Russell Weisfield protests vacancy committees

Russell Weisfield protests in favor of replacing vacancy committees with special elections outside of the House District 38 vacancy committee meeting in Littleton on Feb. 8., 2020.

Inside Littleton’s Douglas H. Buck Community Center on Saturday, 55 Republican vacancy committee members were meeting to fill the unexpired term of Rep. Susan Beckman, who resigned on Jan. 17. Outside, Russell Weisfield stood on the sidewalk with a homemade sign, scrawled in permanent marker with block letters:

“Abolish Vacancy Committees."

“It all just seems wrong to me that a small group of people, insiders, are the ones who get to choose,” he said. Colorado is one of 25 states that uses a method other than special elections to address vacancies in the legislature. Vacancy committees derived from each party’s central committee fill the unexpired term, with the party of the departing legislator receiving the privilege. Weisfield feels that process is too exclusive.

“If you can’t show up to caucus night because you have to work? Guess what, you don’t get a say in the vacancy committee. Because that’s where the precinct leaders and precinct committee people come from,” he said. "Working people get stiffed on being able to decide who represents them.

Weisfield said that he first thought about the issue when his senator, Evie Hudak, resigned in 2013 under a recall threat. But since December 2019, with four vacancy appointments in three months, he has protested outside most of them.

“One of my biggest problems is we elect individuals and not parties,” he said. “I vote for a person and not a party. It just seems wrong to me.”

Colorado Politics found that since the November 2018 election, 12% of the General Assembly’s membership consists of legislators who were not elected to the districts they now serve. That appointment rate was the highest in the nation. Originally, Colorado required special elections, but a 1951 change instituted the current process.

Inside the House District 38 vacancy committee, Martin Bolt, the chair, tried to emphasize the serious responsibility to the party activists.

“It is an election. You’re not nominating somebody for a primary. You’re actually electing them to this office,” he said.

Afterward, Bolt added, “I used to talk and think that way,” referring to the notion of abolishing vacancy committees. “But once you get involved you begin to appreciate why these laws were made. Your representation is gone when the person is gone and you have got to replace them as fast as possible. And so it does serve a purpose, a fair purpose.”

Garry Kirkland, a House District 38 vacancy committee member from Littleton, said that he “could probably see both sides of that issue. I think this obviously is expeditious. This particular election will only last as long as this particular session, which has two or so months left in it.”

The circumstances triggering the past four vacancy committee have been unique: death, illness, moving from the House to the Senate, and, in Beckman’s case, taking a new day job.

“Susan didn’t give us any notice,” Kirkland said. “She resigned in January. The legislative session is only about 120 days long. What are you gonna do? We need to get somebody in the legislature voting for HD38, and to have an election would pretty much chew up the rest of the legislative session.”

That justification — expediency — is a nonstarter for Weisfield.

“Yes, they have to run for reelection in November,” he said. “But you can do a lot of damage as a legislator in that time.”

Dorothy Gotlieb, the chair of the Arapahoe County Republicans, was noncommittal on Weisfield's idea, saying she would “have to think about it. I can see pros and cons.”

Marc Kamin, chair of the Democratic Party of Denver, where the last two vacancy committees took place, previously told Colorado Politics that “I don’t think it’s a perfect system, but it’s the system we have and so you make it work.”

There are four or five other people, Weisfield said, who are interested in the crusade to ban vacancy committees. During this year's caucuses, Weisfield will attempt to insert a plank in as many county party platforms as possible to call for special elections. Among the metro Denver party officials to whom he has spoken, he has found an unreceptive audience.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a complete ‘buzz off.’ But it’s like, ‘Okay. That’s nice. Thank you for your opinion,’” he recalled. “I don’t think the parties themselves want to see it changed.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Garry Kirkland's first name.

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