Interview: The Men Behind the Colorado Recalls - Part 2
Starting a grassroots movement with as weighty a mission as recalling sitting legislators for the first time in a state's history was a huge undertaking. It required not only a solid tactical ground game of knocking on doors and collecting signatures, but a great deal of strategic oversight and constant management of many moving parts, all while operating in completely unknown - and often hostile - territory. Timothy Knight, president of the Basic Freedom Defense Fund and founder of the Colorado recall movement, shared his memories of events with us.
Tim’s level of political involvement was “nothing more than voting, really.” He would occasionally write a letter or email to his legislators or attend an infrequent town hall. But he held no passion for it and was content to remain uninvolved – until it intruded on his family life.
He and his family - his oncologist wife and their five-year-old son - moved to Colorado from South Carolina. Having lived here before, they felt that the local, rural culture was ideally matched to their values and would provide a healthy environment for both raising their child and launching their fifty-person business producing brass for ammunition reloading. Soon, however, Tim saw both being threatened.
"The state of Colorado was just about to become unfriendly to my beliefs and my Constitutional rights." said Knight. "It would also become a hostile business environment and, like Magpul, I wouldn't support what was working against me."
As debates began in the Colorado House, discussions began in Durango. While purchasing a snow blower from a fellow local businessman and shooter, the topic of recall was raised. They went to the nearest computer and began researching exactly what was required by Colorado statute to remove their local representative, Mike McLachlan.
Tim was already jaded with politics but was willing to give McLachlan the benefit of the doubt. A Democrat in district that was primarily conservative and independent, McLachlan had campaigned heavily on a pro-Second Amendment platform and won with a narrow margin. It was expected that he would fight these laws, choosing to side with his constituency rather than to cave to external political pressures. Finding McLachlan's mobile number, Knight left a voicemail introducing himself, outlining his expectations and advising him that he would be facing a recall if he betrayed his campaign promises.
The warning fell on deaf ears and McLachlan voted to pass the raft of gun control bills pushed by Obama administration and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Tim felt personally betrayed by his representative and the “purveyors of broken promises” in Denver. Worse, with his remote location and comparatively lengthy response time from the nearest law enforcement, he felt that these laws were jeopardizing his family’s safety and security. He and his wife discussed the matter and agreed that the business would have to wait - Tim was committing to forcing Colorado's first recalls.
Thinking he had both the time and the financial ability to commit himself to dissuading them from pushing these bills into law, he began looking into the recall process. As the bills progressed to the Senate and media reported “atrocious comments” made by Senators Morse and Hudak, “I went from mad to pissed. I was going to donate all my time and money to this. All in.”
“I thought we’d give them pause,” said Knight. “I thought we’d make them stop and reconsider pushing the laws if they saw there wasn’t just the unprecedented resistance at the capitol building but also people willing to take it further, legally. I wanted to believe we’d succeed but really thought it would be more symbolic, leading to soul searching among the legislature. I didn’t know how far we’d be able to take it but I knew we’d do something.”
His first task was forming an effective unit. "I needed to separate the wheat from the chaff of the core group after the first few calls and then work to build a team. I've always had better luck than most at building like that and working with others. I am okay being a chief or brave as long as the leaders are listening and I was lucky enough to find fellow citizens who were like me in that regard. We ended up with seven guys who did not know each other before but who beat two billionaires and their political agendas, overcame the constant obstacles thrown by two major political parties, dealt with eight court challenges and delivered a message that resonated so deeply that even former President Clinton's robo-calls couldn't save John Morse. I'd call that superlative."
When asked to describe the entire experience, Knight chuckled, “What’s a word beyond ‘epic?’ I completely underestimated how all-encompassing and overwhelming it would be. I didn’t even process it as it was happening – I was too busy just trying to keep up. There was no going back once it started.”
With his management team in place and the ground game delegated to an appointed issue committee leader, Tim focused primarily on strategic goals, taking point on "all things external" while the signature gathering began.
"I picked up the nickname 'godfather of the recalls' because I'd be incommunicado for a few days, then suddenly we'd have a new resource or a solved problem. It was nice to pretend that I had this mysterious influence but the truth is that I was just constantly hustling all over the state. It was almost impossible to do things by phone and I lived six hours away from Denver. I had no choice but to go to where help might be found, look people in the eye, shake hands, explain things face to face. My guys saw a solution appear but never had insight into how many asks it took to get it, how many people wouldn't talk to me at all or wouldn't follow through on the commitments they made to help. It wasn't that I was being secretive, I just didn't have time to explain because I was already booking the next flight."
