The shock and awe of the so-called blue tsunami on Election Day last November seems to have given way to business as usual in Arapahoe County instead of yielding the end of times.
There was no shortage of surprise nor histrionics last year as state office after office went to Democratic candidates, mostly in a very big way.
Even popular Republicans in relatively low-profile state offices were either beat or beaten out of their incumbencies by Democrats.
The Colorado “blue-nami” moved the state markedly left in the midterm elections, choosing the nation’s first openly gay governor, ousting a five-term GOP congressman and capturing key state offices held by Republicans.
Unexpected political casualties were also racked up in places like Arapahoe County. Traditionally Republican strongholds were undone by what many political watchers say was a sonorous anti-Trump sentiment in Colorado.
The county’s popular Republican sheriff, clerk and assessor were surprisingly ousted, by big numbers in some races.
An Election Day that saw Democratic Congressman Jared Polis win as an openly gay candidate also washed away Aurora’s five-term GOP U.S. House Rep. Mike Coffman.
The vote was tied to Trump across the state.
Carly Everett, 24, an independent voter from Littleton, said Trump’s attitude toward immigrants and racial rhetoric was the reason she voted a mostly Democratic ticket.
“It’s about Donald Trump, and a lot of bad things going on right now are about him,” Everett said after voting in Morrison. “I voted mostly Democrat to oppose the direction the country is headed.”
The unexpected victims of voters intent on punishing Trump were Arapahoe County Sheriff Dave Walcher, Clerk Matt Crane and Assessor Marc Scott.
Rich Sakol, chairman of the Arapahoe County Republicans, said it was absurd that someone with Walcher’s qualifications and incumbency lost to a little-known upstart in a county that reliably elects Republicans.
“If you look at the qualifications of Dave Walcher, he’s the most qualified sheriff probably in the state of Colorado,” Sakol said just after Election Day. “Anyone who spent any time looking at his qualifications versus his opponent would have voted for Dave Walcher. And people didn’t.
“Colorado’s a swing state, and today it swung against us.”
The election upset led to dire warnings about flawed critical county agencies. In Centennial, the sheriff department acts as town police. A push to investigate ending that agreement brought Walcher in as a consultant to investigate cost and feasibility.
Predictions degradation of all kinds county services made the local political rounds.
But nothing happened.
Police calls get answered. Licenses plates get issued. Property assessments are completed.
Political watchers and local officials say the blue wave seems to have destroyed a handful of political careers and not much else.
County Clerk: Lopez washes away Crane
On a typical afternoon the Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder’s Office in Littleton is buzzing. A nearly full room of people are waiting to be called on by tellers to update vehicle registrations. A steady stream of residents file out of the county’s glass palace onto their next errand.
County Clerk Joan Lopez acknowledges that few people pay attention to the happenings in her office until they have to — like when they have to renew the tags on their cars, get a marriage license or vote. Some people don’t even realize that Lopez’s seat at the helm of the department is an elected seat. That is until election season hits.
Her name was on the 2014 ballot and 2018 ballot for Arapahoe County.
Lopez won the office in November by a little more than 2 percentage points over her predecessor and former boss, Matt Crane, a Republican who was appointed to the seat in 2013. He’d worked in the office since 2007.
The two also faced off in 2014, but then Crane beat Lopez by 13 percentage points. That was before the so-called “blue wave” that put Democrats in office across the country. Despite the prediction that Democrats would fare well during midterms, there wasn’t a major indication Crane would lose his seat. He was well-liked and evaded public scrutiny, even from many of his political opponents.
Voter turnout in Arapahoe County was more than 64 percent this past year, which is about 16 points higher than the national average. About 59 percent of voters turned out to vote across the state in this year’s Midterm Election, according to stats listed on the Secretary of State’s website.
Lopez’s victory solidifies a nearly clean, Democratic sweep in the contested races for county offices this year. Democrats also defeated Republican incumbents in the races for sheriff and assessor in Arapahoe County. The local coroner and treasurer were also up for re-election, but both ran unopposed.
Even though she’s an elected newbie, Lopez knows the office well. She’s worked there for 17 years, mostly in the motor vehicle division. Her new title has come with a lot of work and some controversy so far.
When Lopez first applied at the office, nearly two decades ago, she said she wanted to work in elections because she grew up in a politically active family and knew the importance of voting. She didn’t get that job, but she did win over the then-director of motor vehicles who hired her on the spot. Lopez started the next day.
