59th District contest heating up: Deitch battles 'smear' as he tries to petition onto primary ballot
By David Grant Long
Durango attorney and environmentalist Jeff Deitch is a man determined to have his way with voters in the 59th legislative district — at least through the Democratic primary in August, when, if things go as hoped, he'll face off against the one candidate for state representative the party assembly has already chosen, Joe Colgan.
The winner earns the chance to face Republican Ellen Roberts in the general election.
Deitch at first considered trying to get on the ballot through the party's caucus process, but then announced he would petition his way onto the ballot instead. One thousand valid signatures must be turned in to election officials by May 25, and the candidate thinks he has a good shot at making the deadline.
“We're off to a good start and circulating petitions in all four counties (Archuleta, La Plata, Montezuma and San Juan) — every day we’ve got people out there,” said Deitch, adding that one difficulty is catching people at home when he goes door to door.
Seeking signatures of registered Democrats presents an opportunity to hear voter concerns he might not have otherwise, Deitch explained.
“You learn the needs in Montezuma County are different in many ways than the needs in Archuleta County in many ways,” he said. “It's a good opportunity to talk to people personally.”
Former Durango councillor Colgan was nominated at the Democratic assembly last month to run for the seat, now held by term-limited Republican Mark Larson. Deitch and his supporters have accused Colgan's campaign team of spreading rumors about his professional standing and other ad hominem attacks to foil his primary bid.
In a recent interview, Deitch discussed his decision to go the petition route and what he sees as a “smear campaign” designed to prevent him from getting on the ballot.
Deitch said 75-year-old Democratic party activist Hank Buslepp of Pagosa Springs informed him in January that Colgan supporter Joan Cornell had called to urge him not to support Deitch because, she said, he'd been “reprimanded several times by the bar,” an allegation Deitch says is patently false.
“I've never been reprimanded by anyone for anything ever,” Deitch said. “I said, ‘Gosh, this was the sort of thing I was expecting from the Republicans but certainly not from my own party,’ and (Buslepp) said, ‘Get used to it’.”
Colgan refused to sufficiently disavow such tactics, Deitch charges, instead only responding that he hadn't made any such statement after Deitch broached the subject at a Democratic meeting attended by Cornell and Colgan.
Deitch said Cornell's response in a subsequent Durango Herald article that there is a difference between an organized smear campaign and a casual conversation was absurd.
“So if you say it casually enough, it doesn't count?” he said. “This is a direct attack on my professional ethics and this affects my career, because elected or not elected, I'm still an attorney.”
He said a March letter from Colgan supporter Jim Callard published in local papers was another example of such personal attacks.
In that letter demanding he withdraw from the race, Callard compares Deitch to George Bush and calls him a “divider, not a uniter,” an “immature kid” and a “spoiler” for deciding to petition his way onto the ballot rather than go through the caucus process, which Deitch has repeatedly criticized as failing to reflect true voter preference, and instead guaranteeimg control by party insiders.
Colorado is one of only two states that still use a caucus system in which neighborhood precinct meetings are held to determine whose supporters will attend county, district and state assemblies where the candidates are then nominated. A candidate must get support from at least 30 percent of the assembly delegates to get on a primary ballot.
“. . . Deitch attacked all the volunteers from four counties that spend their time and effort making sure the caucus and assembly process work,” Callard wrote.
Indeed, Deitch does have harsh words for the selection process.
“The caucus system as it's being used is a farce,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the democratic process — I defy you to find three people who could explain the caucus system to you — and I wouldn't be one of them — because it doesn't make a bit of sense. It's a way for good-old-boy politics to keep its hold on things because (most voters) don't understand it.
“At least with a petition, people are affirming they want this guy on the ballot — they want the party to have a choice.”
Responding to Deitch, Colgan last week defended the caucus system.
“It favors anybody that wants to get involved at the grassroots level,” he said, but admitted he wasn't totally clear himself on exactly how Democrats are informed of the precinct meetings.
“It may be mostly through the newspaper — I don’t remember getting a specific notice through the mail,” he said, adding that the Democratic party tries to educate voters about the caucuses by encouraging them to participate. “It's such an open process — anybody who says there's an attempt to exclude anybody — they do it by their own volition,” Colgan said.
“This is not a spectator sport,” he added. “Whether you like it or you don't, that's the system we've got in place — unless you're involved in the process, what you do from then on is just affirm someone else's decision.”
When asked if he would disassociate himself from Cornell’s alleged remark about Deitch being reprimanded by the bar, Colgan said, “I don't know Jeff Deitch well enough to do that.
“All I can tell you is I know who he's talking about and I asked this question directly to her — she said, ‘I did not do that’,” he said. “His saying that I'm trying to conduct a smear campaign on him simply isn't true.”
Regardless of all the lawyer jokes and regular Republican attacks on trial lawyers as Democratic stooges, Deitch believes that his occupation could actually be a plus with voters.
“There are some people out there who think it's a very good thing,” he said, including those who want their state representative to be able to support litigation to stop the Wolf Creek Village, a proposed project that would create a city of 10,000 in one of the most pristine parts of the San Juan Mountains near Pagosa Springs.
Deitch highlighted what he sees as the significant policy differences between him and Colgan, whom he accused of being pro-development during his tenure on the Durango council.
"Everyone has their number-one issue, but I'll just say the most glaring differences are these.
“Do you know how much more of Durango got paved, how many more units got approved (during the time Colgan was on the council)?,” he asked. “One thing he didn't get away with was River Trails Ranch — 800 units in the Animas Valley. People were just grieving over that and he voted for it,” Deitch said.
Colgan later conceded that he hadn't reflected the “will of his constituents,” but maintained his vote was “legally appropriate.”
Deitch also lambasted Colgan for supporting the Three Springs development in Grandview east of Durango, where 2300 residential units plus commercial space have been approved for development along with the new Mercy Medical Center about to open.
The resulting traffic is going to create terrible congestion in the area, Deitch predicted.
“All you've done in Three Springs is put 8,000 people and 12,000 cars out in Grandview on Highway 160 that can't handle the traffic it has now,” he said, “and Farmington Hill is close to becoming an intersection that is not viable. And what about the impact on downtown Durango and the impact on wildlife?
“I think Three Springs was a huge mistake, and if that's (Colgan's) environmental vision, then it speaks for itself.”
“I don't see that (Colgan) has associated himself in any way with environmentally conscious projects and his votes on the city council reflect that,” he said. “I think he has a vision of suburbanization, or urbanization, and I don’t.
“I have a vision of maintaining a largely rural area because that's the only way to save it from being ruined.”
“We have to preserve agriculture . . . we can do a whole lot more in the region to feed ourselves and we have to, because you can't truck in food with gas at five or six dollars a gallon for trucks.”
Uncontrolled growth in the district is also causing air and water quality to deteriorate, yet the state legislature has done little to address that.”
Readers interested in signing or circulating petitions to get Deitch on the primary ballot can call Deitch in La Plata County at 259-2474 or Deborah Karn in La Plata County at 385-6721, Denise Rue Pastin in Archuleta County at 731-9672, or Greg Rath in Montezuma County at 533-9019. His web site is www.jeffdeitch.com.
To get in touch with the Colgan campaign, see www.electjoecolgan.org.