DENVER ― Before he goes to work every day, Tom Sullivan puts on a leather jacket that isn’t his.
The jacket belongs to his son, Alex, who was murdered on his 27th birthday in 2012 when a gunman burst into the Aurora movie theater where he was watching a Batman movie and opened fire. Twelve people were murdered and another 58 wounded.
Sullivan responded to the tragedy by becoming an outspoken gun control advocate. In 2018, he ran for state House with gun control as a central theme, knocking on 10,000 doors across his deep red, suburban Denver district.
His efforts paid off: The Air Force veteran and former postal worker beat incumbent Cole Wist (R) with 54 percent of the vote to become the first Democrat ever to hold the seat.
Once in office, Sullivan did exactly what he told voters he’d do, co-sponsoring a “red flag” bill that empowers judges to temporarily seize someone’s firearms if they’re having a mental health crisis. Gov. Jared Polis (D) signed the bill last month, though it won’t go into effect until 2020.
He also helped increase insurance coverage for mental health care, an accomplishment he has said he thought gun advocates would support because they often seek to shift the blame for gun violence from firearm access to mental illness.
For his efforts, however, Colorado Republicans and an extreme gun advocacy group called Rocky Mountain Gun Owners are trying to have Sullivan recalled. (For perspective: RMGO is so far to the right it thinks the NRA is soft. The NRA, in turn, once called RMGO president Dudley Brown the “Al Sharpton of the gun movement.”)
Recall petitioners have until July 12 to gather 10,035 signatures from residents in Sullivan’s district, equal to 25 percent of the people who voted in the last election. If they succeed, the question will go to a ballot.
Sullivan is undeterred.
“This is a cowardly attempt by the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners to undermine the will of the voters,” Sullivan told HuffPost in an email. “When I ran for office I knocked on more than 10,000 doors and told the voters exactly what I planned to do.
“I won’t back down from the bullies at the RMGO and will never waver in protecting families so they don’t have to go through the same tragedy that mine did.”
When I ran for office I knocked on more than 10,000 doors and told the voters exactly what I planned to do. Colorado state Rep. Tom Sullivan
The recall petition was approved on May 13, one week after a school shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch killed 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo, and less than a month after the 20th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting.
But Republicans’ explanation for the recall doesn’t exactly make sense. In her petition to the Secretary of State, Colorado Republican Party Vice Chairwoman Kristi Brown argued that Sullivan “should be recalled for ignoring the will of his constituents.”
Polling data plainly suggests that’s not true. Polls conducted for advocacy groups like Everytown and Giffords, as well as a survey by the GOP firm Magellan, all show Colorado Republicans strongly support red flag measures like the one championed by Sullivan.
Seventy-eight percent of Colorado Republicans who voted for President Donald Trump in 2016 either “support” or “strongly support” the idea, according to the Everytown poll. Yet somehow RMGO and the Colorado GOP see the measure as so grossly inappropriate, the only remedy is a recall.
In an odd twist, RMGO is also indirectly responsible for part of Sullivan’s success in the first place. In 2018, the group went after Wist ― the Republican who held the seat before Sullivan ― for sponsoring a similar red flag bill. Wist has since become an outspoken opponent of the recall effort:
Two other Colorado Democrats have also recently been threatened with recalls. One resigned after a sexual assault allegation surfaced, rendering the recall moot. The other, Gov. Jared Polis, was threatened by two separate groups ― one with anti-Semitic roots ― before he’d even been in office six months, the legal minimum amount of time. Polis is unconcerned.
What’s behind all these recalls? In a word: money. To hear Wist tell it, RMGO cares more about fear-based fundraising and the money it generates than the policies they claim that money supports.
“It is unfortunate but crystal clear,” Wist tweeted earlier this month. “RMGO owns the Colorado Republican Party.”
Here’s an excerpt from an op-ed Wist wrote for The Colorado Sun laying out his argument. (You can read the whole thing here):
Since the 2018 election, it seems there has been a steady drumbeat for recall elections. What’s behind recall fever? Yes, many voters are frustrated with sweeping legislation passed by the legislature this year on a number of fronts, but for many trying to instigate these recalls, it’s mostly about money and feeding the political election machine.
I disagree with Rep. Sullivan on a number of policies. And, I am opposed to numerous pieces of legislation that he voted for this last session. However, Rep. Sullivan won the election, and I lost. He ran on gun control and then pursued it.
Elections have consequences. Absent gross malfeasance or defrauding the voters, Rep. Sullivan deserves to serve out his term.
Sullivan says he plans to keep wearing that leather jacket, and to keep fighting for gun control, for as long as he’s able.
“Not many people know how to talk to the parent of a murdered child,” Sullivan said in a speech under the golden dome of Colorado State Capitol earlier this year. “I’m wearing Alex’s jacket right now. I wear this jacket every day when I take the bus in here. He’s with me, and I can feel him in me. And maybe that scares some of them.
“I’m not doing this for Alex and my family, I’m doing it for yours. Because this is as bad as you think it is. Watching your child’s body drop into the ground is as bad as it gets. And I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that none of you have to do that.
“I’m going to do everything I can until this jacket falls off of me.”