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Otero County Republican Judy Reyher engulfed in controversy after contested House District 47 vacancy appointment

Author: Ernest Luning - December 1, 2017 - Updated: December 3, 2017

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Incoming House District 47 state Rep. Judy Reyher, a Swink Republican. (judyhd47.com)State Rep. Judy Reyher, a Swink Republican. She is running for her first full term in the House. (judyhd47.com)

The aftershocks were still coming days after a Republican vacancy committee picked a replacement for former state Rep. Clarice Navarro, the Pueblo Republican who resigned to take a position with the Trump administration in early November.

Judy Reyher, a Swink resident and former Otero County GOP chair, won the appointment to Navarro’s seat on a 6-5 vote when the House District 47 panel met Monday night in Fowler, about half way between Pueblo and La Junta in southeast Colorado, but that was only the beginning.

Over the course of the next few days, her opponent challenged the results of the vacancy election, a Republican legislator told Reyher to expect a primary, a progressive organization was calling on her to step aside before being sworn in, she was apologizing for social media posts some found “offensive and racist,” the state GOP chairman called Reyher to express his “displeasure and disagreement” with her social media posts, and the state Democratic Party was urging Republicans to replace her on next year’s ballot.

Along the way, the husband of the former incumbent said he thought the candidate who lost on Monday night had a bad case of the sour grapes, a Denver newspaper was compelled to point out it hadn’t called Reyher a racist, another vacancy committee member filed another challenge to the results, and the Democrat running in the district said she was disgusted by the whole spectacle, though it’s a good bet the odds of flipping the swing seat ticked up at least a few notches in the wake of the week’s turmoil.

Although Reyher wouldn’t find out until Tuesday night that her rival, Tamra Axworthy, executive director of Pueblo’s A Caring Pregnancy Center, would be contesting the results of the vacancy election, Reyher said she hadn’t been thrilled when state Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican and an Axworthy supporter, told Reyher after the vote that she’d be facing a primary if she wanted to run for the seat next year.

“What the heck does he care who is in our district?” Reyher told Colorado Politics. “He’s a legislator, not a power broker. Get your job straight, bud.”

Williams, for his part, told Colorado Politics he had “enthusiastically” supported Axworthy — “a veteran and populist conservative outsider,” he said — because he’d known her for some time and believed she would represent the district with distinction.

He wasn’t sure, though, whether Axworthy would be challenging Reyher in a primary after all. “She may be fed up with the whole party insider process by now,” Williams said Tuesday. “I do know that she would provide the best leadership to the people of HD47.”

By then, Axworthy had filed a formal complaint, declaring she’d won the vote and pointing to text messages and emails from six of the vacancy committee members — attesting to Axworthy that they had voted for her — to back up her contention.

“It appears that Tamra won fair and square and may have been cheated out of the appointment,” said Williams.

Reyher was having none of it.

“The secretary and the teller committee certified the vote,” she told Colorado Politics after learning about the challenge from a reporter. “It was a secret ballot. End of story. She’s mad that she lost, so she’s going to cause a ruckus for no reason — she doesn’t understand what the words ‘secret ballot’ mean. It’s just sour grapes.”

Jace Ratzlaff, Navarro’s husband and one of the vacancy committee members, was furious when he learned Axworthy had shared with GOP officials and the media what he considered a private text message assuring her he’d voted for her. While he declined to reveal how he’d cast his secret ballot — “it would diminish the process,” Ratzloff said Tuesday night — he called it “unfortunate” that Axworthy was challenging the result.

“Judy won. Tamra did not win. They are both fine ladies, but in every election there is a winner and there is a loser. And I take offense to the fact that someone is contesting a vacancy committee that was held where all the I’s were dotted and all the T’s were crossed. This is a case of sour grapes,” Ratzlaff told Colorado Politics. “Now that I know that Tamra shared a personal text message, I would absolutely have reconsidered my allegiance.”

He added that if Axworthy mounted a primary challenge, she could scratch him off her list of potential backers.

“If Tamra should run a primary after having lost at the vacancy committee, and with the antics that have been brought forward today, there is no possible way I could support her. All trust has been lost. I want a representative that I can trust and that honors the system that is in place.”

