Colorado Democrats Took On the Oil and Gas Industry. Now the Recalls are Starting.

The first target is Rep. Rochelle Galindo, a gay woman of color.

DENVER, CO - JANUARY 4: Rep. Rochelle Galindo stands with fellow representatives and their families during the first day of the 2019 Colorado Legislative Session at the capitol on Friday, January 4, 2019. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Rep. Rochelle Galindo stands with fellow representatives and their families during the first day of the 2019 Colorado Legislative Session at the capitol on Jan. 4, 2019. Photo: AAron Ontiveroz/Denver Post via Getty Images

After seizing unified control of the Colorado state government in November’s wave election, Democrats there did something unusual: They governed.

For decades, the oil and gas industry has had a stranglehold on Colorado politics, but the newly empowered Democrats unveiled a sweeping bill to rein in fracking. The industry spent millions to stop it, but Democrats muscled it through, and it was signed by Gov. Jared Polis, an independently wealthy Democrat who ran in opposition to the industry.

Now the industry is fighting back by threatening to recall state Rep. Rochelle Galindo, who was elected last year and represents Weld County, the state’s top oil and gas producer. Galindo is the first openly gay person or woman of color to hold her seat.

The Colorado Secretary of State’s Office approved a recall petition against Galindo earlier this month, giving opponents until June 3 to collect 25 percent of the total votes cast in her election, which would mean 5,696 signatures.

Recall efforts have also been launched against Polis, Rep. Meg Froelich and Sen. Jeff Bridges, but no official petitions have been approved. According to state law, a governor must be in office for at least six months before a recall can be petitioned. Polis opponents would have to obtain 630,000 signatures in 60 days to get a recall election on the next ballot, and the signatures can’t be collected until July.

It isn’t an empty threat, either. The last time Colorado Democrats held a trifecta of control, two Democratic lawmakers were successfully voted out of office in the state’s first-ever recall elections. Former Senate President John Morse and Sen. Angela Giron were ousted in an NRA-led effort for their support of tougher gun laws following the Sandy Hook and Aurora mass shootings. Those recalls have haunted Colorado politics since.

So far this legislative session, Democrats have rallied behind a “red-flag” gun measure and a comprehensive sex ed bill, but their most high-profile war was over fracking and the effort to pass Senate Bill 181, the most significant oil and gas regulation reform since the 1950s.

A single Weld County rancher, Steve Wells, is bankrolling the effort to push Galindo out of office. Wells, whose property has hundreds of oil and gas wells, has donated $100,000 to the Committee to Recall Rochelle Galindo through his company, according to filings with the Secretary of State’s office.

There was initially another recall effort against the freshman representative that has now been disbanded, pushed by Joe Neville, brother of Senate Minority Leader Patrick Neville; Weld County pastor Steven Grant, who called Galindo a “homosexual pervert”; and gun rights lobbyist Dudley Brown.

“The voters of House District 50 are not going to be intimidated by millionaires and special interests cutting six-figure checks to political operatives engaging in the divisive Washington-style politics Coloradans consistently reject,” Galindo said in a statement earlier this month. “People are free to disagree with the decisions I make at the state capitol, and they’re free to vote for someone else in 2020. I will fight every day for our community and our shared best interests, and even for the people who disagree with me.”

“The reality is, [the oil and gas industries] are not used to not getting their way,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a sponsor of the legislation, told The Intercept. “Specifically, they get to say which bills pass and which ones fail, and that’s what led us to the point of where we are now. So they gave it all they got. They spent millions of dollars on TV ads and patch-through phone calls to members to make it feel like there was a groundswell of opposition.”

Fenberg added that the oil and gas industries held rallies at the Capitol, hired an army of lobbyists, and were part of creating an obstructionist atmosphere in the state Senate, in which Republican senators would ask for bills to be read “at length,” a parliamentary tactic used to slow legislation.

Under the legislation, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state board that approves regulations on the industry, is ordered to prioritize public health and safety rather than industry profit. SB 181 also gives cities and counties more control in regulating drilling and reduces the number of members with industry experience allowed to serve on the 9-member board from three to one, turning it into a full-time board rather than a volunteer one.

Despite its opposition to the bill, industry groups did manage to get some concessions in amendments slipped in before final passage, Fenberg added.

“So when it’s all said and done, no matter how much money they spent — and it’s in the multiple millions of dollars — they got some concessions out of it, I suppose, but overall the bill checks all the boxes I wanted to check in the beginning, and it’s still in line with the objective in the spirit of what we wanted to accomplish,” he said. “But they had a huge fight, and it was nasty and vitriolic at times, but I also don’t think this will be the end of it, unfortunately. I think there will be more to come.”

In the 2018 midterm elections, Colorado Democrats seized unified control of the state government for the first time since 2014, winning back the state Senate while holding down the House and governor’s seat. It opened up opportunities to pass legislation like the conversion therapy ban, for example, that had otherwise been getting stuck in the Senate. They have also passed a “red-flag” gun bill, which would allow law enforcement to remove the firearms of individuals perceived as threats, and the National Popular Vote bill, which pledges Colorado’s electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote in presidential elections.

Though much of the recall chatter is happening online, Republican organizing isn’t limited to Facebook groups like the one against Polis. Last week, Ben Engen of Constellation Political Consulting, a Republican consulting firm, held a recall election training seminar in Buena Vista to teach the party how to “mount a successful recall effort.”  

Left-leaning blog Colorado Pols first posted a full version of the video of the training seminar, which Engen later redacted online so their strategies aren’t used to “hamstring” the effort. During the seminar, Engen said that recalls are “uniquely powerful” because while voters are generally aware of midterm elections, they aren’t as aware “of a special election like a recall that just comes out of nowhere and blindsides them.”

“That was one of the things that really helped us in 2013,” he continued. “We aren’t going to be able to count on all of those advantages again, so we have to be extra cognizant of the timing and executing things in a way that will preserve that power.”

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