Knight ran down every potential lead. "I was always traveling. I met with politicians, perspective allies, law firms, consulting firms, Republican party leadership, Denver and Colorado Springs media," he fired off. "Pretty much anyone that might be willing to join the fight. I even put my foot in the door of events that claimed to support our cause despite not contributing to it. I wasn't invited, mind you. I literally paid out-of-pocket to be a VIP so I could get access to the people in the room."
“I’m not one to give up,” Knight continued. “I don't know how to fail. I’m dyslexic and spent my childhood being told all the things I ‘couldn’t’ do or ‘wouldn’t be able’ to achieve. I couldn't read in the fourth grade and was told I wouldn't amount to much because of it. Every time I heard that growing up, it made me try even harder just to prove them wrong, to push on, always adapting, finding a way to get what I needed done. I can’t do that? Really? Let me show you. You can’t fight city hall or recall an out-of-control legislator? Really? Let’s see about that. I've got a quote on my desk, a Japanese proverb: 'Fall seven times, stand up eight.' That's me.”
That drive and passion took its toll on Tim, however. "Flying and driving all over the state many, many, many times and working sometimes twenty hours a day for several days did some damage," he admitted. "Several hospitalizations, two protracted kidneys stones, IV for severe dehydration, beginnings of kidney failure."
The pain and damage eventually led to his post-victory hospitalization for nearly a month but it wasn't only his physical health that suffered. "I spent nine months almost totally detached from my family. Family vacations were spent entirely on the phone, some trips were cancelled altogether. I resigned from my position as a District Commissioner for the Boy Scouts of America. It was unit service for seven hundred boys and two hundred and fifty adults. But I couldn't do the job and take care of the recalls, so I needed to leave it for someone else."
There was also the financial and legal aspect. "I spent a considerable amount of my personal reserves supporting our recall against Morse and later funding a good portion of the legal defense for both our recall and the one in Pueblo. We had offered a joint defense agreement to bring both recalls onto our already prepared legal strategy rather than make the Pueblo guys reinvent a very complex and complicated wheel. We were dealing with voter rights issues, pushing back against new laws that all but legalized voter fraud, arguing over absentee ballot procedures and third party involvement in the election. We even had to fight a legal challenge over the validity of the petition forms, which were being used by all the recall efforts at that point. It was almost funny since those forms were supplied and approved by the state itself. But we still had to pay our lawyers to show up and argue, regardless of how silly it was, because if we didn't, all signatures gathered for all recalls could have been declared invalid. The whole thing could have collapsed right there."
Still, this seems negligible to Knight. To him, it was all about civic duty.
“People need to go beyond their comfort level,” Tim noted. “What we did has the potential to change the way politics work in this country if people are willing to stand up and fight, to go beyond what they even think is possible, to put everything on hold if they have to. When I saw John Morse on national television, acknowledging that he would almost certainly face a recall election, I realized what we had the potential to achieve. That we could be doing something that would inspire people well beyond the borders of our state.”
“We all learned that you need to put something in for this republic to work,” he said of his BFDF cohorts. “We achieved what we were told was ‘impossible’ and we did it with about three hundred people statewide. Can you imagine what we could do with a thousand people?”
That “three hundred people” included the grassroots volunteers that made up the El Paso Freedom Defense Fund, the 527 issue committee set up by Knight’s BFDF to run the ground game in the Morse recall. However, it did not include some notable groups, a source of disappointment and regret for Tim.
“Neither the state Republican party nor the leadership of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners believed in us or supported our efforts,” Knight recalled. “They made both private and public statements disparaging the recall movement. We were already a completely unknown quantity, leaving a lot of people leery of supporting us. Having ‘names’ turn a cold shoulder to us reinforced that isolation and made our organizational infancy all that more difficult.”
Discussions with another potential source of support, the National Rifle Association, were also limited at the outset of the movement. “We were political novices and didn’t really understand the ‘rules’ when it came to communication and coordination,” Tim said. “And being novices made us dangerous to allies because of the legal or public relations missteps we might make."
