DENVER — In one of the more unlikely insurgencies of the year in American politics, three young plumbers from Pueblo have stunned Colorado’s political establishment by doing what many campaign veterans insisted was impossible.
Armed with little more than a petition, an army of volunteer signature-gatherers and their iPhones, political newcomers Victor Head, his brother Adam Head, and Ernest Mascarenas have forced a recall election for state Sen. Angela Giron, a rising star in the state’s powerful Democratic Party and a labor favorite in heavily unionized Pueblo.
The three plumbers’ grass-roots efforts — and Ms. Giron’s struggle to hold on to her seat — have roiled politics in this purple state while laying down a marker in the increasingly fierce state-level battle over gun control laws, political watchers say.
The feat is even more impressive when placed in context: The Sept. 10 recall votes for Ms. Giron and fellow Democrat state Senate President John Morse, driven by their support of sweeping gun control legislation this year, are the first against any elected state official in Colorado’s 137-year history.
“It’s unbelievable. How do these guys get 13,000 people to sign the petition, and [roughly] 12,000 of them are good?” Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli asked. “It’s a miracle. And it shows the passion here in Colorado behind this issue.”
A tattooed 28-year-old “backflow specialist” who works in the family plumbing business, Victor Head helped launch Pueblo Freedom and Rights in March, shortly after the Democrat-dominated state legislature approved three bills restricting access to firearms and ammunition.
Republicans and national gun groups have rallied against the laws, which sparked Erie-based Magpul Industries, a leading firearms and accessories manufacturer, to announce plans to leave the state. The package of bills — signed in March by Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat — were passed in the wake of the movie theater shooting in Aurora last year that killed 12 and wounded dozens more.
One bill limits ammunition magazines to 15 rounds, another requires universal background checks, and the third charges gun customers for the cost of the checks.
Political analysts initially dismissed the recall talk as a pipe dream. Officials at the Colorado Republican Party and Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, the state’s largest gun advocacy group, took a pass on the idea, saying they would wait for the 2014 elections.
The problem for Victor Head was that he couldn’t wait. “I just [couldn’t] sit on my hands for 18 months,” he said. “There are only 19 states that do have the recall, and those that do have a duty to do something.”
He and his fellow organizers didn’t have college degrees, money, connections or political experience, but they did have two things that would prove pivotal: the outrage of blue-collar Pueblo voters over the gun bills, and the ability to do almost anything with an iPhone.
Setting up petition stands in parking lots, volunteers used their smartphones to check every signature against the Colorado secretary of state’s website of registered district voters.
They also videotaped pro-Giron demonstrators who blocked their tables. One recording showed a man passing out $20 bills to demonstrators.
A Giron spokesman said the man was unaffiliated with the campaign, Pueblo United for Angela, and that the money would be handed over to the state’s unclaimed property fund.
Pueblo Freedom and Rights submitted 13,466 signatures in June. Of those, 11,285 were deemed valid by state officials. None of the signatures has been challenged despite a phone-calling and door-knocking campaign by Pueblo United for Angela to peel off signers.
Putting Ms. Giron’s name on the ballot was one thing; defeating her will be another. A former aide to U.S. Sen. Michael F. Bennet, she won her 2010 race with 55 percent of the vote in a heavily Democratic district with strong union support.
“I am ready and eager for the September 10th election,” Ms. Giron said in a statement. “This last legislative session was my best yet and this is a great opportunity to continue talking to folks in Pueblo about all our successes. In the meantime, I continue to work hard and represent Pueblo.”
Ms. Giron also benefits from the Colorado Democrats’ formidable fundraising machine. So far, Pueblo United for Angela has raised more than $93,000, almost three times as much as the $36,000 collected by Pueblo Freedom and Rights.
Among those funding the Giron campaign is Mainstream Colorado, the Senate Democrats’ Denver-based political action committee, which has raised more than $213,000 since January from corporations including AT&T, Wal-Mart, Waste Management, Kroger and Riviera Black Hawk Casino.
But that fundraising effort has caused its own controversy: Mainstream Colorado has funneled $21,000 to the Giron camp, but several companies contacted by a reporter said they were unaware that their donations would be used to fight the recalls, noting that their 2013 contributions were made before the recall drives began in March.
“Walmart’s sole contribution to Mainstream Colorado was in January 2013 for sponsorship of a legislative dinner event hosted by Senate leadership. To suggest anything else would be inaccurate,” Wal-Mart spokeswoman Delia Garcia said in a statement.
Still, seeing Wal-Mart, which sells firearms and ammunition, on the Democrats’ list of contributors does sting a little, Mr. Head said.
“It’s unfortunate. I like Wal-Mart. My girlfriend works at Wal-Mart,” he said.
Even if both Democrats lose, the recalls won’t change the balance of power in the state Senate. Democrats now hold a 20-15 majority. If Republicans replace Ms. Giron and Mr. Morse, the Democratic majority would be reduced to 18-17.
But organizers say they hope a successful recall will send a message to state and federal legislators on the pitfalls of crossing their constituents over the gun issue, even those who look as if their expertise is limited to unclogging drains.
“If someone had sat me down at the beginning and explained what we were up against, I would have probably said, ‘No way,’” Victor Head said. “But here we are, we’ve met our goals, and we’ve got a good chance of getting this done.”