Axworthy told Colorado Politics in a written statement that she was pressing ahead with her challenge, even though one of the six committee members she was counting in her corner was insisting Reyher had won the vote.

“6 out of the 11 voters confirmed in writing that they had cast their votes to appoint me to fill this vacancy,” Axworthy wrote. “The integrity of the HD47 vacancy outcome is unfortunately now in question. The voters of our district deserve peace of mind with respect to an honest and fair election process.”

Fremont County GOP Chairman Gregory Carlson, a nonvoting member who chaired the vacancy committee, told Axworthy Thursday that committee officials had re-canvased the ballots and confirmed the results, but she didn’t sound satisfied. She also noted that another committee member had filed an additional challenge, but the status of that complaint wasn’t clear at press time.

Meanwhile, the liberal blog ColoradoPols.com unearthed a year-old controversy over numerous posts on Reyher’s Facebook account, including one that called African-Americans “hatred filled beings,” several that questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and one saying that Muslims came to America to “make certain we stop enjoying … pork, beer, dogs, bikinis, Jesus and freedom of speech.”

In an interview with The Denver Post’s Jesse Paul, Reyher doubled down on the sentiments behind the posts she’d shared, at one point saying, “I hated the black half of Obama as much as I hated the white half.”

Matthew McGovern, director of the campaign arm of the House Democrats, the House Majority Project, denounced Reyher’s posts and suggested that Republicans replace her on next year’s ballot.

“Constituents in Southern Colorado deserve better than a representative who seems to pride herself in posting offensive content,” McGovern said in a statement. “A good legislator is inclusive of all their constituents, and it appears that Judy Reyher is incapable of doing that from Day 1. Republicans in that district should demand more integrity from their representative and choose a more suitable candidate for the 2018 election.”

On Wednesday, Jeff Hays, chairman of the state Republican Party, “called her and expressed his displeasure and disagreement in no uncertain terms,” GOP communications director Daniel Cole told Colorado Politics.

In a statement, however, Hays said he wouldn’t be the “arbiter of controversial statements, however ridiculous or offensive,” adding that “legislators speak for themselves and their constituents, not for the party. That’s true when the press is good and when it’s bad.”

Ian Silverii, executive director of the liberal ProgressNow Colorado advocacy group, had no such compunction.

“Every time a Colorado Republican commits this kind of outrage, the first response from leadership is to duck responsibility,” Silverii said in a statement. “That’s not good enough in this case. … We are calling on the Colorado Republican Party and House Republican leadership to demand immediately that Judy Reyher decline to accept her appointment to House District 47. Anything less is an endorsement of Reyher’s unapologetic racism.”

An apologetic Reyher disputed that there was any racism involved.

“I would like to apologize for the comments or posts on Facebook that have been found offensive and racist,” Reyher said in a statement Thursday. “However, the fact of the matter is, I am not a racist. This country was founded by immigrants, and I embrace all Americans, no matter their walk of life. Diversity is what makes America, America.” She added, “These claims of racism by the Denver Post are absolutely deplorable, and I will not be distracted by them.”

The Post noted that it hadn’t labeled Reyher a racist in its original story.

Reyher told Colorado Politics, however, that the whole brouhaha was motivated by partisan politics.

“The Democrats want this seat so badly, if they hadn’t found this to hammer me with, they’d have hammered me on something else,” she said. “They can hammer all they want to. I know the truth. I tell the truth, and if you don’t like it, that’s your problem.”

The Democrat running for the House District 47 seat, Pueblo schoolteacher Brianna Buentello, said the whole affair had left her speechless.

“Her statements, though they shock me, are not particularly surprising,” she told Colorado Politics mid-week, as the furor was unfolding.

“Rather than talk about rural infrastructure, how we can fix public schools — any of the myriad issues HD 47 faces, Republicans want to talk about Obama’s birth certificate,” Buentello said. “It’s embarrassing. I grew up in an era where politicians were public servants. Not where they’d sit there and post horrible things to Facebook or tweet out every horrendously offensive thought that comes to your mind.”

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.