A Denver judge on Monday temporarily halted the recall effort against state Sen. Kevin Priola, giving Democrats a better chance of keeping their majority in the Colorado Senate for at least the duration of the 2023 lawmaking term.
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Denver District Court Judge Marie Avery Moses ruled that the recall organizers must wait until Jan. 9 to initiate their effort to oust Priola. That’s when the 2023 legislative session begins and when Priola will begin representing Senate District 13.
It’s unclear what happens to the recall petition signatures that have already been collected, though it appears they must be scrapped. It’s likely that tens of thousands of dollars have already been spent by the recall organizers, who said they were on track to collect enough signatures to force a special recall election.
Priola currently represents Senate District 25 in the northeast Denver suburbs. The Henderson lawmaker was drawn into a new district — District 13, which stretches along U.S. 85 into Greeley — as part of last year’s once-in-a-decade redistricting process.
Republicans launched the recall effort against Priola in August after he changed his party affiliation to Democratic from Republican, citing the GOP’s embrace of 2020 election conspiracies and inaction on climate change.
The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office ruled the recall should happen in Senate District 13, since if the recall organizers were successful in collecting the roughly 18,000 voter signatures they needed to force a special election to oust Priola the election wouldn’t happen until early next year at the soonest. But a group affiliated with Democrats and defending Priola against the recall sued, arguing that the recall should take place in Senate District 25 — at a minimum — since that’s the district Priola currently represents.
Moses, the Denver judge, found that state elections officials likely erred when they decided the recall should take place in District 13, which leans in the GOP’s favor. Senate District 25 is a political tossup.
“The recall Petitioners have argued that if they are not able to circulate a recall petition until January 2023, they will likely be represented by Sen. Priola throughout the entire 2023 legislative session,” Moses wrote in her ruling. “While that may be true, such a timeline is consistent with (the Colorado constitution).”
She added: “The secretary’s approval of the recall petition directed at future SD 13 electors and the secretary’s concomitant determination that current SD 25 electors no longer have the right to petition for the recall of Sen. Priola likely violate the fundamental constitutional rights of current SD 25 electors to recall, or not recall, their elected state senator.”
The judge’s ruling makes it likely that if the recall effort is renewed in Senate District 13 after Jan. 9, the special election to oust Priola won’t happen until after the legislative session ends in May — and only if the recall organizers are successful in collecting signatures to force the special election.
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With Priola, Democrats hold a 21-14 majority in the Senate. Priola is not up for reelection this year — his term ends in January 2025 — but Republicans were hoping to pick up a handful of Senate seats in November and end the Democratic control of the Capitol that’s been in place since January 2019.
Priola’s party-affiliation switch guarantees Democrats 13 Senate seats in January, compared with seven for the GOP. Of the Senate seats up for election in November, three are considered solidly Democratic, five solidly Republican and seven are tossups.
“Today’s ruling upholds the rule of law and the integrity of our independent redistricting process, and I am pleased the Court agreed that this special-interest-driven recall effort was built on a faulty premise,” Priola said in a written statement. “The voters of Senate District 25 deserve a say in who represents their interests at the state Capitol, and today’s ruling ensures deep-pocketed partisan interests won’t be allowed to take that right away.”
Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, said in a written statement that allowing the recall against Priola to move forward “would have created a cascade of ridiculous recall efforts every redistricting cycle.”
“Recalls are an important process meant to root out politicians guilty of corruption or malfeasance, not for political operatives and special interests to seek revenge against lawmakers they disagree with,” Fenberg added.
The Secretary of State’s Office said it “is currently reviewing the ruling and has no further comment at this time.”
Suzanne Taheri, a Republican attorney representing the recall organizers, said it’s likely she will appeal Moses’ ruling. Michael Fields, a senior adviser at the conservative dark-money nonprofit Advance Colorado Action, which is funding and organizing the recall effort, said recall petition signatures will continue to be gathered as the appeals process plays out.