Clowns to the Left of Me

Marc Holtzman's got a feeling that something in the Grand Old Party ain't right.

In the mid-1990s, Holtzman sold his investment firm to a large Dutch bank and began spending more time in Colorado. He bought fifty acres in Garfield County for his Carbondale retreat. He became a staunch supporter of Bill Owens, then the state treasurer, in his 1998 campaign for governor. As political allies, the two seemed perfectly matched; they had many of the same heroes, the same favorite authors, a shared penchant for Slavophilia and a robust commitment to a certain carrot-topped conservatism. After the election, Owens named Holtzman as his secretary of technology.

Holtzman claims to have "guided Colorado's evolution into a fully diversified technology hub" during his years in the Owens cabinet, by recruiting dozens of tech firms and venture-capital companies to locate in the state, hiking aerospace jobs by 35 percent, pushing the University of Colorado's Fitzsimons expansion, and co-founding the Denver School of Science and Technology, a charter high school with strong minority enrollment. "Had I not been doing what I was doing, it would not have happened," he declares.

But many of the gains made during Holtzman's first years in the cabinet -- when the dot-com business was still booming -- were negated by the tech downturn and loss of jobs in subsequent years. One of his pet projects, the Colorado Institute of Technology, closed its doors last month, after failing to attract the $250 million in private donations that Holtzman had hoped to raise for its operation; even the $42 million in pledges from high-tech companies announced by Owens at its inception five years ago resulted in only $16 million being collected.

The bus stops here: Marc Holtzman campaigns by 
Anthony Camera
The bus stops here: Marc Holtzman campaigns by RV.

In late 2002, Holtzman told Owens he was interested in succeeding Al Yates, who was stepping down as president of Colorado State University. Owens obligingly urged his name on the selection committee, touching off protests from faculty and student groups. Aside from a bachelor's degree in economics from Lehigh University, Holtzman had no academic background, and his name failed to make the short list of finalists. But only days after that list was announced, University of Denver chancellor Dan Ritchie named Holtzman as DU's president, a new position that appears to have been created with Holtzman in mind. (The position later evaporated when Holtzman left.) The president, Ritchie explained, would work closely with him on fundraising and long-term planning but would not be directly involved in decisions affecting academics.

If Holtzman's accomplishments as technology secretary are in dispute, his role at DU is even murkier. "The circumstances under which he was brought in were highly unorthodox," says Dean Saitta, an anthropology professor and president-elect of the faculty senate. "No one really knows what he did. There wasn't any job description. I don't know if he brought in any money. There haven't been any reports, any accounting of his time."

Chancellor Ritchie has declined to comment publicly on Holtzman's achievements during his two years at DU. A university spokesman says Holtzman brought in high-profile guest speakers and "assisted in developing new contacts and new friends of the university," but declines to provide any specifics on his fundraising efforts.

"We don't attribute dollar amounts to individual people," says Jim Berscheidt, assistant vice chancellor for news and public affairs. Asked if there was any specific program or project that could be considered Holtzman's legacy, Berscheidt says he can't recall one.

But Holtzman can. "I helped found the Rocky Mountain Center for Homeland Security, the first master's program of its type in this part of the country," he says, adding that he was a prime mover in a capital campaign for DU's College of Education and particularly enjoyed his interactions with students, "shaping the minds of young people."

Yet Holtzman was restless at DU. He says Ritchie wanted him to consider applying for the chancellor's job, but he didn't care for the glacial pace of change in higher education and was missing the charge he got out of politics. He remembers seeking the advice of Richard Celeste, the former governor of Ohio and Clinton's ambassador to India, now president of Colorado College: "I told him, 'You're 68. I know you love what you're doing, but if you were 48, would you have been satisfied?' Dick looked at me and said, 'I don't know. I'm not so sure.'"

Aside from boosting Owens and serving as a precinct committeeman in Garfield County, Holtzman hadn't been too involved in Colorado party politics; he never ran for the state legislature, a traditional path to higher office here, because he believed his temperament was "much better suited to an executive role," he says.

But as Holtzman saw it, his party needed him now. In 2004, the GOP lost both houses of the Colorado General Assembly for the first time in forty years, along with a U.S. Senate and a congressional seat. It happened, Holtzman maintains, because the party leadership "began to focus more on the pursuit of personal power. They became jaded. It became clear to me that the Republican Party was kind of coming apart in Colorado, and that if good people didn't step up to the plate, things weren't going to change."

The growing support among party leaders for Referendum C, a kind of "time out" from TABOR's tax rebates, was a symptom of the malaise. Even Governor Owens, who'd defended TABOR from incursions in previous years, was gearing up to push C as a remedy for the budget crunch. By the summer of 2005, when it became apparent that Holtzman was going to run for governor as well as lead the fight against C, he found himself on a collision course with the party's kingmakers -- including the man who'd been his strongest ally in the entire state.

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