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Opinion Columns

Nicolais: Recalls have become the new normal in Colorado politics

Increased polarization and legislators unwilling to compromise have made the historical matter-of-last-resort routine

Over the past six years, recall elections have become a staple of Colorado politics. Given the “on demand” mentality so prevalent in our society today, that shouldn’t be a surprise. More importantly, it isn’t a trend likely to end any time soon.

This year’s iteration includes both candidate recalls and repeal of enacted laws. The combination of power vested in one party with increasing polarization creates the fertile soil of discontent necessary to fuel recall drives.

Mario Nicolais

The option is particularly popular among the hardcore grassroots activists on either side. Just as primary elections amplify their voice in the outcome of elections, so do recall elections due to lower voter turnout. Only the most energized citizens on either side vote while the middle frequently sit recall elections out.

After newly crowned Democrats swept both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office, and all the power to govern that came with them, it seemed predictable Democrats would come out of the gates swinging.

Their aggressive agenda combined with brute force legislative tactics have caused an uproar among conservatives throughout the state. Helpless to do anything but slow the process through legislative gimmicks, Republicans have again turned to recall elections.

Recalls are familiar turf for Republicans. Caught in a similar situation in 2013, another Republican uprising led to recall of two state senators, including the then-president of the state Senate, and the resignation of a third in order to avoid a flip in the state’s upper chamber. Passage of stricter gun-control laws during the prior session stoked the recall fires that year.

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Two years later, Democrats — or at least liberals forming the base of the party — ousted conservative school board members through recalls and took control of the board. Controversial actions taken by the conservative board majority formed the impetus for those recall campaigns.

Clearly the sword cuts both ways.

Perceived overreach from one side or the other is the obvious driving factor for turning a historical option-of-last-resort into regular toolbox tactic. The problem is that more and more partisans see any policy favored by the other side as overreach.

A recent Pew Research survey found “virtually no common ground in the priorities that rise to the top of the list for Democrats and Republicans.” Consequently, almost any agenda item becomes a potential flashpoint for one side or the other.

The divide couldn’t be more evident than it is this year in Colorado. While the 2013 recalls revolved around gun laws and the 2015 recalls centered on education, this year a litany of bills have riled up Republican fervor, from the national popular vote bill to sex education legislation, a “red flag” law, and oil and gas regulations. It is a veritable choose-your-own-adventure plot line for conservatives lining up file for recall petitions.

The partisan split fueling recall speculation is exacerbated when the party in power shuts out the other side. Unfortunately, that has been the case for most of the agenda pushed by Democrats, even in the face of massive public discord over issues.

The outcome couldn’t be clearer than in the case of a Republican district attorney who previously supported last year’s red flag law but not this year’s because of changes made once Democrats took power.

Democrats may rightly respond that the failure of Republicans to compromise when they had leverage last year means they forfeited the right to compromise now that they have none. And in a cutthroat realpolitik world, that’s right. Elections have consequences.

Just because Democrats don’t have to compromise to pass a bill doesn’t mean they shouldn’t. In a world begging for increased civility, crafting bills that have bipartisan input could help reverse the trend toward recalls.

I’m not going to hold my breath for a change of heart from either side. Instead, I’ll just prepare myself for the new normal in Colorado: recalls after every election.

Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq

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