After former Colorado state treasurer Cary Kennedy announced that she is running for the 2018 Colorado governorship on Facebook Live from behind the wheel of a moving car, the video went viral for reasons she hadn't anticipated: Political opponents and the press needled her for supposedly distracted driving. But rather than fuming over the response, she says she's pleased that so many people got to hear her message.
Kennedy, who is not related to the Massachusetts Kennedy political dynasty, made her candidacy official shortly after Ken Salazar bowed out of the 2018 Colorado governor race. Former state senator and fellow Democrat Mike Johnston was the first major candidate to declare in January, with Kennedy and Representative Ed Perlmutter stepping forward in the wake of Salazar's demurral. On the Republican side, the most prominent candidate to date is 18th Judicial District DA George Brauchler, best known for prosecuting the Aurora theater shooting case.
The 48-year-old Kennedy began her climb up the Colorado political ladder with a position in the administration of Governor Roy Romer. She served as state treasurer from 2007 to 2011; she was defeated in a re-election bid by current treasurer Walker Stapleton, a first cousin of former president George W. Bush who's widely expected to declare for the governor's race, too. More recently, she served as deputy mayor and chief financial officer for the City of Denver after being chosen for the gigs by Mayor Michael Hancock. When she left these roles in January 2016 to start a consulting business, she was already being touted as a possible 2018 gubernatorial candidate.
In the following Q&A, Kennedy talks about the April 10 Facebook Live announcement, revealing that the drive was a de facto simulation in which strict safety measures were put in place to ensure that no one was in danger. From there, she talks about her background; how her views about immigration have been informed by her doctor-husband's own personal history; the importance of improving Colorado's education system and her other top issues; the impact of so many people moving to the state; the timing of her announcement; the possibility of a rematch against Stapleton; and speculation among some observers that her run for governor may actually be a prelude to Kennedy challenging Senator Cory Gardner in 2020.
Westword: Let's start with what everybody's talking about right now, which is your campaign announcement. What was the concept going in? And what is your take on the response?
Cary Kennedy: First of all, we ran Facebook Live because I wanted people all over the state to be able to be part of the announcement — to participate and see it live. I did the clip in the car because it speaks to who I am. I've been driving my kids' carpool for many, many years, and I was just coming back from my daughter's school. My passion and commitment is to making sure Colorado's public schools are among the best in the country, and in the video, I talked about my own experiences attending high school and my daughter also attending a large public high school, George Washington. The work we have ahead of us is to really make significant improvements in our public education system. That is why I did the announcement using that opportunity — just to be driving back from my daughter's school.
Plenty of Republicans and quite a few members of the media, too, made sport of the video because you would occasionally look at notes. If I recall correctly, someone [9News's Brandon Rittiman] actually counted the number of times you looked away, and there were a lot of jokes about distracted driving. Do you have a good sense of humor about that? Or was it frustrating? Did you fear your message had gotten lost?
No, I don't think the message got lost. Just the opposite. Nearly 40,000 people have now watched the video, and if you look closely, you'll see I drove 300 yards — about half a block. [She laughs.] We had people positioned on both sides of the street to monitor traffic. We put safety first.
So was this a case of the video working out better than you could have imagined? Was the reach of the video broader because of all the attention given to the way you did it?
I'm thrilled that 40,000 people have seen the video, that it went viral. A lot of candidates have filmed their TV ads while driving. A lot of Colorado candidates have, and in fact, they were driving along highways. So I did not anticipate people raising it as an issue, just because so many candidates here in Colorado have done this.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I grew up in a family that was committed to service, to reaching out and helping others. That's what inspired me to work in public service. I grew up in a family with three brothers and sisters who joined my family through the foster care program, and I also have a sister who joined my family through a faith-based organization. So I grew up with kids who didn't have the same opportunities I had, and I saw firsthand how important it is that we provide opportunities for people — and to most of those kids growing up here in Colorado, the only opportunities they get is through our public schools. It's one of the reasons I'm so passionate about making sure that every child in Colorado and every school in our state provides opportunities that give them the foundation for lifelong success.
In my family, my husband and I actually met in the Capitol working for Roy Romer 22 years ago — and my husband is an immigrant. He emigrated to the United States from India; his family immigrated to Colorado when he was seven years old. I have a real appreciation for the tremendous assets and contributions that immigrant families make to our state. Looking at the hateful rhetoric coming out of Washington over the last year, it's personal for me, it's personal for my family. And it has no place here in Colorado.
There's been a lot of controversy of late about whether Denver or other communities in Colorado are sanctuary cities and whether that designation could hurt those communities in terms of receiving federal dollars. As governor, what would be your approach to working with the federal government and its policies about immigration?
Immigration is a federal issue. The failing of Washington to implement an immigration system that works for our families and our businesses — it's Washington's failure. For us locally in Colorado, it's really important that all people here feel comfortable with their local law enforcement. We want everyone to report crimes when they see them, we want everyone to feel that they can report, for example, child abuse or domestic abuse. We don't ever want to create an environment where people are afraid of their own local police officers. So we need to leave immigration as a federal issue and we need to have our local law enforcement focus on protecting our communities.
