The Colorado Republican Party voted late Tuesday to install a neutral group of outsiders to supervise the El Paso County GOP's upcoming leadership elections in response to complaints from local Republicans who said they don't trust incumbent county chair Vickie Tonkins to run a fair election.
The 139-123.8 vote came at the end of an unprecedented and often contentious online meeting of the state GOP's central committee called earlier this month by outgoing state party chair Kristi Burton Brown. The results include fractional votes because multiple people split some offices.
Late Monday, Tonkins and a handful of local party officers filed a lawsuit against the state party and Burton Brown, arguing that the state party is overstepping its authority under state law and GOP bylaws.
The conflict revolves around who will run the local county party's Feb. 11 reorganization meeting in Colorado Springs, when local Republicans are slated to elect a county chair, vice chair and secretary to two-year terms. Tonkins, who has chaired the county party since late 2018, is running for another term.
It takes place in the shadow of Colorado Republicans' historic losses in last year's election, including disappointing results in El Paso County, the state's largest county and traditionally the GOP's stronghold of votes statewide.
Held on the Zoom teleconference platform, Tuesday's meeting drew 301 of the central committee's nearly 500 members, which include county party officers, elected officials and so-called bonus members from larger counties, based on the total number of votes received by top-ticket GOP candidates in the last election.
Both of Colorado's major political parties are entering the biennial reorganization process, with county parties set to hold officer and bonus member elections in the first half of February. State Republicans and Democrats meet in mid-March and early April, respectively, to elect party leadership.
The state GOP committee designated Gregory Carlson, a former chair of the Fremont County GOP and a registered parliamentarian, to serve as the temporary chair for the El Paso County party's election, as well as outlining other procedures for the meeting.
"We are asking that the state party ensure a fair, open and transparent election," said state Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, one of several Tonkins opponents who maintained that Tonkins has been putting her thumb on the scale against Republicans she doesn't support.
El Paso County Treasurer Chuck Broerman charged that Tonkins has refused to furnish her challengers with a list of the Republicans able to vote in the upcoming county election.
"Is this administration already in the process of determining the outcome of the next election?" he asked. "That's why we need the state central committee to step in. Secret list — corrupt election."
Tonkins' attorney cautioned Republicans against inserting themselves into a local controversy.
"The question tonight is whether the (state central committee) wants to enable GOP voters who may be unhappy with the outcome of their county election, or the way the elected officials lead, to blatantly disregard the will of the voters and the proper removal channels by asking the (state committee) to, quote, step in," said Devin Daines, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit against the state party.
"And even if it were lawful, it is a bad idea that will only invite future abuse," he added.
Colorado Springs City Councilman Dave Donelson, who lost a close race in a traditionally Republican legislative district in November and supported Tuesday's motion, reminded the meeting that the state party formally censured Tonkins last month for publicly attacking a slew of local GOP nominees — including himself — just days before Election Day.
Broerman also noted that the GOP's share of the vote in the county fell to historic lows in the last election, an occurrence he attributed in part to "a steady stream of news coverage about the problems in the El Paso County Republican Party."
"Secret list, corrupt elections, declining membership, actively working to defeat Republican nominees," he said. "All we're asking for is a fair election on an even playing field."
Former state Rep. Dave Williams, a longtime Tonkins ally, argued that it was the incumbent chair's detractors trying to stack the deck.
"What's clear to us is that the complainants want to maximize their chances — by hook or by crook, by voiding our county party elections next month and retaking control of party leadership," he said.
After the meeting, Williams called the gathering "a farce" in a text message and blasted Burton Brown for what he characterized as "disenfranchis[ing] fellow Republicans, as many voters didn’t receive ballots and very little time was afforded to present the truth from our side."
Tonkins didn't respond to a request for comment.
The county party's vice chair, frequent Tonkins critic Karl Schneider, however, said he was happy with the outcome.
“I applaud the Colorado Republican Party for standing up to clear corruption and demanding election integrity within their own ranks," Schneider said in a text message. "If Republicans want to rebuild their credibility, it starts with cleaning their own house. Today, they showed they are willing to do that.”
Tonkins' attorneys didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Earlier, though, they said that they intended to pursue the lawsuit if the central committee voted against Tonkins.
Williams emphasized the point late Tuesday.
"We look forward to continuing this fight in the court of law where all the evidence will have to be considered fairly and an impartial judge will hear the case, unlike Kristi, whose dad was a party to the complaint," he said. "Kristi Burton Brown has proven to be no better than the radical Democrats who break the rules to get the outcome they want.”
Burton Brown told Colorado Politics that she hopes both sides put their differences behind them and support the decision.
“The (state central committee) heard the evidence and spoke," she said in a text message. "This body is the final party authority in the state, and tonight they voted for safe, legal, and fair internal party elections. I respect that choice and think all Republicans should.”
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