El Paso GOP Chair Sidelined After Lingering Intra-Party Fracas

Trump Rally Crowd
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Supporters wave placards at President Donald Trump’s Rally Thursday Feb. 20, 2020 at World Arena in Colorado Springs.

Local Republican officials in El Paso County have stripped their Party chairwoman of many of her powers. In a strong rebuke of her recent comments and actions, Chair Vickie Tonkins will no longer be able to make most budget decisions or communicate on behalf of the organization.

The move came Thursday night during a lengthy executive committee meeting that some attendees described as “nasty” and “brutal.”

It's part of a tumultuous period of infighting and divisions within the organization in the state’s most populous Republican county, even as the GOP tries to regroup ahead of November. 

Tonkins can no longer post to the El Paso County Republicans website or send out official emails or any other party communications without approval from a yet-to-be appointed communications committee. She will also need written approval for any expenses of more than $250. Officials removed the treasurer Tonkins appointed after he said earlier this summer that he would battle certain Republicans “tooth and nail” for not backing her.

Courtesy El Paso GOP
Party chair Vickie Tonkins.

“We need to focus on winning elections and that’s what we intend to do,” said Wayne Williams, Colorado’s former Secretary of State and a member of the Colorado Springs City Council.

He proposed the amendment that restricts Tonkins’ spending and communications. Supporters of the decision say the process to remove a county chair is cumbersome and this was the simplest way to try to move forward and bring the local party together.

“County political parties exist for one reason: to get candidates elected,” said Rep. Lois Landgraf of Fountain, who backs the changes. “This means supporting candidates in every way possible. The comments and behavior of elected party officers reflects on all the members of that political party.”

When asked about the recent decisions, Tonkins told CPR News she had no comment at this time.

Later on Friday afternoon she sent an email to executive committee members saying she wouldn’t abide by the new policies because they don’t have the authority to change spending powers in this way. “The strict interpretation of this bylaw is that the Executive Committee gets an up or down vote on budgets developed, submitted, or revised by the chair.” She said the budget would be discussed at next month’s meeting. 

Tonkins also said the vote to remove the treasurer was invalid because the rules require a two-third vote of the entire committee, not just of those who attended the meeting. “If members of the committee still wish to seek the removal of our treasurer, they will be able to do so at our next meeting.”

COVID-19 social media posts

The controversy around Tonkins began on April 1, when she posed a question on the El Paso County GOP Facebook page that read: “Hello El Paso County! Do you believe that the Coronavirus is a PSYOP (Psychological Operation)? Post your answer...the definition of (PSYOP) is below.”

The issue also came up on Tonkins’ personal Facebook page; under another post related to the coronavirus, a man commented that he believes it is a psychological operation: “Tell me this Coronavirus isn’t that. Prove it to me. Because to me Coronavirus is psyops.”

Tonkins responded, “You bet it is.”  

She defended the posts by arguing that she was just raising a question and that a “psyop” is about how the virus is being handled, not whether it exists at all.

The Republican state party noticed the official Facebook post and asked that it be taken down, but it had already set off a chain reaction. Shortly afterward, 17 El Paso County elected officials, all Republicans, demanded Tonkins formally apologize and asked her to consider stepping down.

“To suggest the entire world has somehow been deceived and "that the Coronavirus is a PSYOP (Psychological Operation)" when citizens in high-risk categories are dying, and indeed, a young, healthy law enforcement officer has just died in our community, is reprehensible," said the letter, which came one day after a 41-year-old El Paso County Sheriff’s deputy had died from COVID-19.

Tonkins did not resign, and the now-ousted treasurer, John Pitchford, took to local talk radio to defend her. On Tron Simpson’s 740 KVOR show, Pitchford said Tonkins had been “maligned and treated viciously” by the local officials. He said the only reason they signed onto the letter was because “they have a problem with the fact that we have a Black woman as our chair of the GOP.”

“They need to make this right or resign and get out of the Republican Party. There's no place in this party for racists. And personally, I am going to battle them tooth and nail.”

Pitchford’s radio interview was briefly posted on the El Paso County Republicans Facebook Page before it was taken down. On July 21, Pitchford formed a 527 political organization titled “Republicans Against Racism Everywhere.” The organization’s stated purpose is to promote equal racial justice for all and to defeat candidates of either party or issues which do not promote equality for all. 

On August 5, Tonkins addressed the ongoing controversy in an email she sent out on behalf of the El Paso County Republicans.

“My goal is to provide landslide victories for President [Donald] Trump and Sen. [Cory] Gardner here in El Paso County and that objective is in danger.” She went on to say, “What I expect is a retraction and an apology from those Republican leaders” who called for her to step down. 

A handful of local officials have told CPR News their dissatisfaction with Tonkins has “nothing to do with racism.”

Opponents cite other concerns

The coronavirus posts weren’t the only controversies Tonkins has been involved within recent months. 

At the same time, she was part of a different dispute over how the party conducted some of its remote county assemblies. The situation led to Republican leadership committees placing a candidate on the primary ballot even though he failed to get enough support at his district assembly. In a subsequent lawsuit against the state party, a Denver judge ruled the GOP couldn’t bend the law, even though the party felt the underlying virtual assembly process was flawed.

“It’s not that she’s the worst county chair we’ve ever had. She’s by far the worst,” said Eli Bremer, the local official whose opposition to adding someone to the ballot who didn’t qualify sparked the lawsuit. 

Several Republicans criticized Tonkins for getting involved on the side of the losing candidate, rather than being impartial as the county chair.

Tonkins also recently butted heads with Jefferson Thomas, the state director for President Trump’s reelection campaign. Earlier this week she emailed top national campaign officials and called on Thomas to apologize for making comments she felt undermined Trump’s chances of winning Colorado.

Tonkins told CPR News that a strong case could be made that “it's probably best for the Trump Campaign to cut ties” with their state director. 

Thomas did not respond to a request for comment but others involved in Republican politics said he’s doing a good job. A GOP source familiar with the Colorado campaign operation said Trump Victory has knocked on around 100,000 doors and made 300,000 phone calls to El Paso County residents to encourage them to vote for Trump, Republican Sen. Cory Gardner, and their local Republican candidates.

“Calling on someone from another person’s campaign to resign is inappropriate,” said Landgraf. “And it doesn’t help Republicans get elected.”

Bremer, also a former county party chair, said for all the discord, he believes the disagreements won’t impact the conservative volunteers and activists who are motivated to get out and work this election cycle. 

“It’s an interesting story you have about a county chair going berserk,” said Bremer. “But it will not impact one single vote.”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to include Tonkins' objections to the executive committee's decisions.