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?
Jeff Vigil—a Democractic, Hispanic community activist from Adams County—is not the most obvious person to be friends with Scott Gessler. The two became close after Gessler represented Vigil when he ran in the 2002 Democratic primary for House District 35. Sometimes they agree on political matters; often they don’t. “People say he’s a pit bull,” Vigil says. “Scott Gessler isn’t a pit bull. He just fights for what he believes in. He’s not one to compromise.”
One of the things Vigil likes about Gessler is that can-do recklessness, the knowledge that when Gessler believes in something, he figures out a way to get it done—with or without help. Shortly after Gessler had moved into his Cheesman Park home with Kristi, Vigil stopped by to find Gessler moving furniture by himself. Gessler explained that he wanted to build some wood shelves to surprise his wife, but he needed to move all the furniture out of the room before she got home from work. “That’s Scott,” Vigil says. “We spent three hours moving furniture out of his house.”
Several of Gessler’s friends mention that he’s more than the popular image of a Republican politician, all stiff and grumpy. In fact, he sings show tunes at dinner parties and plays the piano every night, often with his daughter on his lap. This Gessler—the adoring husband, the loving dad—contrasts with his public persona.
Still, his combative tone continues with those who are less invested in putting a smile on his face, which might explain why he was a little riled up by “The 5280 Fifty” during our first meeting. But a few weeks after that, at the committee hearing about the Government SMART Act, he’s more Pooh Bear than bulldog. He speaks with a bowed head, as if he’s humbling himself before the committee. “My remarks today will focus on our number one priority in the secretary of state’s office—customer service.” He’s deferential. “I have the utmost respect for [the county clerks], their duties, and their offices. I agree that running elections is tough work and that the criticism isn’t always fair.” He’s even charming. “I hope to inspire a new wave of young voters with the tools to inform their peers about our electoral process.”
Don’t be fooled, though: He’s still the Honey Badger. While the Government SMART Act is designed to streamline his office procedures, it also outlines his legislative agenda. Gessler is reintroducing the controversial voter ID bill, which detractors argue discourages voter turnout, especially among Hispanics. He’s looking for ways to purge inactive voters. He’s taking on campaign finance.
These initiatives are almost exactly what he ran on in 2010. What’s different now is the way he’s presenting it: He’s reaching out to Democrats more, even if the meetings remain tepid. He’s promoting the good things that happen in his office, such as improved business filings. He’s using words like “compromise” instead of “whack.” After becoming a politician almost by accident, Gessler—always a quick study—is learning how to be more political.
It can be admirable, this impression that if Gessler were driving down Speer Boulevard and saw a pothole, he’d want to get out and fix it. “People always say, ‘Government is a big ship; it takes a long time to turn this thing around,’ ” Gessler’s spokesman Richard Coolidge says. “Why is that? He’s addressing issues head on.” Gessler sums it up with one of his mantras: “Let’s not worry about criticism. Don’t think political thoughts; think policy thoughts.”
The problem with stopping to fill every pothole, though, is that it backs up traffic. Are Gessler’s intentions good? Probably. Does his execution need some work? Definitely. That message seems to be starting to resonate, because by the next time we meet, later in January, Gessler is softer. He interrupts less often. He’s more relaxed. He chats about his family, his military service, and his distaste for staying put. “Everything you do is a job interview,” he says. “Every decision you make affects what your future may or may not be. Politics is just so unpredictable. I think just about every single Republican who has any meaningful ambitions was kicking themselves they didn’t run for governor.”
For a moment, I’m stunned. Did he just insinuate that he wished he’d run for governor in 2010? Or was he just musing about politics? Later, I ask him to clarify the statement. He insists that the comment is no indication of his future plans. He. Is. Not. Running. For. Governor. He then says, “I’ve never been in this position before.... That’s not my plan, but I’m not saying I never will.... I have no control over how this turns out.”
He insists, again, that he isn’t getting calls from some mythical GOP kingmaker asking him to seek a higher office. He’s just a regular guy, “doing what he does,” and I let it drop. His motivations and intentions in the 2010 gubernatorial race are nonissues now—a should’ve, could’ve, would’ve for the Honey Badger. Plus, I don’t need him to whack me on the head again. This new and improved Gessler is much more palatable.
*An earlier version of this story said that the fighting was "between" Bosnia and Herzegovina.