Feature

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?

April 2012

“Let me ask you this: Are you guys going to be fair to me?”

Scott Gessler is sitting across the conference table in his office at 17th Avenue and Broadway, and he’s pissed. Though he’s trying not to show it, his cheeks quiver as a red flush blotches his skin, making him look like a cross between Pooh Bear and the University of Georgia’s bulldog mascot, Uga. For the moment, Colorado’s secretary of state has more bite than honey. And now I’m preoccupied by him calling me a “guy”—one of my mother’s pet peeves. As I resist the urge to correct him, trying instead to reassure him that I want to hear his side, he interrupts.

“No, no, no, no. Look, I’m sure you’re familiar with these two nice little ditties here,” Gessler says as he looks over recent pieces from the magazine. “I know 5280 is—it’s hip to ridicule Republicans and conservatives and all that.” I’m trying to remember what might have made him so snippy. Something from our most recent power list, “The 5280 Fifty,” about turning a ho-hum state political position into a headline-grabbing one. And that his “antics” might make him into Colorado’s version of Katherine Harris, who helped “hanging chads” become part of the lexicon as Florida’s secretary of state after the 2000 presidential election. Yup, that must be it.

“You sort of describe my actions as antics, which is defined as outrageous, foolish, or amusing behavior,” Gessler says. “I don’t mind criticism, but….” Spoken like someone who really does mind criticism. We’re two minutes into the interview, and already Gessler’s antics, and his combative reputation, are amusingly on display.

By then Gessler had been in office for a year and had taken on the secretary of state drudgery like a hungry but punch-drunk prizefighter. During his brief tenure, he’d shown that he’ll swing at anyone—primarily Democrats, but also at media honchos and county clerks (aka, the folks who run elections with him). Gessler had been in the news so much that his name already is probably as well known as any secretary of state in Colorado history. (Quick: Try to name four of the last five.) Unlike his predecessors, Gessler wasn’t avoiding headlines; he was making them.

Most of these quick-hit news stories only hinted at Gessler’s motivations. It could be that he wants to boost his name recognition with an eye on running for higher office. One of his more controversial acts—claiming that almost 5,000 “noncitizens” of Colorado had voted in the 2010 election—has been seen by some as a ham-handed attempt to purge Obama supporters from the rolls to improve GOP chances in the 2012 election.

I’m here to get answers about his motivations, and I try to lighten the mood by saying how much I enjoy talking to lawyers because they’re so precise. (After all, my husband is an attorney.) “Like I always say, words do have meaning and that’s why we use them,” Gessler says. And with that, he’s all smiles. With a magnanimous gesture, he picks up the stories again—and tears them to shreds. Then with disarming calm, he suggests that we begin again. “I’m sort of starting off,” Gessler admits, “by giving you a whack on the head.”

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.”

Wherever Gessler goes, people want to talk about elections. On a mild day in January, Gessler arrives at a hearing before the Veterans and Military Affairs committees to chat about what his office is planning for 2012: a little ditty he calls the Government SMART Act, which outlines all the activities of the secretary of state’s office.

Even accompanied by an entourage of five employees, Gessler seems a bit nervous. He’s addressing both supporters and detractors, including Representative Lois Court, a Democrat who called Gessler out last year. In support of a controversial bill that would require voters to present an ID at the polling place, Gessler had testified that almost 5,000 noncitizens had voted in Colorado during the 2010 election. The number seemed abnormally high, particularly since the state isn’t known for having much voter fraud, and Court joined other Democrats in questioning Gessler’s numbers. Gessler eventually clarified, saying just 106 voters in 2010 were “improperly registered.” (President Obama won Colorado in 2008 by almost 200,000 votes.)

Voter IDs weren’t detractors’ only disagreement. In 2010, when Colorado moved its primary from August to June, the legislators missed a critical issue: The law required candidates to turn in biweekly campaign finance reports from July up to the primary. The scheduling change meant that the filings would become an onerous, nearly year-long task, so Gessler submitted a rule to change the filing dates.

The trouble was, his office didn’t have the authority to make the change. “He’s deciding he’s going to amend the constitution,” said Denver District Court Judge A. Bruce Jones, who presided over the case brought by groups Common Cause and Colorado Ethics Watch. “I don’t even think I can do that, and I’m charged with a lot more authority to interpret and apply the constitution than he is.” Gessler said, fine; candidates would have to file reports until the Legislature fixed the problem, which it did in January.

Gessler’s gaffes didn’t end there. When the Larimer County Republican Party racked up $48,700 in fines for not filing campaign finance reports, Gessler’s office reduced the fines, which is not an uncommon practice for a secretary of state. He then offered to sit in a “dunk tank” as a fund-raiser to cover the money. He backtracked after an uproar ensued about why his office would help pay fines it issued. Gessler also instructed clerks to stop sending ballots to “inactive” voters—people, such as troops stationed overseas, who’d missed the 2010 midterm election. A judge struck that down as well.

These antagonistic tendencies were apparent almost immediately. According to sources who requested anonymity, during one of his first meetings with the county clerks, he told them that he wanted to accomplish a few things during his term. He said he was planning to be controversial, because that’s what needed to happen to fix the problems he sees with voter rolls. Gessler said he expected to be sued more than any other secretary of state, but that he was going to fight, fight, fight.

Even though the relationship between county clerks and secretaries of state is not always amiable, the two sides usually find some common ground. Yet Gessler, the election attorney, didn’t seem terribly interested in learning how elections work from the people who run them. (Gessler remembers the meeting differently, saying that he took pages of notes on what the clerks said.) But election attorneys get called primarily when something goes wrong—they have little experience with running clean, accurate elections—and Gessler’s pugnacious initial approach got everything off to an awkward start. “He’s got a lot of ideas that he wants to shake up the status quo,” says one county clerk, “even though the status quo isn’t broken.” The clerk says it would be beneficial for county clerks and Gessler to come together before the 2012 election. “There’s an opportunity for Colorado,” the clerk says, “if we continue in this direction, to become another Florida.”

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