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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.”

Gessler entered the workforce as a teenage busboy, first at a Greek restaurant in the Chicago suburbs, and later at a Polish eatery, where he worked alongside an older woman who didn’t speak English. “It was sort of a lower-middle-class ethnic-type area,” Gessler says. “Typical Chicago. Lots of good bohemian restaurants, and when I say bohemian I’m not talking about people who smoke clove cigarettes and wear berets. I’m talking about people who keep their lawn perfectly trimmed, and have a plastic wagon wheel, and pay for their houses in cash. That’s bohemian.”

This is an example of what Gessler’s younger sister Hollus calls his dry humor. He was born in 1965 near Detroit, and his family moved to the Chicago area about four years later. His dad, Paul, owned a construction business. When he was seven, his parents divorced, and his mom, Barbara, picked up odd jobs. She stressed the importance of volunteering and public service, and in high school Gessler—always a good student—tried many activities. He played chess. He swam. He played tennis. He was the editor of the newspaper and participated in Civil Air Patrol.

To Hollus, he was a role model. “He was a father figure in many ways,” she says. “When he puts his mind to something, he’s fair. I always respected that about him. Sometimes it drove me crazy when I was younger. If I was wrong, he’d point it out.” Although the Gesslers are mostly tight-lipped about their childhood, Hollus couldn’t resist telling one story: When Gessler was in high school, Chicago suffered a brutal winter, and one storm all but buried the family’s house. Gessler and some friends went up on the roof to shovel off the snow so the ceiling wouldn’t collapse. When a friend jumped off the roof into a snow bank, Gessler provided a demonstration of his can-do recklessness. He fashioned a one-story slide out of snow, and he and his friends spent the day careening into the yard. “It started as a chore,” Hollus says, “but moved into a winter wonderland.”

Gessler was industrious enough in high school to get accepted at Yale University, which he now describes almost casually as a “good school.” However, he was a white-ethnic, blue-collar Chicago kid, and New Haven, Connecticut, in 1983 was home to a preponderance of that other kind of bohemian, and it was a culture shock. Within three weeks, he’d been called a fascist. “I thought, ‘No, no, no; those are the guys in Germany. I’m just some kid from the Midwest,’ ” Gessler says. “I showed up in college and felt like I had walked into the set of a 1960s hippies movie because it was very, very liberal. Very liberal.”

Gessler went from being at the top of his class in high school, to being, well, average. During the summers, he worked as a runner on the Chicago Board Options Exchange. He interned in D.C. on the Hill and studied in Germany. Each semester, he’d return to Yale for more political science and history classes. After graduation, he moved back to Chicago and worked for his dad.

Gessler attended law school at the University of Michigan, where, he admits, “I had more fun...than I did in college.” During his first summer, he worked at a big law firm. He liked the pay but hated the work. Back at school in December 1988, he received two letters on the same day: One was in a FedEx package from an East Coast law firm that offered him a summer gig at a prorated starting salary of more than $75,000 per year. If he accepted right then, the firm would give him a $2,000 signing bonus. It was like winning the internship lottery.

The other letter arrived via fourth-class mail in a manila envelope. It was from the U.S. Attorneys’ Office in Illinois and contained a stack of mimeographed forms—a little crooked from being copied so many times. One form asked for his signature to confirm that the job was volunteer employment with no guarantees. He signed it.

His law degree in hand, Gessler headed to D.C. to work at the Department of Justice, covering everything from international affairs to terrorism and street crime. He also joined the Army as a reservist. After nearly three years, he decided the law wasn’t for him and again returned to Chicago to work for his father. The deal was simple: If he liked the construction business, he’d eventually take over. In the evenings, he worked on getting his MBA at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Gessler’s Army unit was mobilized in 1996 and sent to Bosnia. His unit was part of the first wave of troops sent in after the Dayton Peace Agreement, which stopped the fighting in* Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was a state on the edge of disaster and recovery, and Gessler had a front-row seat in a civil-affairs unit. “He’s not really talked about when he went to Bosnia and was actually in the middle of a war-torn state,” Hollus says. “I think it changed him.”

Like so many Colorado transplants, Gessler had visited the West a few times and fallen in love with it. When he returned from Bosnia, the idea of running his dad’s company no longer appealed to him, so he packed up his Jeep and headed toward the Rockies. He landed in Boulder—chosen because it was “a pretty town close to the mountains”—and ended up living in yet another bohemian enclave for eight years. “I did some consulting work, which is another way to say you’re unemployed,” Gessler says. He got married—and then divorced less than a year later. “The divorce was better than the marriage,” he says. “It was very amiable.”

Consulting wasn’t a permanent fit either, and Gessler returned to the law, joining Denver-based firm Hale, Hackstaff, Tymkovich, and ErkenBrack in 2001. About four years later, he and attorney James Hackstaff launched their own firm. Gessler soon became one of Colorado’s most well-known election attorneys. He fought to keep Ralph Nader’s name on the Colorado ballot in 2004. He represented Republican Bob Beauprez when he ran for governor in 2006. When conservative Mike Coffman ran for Congress, Gessler represented Wil Armstrong, another Republican who was running for the 6th Congressional District spot. (This position has long been a Republican stronghold, but recent redistricting changes that. A pro-Coffman political action committee was already running campaign ads on TV in January to save his now-vulnerable seat.) If Armstrong had been successful, Coffman might still be secretary of state. Instead, then-Governor Bill Ritter appointed Democrat Bernie Buescher to the position. Gessler, having spent years supporting candidates and tired of being tethered to clients, wanted to be his own person. He decided to step out front and challenge Buescher in the 2010 election.

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.

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.