Scott Gessler, former Colorado Secretary of State and attorney for the Westminster Water Warriors, filed a lawsuit in January against the city of Westminster for disqualifying recall petitions. The Warriors’ right to try and recall members of Westminster City Council was “unconstitutionally hindered and violated,” the suit said.
Less than a month later, Gessler announced his candidacy for chairman of the Colorado Republican Party. Soon after, he began sending campaign emails to supporters bolstering the debunked claim that Donald Trump wrongfully lost the 2020 election because of voter fraud. “We must recognize that serious election fraud took place,” read an email dated Feb. 4.
But it’s not what it may look like, Gessler said. He doesn’t think the recall petition dispute was a hyperlocal example of election fraud. He didn’t take the Warriors’ case to aid his pursuit of the role of GOP chairman, a race he ultimately lost to Kristi Burton Brown in March.
“Those were really two separate things: Scott Gessler doing stuff in his personal political capacity and Scott Gessler doing stuff in his professional legal capacity,” Gessler said.
In any case, Gessler’s presence in Westminster’s recall lends to the optics battle the Warriors face. The group says its fight is nonpartisan, that they are trying to recall city councilors to ultimately lower water rates, but others point to a few notable figures associated with the recall as evidence of it being a Trojan horse for right-wing politics.
“This recall is such a waste of money, with its hyper-partisan champion Scott Gessler and star witness Bruce Baker. Herb Atchison did not deserve to go out this way,” said Adams County Commissioner Emma Pinter, a Democrat and former member of Westminster City Council, in a statement after former Mayor Herb Atchsion resigned in early May.
Prior to Atchison’s resignation, an Adams County District Court judge sided with Gessler and the Warriors, ordering Westminster City Clerk Michelle Parker to recount previously rejected recall petitions. Parker found enough valid signatures to trigger recall elections for Atchison and Councilor Jon Voelz, but not for the Warriors’ other two targets, Mayor Anita Seitz and Councilor Kathryn Skulley. The Warriors wanted to recall the four councilors for not lowering water rates.
Along with Gessler, as Pinter said, recall opponents have criticized the Warriors for allying with Bruce Baker, a conservative and former city councilor who is running for council again in November.
Baker has been a divisive figure in the community since making controversial comments in 2017 about undocumented immigrants, comparing them to rapists and murderers (Baker told Denver7 people misunderstood his comment). Baker has been a cheerleader for the recall (he frequently speaks during public comments in city council meetings) and was one of the main petition circulators.
Voelz said that Gessler and Baker being at the forefront of the recall “sends a political message.” As a focus of the recall himself, Voelz further demarcates the Warriors’ seeming partisanship. He, Seitz and Skulley, three of the four recall targets, are Democrats (though Atchison is a Republican). The councilors whom the Warriors consider allies, David DeMott, Lindsey Smith and Rich Seymour, are Republicans.
Debbie Teter, a Warriors organizer, protests the notions some people have of the Warriors — that the group isn’t advocating for the common good — based off appearances. It’s something she is often asked about, but she said, “people make assumptions without knowing the facts.”
For example, the Warriors hired Gessler because of his experience representing recall clients, not for his Republican stardom, Teter said. Commenting on his end, Gessler said he didn’t offer the Warriors political advice. “At the end of the day, my job is to make sure that the recall can go forward, not to fight that political fight,” Gessler said.
As for Baker, Teter said he just wanted to help like anybody else, so they let him. Conflating the Warriors with his ultraconservative views is a ploy by the opposition, Baker said. “They just want to con the Democrats into thinking it’s a Democrat vs. Republican thing,” he said.
Teter also encouraged people to take note of the support the Warriors have received. An analysis of a list of 50 people who donated to the Warriors found that 11 are registered Democrats, 18 are Republicans and 21 are unaffiliated, according to financial filings and voting records.
To Teter, it matters how people see the Warriors because the group is trying to build a broad political coalition. “This is not one group attacking another group,” she said.
Whether or not the recall falls along nominal political lines, it’s still polarizing. Emily Brooks, a resident and opponent of the recall, doesn’t see it as a right versus left-wing thing. “This recall seems to be focused on people who have a different philosophy about how Westminster should serve the community, in a broader sense,” she said.
Recall proponents have also expressed frustrations about rapid development and population growth, Don Tripp’s city management and Voelz’s appointment, not election, to council in 2019. It’s not just about water rates.
Brooks disagrees with the Warriors’ claims about water and the process they are undergoing but doesn’t think nefarious political operatives are behind it all. “I think it is an attempt to redirect long-term policies in our community. There’s always those kinds of efforts, but I think the normal and usual election processes should be used to do that” she said.
That’s where Brooks and Teter can agree, amidst their disagreement. The fault lines of Westminster’s recall aren’t necessarily tied to party affiliations, but they are political. Because of that, Teter said, “I’m now a political figure and that’s the last place I wanted to be.”
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