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Self-proclaimed millionaire Terry Walker can look for miles in any direction from his Southwestern-style mansion in the mountains just west of Denver. He can see just about anything from this lavish perch. The real question is whether anyone can see him.
Walker, a 58-year-old businessman who says he emerged from academia to make a fortune in the computer industry, is the latest rich guy to run for Colorado governor. For now, however, he's more of a legend in his own mind.
One night last winter, Walker had some friends out to his house in Genesee. Among them was Tom Tancredo, president of the Independence Institute, a conservative think tank amenable to Walker's own views. That's when Walker broke the news about his 1998 gubernatorial plans.
"At first nobody said anything," Tancredo recalls. "And then we all started laughing. It was like a joke."
Other Republicans don't seem to be taking him too seriously, either, in spite of his efforts. Shortly after Walker arrived in Colorado from the South, he met, befriended and then ran the 1994 statewide gubernatorial campaign for Republican Dick Sargent, who lost to millionaire Bruce Benson in the primary. In 1996 Walker was the Jefferson County coordinator for Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign. In January 1997 Walker formally announced his own bid for the GOP nomination for governor and has been able to work his way onto the dais for debates with fellow GOP candidates, who currently include state treasurer Bill Owens, Senate president Tom Norton and Speaker of the House Chuck Berry.
Walker's running as an outsider, an ultraconservative from the religious-right wing of the GOP who's willing to spend his own money. So far, he's still outside. In February he ran to be one of the "bonus members" of the Republican Central Committee. There were 53 people on the ballot for 20 spots. Walker came in 49th.
"That kind of tells you something, doesn't it?" says Sargent, who still considers Walker a friend. Sargent is mulling another run for the governorship himself and says he would have no problem dispensing of his friend in a primary. "It's okay to be an outsider to politics, but you have to have some base of support," Sargent says.
Walker says that he's unfazed by his lack of support and that his failure to be elected a state committee member has "nothing to do with my ability to be elected governor. It's very early in the process."
Terming his most formidable opponent, Bill Owens, as too slick, Walker says, "I plan on winning the nomination without a primary."
He says he is running because he's not a career politician and because he's the only person who will "draw a line in the sand when it comes to all of these federal mandates."
Tancredo says he can't figure out how Walker believes he has a shot, but what the heck. "Hey, it's America," says Tancredo.
Of course, other rich people have run for office in Colorado, but their money hasn't guaranteed them success.
In 1996 wealthy Democratic lawyer Tom Strickland ran against GOP representative Wayne Allard for Hank Brown's U.S. Senate seat. Strickland lost. In 1994 Bruce Benson spent enough money to overcome his lack of political experience and win the GOP nomination for governor, but he lost to Roy Romer in the general election.
This time around, it's Terry Walker, but he's gotten off to a much slower start than Benson. Part of that may stem from Walker's unassuming attitude and a seeming inability to specify exactly why he's in the race. About the closest he gets to an explanation is this: "I'm the kind of guy that when they play the national anthem, I get a little choked up."
Steve Schuck can sympathize. Back in 1986, Schuck, a millionaire real estate wheeler-dealer from Colorado Springs, mounted a bid for governor.
"I may not have been able to articulate very well why I was getting into the thing at the time," Schuck says, "because I was so wrapped up in it in the moment."
For his own part, Schuck recalls that he was used to cooking up giant real estate deals and, though he wanted to perform some kind of public service, didn't want to just volunteer at a senior center a couple of days a week.
"The career politicians have no experience in actually doing something," Schuck says. "You don't get the sense that they know the shape and nature of what they want to do." Schuck says that a person who is driven to get projects done looks at the governorship as an active project, not just something to watch over.
"I wanted to approach my life of public service in the same way that I had been running the rest of my life," Schuck says.
Whatever his intentions, Schuck spent $2 million of his own money in the GOP primary and lost. Walker says he, too, is willing to plunk down $2 million. At one time in Colorado history, that would have been more than enough.
A long time ago, says local historian Tom Noel, it was possible for rich businessmen to purchase their way into political power. "Rich people could literally buy a seat because they were appointed by the party," says Noel. He cites the case of Horace Tabor, who a century ago went directly from being a flamboyant miner to the U.S. Senate by making key political "donations."