These days, behind the tellers in Lopez’s office, things are a little calmer, but still busy. And organized. So much so that Lopez’s bright pink blazer matches the tips of her pink French manicure.
She’s been at the helm of the clerk’s office for nearly six months, “the best job I’ve ever had,” she said with a big smile. Despite knowing the office well, the transition into the clerk position didn’t come without challenges.
“I came in with no leadership team. I kind of ran around in circles with fire in my hair, thinking what’s going to happen,” Lopez said.
She hired a team of deputy clerks, who Lopez said she feels are the best for their respective jobs. Her deputy clerk of elections is graduating in August with a master’s degree in cyber security — which she said she sees as a major asset to the office — and her chief deputy clerk has helped run several elections in Denver.
“I made sure the people I hired were experts in their fields. I felt like that wasn’t done recently,” Lopez said. “I think it’s important they actually know each department thoroughly.”
Since arriving as clerk, Lopez said she’s put an emphasis on making services more available across Arapahoe County, which includes swaths of Aurora, Littleton, Centennial and smaller municipalities. In some branches, only certain services are available. Lopez wants to change that.
“My goal is to have all services at every single office. My rockstar recording deputy has done a pilot (program), implemented at the Centennial office,” she said. “You could get a marriage license, but couldn’t record it there. There’s now a recording person there, we plan to do that in Aurora eventually too.”
During Crane’s tenure and across the state, there’s been a push to get more resources to communities, like vehicle registration renewal machines that have debuted in local grocery stores.
On top of the pilot program her office is implementing, Lopez also wants to make voting more accessible. That’s been her big aim, she said.
“Early voting is my biggest priority right now,” she said. She wants more people to know the process and that they can vote before Election Day.
Since coming into the office, Lopez boasts registering 4,000 new voters. She notes she wants more access to non-English speakers too.
“Our elections deputy is working on bilingual ballots, and posting them online,” she said. “We really don’t have funds to do more than Spanish at this point, but we’d like to have at least five languages by 2020. Hopefully the budget is there for it.”
Since, Lopez met with The Sentinel in late June, there have been murmurings that a recall effort may be launched against her, one that if it gains momentum, Lopez’s office will have to oversee, as there’s nothing in the state constitution dictating that another jurisdiction or the state take over when a county clerk is the target of a recall.
As of this week there wasn’t a petition filed with Arapahoe County, but a county spokesperson said that if a recall petition was found to be valid and an election were to happen, the board of county commissioners would appoint somebody else to oversee the election.
An endorsement she made earlier this year has been the source of much scrutiny the Democrat has endured since winning her seat.
Arapahoe County has long run Aurora’s municipal elections, but this year some city council members questioned Lopez’s ability to run a fair election because of an endorsement she made for Ward IV candidate Juan Marcano, a fellow Democrat. While city council races are non-partisan, politics often play some kind of role beneath the surface.
Aurora Councilman Charlie Richardson, who’s running for re-election to his Ward IV seat, especially took issue with the endorsement, raising the question of whether Lopez could be trusted to run the election.
“I think it’s important to say it’s hard enough to run for public office today with all the work that goes into it, all of the campaign rules and finance,” Richardson said during a city meeting after discovering the endorsement Lopez made via a Facebook post. “I just don’t need the office that’s responsible for conducting the election to support, endorse and donate to my opponent.”
Lopez is also the former registered agent for a group called Hardcore Democrats. The goal of the group is to “promote Democratic candidates for school board, city council, coroner, sheriff, county clerk, treasurer, RTD board, town council and district representatives only for the Democratic party.”
According to state records, she was the agent for the group until mid-March. Lopez said that change was made because of the perception it may give to voters.
Lopez affirms the process is secure and that she wouldn’t use her status to give any candidate insider information.
“I understand those concerns, but I can assure everyone that our elections have always been and will continue to be a fair and transparent process. Our elections team is staffed with highly knowledgeable individuals who have years of experience coordinating elections and adhere to all rules and regulations set forth by C.R.S. Title 1 Elections,” Lopez said. “All candidates must also adhere to certain laws to ensure fairness. During election season, tabulation and ballot security is conducted by bipartisan teams. We also have a pre-audit and post-audit event that anyone is welcome to attend.”
So far, Aurora hasn’t signaled to Arapahoe County that there will be any kind of change in the coordinated election, according to the county clerk’s spokeswoman. The city’s election commission ran through several options the city has, including running its own election, contracting with another county and writing provisions into the agreement to ensure transparency. But none of those options were particularly easy to implement or enforce, members of the commission said.
