Election 2018

Father of Aurora theater shooting victim flips Centennial state House seat

Democrat Tom Sullivan puts focus on guns, mental health

Posted 11/9/18

Six years after his son died in a shooting that shook the country, Tom Sullivan is taking his hopes to the Colorado state House, eyeing gun violence and mental health as top issues to tackle. “I …

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Election 2018

Father of Aurora theater shooting victim flips Centennial state House seat

Democrat Tom Sullivan puts focus on guns, mental health

Posted

Six years after his son died in a shooting that shook the country, Tom Sullivan is taking his hopes to the Colorado state House, eyeing gun violence and mental health as top issues to tackle.

“I would have been happy just being a dad,” said Sullivan, a 62-year-old who lives in Centennial.

But the 2012 Aurora theater shooting upended his life when his son, Alex Sullivan, was killed on his 27th birthday. Tom Sullivan's voice began resonating with people after that, he said.

“You owe it to the community to step up and do your part, and this is what I can do,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan, a Democrat, won the seat in House District 37, which encompasses central and east Centennial, along with nearby unincorporated Arapahoe County areas and the Town of Foxfield. He unseated incumbent Rep. Cole Wist, a Republican who served as assistant minority leader in the Legislature. With about 54 percent of the vote to Wist's 46 percent as of about 9:30 p.m. Nov. 8, Sullivan pulled out an unexpected win in a traditionally Republican district.

Wist congratulated Sullivan and wished him well, he said Nov. 8. Wist believes the race between Republican Rep. Mike Coffman and Democrat Jason Crow in U.S. Congressional District 6 — which contains his state House district — influenced his contest.

“The bottom line is, the voters have spoken,” Wist said. “I think the result in the Coffman-Crow race created a difficult hurdle for us to clear. I think, two years ago, if you looked at the results, even though Hillary Clinton won my district and CD6, I won,” and Coffman won. Wist deferred to political pundits to decipher the trends — local analysts say backlash against President Donald Trump made the race a steep climb for Coffman.

The intensity of opposition to Trump likely played a role in both Coffman's and Wist's races, said Dick Wadhams, political strategist and former chair of the Colorado Republican Party.

He chalked it up to “the high turnout of unaffiliated voters that were voting, once again, anti-Trump,” Wadhams said. “They defeated Cole Wist and almost defeated Susan Beckman,” the incumbent in the adjacent House District 38 in Littleton and west Centennial.

'Taken community for granted'

Sullivan ran unsuccessfully in 2016 against state Sen. Jack Tate in Senate District 27 — an area with similar boundaries that extends farther west to the Littleton border — and he said this time around, district residents voted against national political developments they were disappointed in.

“The Republican Party has taken this community for granted,” said Sullivan, who said he and his campaign knocked on thousands of doors in the district. “They expect these people to vote just by the letter next to the names.”

The bulk of House District 37 falls within Centennial, where 33.6 percent of voters are Republican, 27.5 percent are Democrats and 37.6 are unaffiliated, according to current data from the county clerk and recorder's office. Contrast that with August 2016, when Republicans made up 38.3 percent, Democrats 28 percent and unaffiliateds 32.5 percent, according to the office. The shift follows a trend across the Denver metro area of unaffiliated registration climbing in recent years.

But despite that pattern, the district has been reliably Republican for years. Mary Ellen Wolf, chair of the Arapahoe County Democrats, said Sullivan's previous run in 2016 helped him gain ground in the area.

He “was familiar to voters,” Wolf said. “He is an excellent candidate, with a compelling personal story, experience talking to these voters, and knew and addressed their concerns.”

Sullivan's win came alongside the “blue wave” washing over Colorado, both at the state level with victories for governor, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer, and also taking the Arapahoe County assessor, clerk and sheriff positions. In 2016, Beckman blew away her Democratic House challenger by more than 15 percentage points — this year, she was up by just 1 percentage point.

Democrats had seen a surge of enthusiasm since the first Women's March in 2017, an event largely in protest of the president, Wolf said.

“The blue wave hit Arapahoe and motivated a lot of new activists with energy and enthusiasm who worked for the Crow campaign or our district races,” Wolf said. “The results in CD6 exceeded our expectations, as did our results with county offices.”

Rich Sokol, chair of the Arapahoe County Republicans, said the blue wave hit harder than Republicans expected.

“I can’t imagine a scenario in which our county Sheriff Dave Walcher loses, or any of our county officials,” Sokol said. “They are so, in my opinion, better qualified than their opponents, but this wasn’t a year where qualifications, experience and know-how mattered as much as it usually does.”

Coffman losing, along with the county officials, was a bitter blow, Sokol said. He believes voters will swing back toward Republicans because “our principles are better for most Americans,” Sokol said.

“I think we all realize that for many people, voting for Congress is a vote for how you feel about national politics, independent of the candidate’s own performance and policies,” Sokol said. “But I think this year it filtered down not just to congressional races, but to every race.”

'Red flag' an obstacle

Wist drew the ire of a gun-rights group called Rocky Mountain Gun Owners this year for supporting a “red-flag” bill that would have made it easier to confiscate firearms from someone considered a danger to themselves or others.

“Contact state Rep. Cole Wist to urge him to apologize for sponsoring gun confiscation,” the group wrote on its website. It called him a “mole in the ranks” in a Facebook post.

Similar laws have been introduced in nearly 30 states since the Parkland, Florida, killings, with lawmakers in Florida, Maryland and Vermont passing legislation. In Colorado, the bill drew support from Republican Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock, after a man shot and killed a sheriff's deputy in Highlands Ranch on New Year's Eve. 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, a Republican, also supported the measure.

The RMGO did not respond for comment on Wist's defeat in the election. Wist said he's proud of his record in the Legislature.

“Honestly, I didn't hear a lot about the red flag law on the campaign trail,” Wist said, adding it remains to be seen what happens in the next legislative session. “I stand by the decision to run the bill.”

The proposal makes Sullivan's list of top priorities, as he mentioned to people during the campaign, he said.

“My plan is to run it day one if they let me because that's going to save lives,” Sullivan said.

'Need to do better'

People who were affected by the Aurora shooting still live in Sullivan's district, he said.

“These people went to school with Alex, they worked with Alex, or they knew a friend who was there that night,” Sullivan said. “They're living in this community. And they know us.”

Sullivan hopes he can muster enough support in the Legislature to act to reduce suicide deaths by firearms and other gun violence. Banning bump stocks — devices that alter the firing ability of semi-automatic firearms — also makes his list, along with bolstering mental health resources in general.

“Instead of talking about it, we need to take some action. We need to get mental health counselors, resources, into schools,” Sullivan said. “We've got 9- and 10-year-old kids taking their own lives. We need to do better. We can't wait until after something happens.”

People need to address the stigma surrounding mental health issues and engage children, Sullivan said.

“Let them know there's someone to talk to,” he said, “and someone that will listen.”

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