Election 2018FeaturedNews

Trail Mix: Can’t keep track? Follow the string

Author: Ernest Luning - May 4, 2018 - Updated: May 31, 2018

Colorado lawsThe Colorado Capitol (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

You know the familiar creepy scene in crime dramas when we discover the culprit’s lair and get a glimpse into the twisted mind behind the mayhem we’ve been witnessing?

There’s usually a wall covered with photos and newspaper clips — though, to be fair, those might brand it as a period piece these days — filled with push pins and various colored yarn zig-zagging between all the elements, indicating how it all ties together. It’s a frightening moment.

There’s another screen version of a similar set-up on the walls of authorities, visually linking elements of the crime. Particularly obsessive detectives might have a wall as baffling — or impressive — as their counterparts on the other side of the law.

We’re glad they’re on our side.

Esquire calls it the “Crazy Wall,” while some shows dub it “the murder board” or simply “the board.”

Trail Mix put together its own version to make sense of all the competing, related and overlapping players involved in the collective madness that briefly overtook the electoral process the last few weeks as Colorado’s June primary ballot neared its certified, official state.

From shocking revelations to drama at a state assembly, and finally careening through state and federal courtrooms, it’s been a rocky path to the primary for a handful of candidates.

The “Colorado ballot-access board” isn’t exactly frightening to behold, but Trail Mix might be uncomfortable if a stranger caught a glimpse. Still, there’s something unsettling about all the crisscrossing string and mounds of push-pins.

First, it’s remarkable how few candidates are jumbled into the center of the board. Out of nearly 200 major-party Colorado candidates running in primaries for everything from state legislative seats to Congress, state treasurer to governor, only a few ran into problems that made headlines or landed them in court. There aren’t that many top-level consultants, petition-gathering firms and election law attorneys in Colorado, either, but it’s also remarkable just how few of them are involved.

Follow the string.

It starts in March, when Republican consultant Dustin Olson and gubernatorial candidate Doug Robinson were in the news taking swings at Robinson’s primary opponent Walker Stapleton and the firm he’d hired to manage his drive to collect signatures to put him on the ballot, Kennedy Enterprises.

Olson and Robinson alleged they’d encountered fraudulent behavior by Kennedy’s circulators and warned Secretary of State Wayne Williams that Stapleton’s petitions could be tainted, something Dan Kennedy, the firm’s founder, and the candidate denied.

A week or so later, some El Paso County Republicans led by lawyer Michael Kuhn and represented by Michael Francisco, who shares an office building with Kuhn, filed a lawsuit to force U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, who also had hired Kennedy, off the ballot with related accusations.

Stapleton, represented by attorney Chris Murray — who also represents the state GOP — said they wanted to intervene, since the results of the Lamborn case could have an impact on his own petitions.

As the Denver court hearing about Lamborn’s petition circulators commenced, Murray appeared to say Stapleton had decided against intervening, and Stapleton soon cleared up why. Saying his campaign had discovered the night before there was something to Olson and Robinson’s allegations, Stapleton withdrew his petitions and announced he would instead go through the state assembly in just four days.

Stapleton came out on top at the assembly, but not until after a mostly behind-the-scenes legal skirmish with another gubernatorial candidate, Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who sought to block his 11th-hour bid based on GOP rules.

Former Secretary of State Scott Gessler stepped in to represent the Republican Party, since Murray was working for Stapleton, and successfully fended off the challenge mounted by Coffman, who failed to make the ballot.

Meanwhile, a judge threw out some of Lamborn’s signatures, but he remained on the ballot. On behalf of Kuhn and the other GOP voters, Francisco appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court and won, knocking Lamborn from the ballot when the court determined a petition circulator named Ryan Tipple wasn’t a Colorado resident. But Lamborn, represented by former GOP state chairman Ryan Call, filed in federal court to overturn a state law and effectively reverse the ruling.

Almost immediately, Francisco was joined by Gessler to represent Kuhn and some additional Republicans, including state Sen. Owen Hill, one of Lamborn’s primary challengers, in an attempt to intervene in Lamborn’s federal lawsuit against Williams. A federal judge denied that attempt and ruled in Lamborn’s favor this week, landing him back on the ballot.

While that was going on, Robinson and Republican state treasurer candidate Brian Watson learned that Williams had declared the petitions Olson had gathered for them didn’t have enough valid signatures and said they’d sue to reverse that ruling. Representing Robinson and Watson, Francisco prevailed in what amounted to quick hearings.

At the same time, Gessler’s law partner, Geoffrey Blue, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Kuhn — the lawyer who shares an office with Francisco and one of the voters who sued Lamborn — to force another Republican state treasurer candidate, Polly Lawrence, from the ballot, because she had also hired Kennedy and had signatures on her petitions gathered by the circulator the state Supreme Court had disqualified.

This is where the string starts getting so tangled it’s hard see the board.

The federal ruling on Lamborn’s case came down in the middle of the court hearing on Kuhn’s complaint against Lawrence’s signatures, pulling the rug out from under that case.

After Lawrence learned she’d prevailed and would stay on the ballot, she fired back at Watson — remember him? — linking Kuhn, who sued her, to Francisco, who handled Watson’s case. Except Watson’s regular campaign attorney, it turns out, is Murray, who stepped aside because he is working for Stapleton in what might amount to legal action against Kennedy, Robinson and Olson, who worked for Watson.

Alongside all this Republican jostling, Democrat Brad Levin, a candidate for attorney general, was also suing Williams to get more of his signatures counted. He lost his case late Wednesday night and, at press time, was considering an appeal to the state supreme court.

In the end, Stapleton, Robinson, Lamborn, Watson and Lawrence were all on the ballot, while Levin (at press time) was still in limbo.

And Trail Mix has run out of string.

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.