Delegates turn GOP politics upside down in two local races
Today is April Fool’s Day, a day traditionally reserved for playing tricks on the unsuspecting. Or was it last Saturday, when delegates to the Mesa County Republicans’ county assembly dealt some surprises to a couple of their longtime local politicos?
Both Steve King and Steve Acquafresca walked into the gathering looking to be anointed to move on to other offices. Now both are looking up to surprise candidates on the top line of the primary ballot in the races for Mesa County sheriff and for the District 55 seat in the Colorado House of Representatives.
Perhaps that wasn’t a surprise to some local GOP insiders. I suspect outsiders, including yours truly, were a bit blindsided by the outcomes.
Somewhere back in the dark ages of Mesa County politics, say when a current newspaper columnist could be a county commissioner, Dan Thurlow chaired the county’s Republican party. Since turning those chores over to others, save for an occasional letter to the editor, Dan’s been largely absent from any local political activity that would get his name in the news, instead concentrating on his businesses.
So, it was somewhat curious, a few days before leaving for our annual spring break jaunt to warmer climes, to see him mentioned as a possible challenger to Acquafresca. Even more surprising was seeing, when we returned last weekend, that he’d outpolled the sitting county commissioner 2-1 and earned top line on the primary ballot.
I’ve known Dan since our junior high school days here in Grand Junction. I suspect our politics are still as different as they were more than 20 years ago, when I first ran for local office. I’m also pretty certain the competitive drive he displayed as a high-school athlete and later in business will mean Acquafresca has his hands full in the battle for the legislative seat Ray Scott is vacating.
If the outcome of the Thurlow/Acquafresca showdown was a surprise, it’s safe to say John Pennington’s four-point margin over sitting state Sen. Steve King was a blow-your-hat-off shocker.
In the minds of more than a few observers, King has been running for sheriff ever since he first tossed his hat in the ring to be a legislator, biding his time as former Sheriff Riecke Claussen finished out his terms and heir-apparent Stan Hilkey completed his.
So, even though it’s not unknown for an impassioned challenger to turn things upside down in a small gathering, it has to be a bit disconcerting for a sitting state senator to finish second to someone who, if most of us were asked, would elicit a “who the hell is John Pennington?” response.
Turns out he’s someone likely to be the darling of the far right — someone who professes he’ll be a “constitutional sheriff” who’ll protect us from “the crimes of federal bureaucracies” like the Environmental Protection Agency. He touts the endorsement of a former Arizona sheriff, Richard Mack, who encourages local sheriffs to challenge federal authority.
Just what we need, don’t you think — a bunch of local sheriffs intent on picking fights with the feds based upon their individual interpretations of federal laws and the Constitution. Unless you think busting criminals and operating a jail ought to be the primary responsibilities of local law enforcement.
Pennington’s candidacy, if it survives to the general election ballot, has the potential to set up another Jared Wright moment in local politics.
That’d be a situation where he’s the GOP nominee for sheriff and there’s no Democrat or other serious contender, putting him into office by default. While local Democrats have done a better job of filling slots on the ballot this election cycle, there’s no “D” candidate in the sheriff’s race.
There’s an important caveat to victories by Thurlow and Pennington this past weekend. It’s one thing to end up on top at a gathering of about 250 party activists. But the bigger challenge is emerging victorious in the primary, where vote tallies are in the thousands.
A betting man would likely still put his money on King being the GOP nominee for sheriff. But Thurlow’s overwhelming margin at the assembly, coupled with local roots and a longtime party history, makes for an interesting call.