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?
Although Gessler never planned to become a politician when he was a kid, he was drawn, again and again, to service. First it was the Civil Air Patrol, which turned into an Army internship, and then to a reservist spot. He was a volunteer at Big Brothers Big Sisters. He took on pro bono cases. After his first year in Boulder, he began applying to sit on various city boards and landed a seat on the board of zoning adjustment. “He was appointed to that board because Scott has a background in everything,” says Gordon Riggle, a longtime friend who was a member of Boulder City Council at the time and interviewed Gessler for the position. “He struck us as a bit of a Renaissance man because of his service and degrees.”
Gessler’s subsequent legal work on the campaign trail often meant that he had to explain his clients’ behavior, or, as he says, “pay for the sins of the client.” In the secretary of state position, Gessler could tell the world what he thought, and one of the things he thought was that Buescher was leading Colorado astray. Buescher seemed to support criminalizing campaign financing; Gessler believed campaign finance laws were stifling democracy, and on this issue he had credibility: The efforts to get big money out of politics created confusing new regulations that often forced candidates to hire election attorneys like him to sort through the muck.
When Gessler decided to run, it didn’t surprise friends who saw him as someone who doesn’t like to stay put. “I don’t want to be 70 or 80 years old and say should’ve, could’ve, would’ve,” Gessler says. “I don’t want to live my life with those regrets.” So Gessler, now remarried, checked with his wife, an attorney and Colorado native named Kristi. (Although Gessler is reluctant to provide details of their courtship, the two met at a law firm.) The couple had a seven-month-old daughter, Sofia, and Kristi supported her husband’s decision. He filed the paperwork, started asking donors for money, and spoke in front of as many groups as he could. “When I decided to run, people hated Republicans, generally,” Gessler says. “Remember, Obama was about ready to be inaugurated, and he was flying high and the Republican Party was in disarray.”
The campaign bedlam was front-page news, particularly in the governor’s race, where the GOP’s candidates self-destructed, one after the other. A plagiarism scandal imploded the Scott McInnis campaign, leaving the path to the nomination open to the unlikely contender Dan Maes. It was so chaotic that Tom Tancredo entered the race as a third-party candidate, primarily to stop Maes. Through it all, Democrat candidate John Hickenlooper stayed savvily mum and scored an easy victory.
Lost among the furor over the GOP’s internal futility was that several less prominent races were snatched by up-and-coming Colorado Republicans, including Gessler and Walker Stapleton. “Down-ticket candidates did very well,” Colorado GOP chairman Ryan Call says. “We won back a majority in the Colorado House. The success we saw in 2010 was because of the caliber and the quality of the candidates that the party recruited.”
As the state’s GOP power players partied at a Doubletree in South Denver on election night, though, it looked like Gessler would lose. Local TV station 9News even called the race for Buescher around 8 p.m., and the Denver Post asked Gessler for a reaction. Gessler had spent the day making last-minute calls, and he was still reasonably confident that he had the race locked down. Looking at the results county by county, he realized El Paso and Arapahoe counties had submitted few returns. It turned out some voting databases had crashed just 15 minutes before the polls closed, forcing people to wait in line to vote the old-fashioned way and slowing the release of the results until all voting was complete. By 10 p.m., Gessler knew he’d won. He hadn’t even been sworn in as secretary of state, but he’d already seen firsthand how elections can go wrong. He celebrated until 2 a.m. The next day, after getting a call from Buescher asking him to come in, he put on a coat and tie and headed over to the secretary of state’s office. He had work to do.