Columbine Could Turn District's Political Tide

Article excerpt

LITTLETON, Colo. - Two weeks before the Columbine shooting, Tom Mauser and his family were eating dinner when his 15year-old son, Daniel, asked him an unexpected question.

"He said, `Dad, did you know there are loopholes in the Brady Bill?' Just like that - out of the clear blue sky," recalled Mr. Mauser. "To me, it was a real sign."

Within a few weeks, Daniel was dead, and Mr. Mauser's life had changed forever. A transportation manager who had never been involved in politics, he's now one of the nation's most visible gun-control advocates as the political-affairs director of Sane Alternatives to the Firearms Epidemic, known as SAFE/Colorado.

His story is uniquely tragic, but Mr. Mauser says there are more like him in Colorado's 6th Congressional District: voters who once were content to support candidates backed by the National Rifle Association but have had a change of heart since the April 20 massacre that left 15 dead.

He should know. "I went door to door with fliers to try to put pressure on our state representative," Mr. Mauser recalled. "I'd knock on the door and say, `I'm Tom Mauser and I want to close the gun-show loophole,' and they'd say, `You're right, I can't believe we can't get this done.' "

Such evidence may be purely anecdotal, but it's music to the ears of Democratic strategists. Needing to wrest just five seats from the Republicans to regain control of the House, the Democrats have targeted the Colorado 6th District as one of their best bets for a takeover. Their optimism is based in part on the strength of the gun issue in a community upended by an act of unimaginable violence.

"It's an opportunity for us. Districts like these are changing," said John Del Cecato, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

It probably would take an event no less earth-shattering than Columbine for this district to elect a Democrat. Since the suburban Denver seat was created in 1982, only Republicans have filled it. Voter registration here heavily favors the GOP: 38 percent are Republican and 34 percent are independent, with Democrats holding just 27 percent of the electorate.

To capture the seat, the Democrats need unaffiliated voters to swing to the left. The candidate charged with luring those independents likely will be Ken Toltz, a businessman who probably has scared away any serious Democratic rivals by raising a hefty $250,000. He is willing to spend $1 million to defeat Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo, 54, a conservative freshman who won election in 1998 with the backing of the NRA.

Mr. Toltz, 43, began his campaign about five months before Columbine, but the deadly shooting has put the race into focus around public-safety issues. Mr. Toltz has blasted his opponent as a tool of the NRA, accusing him of trying to weaken existing gun-safety laws and protect firearms manufacturers from liability even as his constituents demand action to stop future Eric Harrises and Dylan Klebolds.

"I know people in the 6th District are very frustrated with their representation," said Mr. Toltz recently over coffee at Starbucks. "It really hit home when our community was so shaken, shaken to its core, and nothing has been done."

The irony here is that Colorado gun owners are even more frustrated with Mr. Tancredo. While Democrats attack him as a gun-slinging Neanderthal insensitive to his community's pain, Second Amendment groups are outraged over what they see as his political pandering to the gun-confiscation crowd.

His office has been flooded with angry mail from gun-rights advocates, while the state's largest and most conservative firearms organization, Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, held a protest outside a Tancredo fund-raiser in August.

At the heart of the unrest is Mr. Tancredo's vote in favor of the Juvenile Justice Bill, a gun-control package that came to the U. …