To the surprise of few, State Senator Kevin Priola switched parties from Republican to Democrat this week, and is now the subject of a recall effort.
There are good reasons for Senate District 13 voters to support the recall. It’s not just politically expedient, it’s the right thing to do.
Majorities matter. It’s why I never cheerfully say “goodbye” to a Republican, no matter how problematic and unreliable, unless it’s in a primary where the more conservative challenger has a good chance of winning the general election.
Even someone as increasingly unreliable as Sen. Priola.
Priola’s drift leftward
Contrary to popular impression, Priola voted with Republicans most of the time. His stamina in walking his district and meeting with voters is legendary, held up as an example of how to win even in difficult districts. But over time he has become progressively more wrong on the major issues of the day, including fiscal policy, climate change, and drug use.
Priola sponsored HB19-1257, a favorite of Governor Polis, which would have permanently ended refunds under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) in return for imaginary funding of education and transportation. Colorado voters decisively killed that at the polls. He voted for HB19-1263, which, among other things, reduced fentanyl possession to a misdemeanor, helping to feed the area’s crime wave. In 2021 alone, Priola voted for HB21-1164 which eliminated property tax credits “for education,” and provided the only Republican vote for SB21-260 that increased the gas tax, imposed the hated delivery fee, and gave more power to the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and the Denver Regional Council of Governments (DRCOG) to become the state’s central urban planners.
In 2015, then-Rep. Priola voted against HB-1388 which would have funded Colorado’s troubled public pensions by floating state debt. But in last year’s PERA subcommittee meeting, he spoke favorably of the idea, when even PERA’s CEO Ron Baker spoke against it, referring to it as “leverage.”
In the Colorado Senate, having the majority means that a lot of bad stuff gets killed. None of these bills would likely have passed with Republicans in charge, even with Priola providing the margin, because there would have been many more opportunities to water them down or kill them outright in committees.
Districts and states also matter. Jesse Helms and Rudy Boschwitz were both needed to pass the Reagan tax cuts. In Priola’s previous district, the old Senate District 25, it’s possible that he was about as good a Republican as we were going to get. It was plurality Democrat, and went for Biden over Trump by about 7 points.
After reapportionment, Priola’s new Senate District 13 is a different story. It is nearly evenly-divided on a partisan basis, with nearly 50% being unaffiliated. There’s good reason for them to be disappointed in a state senator elected as a Republican choosing to serve as a Democrat.
Others who’ve switch parties – even here in Colorado – have had to face the voters again. US Senator Ben “Nighthorse” Campbell was re-elected as a Democrat in 1994 and switched parties almost immediately. He served a number of additional terms and faced a Republican primary challenge in his first re-election run.
But Priola has already served six years as a state senator. He’s term-limited out, and would simply serve two years as a Democrat.
The Colorado Constitution allows for a recall of any elected official for any reason whatsoever. Those with some political memory will recall the successful 2013 efforts against then-Senate President John Morse and Senator Angela Giron over gun rights restrictions that turned out to be hugely unpopular in their districts.
Facing the voters
There is, effectively, only one way for citizens to get to vote on Priola’s choice, for him to have to face the voters after this decision, and that’s for a recall. The voters will get to choose, by simple majority vote, whether or not Priola will remain as their state senator. If they choose to remove him, there will be a second ballot question on who to replace him with.
In the 2013 recalls, the Democrats chose not to put anyone on the replacement ballot, so that it would be clear that voters would have a Republican. They might choose differently this time. Priola’s name cannot appear on the replacement ballot, so he cannot lose the recall and then hope to prevail with a plurality over a divided field to succeed him.
Ironically, Democrats should want this, too. Giving voters a choice this year might help the SD-13 Democrats in 2024. And in the event that Priola survives the recall, it would ratify his decision and legitimize their majority, if he ends up being their 18th vote. They should remember what happened in the 2002 mid-terms after Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont, from the liberal wing of the Republicans, switched parties and handed the Senate back to the Democrats after the 2000 elections. In a rare mid-term win for the sitting president, Republicans gained seats in both the House and the Senate.
In 1982, sitting Texas Representative Phil Gramm, a Democrat, switched parties. “I had been elected as a conservative Democrat, and I felt that if I just changed parties, some people in my district might feel betrayed,” said Gramm, who didn’t have to resign and face a special election, but did. “I said I thought I could win, and it was the right thing to do.
There’s no way for Priola to do this and retain his seat. Were he to resign, there would be no special election; the Democratic vacancy committee for the district would simply select another Democrat.
The voters of SD-13 have a right to choose what party represents them in the legislature, making the Priola recall effort the right thing to do.
Joshua Sharf is a frequent contributor to Complete Colorado.
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