BY PETER JONES
The recent announcement by Democrat Tom Sullivan that he will make his second run in the Colorado Legislature this year is coincidental to the high-profile school shooting in Florida. The father of a victim of the Aurora theater shootings says the recent tragedy and renewed attention to gun control had nothing to do with his decision.
“We had been planning this. After I made the run in 2016, we had conversations about what the next step was,” the Centennial resident said, noting encouragement he has received from party leadership in the competitive House District 37. “Everything we do in this country is in the wake of another mass shooting. It might not be just the one that gets the big publicity.”
Sullivan, whose 27-year-old son Alex was one of 12 murdered in the 2012 massacre at Aurora’s Century Theater, is seeking to unseat incumbent Republican Cole Wist, who claims a Grade-A backing from the National Rifle Association. This campaign follows Sullivan’s unsuccessful challenge two years ago to Sen. Jack Tate in state Senate District 27.
Although District 37, which is contained within the larger Senate district, is somewhat more favorable to Democrats with both Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet boasting victories there, the real wildcard is 37’s unpredictable block of unaffiliated voters.
As he says he did two years ago, Sullivan’s team plans to burn up as much shoe leather as possible in the Centennial-based House district that a Democrat has never represented.
“We knocked on over 44,000 doors collectively [in 2016],” said Sullivan, who has lived in the district for more than a quarter-century. “I would talk to independents. I would talk to Republicans. I would tell them the Republican Party is taking them for granted out here. I had a lot of people who said to me, ‘I’ve never voted for a Democrat before in my life. You’re the first one I’ve ever voted for.’ We’re going to expand on that.”
Although Sullivan, 61, has not held elected office, the Air Force veteran and longtime postal worker says he has always been politically conscious, having been active in the American Postal Workers Union and the AFL-CIO. Unquestionably, Sullivan’s activism had new vigor after his son’s murder when he became a regular on gun control at the state Capitol.
“I actually stood in line for three and a half hours to get my name on the list, so I had the ability to go in and testify on those bills,” he said. “Those bills got passed, and from there on I’ve gone down to save those bills.”
Sullivan contrasts himself to Wist, who has received strong support from the NRA.
“This year, [Wist] is the co-sponsor of a bill to ‘stand your ground’ in business.” The Democrat said of his opponent. “He was co-sponsor last year of repealing the magazine ban. He is supportive of allowing people in our community to be able to go back in and buy 100-round drums and bring those into movie theaters, schools and churches.”
Wist had not returned a request for comment by press time.
Despite Sullivan’s strong association on gun and violence issues, he insists he is no one-issue candidate, saying government transparency and kitchen-table issues, especially as pertaining retirees, are also major concerns.
Noting his wife is a Cherry Creek Schools bus driver, the candidate says he is concerned about the sustainability of the state’s Public Employee Retirement Association but does not think the problem should be solved on its members’ backs by cutting cost-of-living allowances.
“That’s why we see 80-year-olds working in convenience stores. I know it’s a big concern and a problem making sure PERA is taken care of, but the cost of living needs to be in there,” he said.
Sullivan says he is also concerned about state legislators potentially protecting their party brethren in the wake of several claims of sexual harassment at the state Capitol.
Raised by Air Force parents, Sullivan’s family moved around often when he was a child. After serving his own career stint in the Air Force, he and his wife took a vacation to Colorado from their then-home in upstate New York, prompting a move to the Rocky Mountain state.
Sullivan then spent a second career with the Postal Service, where he began as a special-delivery messenger and retired as an indoor clerk.
The father of a murder victim recalls with some irony how the term “going postal” entered the lexicon during his long service for the federal agency.
“These are big plants where you’ve got inept supervision that really doesn’t know how to manage people,” he said, noting two shooting incidents during his tenure. “I remember when all that happened. It seemed to be a unique thing, but it’s taken off from there.”
Sullivan says his personal connection to random violence is forever etched in his emotional consciousness, despite his ability to live a seemingly normal life and even run for public office.
“You may see me on the outside and say he looks fine. He seems to be the same guy he was 10 years ago. Internally, I’m a broken man. My heart has a hole in it that can never be filled,” he said.
That reality, Sullivan says, is part and parcel to his activism, particularly at the state Capitol.
“I needed to be in front of these people, so they would not forget what that day was like and what a person with a 100-round magazine can do to the inside of a movie theater,” he said.
No other Democrats have announced candidacies in the party’s primary.
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