Any help was welcome but, initially, the NRA committed to little more than alerting their membership to upcoming town hall meetings. Sensing some hesitancy and knowing what a public loss could do the reputation of the oft-embattled civil rights group, Knight didn’t press for more. "We knew this would be an uphill fight and we were already getting pushback and undercutting from folks we had expected to support us. The last thing I wanted was for us to go down in flames and take the NRA with us. I was grateful to get their initial fliers out to the local membership but I told their grassroots coordinator, 'Let us earn this. Let Colorado show that it really wants to fight. If we can do that, we'll take whatever you can give us.' The whole time we struggled, I wondered if I'd made a mistake and alienated them but I stayed in frequent touch to keep them informed of our progress. After our signatures were certified and the election date was set, they were able to help on their own terms and proved to be a valuable ally.”
Tim specifically made note of “NRA News” personalities Ginny Simone, who produced a video segment highlighting the recall efforts, and Cam Edwards, who kept the movement relevant to NRA members.
“We were really bad with the media,” Tim admitted. “We didn’t prepare for them, didn’t understand them and didn’t expect the sheer vitriol. It was very disappointing."
"I am not a public person," he continued. "I am both genetically predisposed and familial trained to stay out of the public eye. So shifting from a hidden private person to a public one unsure of himself presented major issues. Initially, I was too cautious with my identity – we all were – because I didn’t want it to be about me. It was about the cause. But the folks at NRA News stuck their necks out for us and gave us an outlet that we were comfortable using.”
Knight also describes another source of disappointment – citizen apathy.
“I didn’t expect that we’d have to be a proxy for so many people. I kept expecting scores of like-minded people to come forward. They didn’t. It was quantity versus quality. Some people donated every paycheck and actually flew out to Colorado to help collect signatures. But so many people in the state just wouldn’t get off the couch. They’d email a ‘Go get ‘em’ and tell us all the things they thought we ‘should’ be doing but when you asked them to show up and physically help… crickets. I think that was the one thing that truly frightened me. That we might lose, not because of trickery or lack of resources but simply because not enough people cared enough to just get off the couch, even if it meant their liberty. We all have complicated and busy lives but this is our Republic. You must reach beyond and pull a second shift for the sake liberty.”
Despite the sheer volume of effort required, victory was achieved. But when asked about his reaction to that victory, Tim said it “still hasn’t sunk in yet.”
“I’m still in awe. And still looking for the next issue to address. I mean, we all cheered but it was so epic – I guess that’s my word of the day – and there were always so many fires to put out while it was going on that it still hasn’t sunk in that it’s over.” Pressed further for his lessons learned, he said, “On the plus side, I can say that I learned to appreciate Cincinnatus and George Washington a lot more – you can give to the Republic, do your duty and then go back home. And then,” he laughed, “get called up again.”
Knight is now planning on running for the NRA's Board of Directors in 2015, having gotten his nomination by - once again - taking the more difficult grassroots means of collecting member signatures rather than being named by the Board's nominating committee. “I want to take the passion from the recall and export it to citizens around the country. My new mission is to show other people that there is always an option and that regular people can and must make a difference. Since our victory, there have been groups in other states reaching out to us, asking how they can push back in their homes. I want to help the NRA figure out how best to connect with those people, to feed their energy and help them direct it. We can’t just remain passive and on the defense. People want to fight for their rights. We need to help them.”
His advice for such citizens?
"If I could give you my top five takeaways, they'd be these. First off, remember that citizens can make a difference, we have just been convinced that we can't. Second, learn the meaning of 'OPSEC' - keeping your plans secret is perhaps the greatest advantage and that must be maintained. Third, don't expect allies. You have to earn them and they won't always match your preconceptions. Fourth, really understand the stakes. Legislative and executive tyranny are becoming expected and that jaded apathy will only let it worsen. If we don't challenge it we are all in trouble. And finally, the 'front' for liberty is not on some far away soil. It's here, in every state, in every community. You're on it right now."
Asked for any closing thoughts, Knight only added, “Knowing that citizens can still make a difference still has me floored. I’m still in awe. And I’ll say it again. Three hundred everyday people – not ‘the pros’ but people with families and with jobs and with no political experience - may have changed the whole narrative on a national scale. Just imagine what a thousand could do.”