Infighting Among Colorado Democrats Explodes Into Public Eye

A race for party chairman has turned into a fight over what some say are conflicts of interest. Democrats in the battleground state are still smarting after bad Latino outreach and a big loss in 2014.

Colorado State Democratic Party chairman Rick Palacio at an event with former Sen. Mark Udall.

David Zalubowski / AP

The Democratic Party in the crucial presidential state of Colorado dissolved into bitter infighting Friday over a combination of obscure party rules and allegations that the party's leader has ignored women and Latinos within the party.

The origin of the open feud between Chairman Rick Palacio and other top state Democrats is the Democratic National Committee requirement that 500 state central committee members be divided evenly between men and women. The Colorado party was short 46 men to meet the quota, and Palacio's rivals say he is using the new appointments to appoint supporters before party elections Saturday, something he denies.

“It's an embarrassment to the DNC,” said Mannie Rodriguez, the DNC Hispanic caucus finance chair and a Palacio foe.

Colorado's Democrats were already deeply divided over the defeat of Senator Mark Udall in midterm elections. Some Democrats have pinned Udall's defeat on a decision not to campaign aggressively on immigration issues in the heavily Latino state. Palacio serves on a post-election task force charged with figuring out what went wrong in 2014.

But the internal conflict found a new outlet Monday when a Palacio rival for the chairmanship, campaign consultant David Sabados, brought up the fact that the central committee is short on men. The Democratic National Committee warned him Tuesday evening that an election carried out with the imbalance would be subject to challenge, Palacio and the DNC both said, and Palacio then alerted state Democrats in an email, provided to BuzzFeed News.

Palacio told BuzzFeed News that he's picking fairly.

“Where no alternates exist I've taken recommendations from county party chairs,” he said.

Palacio has been sent at least three emails, which were reviewed by BuzzFeed News, by central committee members asking him to make the process more transparent and let his opponents Sabados and former congressional candidate Vic Meyers, pick some of the appointees. (A DNC official said the party did not tell Palacio what specific people to appoint.)

In an email sent to all three candidates Friday morning, former congressional candidate Owen Perkins told Palacio that randomly drawing from a group picked by state Democrats “to fill as many spots as possible is the best way to maintain the integrity of the Central Committee makeup and avoid any perception of a conflict of interest.”

Behind the arcane procedural fight, however, are substantive disputes.

Rodriguez, the Hispanic caucus finance chair said the party spent 16 cents per Latino voter in Colorado in Spanish-language media.

“They needed a task force report to tell them what went wrong?” he said.

He also complained that Palacio wouldn't work with him on a big phone banking effort targeting Latinos for the reelection of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, but then took the credit when Hickenlooper was one of the few 2014 bright spots in the state.

Palacio said he wasn't going to stoop to the level of that allegation but took issue with the idea that he didn't work well with Latinos in the party.

“That's absolutely false,” he said.

The other issues in the race range from concerns over Palacio's giving himself a $25,000 raise in the chairman's post, which he says he had a right to do, to complaints that he has not worked well with labor groups and doesn't speak to women leaders within the party. And Palacio's critics say he's the wrong man to serve on a task force that's supposed to help the party avoid a repeat of 2014 because the state's problems lead back to him.

“My focus is not on Rick and his failings,” Meyers said. “He should have resigned after the terrible election losses. But what we need is a successful, stronger party.”

“He was the problem, why would they assign him to work on the task force?” Rodriguez asked.

Palacio responds that Colorado was hardly the only place Democrats had a bad year, and that midterm elections historically see losses for the party that belongs to the president. He pointed to Hickenlooper's reelection as a rare bright spot for the party.

“2016 is going to be a different year, much like 2012 was,” he said. “If people think any states operates in a vacuum without the influence of national elections, they should probably take a course in the way American politics affects elections.”