ARVADA, Colo. -- After two successful recall elections that bounced two Democratic state lawmakers from office in September, a third recall effort this fall that, if successful, could flip control of the state senate, has already become a markedly more contentious and competitive battle.
Every weekend along 80th Avenue and Wadsworth, and in other parts of Senate District 19, which the new target, Democratic Sen. Evie Hudak, represents, supporters and opponents of her recall gather along sidewalks in suburban strip malls and gas stations, wherever petition gatherers are collecting signatures to put the recall on the ballot.
After being stunned by the success of earlier recall efforts against former Democratic Sens. John Morse and Angela Giron, who faced a backlash after supporting several gun control bills approved by the legislature earlier this year, Democrats aren't waiting until the signatures are verified and an election is actually set to fight back.
A new group called "Democracy Defense Fund" has raised $25,000 to date and is one of two pushing a "decline to sign" campaign on Hudak's behalf.
"We're a group that was formed to defend Sen. Hudak from senseless recalls," said Cheryl Cheney, the group's registered agent. "We feel it's important to be out informing our community that we support our senator. We support what she's done; we support sensible gun laws."
Their efforts, according to recall supporters, amount to "scare tactics", robo-calls and door hangers informing residents that "paid signature gatherers who have not gone through a criminal background check could be in the [area]," one robo-call says.
"The petition gatherer coming to your door asking for your personal information could have a criminal record," the call continues.
Kennedy Enterprises on the ground in Hudak recall
The paid signature gatherers in question work for Colorado Springs-based Kennedy Enterprises, which was also contracted to gather signatures to recall Morse earlier this year.
Democrats also often pay signature gatherers to get their measures on the ballot, as they did earlier this year with Amendment 66.
There was no one at Kennedy's temporary offices at 4955 Miller Road just off Interstate 70 in Wheat Ridge when FOX31 Denver showed up Monday afternoon looking for someone to talk to.
Mike McAlpine, one of the organizers behind the Hudak recall effort, has denied hiring Kennedy. A Washington Times article Sunday reported that "so far the group is relying on its army of volunteers to collect signatures, but Mr. McAlpine said they may soon have to turn to paid signature-gatherers."
Early on in the recall campaign, McAlpine acknowledged the financial assistance and support of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners.
RMGO's Joe Neville, when interviewed Tuesday at the Recall Hudak Too offices on 64th Avenue, didn't deny that his group was the one paying Kennedy.
"From RMGO, we're going to take the $5 and $10 donations that we get and do whatever possible to make sure that this happens," Neville said.
But let there be no more doubt that Kennedy is on the ground gathering signatures in Senate District 19, and has been for some time now.
Two signature gatherers working Olde Wadsworth Road in Arvada Monday afternoon confirmed to FOX31 Denver that they were indeed working for Kennedy and being paid between $3-5 per signature, depending on the total number of signatures they turn in.
"I don't work for free, baby," said Vickie Hammond, a Denver resident who described the petition gathering as her "full-time job."
Hammond said she's gathering signatures not just to make a buck, but also to make a point.
"My business is to get this done for the people of this district," she said. "Our forefathers gave us these rights for a good reason. And if we lose them, we're screwed."
Hammond says she's not a criminal.
Video shows petition gatherer assaulting recall opponent
But over the weekend, a Democracy Defense Fund worker with a hand-held video camera was threatened by another signature gatherer who does have a criminal record.
A YouTube video shows John Canino, dressed in a neon yellow 'Recall Hudak' shirt, confronting the worker with a hand-held video camera and threatening him.
"You don't have permission to take my picture. That means I can smash your f***ing camera," Canino tells the volunteer.
Citing the Fourth Amendment, the volunteer responded, saying "I have every right to do this. If you knock it out of my hands, that's assault."
That's when Canino's hand slaps the camera out of the volunteer's hands and the clip ends.
Democracy Defense Fund identified Canino based on his license plate -- and then they found his rap sheet, some 11 pages long, which includes charges for auto theft in the late 1980s, four DUIs during the 1990s, and more recent charges for harassment, mischief and a restraining order filed against him in June 2003.
Hudak, incidentally, was the sponsor of legislation that forces domestic violence abusers and people who receive court-imposed protection orders to relinquish their guns and ammunition for the duration of that order.
Another paid circulator who has been working the parking lot outside the Jefferson County Dept. of Motor Vehicles office in the 6300 block of Wadsworth Boulevard, Vinny Ott, also has a criminal history including charges for drug-related offenses and assault, according to documents provided by Democracy Defense Fund.
"Rocky Mountain Gun Owners not only believes criminals should circulate petitions – they think it’s perfectly acceptable for criminals to have guns," Cheney said.
"It’s time we asked this group, 'how many criminals have you brought into our neighborhoods and put on our street corners?'"
Democracy Defense Fund also shared a profanity-laced tirade that included a death threat left on its office voicemail by an angry recall supporter.
|WARNING: Audio includes graphic language not suitable for all readers. Audio clip from recall supporter to the Democracy Defense Fund office.|
Recall backers say other side has crossed the line
Recall backers believe many of the pro-Hudak "volunteers" are really union members from outside the district who are being paid to hold signs on the weekend.
McAlpine has posted his own video showing a recall opponent, referred to as "George", being given a citation by police for removing a pro-recall yard sign.
And Neville relayed an anecdote about anti-recall groups harassing an old man as he signed a petition over the weekend.
"It's pretty disgusting to watch what they do," Neville said. "We actually had a guy that's in his 90s, he's a World War Two veteran. And as he's coming down to sign, they're actually blowing air horns in his ears and shaking tambourines."
Proponents of the Hudak recall have until Dec. 3 to gather the around 19,000 valid signatures needed to force a recall election (that threshold, a quarter of the votes cast in the lawmaker's last election, is significantly higher for Hudak, who narrowly won another term in 2012, a presidential election year when turnout was high, than it was for Morse, who was last elected in 2010).
"It's been a bear, but we're probably right where we need to be as far as numbers go," Neville said.
After Morse and Giron were recalled and replaced by Republicans, Democrats saw their 20-15 majority in the state senate narrowed to a slim, 18-17 margin.
Should Hudak also be recalled and replaced by a Republican, Democrats would lose control of the senate.