists served up more of the same,” Maher said in a statement. “Zenzinger may have a different name, but she’s been behind Hudak’s policies. Anyone who thinks Zenzinger is going to stand up to her own Democrat majority is fooling themselves.”

Meanwhile, at least one Republican is already considering running for the seat in 2014. Sias said he might be ready to launch another campaign given the shifting dynamics.

“It was not what my family and I had planned on, but politically, 11 months is an eternity in politics,” he said of weighing his decision.

Sias believes that the sentiment in the district and across the state and nation has shifted since he ran in 2012, pointing to the successful recalls in Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Pueblo was a particularly unique example, considering it is a Democratic-leaning district, in which a grassroots uprising ousted Giron.

“You just have to look at what’s happened. I don’t think a lot of people would have predicted the results that, in my understanding, really started with a couple of guys with cell phones,” Sias said of the recall efforts over gun control.

Had the Hudak recall made it to the ballot, Sias said he would have considered running as a successor candidate.

“It was trying to figure out a hypothetical, and you just didn’t know how it was going to pan out,” he said.

Had there been a Republican elected as a successor candidate, it might have been strategically easier to defend the seat, rather than try to take it from a sitting Democrat. But Sias is not worried about taking the seat back from Democrats, if he is to run.

“I would be surprised if you see much that’s different in terms of policy from the successor for Sen. Hudak. I wouldn’t think you’d see great differences there,” said Sias. “Would it be more difficult to run against an incumbent? Potentially. But I also think that the Democrats have over-reached, and I think people remember that.”