Richardson said he wouldn’t further push the issue of operating election differently, saying he feels any partisan involvement has stopped.
Arapahoe County Republican chair Dorothy Gotlieb penned an editorial questioning Lopez’s fairness, writing “Can Arapahoe County voters truly accept that Clerk and Recorder Lopez is — and will be — fair, and will conduct elections beyond reproach. Can you?”
— KARA MASON, Staff Writer
County sheriff: Brown drowns Walcher
It’s been just seven months since Tyler Brown pinned on his Arapahoe County Sheriff badge for the very first time.
And in the first half of 2019, the 36-year-old sheriff has spent significant time meeting a staff of some 750 personnel and a community of nearly 650,000 people. It’s been a whirlwind introduction to bureaucracy for the young peace officer, who said swapping radio chatter for calendar invites, and moving from patrolling the street to sitting through lengthy board meetings has taken some getting used to.
“It’s been a drastic change,” Brown said when comparing his former role as a patrol officer in the tiny Denver hamlet of Mountain View with his current role as Arapahoe County Sheriff. “But it does take time sitting at a conference table to make sure all the moving parts are in the right place.”
Brown shocked political observers from across the spectrum last November when he bested heavily favored Republican Dave Walcher to become the top cop for Colorado’s oldest county. Despite being out-fundraised by a ratio of about 11 to 1, Brown defeated Walcher by nearly 8 percentage points, or roughly 20,000 votes.
Now, he’s learning to walk the walk.
Brown inherited an aging jail, a bevy of political skeptics, and a Centennial City Council interested in looking into how it could create its own police department and bow out of a longstanding agreement between the local sheriff’s office and nascent municipality.
Brown’s quietly endeavored to dispatch most of those initial hurdles. Principally, he’s worked with Centennial city officials to pen a revised but extended agreement between that city and the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office to have the latter continue to police the rapidly growing burg. The new agreement halved the previous contract between the two entities with an option to automatically renew the arrangement after five years, according to Brown.
Local sheriff’s deputies have acted as Centennial’s police force since the city was incorporated at the start of the century. Some 150 deputies currently patrol the city of more than 110,000 people. And those residents keep deputies busy; there were about 1,000 more calls for service in Centennial city limits than in all of unincorporated Arapahoe County last year, according to the Sheriff’s 2018 report.
Still, Centennial city officials declined to pursue creating their own police department after they were told it would cost tens of millions of dollars to get a new agency up and running, according to recent media reports. Centennial City Council members tabbed Walcher to study the subject immediately after the 2018 election.
Walcher has declined to comment publicly on his work with Centennial. While he confirmed he has since started a new position with the City and County of Denver, he once again declined to comment on his work in Centennial or his time as Arapahoe County Sheriff for this story.
Brown, who began his law enforcement career with Aurora’s Code Enforcement Division in 2007, said he was proud of the work he and his staff put into getting the Centennial contract squared, as well as a new program embedded within the agreement that will provide resources for mental health workers to go on calls with deputies in an effort to stem arrests of mentally ill people. Deemed the behavioral health response program, the new effort is designed to “bring mental health professionals into the field on specific calls for service to hopefully … get people who are in a mental health crisis services at home instead having to arrest them,” Brown said.
Reducing the number of arrestees with mental health problems may also help with Brown’s other significant public service campaign: allocating more money for the Arapahoe County Detention Center. Brown and his staff have been loudly advocating for a new facility on social media and at public meetings in recent months.
The aging jail near the Denver Broncos training facility is overcrowded, underfunded and unsafe, officials say. The jail recorded 24 assaults by inmates on jail staffers last year, the highest number in the facility’s history, according to the sheriff’s office.
Updating the jail is a project Brown said he inherited from Walcher, who in turn inherited the issue after he was appointed by the penultimate Sheriff Grayson Robinson.
Democratic County Commissioner Nancy Jackson said repairs at the jail have reached a boiling a point, and “nothing is off the table” in terms of updating the facility.
“It’s like when you’ve got a car and you fix it and you fix it and then you realize it costs more to fix it than it does to get a new car — that’s where we are with the jail,” she said last month. “We’re not asking for silk curtains or anything, but we are asking for plumbing that works, and it needs to be safe for deputies and the people that work there.”
A new community steering committee tasked with recommending how county commissioners should address the jail’s problems is expected to present its findings later this summer.
Aside from any drama with Centennial and the jail, Brown said he’s been working to introduce himself to people he understands could be skeptical of his sudden ascension.
