Scott Gessler Doesn't Give A...
Colorado’s secretary of state has spent his first year in office living up to his Honey Badger nickname by rampaging through the Legislature, chewing up his opponents, and creating all kinds of chaos. Is he out of control, or is he becoming a savvy—and ambitious—politician?
Last year, some state Democrats started referring to Gessler as “The Honey Badger,” after the viral YouTube video that’s been viewed about 40 million times. Although his opponents meant the moniker as an insult, Gessler has embraced it. In “The Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger,” a campy voice narrates nature footage of this mammal from Africa and Asia. It’s not your typical Discovery Channel romp. With fearlessness or recklessness, or maybe both, the honey badger terrorizes his surroundings—birds, other vermin, a poisonous cobra—and the anonymous narrator is overjoyed. “The honey badger is really pretty badass,” he gushes. “It has no regard for any other animal whatsoever.” It sticks its snout into a beehive—Honey badger don’t care! It’s getting stung like a thousand times. It doesn’t give a shit!—and the video concludes with it attacking a poisonous cobra, which knocks out the assailant with a shot of venom. After a short nap, the honey badger awakens and rips the head off the snake. “It cracks me up, because if you look at the video…the snake bites the honey badger, yet he still defeats the snake and survives and just goes on his merry way,” Gessler says. “If I’m the honey badger, [the Democrats] are the poisonous snakes—and by the way, they get their heads bit off and the honey badger prevails.”
Gessler has spent the first part of his four-year term whacking people and sticking his nose into beehives. He started his tenure in January 2011 by telling the Denver Business Journal that at $68,500 per year, his new gig didn’t pay well enough. He’d planned to moonlight for his old law firm, Hackstaff Law Group. But the firm specializes in election law, so it often has business with the secretary of state’s office. Although Gessler swore he would only represent clients who didn’t have a conflict with his day job, as his visibility increased, fewer clients would fit that bill. “I backed down on it, in part, because the publicity made it absolutely untenable,” Gessler says. “I could not effectively represent a client with that level of publicity.”
It was a rookie mistake, especially when you consider that the easier course of action would have been to point to the other politicians who have outside income sources. (Attorney General John Suthers, for example, is an adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s law school, and state Treasurer Walker Stapleton has a consulting gig with a family-owned real-estate company.) Or, Gessler could have argued that Colorado officials haven’t gotten a raise since 1999 and that, nationwide, the average salary for a secretary of state is more than $100,000. If this flub had been the only news item about him, Gessler might have remained just another semi-anonymous public servant.
The secretary of state office is, essentially, an IT department that occasionally runs elections. Gessler and his staff handle business filings and licensing, and operate the svelte secretary of state website, which has an average of 15,000 visits per day. All but three states have the position, and its duties vary widely. Some govern mixed martial arts fighting; others oversee the state archives. Nearly all of them manage elections, working closely with county clerks to uphold election law, ensure accurate voting, and maintain voter rolls. No matter how effective they are, there’s always someone who thinks the election system was rigged, and they often sue. (During the last secretary of state’s term, the office monitored 25 cases that affected its operations.) “Getting sued is very much part of the job,” says Bob Loevy, a political science professor emeritus at Colorado College. “And both political parties in Colorado have become very litigious. There’s much more readiness on the part of the political parties to sue and see if the court will find things to their liking.”
The most notorious example of these political battles—the one that catapulted the secretary of state post from paper-pushing functionary to front-page power broker—was the 2000 presidential election. Florida’s secretary of state at the time was a Republican named Katherine Harris, and the state’s tally was so close that it triggered a recount. Harris halted the process even though fewer than 600 votes separated George W. Bush and Al Gore. Harris’ decision gave the state, and the election, to Bush. A subsequent lawsuit worked its way to the Supreme Court, which upheld Harris’ decision. Her name firmly in the limelight, she would win a seat in Congress in 2002.
Gessler had been sued six times, as of press time, and he hasn’t even presided over a major election yet. That will change in November, when Colorado’s deepening purple political hue means the state will be pivotal in the 2012 presidential election. (The first debate of the campaign will be held at the University of Denver in October.) While Colorado’s secretaries of state have historically presided over disputes about local sheriff races, the Honey Badger could help determine our next president. Even though secretary of state offices have not seen their major duties and responsibilities expanded legally, Loevy says, “[Their role has] become more complex. They get the most attention where elections are concerned.”