When Republican Scott Gessler announced his candidacy for Colorado Secretary of State last year, his party's strategists should have cheered. Instead, they pouted, arguably for good reason. While Gessler possessed the political instincts and solid resume crucial to take down likable incumbent Bernie Buscher, his victory would leave a dramatic void in future election battles. Then Gessler won.
GOP leaders quickly scrambled to find candidates capable of filling Gessler's shoes. After all, who else had the acumen, experience, and constitutionally grounded philosophy to effectively represent the center-right in future election-related litigation? Matters got even more complicated last week when emerging contender, Ryan Call, a Denver attorney, was elected as state chair of the Republican Party.
By contrast, the state's top Democratic election attorney - Mark Grueskin - has been content to stay put as a highly-paid private attorney. The right has seen a bumpier road. Attorney Tim Tymkovich led the way for Republicans until he accepted a federal judicial appointment in 2003, at which point Gessler was well-suited to take the baton, frequently going toe-to-toe with Grueskin over the years and often prevailing against Grueskin's union-funded clients.
As I've disclosed previously, Gessler was my go-to guy for all things elections, representing various campaigns I led from 2004 to 2008. I cheered his election night victory, knowing his win would mean good things for the non-partisan causes I most often find myself involved in, including issue campaigns and ballot initiatives. Thus far, Gessler has acted true to form, taking on county clerks and the legislature to protect ballot integrity and election-related funding.
So who does the GOP turn to now? Unlike Grueskin's well-funded post, Gessler's successor should anticipate the financial pain associated with representing conservative causes. Despite flattering stereotypes that paint Republicans as flush with cash, campaigns often lack the resources to pay their attorneys even a fraction of what a typical client would be expected to pay.
Another note of caution: It ain't easy navigating campaign finance and tax laws while matching wits and banging heads with Grueskin and the Attorney General's best (i.e., AG legend Maurie Knaizer and now-Supreme Court Justice Monica Marquez), not to mention well-funded attack dogs like the left's Colorado Ethics Watch. Finally, you need a little junk yard snarl; you're in this to kick some ass - not be friends with the Colorado Lawyer's Committee.
Gessler certainly had the guts to take on all of the above. As an attorney myself, and one who represents clients engaged in a diversity of election-related and politically-centered disputes, I've come to realize that in the absence of Gessler, the center-right may just find that it needs a cadre of lawyers willing to put aside firm rivalries and personal ego to get the job done in 2012 and on.
So here's my take on the GOP's Top 10 prospects. Let the scramble begin!
1. Lisa Sahli. Interestingly enough, the center-right may just have to admit that its most devoted and effective counsel comes courtesy of Killmer, Lane and Newman, Denver's best known liberal civil rights firm. As one of several plaintiffs in a federal civil rights lawsuit challenging recent legislatively-imposed restrictions to petition rights, I've been stunned by the tireless devotion of Sahli and the firm's other attorneys. Sahli is a true believer in protecting the voice of the people in the political process, even when the voices she's protecting may not match up with her own ideology. Her firm is taking the case on contingency, and despite being buried in a seemingly endless list of discovery requests and depositions courtesy of Grueskin, remains as devoted as ever. Already, Sahli and co. have obtained injunctions striking down legislative provisions most concerning to plaintiffs.
2. Shayne Madsen. Madsen is a known entity and she's seen some real battles, impressively always coming back for more. As Jon Caldara and the non-profit Independence Institute's go-to gal, she can only dream of the fancy paychecks Grueskin pulls down for similar work. Fortunately, since she comes from a big firm, she may be able to stay in the mix for the long haul, possibly doing so as part of her firm's commitment to pro-bono and public interest causes. Madsen plays well with others and has been a great resource in helping Sahli strategize in the aforementioned civil rights lawsuit, which interestingly now technically pits the Independence Institute (as the named plaintiff) against Gessler's own office.
3. Jon Anderson. Anderson is sharp and has good connections; as general counsel to former Governor Owens he's BFF with the Owens crowd. That could help or hurt in various GOP circles. He has pieced together a solid client portfolio that may help him work through possible handicaps. He's not a litigator, at least not to the level Gessler was prior to taking office. He may also struggle to convince the top dogs at his firm, Holland and Hart, to risk the firm's well laid strategy of playing nice with pro-government corporate clients by representing those pesky, bomb-throwing Republicans who rarely get invited to well-heeled cocktail parties - especially when activist clients won't draw top dollar to the firm.
4. Katie Biber. Biber recently moved to Colorado and she practices federal campaign finance law with the best. That means, however, a gazillion dollars an hour for the insatiable Patton Boggs money-machine. To state-level GOP insiders, her pedigree and price tag may play against her. If she can fight through the big firm practice of limiting associate exposure to the court room, she could develop the kind of fast-paced, Wild West election lawyer skills that could ensure she becomes a serious player. That is if she wants to.
5. Geoff Blue. Blue is an unlikely candidate, so we'll place him in the "intrigue" category. Prior to serving as John Suthers' deputy Attorney General, Blue is uniquely situated in that he actually had a decade of real, substantial litigation experience. If he goes back into private practice and wants to practice election law, he would be a force. But there's a big question. Does he really want to thump Democrats? While I disagree with Blue on all things medical marijuana, I've also known him to be as fair and ethical as possible in his role in perpetuating Suthers' big government law enforcement agenda. He may just be too nice for the job.
