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Leonard, Merkel, Shuler among Keyser vacancy candidates

Author: Ernest Luning - January 21, 2016 - Updated: January 22, 2016

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Two former state Senate candidates and a longtime party volunteer are among the Republicans applying to fill the House District 25 vacancy created when state Rep. Jon Keyser, R-Morrison, announced he would be resigning to run for the U.S. Senate.

Applicants for Keyser’s seat, which covers the Jefferson County Foothills, include Evergreen real estate developer Tim Leonard, activist and “lifetime volunteer” Judy Merkel, also of Evergreen, and small business owner Derec Shuler, who lives in Golden Gate Canyon. Jeffco Republicans said there was another applicant named Kevin Allen and potentially a fifth candidate for the vacancy but couldn’t provide more information about either of them by press time.

A 21-member Republican Party vacancy committee meets Saturday at the Jefferson County Government Center — the “Taj Mahal” — in Golden.

Leonard came within a whisker of representing Senate District 16 in the 2010 election, losing by just over 600 votes to Democrat Jeannie Nicholson of Black Hawk. He ran for the same seat in 2006 on the American Constitution Party ticket and was the American Constitution Party nominee for governor in 1998, with Leslie Hanks, currently president of American Right to Life, as his running mate.

Tim Leonard
Tim Leonard

“People were saying it’ll take a strong candidate who runs a good campaign, who knows what they’re doing,” Leonard said, adding that he won the Jefferson County portion of the Senate district in 2010 by 14 points and that he’s kept in touch with supporters in the county since.

“It was a nail biter,” Leonard recalled, adding that he went to bed the winner but woke up the next day trailing Nicholson, after Boulder County precincts had been counted. (The district was substantially redrawn the next year during the reapportionment process.) “We got a lot of new independents, tea party folks, we went all the way up — we had a pretty good team,” he said. “That was six years ago, and there’s been a constant asking of me to get back into politics. We decided this was the time.”

Leonard said he was looking forward to serving in the Legislature now that Republicans control at least one chamber, the Senate, as opposed to when he last ran and Democrats controlled both chambers.

“Things have calmed down,” he said. “It means Democrats aren’t having free reign. It’s a more civil atmosphere.” Leonard said he was hopeful that Republicans “can basically repeal, have an opportunity to balance out some of the prior laws,” pointing to a raft of Democratic-sponsored legislation that passed in 2013.

Among his priorities: passing construction defect reform, fixing problems with health care and transportation and reducing employer mandates.

“Thirty-seven percent of our House representatives identify their profession as legislator, and that’s not how our country is made,” Leonard said. “We’re supposed to be candlestick makers and cobblers coming into the Legislature. The Legislature is not a business, it isn’t a career. We need businesspeople who can discuss how a bill affects people.”

Leonard described himself as “a free market guy, a constitutional guy” and added that one of his biggest passions is education, noting that he helped open the Golden View Classical Academy charter school this past year along with fellow vacancy candidate Derec Shuler.

Judy Merkel
Judy Merkel

“Any one of these candidates who are running of this vacancy, I would totally support if I were not running myself,” said Merkel, who serves on the board of the Colorado Federation of Republican Women and has worked as the volunteer director at county GOP headquarters. “We are fortunate to have so many great candidates running for this vacancy. I told them all, I love you all very much and you would be great, but I think I would be better.”

She said her work on campaigns and organizing precincts gives her the edge.

“I have got so much experience among my constituents here,” Merkel said. “I’ve seen the seat being turned over, and I’m at the age where I don’t have any time factors in my life and can have a fuller commitment in this position.”

She added, “I am not a constitutional scholar, but I do know what my constituents tell me when I walk door to door. There aren’t too many volunteers who have even walked their precinct.”

Shuler, who lost by a wide margin to Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman when he ran in the heavily Democratic Senate District 34 seat in Denver in 2010 — he moved to the mountains a few months after that election — points out that he’s the only vacancy candidate who holds elected office, serving on the board of his local fire district. He’s also the Republican chairman of the 2nd Congressional District.

Derec Shuler
Derec Shuler

“I think I bring a lot to the table to follow up what Jon Keyser has done,” Shuler said, “to take the principles of personal liberty, free markets and still be able to work and move those things forward by working with people across the aisle.”

Starting up the Golden View Classical Academy — the charter school took three years to put together and opened with some 500 students, more than twice as many as the school district had anticipated — proves he can get things done, Shuler said.

Unsurprisingly, he said that he’s anxious to help equalize charter school funding and “make sure the money follows the kids,” as well as reduce regulations on business. “We continue adding more and more regulation to business every year,” he said. “I think we do need to look at doing a cost-benefit analysis when we add regulations.”

Schuler said his guiding principles would be to “make sure we’re working to support the Constitution, protect personal liberty and property rights and the free market.”

But he also maintains that the vacancy committee should pick a candidate who can hit the ground running on the fall campaign.

“This is immediately turning into a re-election campaign as well,” he said. “Organizing, raising money — that’s going to be vital. What’s going to be very important is not just an understanding of the issues and politics but also electability. Voters up here, and the vacancy committee, will be looking at an ability to work with other people, to make progress, not just to dig in and not get anything done.”

The district leans toward the GOP, with Republicans and unaffiliated voters each accounting for just over 36 percent of active registered voters and Democrats making up just over 26 percent. But voters tend to swing even more heavily Republican, favoring GOP candidates by a margin of 10-15 points in down-ballot races.

In 2014, Keyser defeated Democratic nominee Janet Doyle 52.5 percent to 43 percent. A Libertarian candidate got 4.5 percent of the vote. State Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, represented the district for three terms but decided against seeking a fourth term.

House District 25 encompasses the foothills of Jefferson County, from Coal Creek Canyon on the northwestern corner to Lookout Mountain, Genessee, Evergreen, Kittredge , Morrison, Ken Caryl and Aspen Park, as well as plenty of terrain to the south within the boundaries of Jefferson County.

— ernest@coloradostatesman.com

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.