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Democratic vacancy committee set to choose Hudak’s successor

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Democrats Sara Gagliardi (left) and Rachel Zenzinger are vying to replace former Sen. Evie Hudak in state senate district 19.

DENVER — A group of 73 Democratic activists will vote Tuesday night on a successor for former Sen. Evie Hudak, who resigned last month in order to avoid a potential recall election and to keep the seat — and the state Senate itself — in Democratic control through November.

The panel will choose between two candidates: former state Rep. Sara Gagliardi and Rachel Zenzinger, a member of the Arvada City Council.

The choice for Democrats on the vacancy committee is somewhat similar to those Republicans have faced in so many recent primary fights: a question of one candidate who appeals more to the party’s base and another who may have more appeal come general election time.

“It’s less an ideological divide than a generational divide,” said political analyst Eric Sondermann Monday. “It’s old versus new, looking at their respective ages and also the idea of an old lawmaker returning to the Capitol versus having new blood in there.”

Gagliardi, 55, a former nurse with strong ties to labor unions, lost her bid for a third term in the statehouse to Rep. Libby Szabo, R-Arvada, in 2010.

She’s got experience — but she’s also got a voting record.

Gagliardi’s support for the Democrats’ agenda under Gov. Bill Ritter, including the so-called “Dirty Dozen” tax loopholes Democrats closed to offset a budget shortfall, will most likely be used against her next fall, should she be appointed Tuesday night.

That’s why some vacancy committee members view Zenzinger, 38, an Arvada city council member who also managed Hudak’s 2012 reelection campaign, as a more pragmatic choice.

Without much of a record to speak of, Zenzinger has a better chance of defining the 2014 campaign narrative on her own terms and, some believe, winning what will be a tough general election fight.

“Gagliardi is a candidate who appeals to the primary electorate,” one Democratic activist said Monday. “Zenzinger is a better general election candidate.”

Hudak beat Republican Lang Sias, a former Top Gun pilot, by just a few hundred votes in 2012; and she might have lost if not for a Libertarian candidate who siphoned votes away from Sias.

Hudak has stayed neutral in the race, but sources indicate that she’s privately supporting Zenzinger.

Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada, who was herself a possible candidate for the vacancy, has endorsed Gagliardi, as have several of her Democratic colleagues at the Capitol.

“She will walk in Jan. 8 and be an effective legislator because she’s been a legislator, she knows the process,” Kraft-Tharpe told FOX31 Denver Monday. “And she’ll be an effective candidate. She’s been effective. We know she can raise money and get the votes.”

Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, is supporting Zenzinger, who served as her aide at the Capitol a few years ago.

“That was after my son, who’d been my aide, died,” Hodge told FOX31 Denver Monday. “She came into a lot of disarray and got everything organized in just two weeks. She’s fantastically organized, very bright, she figures things out quickly and she was going to run for that seat in 2016 anyway.

“She ran Evie’s campaign and she knows that district extremely well. Sara has only represented part of the district.”

But unlike some of the GOP’s intra-party fights that have been so divisive, Democrats are optimistic that Tuesday night’s referendum won’t open any new wounds.

“I can’t imagine it will be all that contentious,” Hodge said.

Colorado Democratic Party Chairman Rick Palacio called both Gagliardi and Zenzinger “staunch advocates for their communities” and said that either “would make outstanding additions to our Senate Democratic caucus.

“Regardless of who prevails, Democrats in Westminster and Arvada are energized and ready to stand behind their new senator, who without a doubt, will be fighting for them at the State Capitol.”

Whoever wins the appointment will certainly have a tough campaign ahead to win the seat for a full four-year term next November.

“It’s guaranteed to be close in 2014, especially if it’s Gagliardi,” Sondermann said. “If it’s Zenzinger, it hinges more on her performance in year one, but she’ll still be a Democrat in a swing district and, with a one-seat senate majority, she’ll have to take some hard votes.

“This seat is going to be on the Republicans’ target list next year no matter what.”

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