CO’s Scott Gessler a New Type of Secretary of State

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In the year since his election, Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler has grabbed a lot of headlines. He’s part of an activist trend nationwide that’s transforming the office from an administrative role to something with a much higher profile. Colorado Public Radio’s Megan Verlee reports.

REPORTER MEGAN VERLEE: In his first year in office, Republican Scott Gessler has been sued eight times. He’s outraged Democrats by rewriting the state’s campaign finance rules. He’s tangled with counties over which voters they can send mail-in ballots to. And he attracted national attention for participating in a fundraiser to pay off a campaign finance fine his office levied. In all, Gessler says it’s been a great first year.

SECRETARY OF STATE SCOTT GESSLER: "Colorado, we’ve definitely shaken up the status quo and I think in some other states that’s happened, too."

REPORTER: Gessler came to the office from a career as one of Colorado’s top Republican campaign lawyers and he doesn’t shy away from that partisan affiliation or from pursuing conservative policies, like pushing for a voter identification law.

GESSLER: "I’m very open about what my office does, I was very open about it on the campaign trail. And I welcome the debate, because I think as Coloradans, as Americans, we ought to discuss these issues, we ought to talk about them, ought to think about them."

REPORTER: Across the country, secretaries of state handle a mishmash of duties; most of them administer elections and business filings and, in some places, run the DMV. Not exactly Laura Dern made-for-TV movie material. That was, until the 2000 Florida recount...

DOUG CHAPIN, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN: "The decade following the 2000 presidential election made secretaries of state rock stars of the election world."

REPORTER: Doug Chapin is with the Program in Excellence in Elections Administration at the University of Minnesota. He says over the past decade partisan groups have started funneling lots of money into secretary of state races, and the people they help get elected come to the role with a new mindset.

CHAPIN: "Their job is not merely to make sure that the process works smoothly, but that it works in a way that’s consistent with their view of how elections policy ought to be."

REPORTER: Chapin says the parties see two advantages in controlling the secretary of state’s office. On the one hand, the secretary can advocate for the party’s long-term election policies. And in an era of close votes, each party wants its person managing the proceedings. Minnesota’s a perfect example of both those factors. Chapin says Republican lawmakers there have long complained about its Democratic Secretary of State, Mark Ritchie.

CHAPIN: "His belief in same-day registration is something that makes them uncomfortable.”

REPORTER: "And Richie’s interesting because he presided over one of those really high profile contested elections."

CHAPIN: "Not just one, but two."

REPORTER: A Senate race in 08 and the governor’s office in 2010. Both eventually went to the Democrats. But Trey Grayson, Kentucky’s former secretary of state, thinks people are overestimating the office’s importance.

TREY GRAYSON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: "It’s probably more bark than bite."

REPORTER: Grayson now heads Harvard’s Institute of Politics. He says there’s a silver-lining to this higher profile: voters are starting to care.

GRAYSON: "I believe our elections today are better administered than they were 15 years ago, because of the attention and the demand for improved voting processes and voting equipment. The partisanship is a byproduct of that. It’s also a sign of our times."

REPORTER: Elections experts say secretaries of state are still feeling out where the boundaries are. In Colorado, Scott Gessler’s willingness to jump from one controversial issue to another has earned him the nickname 'Honey BadgeR,' after a satirical nature video that’s a big hit on Youtube.

VIDEO CLIP: "...Now watch this, a snake’s up in the tree. Honey badger don’t care..."

REPORTER: Gessler’s heard the nickname – and likes it.

GESSLER: "If you look at honey badgers, they’re very independent animals, they’re very fierce, people don’t mess with them, and they usually win their fights."

REPORTER: "And Gessler likely has plenty of fights ahead of him. In an era of razor-thin results, with both parties struggling for any possible election edge, the secretaries of state’s office isn’t leaving the spotlight any time soon.

[Photo: CPR/Megan Verlee]