“I think new breeds uncertainty and uncertainty breeds a little bit of fear, and that’s a given in any situation,” the former college baseball standout said. “ … I think we’ve won a lot of people over. If they were concerned, we’ve definitely extinguished those flames.”
George Brauchler, the county’s Republican District Attorney, was the first elected or appointed official to meet with the freshman sheriff after he was elected.
Brauchler, who supported and endorsed Walcher’s unsuccessful re-election bid, said he was impressed with Brown’s candid nature.
“As a guy who has known Dave Walcher for decades — I think he was one of the best sheriffs in this part of the country — I was taken with (Brown’s) earnest interest in trying to do this job the right way,” Brauchler said in March. “I never felt for a moment, and I still don’t, like he had a political agenda, which is what you would expect out of law enforcement.”
That there was not a mass exodus of staffers upon Brown’s arrival was a positive sign, Brauchler said.
“There are a significant number of people who were in Dave Walcher’s leadership who have stuck around, which tells me Tyler is not interested in cleaning out,” he said.
Brown said his only early staff changes included a new undersheriff, public information officer, bureau chief, and a brand new captain.
“I didn’t really see a need to shake things up,” he said.
— QUINCY SNOWDON, Staff Writer
County Assessor: Kaiser crashes over Scott
When Aurora voters filled in the bubbles on their ballots last November, they were greeted once again by a familiar name: PK Kaiser.
He’s long been a persistent Democratic candidate for various Aurora and state offices, and last year, was the party’s pick for Arapahoe County Assessor.
Kaiser’s running for that office looked unlikely to some locals — especially on the Republican side — because of his lack of experience for the complex and bureaucratic county gig. The assessor’s office mainly assesses property values, a crucial job that determines how much homeowners and property owners will pay the county in taxes.
Kaiser has also dabbled in controversy, including his alleging that a local Muslim religious leader was radicalizing Aurora youth. He made the charge in a 2017 letter to Sentinel Colorado, and he later retracted the allegation.
Now, months into the job, even Kaiser’s opponents have no gripes about his work leading the county assessor office. He has also just completed his first season of valuing properties and notifying owners, and is currently fielding standard complaints about valuations.
Kaiser’s run for the quiet, bureaucratic job came after a series of failed campaigns for more political offices.
He ran unsuccessfully to represent Aurora’s House District 40 in the state House of Representatives in both 2010 and 2012.
He made bids for city council. In 2014, he also ran for his current job, Arapahoe County Assessor, but lost that race.
Kaiser did not have direct experience in assessing properties, unlike many assessors such as former Arapahoe County assessor Marc Scott, who work their way up through the county office ranks. Kaiser defeated Scott, a Republican, in November with a more than seven-point lead.
Kaiser is a real estate broker. He said he has not taken a contract since he took office as the county assessor, dodging a potential conflict of interest.
Although Kaiser’s victory flipped the head assessor’s office from Republican to Democratic, he said he retained all the staff from Scott’s tenure. He describes his staff as “apolitical and professional.”
He took the job at a particularly challenging time of development and growth.
Scott, the former assessor, told Sentinel Colorado last fall the total taxable value of property in Arapahoe County was likely to swell to more than $100 billion in 2019.
There are about 220,000 taxable properties to be regularly assessed in Arapahoe County as well as thousands more non-taxable properties including government buildings, schools and churches, Scott said.
In recent months, though, Kaiser and his staff have delivered a typical assessment of area properties.
This year, the office mailed 213,000 notices of value for real property, Kaiser said.
Property owners can, and do, contest their property assessment if they deem it unfair. The time period to do so just ended on July 1.
Kaiser said owners contested about 3-4 percent of the total property assessments. That’s in line with the appeal rate in previous years.
He said his office expected a moderate increase in residential appeals while the protests in commercial, industrial and agriculture properties came down from the previous period. Vacant land parcel protests were higher due to larger land parcels splitting into small residential parcels, Kaiser said.
His office has since adjusted about 60 percent of residential appeals, but people still protesting the assessment can file an appeal with the county Board of Equalization before July 15.
Kaiser’s tenure so far has drawn little criticism, if any.
Dorothy Gotlieb, chairwoman of the Arapahoe County Republican Party, said there was no criticism of Kaiser’s performance that she was aware of. She said nothing “noticeable” has changed from prior procedures in the office.
“Not having much knowledge of assessment, he leaves things to his more knowledgeable staff,” she said.
— GRANT STRINGER, Staff Writer