6. Dan Domenico. Another bit of intrigue. Talk about a charmed career. Domenico went straight from a prestigious clerkship to Colorado's Solicitor General. Having visited him time and again at the Secretary of State's election-related hearings, I've seen him do a top-notch job. If he decides to wade into private practice and bang heads, he would be a force to be reckoned with. Then again, he might choose to be a professor. Given Denver's lethargic legal market, who could blame him?
7. Jason Dunn. Back to the contenders. Dunn has a great pedigree - former clerk to Justice Coats and Deputy Attorney General under Suthers. He's worked closely with Gessler, Westfall (see below), and Anderson (with whom he's close friends), and he also has some litigation experience. Plus, he's ambitious. What remains to be seen is how far he can go in Republican circles after working under Steve Farber, one of Denver's most respected big guns (who as the force behind Denver's 2009 Democratic National Convention, has also become a personality greeted by skeptics within both major parties' faithful for his willingness to cross party lines if he thinks it will help the causes and candidates he supports). Not a bad trait in the least, but not exactly the reputation Dunn wants to inherit should he seek to be seen as the state's tenacious GOP litigator.
8. Rob McGuire. McGuire could be the sleeper here. He hails from the Bill Owens Crowd, is sharp as a tack, and has been mixing it up lately with some good cases. He doesn't suffer from Big Firm Syndrome. And even though he is not a pure litigator, he's impressed many with his chops. To get into the game in major way, he'll have to do what Gessler did: take on grassroots clients at a steep discount. While he still has yet to win a big one, he's got incredible promise. Mind you, Grueskin still maintains a solid reputation after losing plenty to Gessler. A solid media spin machine never hurts and McGuire is bright enough to construct one of his own.
9. Mario Nicolais. As Gessler's long-time associate, Nicolais inherited much of Gessler's practice and has the chance to parlay this into a top-dog position. Like Anderson (and Call, for that matter) we haven't seen him hit the center ring with election lawsuits. Yet. Noting this, he has a solid co-conspirator at Gessler's former firm in Steve Klenda--a rock-solid commercial litigator and stalwart Republican. The duo may just have what it takes to fill Gessler's shoes. We shall see.
10. Bob Hoban. In the small world of Colorado politics, I have to give a shameless plug to one of my own, Bob Hoban, a partner at my firm, Hoban & Feola. Hoban hails from the same firm that once employed Gessler, Dunn and Anderson, and which still employs Westfall (see below). A wunderkind of sorts, snatching high profile eminent domain and medical marijuana cases from heavy hitters and 17th Street big boys. I met him years ago as we trudged through the title setting process for a grassroots ballot initiative and I've seen firsthand his ability to build ideologically diverse coalitions and effectively use earned media to fend off bogus election-related challenges. His libertarian instincts contrast strongly with others on this list and his proven track record of putting overzealous city attorneys in their place could position him well for taking on the Democrats' best. Also a benefit, catch him on a cause that gets him fired up and he may just give your grassroots coalition a solid discount.
There are certainly other notable potential contenders not mentioned on this list. Take John Zakhem, for instance. Ironically enough, he was my election law professor at the University of Denver. His interest in the game, however, seems to have faded over the last few years. By no means, however, count him out as he could play a crucial role in protecting center-right campaigns and candidates. Likewise, Richard Westfall has one of Denver's most solid election-related legal resumes. I've seen his work first hand, having hired him in 2008 to fight off bogus election complaints. Westfall is your guy if you've got the time to take an issue all the way the state's (or maybe even nation's) top court. He's a constitutional expert and as a former U.S. Supreme Court clerk and he knows more than just about anyone in the state when it comes to appeals. He is not, however, the guy you want if you need to squeeze out a victory in a period of days or weeks leading up to an election. He has also suffered through major firm fractures when his prior firm, Hale Friesen, split into two, losing multiple rising stars (as demonstrated through this list) in the process.
Inevitably, the list above will invoke skepticism from those questioning why no attorneys from outside Denver were named. To be blunt: you've got to show up at the game if you want to play. Election litigation promises litigation on crack. Outcomes can be won or lost minutes or days. For some pre-election challenges, weeks or even months are a luxury lawyers just don't have. While geography makes it tough for those outside Denver to keep up, Colorado Springs' Bob Gardner may just have a shot down the road to join the fray, as could Erik Groves of Grand Junction.
Like Tymkovich on the federal Bench, or Gessler in the executive branch, Gardner faces a second strike. He's a state legislator, which limits the issues he can represent. But don't count him out down the road. He's got tremendous experience and he keeps things local in the future, it could be a good thing. If any city needs its own full-blown expert in initiative challenges, municipal elections or campaign finance mandates, it's the Springs. Gardner could fit the bill perfectly.
Denver would be lucky to have Groves. He's an intriguing prospect made more so after he effectively exposed the laughable campaign finance practices of 2010 GOP gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes. While he did get tied up in an ugly (though thankfully not lengthy) lobbying scandal, it should be viewed as a forgivable rookie error by an otherwise young, rising star who gets it. The next part of "getting it"? Move to Denver. Harsh but true.
Jessica P. Corry (www.JessicaCorry.com) is a Denver attorney, writer and political strategist.