Interview: The Men Behind the Colorado Recalls - Part 3
Like Tim Knight, Victor Head describes his political involvement as minimal, considering himself "informed” but not being active in the process beyond voting. Also like Knight, this changed dramatically when proposed legislation threatened to intrude on his family and their traditions.
A Colorado native, guns were a large part of Head's life and his family culture. Recreational shooting was a shared past time and he, his mother and his brother frequently traded guns with other relations and friends. The Obama administration's call for more gun control in the wake of the horrific murders in Newtown, Connecticut, were a point of discussion but not concern - at first. However, Victor soon heard rumors of bills being prepared in Colorado's Assembly and he began to pay closer attention.
What he learned smacked of intrusive legislative overreach, directly affecting - and in some cases illegalizing - his family's lifestyle and interactions. Bans on possession of magazines exceeding a frequently-shifting limit and so poorly worded that many common, tube-fed hunting shotguns would be banned. Mandatory background checks on "transfers of possession" initially so loosely defined as to encompass even handing a pistol to someone in the course of instruction. Prohibitions against adults with concealed-carry permits doing so on college campuses, directly putting his brother at risk while attending classes at community college. Seemingly random exemptions were added and removed to try to quell a spreading sea of public opposition.
Seeing the potential impact to his family and their way of life, he decided to educate himself.
"I was so removed from the idea of politics, I didn't even realize that one party controlled the entire state government," Head reflected. "So I really started from scratch. I found who my representatives were and tried to reach out to them to talk about the bills being floated."
He tried the direct approach first. "I called to ask my representative what her position was but phone calls were almost worthless. I couldn't get hold of her directly and her staff blew off the questions. The boilerplate answer was always, 'We can't answer questions on pending legislation. Call again after it reaches us.' Email was no better. Everything just got a form letter reply."
Based on public comments and the response of staffers, Victor could see that a party line vote was coming but also recognized that Democrats pushing disarmament only held a five-seat advantage in the Senate. He thought that he might be able to sway his senator, Angela Giron, if he could explain the problems with the bills' approach but found it impossible to arrange any sort of personal meeting.
It was then that Victor became "an accidental leader."
"I still didn't really know how the system worked so I did the logical thing and asked folks around me if they had any experience with it. The more people I spoke with, the more they said, 'No but I never thought about trying. Can I come with you?' I ended up organizing people to show up for her Town Hall meetings just to get her to discuss the issues."
It was during this frustrating period of being stonewalled, ignored or dismissed by his elected representatives that Victor came across a thread posted to an internet gun board. A meeting was being held at The Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. Run by a new group calling itself the "Basic Freedom Defense Fund," the meeting was being held to discuss the idea of recalls and to share strategic and logistical advice for the formation of issue committees.
Continuing his logical, problem-solving approach, Victor decided that, if his elected representatives would not listen to their constituency, perhaps they didn't deserve the privilege of office. Angela Giron would face recall.
"I never really thought about what we might accomplish or analyzed the potential difficulty. Accomplishment was less important than trying. There was no downside since they were going to do what they wanted anyway." Head knew the odds were against success but saw it as a patriotic duty. "We had massive government intrusion into our personal business. They were telling us what we could do with our personal, privately owned property. For that matter, by saying we could not pass down a rifle magazine to our children, it was a means of confiscating private property. What would we tell our kids that we did to at least try to stop it? I felt that I had a personal responsibility to do something."
Victor wasn't alone in this feeling. His family, a large source of his motivation, stood by him and supported the effort however they could. Knowing the incredible amount of time that would be required to run their ground game, Victor's brother took over their plumbing business leading them to joke that "we're a Communist business now - one of us works but we both get paid." The initial $4,000 required for their initial legal costs came in the form of a loan from Victor's grandmother and his mother single-handedly collected nearly ten percent of all petition signatures gathered. Far from being the large, well-oiled political machine legislators were used to facing, this recall was the epitome of a grassroots effort.
It was a family affair that soon became a community cause, with support coming in from local volunteers, Coloradans from across the state, and out-of-staters who read about the fight online and were inspired to help. Many gun-owning union members defied their leadership, supporting the recall against pro-union Democrat Giron. Likewise, local Republican party members and officials bucked the initially cold reception from state-level party officials and assisted wherever possible to help Head's group navigate the procedural mazes and roadblocks. Momentum was picking up.
One particular point of frustration was hindrance from the state Republicans and the pro-gun Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. "They eventually came around and I don't hold any grudges," said Head, "but fund raising was definitely impacted by their public message of 'we don't support recalls.' New York's mayor Bloomberg throwing his money around certainly didn't make things easy on us either," he laughed, "but it generated such a backlash that it almost helped in the end."
It's easier to laugh now that victory has been achieved but while Head declares that "it was almost fun at times", he also doesn't pull any punches about the difficulties he endured.
"If someone were to decide to do this elsewhere, I would tell them that they'd need to quit everything they're doing and would have to focus on the recall only. You can't have a job, go out on the weekends, or do anything but run that recall for however long it takes. Not if you're going to be successful anyway." He cautioned further, "They would need to expect personal attacks like I got, possible retribution in their job like I got, and just generally really nasty people coming after you. I also had physical damage to my property and even my pets."
"They'd need to have their emotions in check," he continued. "You will be angry sometimes, depressed other times, and downright having a blast occasionally. The key is to keep all of those emotions in check and not act irrationally on them in the heat of the moment."
