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?
“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.”