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Emails offer inside glimpse of Colorado GOP showdown over embattled county leader

Back-and-forth exchange highlights tension between Burton Brown, Tonkins
El Paso County Republican Party Chairwoman Vickie Tonkins on Jan. 23, 2023, wrote an open letter to Colorado Republican Party Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown. (Colorado Newsline)

“It’s absurd that you would double-down on your attempts to tip the scales in favor of one side over another,” Vickie Tonkins wrote in an email to Kristi Burton Brown on Monday.

Burton Brown, chairwoman of the Colorado Republican Party, about three hours earlier had written to Tonkins, chairwoman of the El Paso County Republicans, that the response Tonkins had provided to complaints about her leadership was inadequate, faulting her for irrelevant objections to an upcoming meeting and “personal attacks” against the complainants. Burton Brown added an invitation to Tonkins to “revise your statement.”

The exchange is contained in a set of emails, obtained by Newsline, that includes what appears to be private messages between Tonkins and Burton Brown and other communication shared with state Republican Party leaders.

It is among the latest developments in a showdown over Tonkins’ leadership, which is fiercely defended by a Colorado Springs-area faction of far-right activists and officeholders who style themselves the “grassroots” soul of the party and stridently denounced by the party’s more traditionally conservative members.

Tonkins’ performance as head of the biggest GOP county party in the state is the subject of a special meeting on Jan. 31 of the state party’s Central Committee. The purpose of the meeting, called by Burton Brown, is to determine whether “a neutral party” should step in to conduct the El Paso party’s reorganizational meeting in early February, when the county’s party officers will be elected, and whether state party officials can “ensure that a legally valid list of voters” is used in the election.

The last El Paso reorganizational meeting, in 2021, when Tonkins won her current term as chair, was marred by accusations that voters were disenfranchised, and fears the upcoming election for party officers can’t be trusted proved persuasive enough for Burton Brown to call the special meeting.

“Too many people from across the state have reached out to me regarding election integrity and questions involving El Paso County,” Burton Brown wrote in an email last week calling the meeting.

State party officials formally censured Tonkins in December, saying Tonkins rejected her duties as county chair when she actively opposed numerous Republican candidates before the November election.

The county party’s vice chair, Karl Schneider, has long called on Tonkins to resign.

Tonkins’ formal response to the call for the special meeting was sent Monday morning and was signed by dozens of El Paso County party members, including former and current officeholders, such as former state representative and former candidate for U.S. Senate Ron Hanks, former state Reps. Dave Williams and Gordon Klingenschmidt, and current state Reps. Scott Bottoms and Ken DeGraaf.

“The state party chair has chosen to drag the entire (State Central Committee) into a county conflict because a small group of disgruntled agitators lost the party leadership election two years ago and now wish to strip voting rights from properly seated (precinct committee persons) so they can orchestrate a coup in next month’s county leadership elections,” the response says.

The response argues the special meeting would violate state law and it asserts that the complainants lack evidence for the misconduct they allege. It claims that one of the complainants is Burton Brown’s own father, Michael Burton, and calls into question Burton Brown’s impartiality.

It casts the complainants as “election deniers,” a word choice seemingly meant as a provocation given that Tonkins and many of her allies, notably Hanks and Williams, baselessly raised doubts about the 2020 election.

The response alludes to legal action Tonkins might take to stop the meeting. Tonkins’ suggestion that she might sue to block state party officials from interfering with local business was also contained in an “Open letter to KBB” Tonkins distributed Monday. The thrust of the open letter is similar to Tonkins’ formal response, though its language is somewhat softened, and it offers a proposed compromise. Tonkins offers to recuse herself from the organizational meeting election provided she could assign her duties to Kevin Tebedo.

Tebedo has long been active in Colorado politics, notably in the 1990s as an anti-LGBTQ crusader.

Tonkins also proposed that outside parties could be allowed to observe the election.

Tonkins previously told Newsline that she planned to participate in the virtual Jan. 31 special meeting.

To read more stories from Colorado Newsline, visit www.coloradonewsline.com.