Victor also stressed the importance of mindset in the face of challenges. "I consider myself pretty headstrong so nothing was ever so 'challenging' that it surprised me or caught me off guard. Something would pop up, like the 'surprise start' of early voting. We had to organize poll watchers and judges in forty-eight hours. No big deal - deal with it and get the work done. I think that type of mentality is key. Stay calm, stay focused, don't let things get disorganized."
As far as personal costs, "Monetarily, I put a decent amount in, but there were lots of donors that stepped up so it wasn't a huge burden. However it did cost me some strain on family and personal relationships. I was lucky to still have a girlfriend after it was all over. It's just such a consuming task that takes almost every ounce of you to complete. But it was all worth it in the end of course."
That "end" saw the recall of Angela Giron, making it the second such recall in state history by a matter of mere hours.
"I was on the phone with a member of the Republican leadership and was being prepped to lose. It just wasn't considered a tenable effort, recalling a Democratic senator in a Democratic district. They couldn't understand that it wasn't about party, it was about our local culture. There are a lot of blue-collar Democrats in Pueblo that love their guns and their freedom. But," he laughed, "I still didn't really understand the way these things worked and didn't realize that our win was a given with only twenty-five percent of precincts reporting! I read off the numbers, feeling glum, and the guy I was talking to was like, 'Wait - what? Read that back to me.' Suddenly, I had to come up with a victory speech on the fly. I don't think I've ever fully processed it though I get that 'celebration feeling' when I drive past old billboards or see some news article about it."
Thinking about what that win accomplished, Head has mixed feelings.
"My first thought was, 'Great!' and we thought the politicians would understand what this was all about, that it wasn't a gun thing but that they grabbed too much. But a month into the new year, they just seemed to be angry and vindictive. They backed off of guns so far but everything else seems to be open season. It's almost like they expect they’re going to lose in 2014 so they want to jam everything through that they can."
"Ironically," he mused, "we seem to have achieved more on a national level than in the state. During the last weeks of the recalls, we had a news crew from Miami come out and want to go to the range with us. We even started getting calls from international media outlets - a Japanese newspaper, a British reporter. It dawned on us that people well outside of Colorado were watching this. Now, social media and email messages keep coming in, talking about us being inspirational, saying they're thinking about recalls in other states and asking what advice we can give. "
That advice comes down to the basics of organizing and leadership.
He ticked off his main logistical points. "You have to dedicate yourself fully to the effort. Put jobs, people, plans, vacations, hobbies, all of it aside. Do your research before you begin, don't just jump in headfirst. Get a good lawyer, study up on election and campaign finance laws. Create your own news, try to be pro-active in media instead of reactive. You should be calling the reporters to tell them about a new development, not the other way around. Control the narrative of your issue as much as you can."
"Next," he added, "is to treat your volunteers well but keep them in line. Have a clear leader and make sure they respect him or her and understand who calls the shots. Avoid 'too many chiefs, not enough braves' syndrome. Not every decision has to be put to a vote of the 'main guys'. You need to be able to make executive decisions and roll with it. And don't be afraid to turn away a 'problem' volunteer. Just because the help is free, doesn't mean it's good help. One stupid comment from a mouthy person on your side can create a media nightmare."
Returning to his earlier point about keeping emotions in check, Head said, "You need to have some balance, too. Don't treat your campaign or issue like the world depends on it. Take things seriously and absolutely do the best you can, but realize that the world will continue if you don't succeed. It is not worth going to jail, getting in fights, or anything like that over it. If you keep that mindset, you'll sleep much better at night and the other side won't be able to rattle you."
His only regrets about the experience are practical. "It's hard to say 'I wish I'd done x, y and z differently when you won. If I had to come up with something, though, I'd say having a better handle on logistics. You don't know what you don't know but, in hindsight, I wish we'd thought to print the petitions earlier, been a little better organized had a better librarian system – but I have no regrets about winning."
Beyond just lacking regret, Victor has come away with a lot of positive experiences and memories. The greatest for him was simply the camaraderie.
"I've always been sort of a loner, mostly because I don't really like playing 'social games.' If you have something to say, say it. Be honest. And fighting for this recall attracted a lot of the same personalities to the cause. I've now made lifelong friends of people with like minds. They weren't politically active either or have any ambitions for higher office. They just wanted to make things better, protect our Colorado culture and get on with their lives. We know we share the same values and will be there to back each other up, whatever else comes our way."
Head ran for Pueblo county clerk under the Republican banner this election cycle, in no small part because of the negative experiences he had during the recall process. "The worst experience of the entire time was with the election process itself. This hadn't been done before and both sides were sort of winging it at times. There weren't any violations of law per se but a lot of this had been on the books for a century without ever having been tried or tested. There was a lot of discretion and power in the hands of the clerk and this led to what felt like a lot of procedural power games. Some requirements were 'discovered' though they'd never come up before; documents weren't delivered until the last second, causing us to flail to meet our own deadlines; a lot of little roadblocks and tie-ups kept appearing. People shouldn't have to deal with that just because they're trying to have a say in their government."
Despite having failed to win the seat in the Democrat stronghold of Pueblo, Victor still sees his effort as a success. "Traditionally, a Republican running in this town loses by ten percent or more. That was the case with George Rivera," referring to the Republican senator elected to replace the recalled Democrat, Giron. "I narrowed that gap to just about four percent. A little more than a thousand voters separated me from winning. That is something to be proud of."
Head says his future plans will focus on local Pueblo politics, and to "potentially get involved in getting term limits put in for all elected officials, whether it be by legislation, petition, or constitutional amendment." He also remains undaunted in his efforts to push back against legislative overreach.
"My race was just one more battle against big government. We came up short in that battle, but we'll continue to fight the war."