Cary Kennedy and her family.
You've mentioned education on a number of occasions. That's been an important issue for you dating all the way back to the time you worked for Governor Romer, correct?
It has. I started my career increasing funding for Colorado's public schools and stopping decades of cuts in public education. We need to make sure all the kids growing up here in Colorado are given the educational foundation so that they can compete for the jobs coming to Colorado. We know that in the future, seven out of ten jobs are going to require some higher education, some higher skills. And yet in Colorado, not even three out of ten kids who grow up here are getting any kind of higher-education degree — not an associate's degree, not a bachelor's degree — within six years of leaving high school.
So we have a lot of work to do to really support our educators and support our school districts. That includes making sure all kids in Colorado can attend preschool and kindergarten and start with a strong foundation. It includes paying our teachers as professionals. We're one of the lowest teacher-pay states. And we need a talent pipeline: We want to attract the best and the brightest to come and teach in Colorado's public schools. We have wonderful teachers in Colorado that aren't getting the support that they need. We need to improve the training opportunities we provide for them, give them more time with their students and better pay. We can do much more in our high schools to give kids employable skills when they graduate. That includes technical and professional and vocational courses we can offer in high school. And we can also make college more affordable. We need to do that as a state. We can do it as a state. I'll talk as a candidate and as governor about the importance of making education a top priority here in Colorado.
Education funding in Colorado has been notoriously low. Would you, as governor, try to increase that funding? And if so, where would the money come from?
We've experienced many years — in fact, decades — of budget cuts in our public schools. Today, the system is underfunded and inequitable. Some of our districts are doing okay. They tend to be more in the metro area. A lot of our school districts around the state, though, are really lacking resources. About 40 percent of the school districts in the state have cut back to a four-day school week. People are surprised to hear that. But budget cuts are having a real impact, and kids aren't getting the learning opportunities they need to be successful.
When I was state treasurer, I created the Building Excellent Schools Today [BEST] program, which is helping school districts throughout the state replace and renovate their aging school buildings. We have school buildings across the state that are seventy, eighty, a hundred years old, and small, local communities didn't have access to the capital in order to replace and upgrade those facilities. As state treasurer, I worked with them to do that, because kids in every community, every neighborhood in Colorado, need modern learning facilities. They need an education that will give them the tools and resources that will allow them to be able to go on and lead successful and productive lives and be able to afford to stay and live here in Colorado and compete for the jobs that are coming here to Colorado.
You just outlined a lot of needs and some of the things you've done in the past in this area. But going forward, would you support tax increases to bring more money into schools?
Here in Colorado, voters always have the role of approving any taxes. I think we need to bring leadership to the Capitol on this issue to raise awareness and make sure we have a funding system and a budget that is equitable and adequately fund our education system. I have a long track record of finding innovative ways to address challenges in meeting needs in our communities, like the Building Excellent Schools Today program, that didn't require additional state taxes. I was able to use revenues from our school trust lands — to rededicate it to support rural Colorado and some of the poorest communities in our state to support public education. That's the kind of innovative thinking and creative solutions that I will bring to the governor's office. And overall, one of the areas we talk a lot about is managing the taxpayers' dollars responsibly.
This has been my life's work as the state treasurer and as the CFO and deputy mayor for the City of Denver. I have a long record of keeping our budgets balanced, of putting our state on stronger financial footing. When I was CFO in Denver, Denver was recognized as one of the best financially run cities in the country. And also, Forbes, for the first time, recognized Denver as the number-one city in the country to do business. I worked with the mayor and worked with local businesses to streamline our taxes, to ensure that they have the opportunity to be more successful, to be competitive. So keeping our taxes low is something that's important to me, and it will be important to me as governor — making sure we have our budget balanced. Our citizens have the final say, and I support the right of our citizens to vote on taxes. But we also need to make sure that we have a budget that allows us to make the investment in our communities that pays long-term returns on those investments. That's investing in education, and it also allows us to invest in modern infrastructure that allows us to keep up with the demands of a growing economy.
Beyond education, what are the primary issues for you going into the campaign?
I just mentioned making sure we manage the taxpayers' money responsibly. Another area that is critically important to our state is making sure we keep Colorado the place that we all love. We are a fast-growing state. I grew up here, and I've watched Colorado's population double in my lifetime, and if the forecasters are right, it will double again. Another three to four million people will move into our state in the next thirty or forty years. And so we need to be thoughtful and intentional about supporting our local communities in being able to grow their communities sustainably. Right now our streets are crowded, our highways are crowded, and so we need to partner as a state with local communities throughout Colorado that need to upgrade and modernize their infrastructure. In some communities, it's meeting the demands of growth. In other parts of the state, it's helping them improve their opportunities for economic development. That includes roads, highways, transit. It's also things like broadband transmission, water. All of that infrastructure helps keep Colorado the place we all love and helps local communities accomplish their objectives for growing sustainably.
Cary Kennedy at the January Women's March in Denver.
I'm sure you've heard from talking to people around the state that there are a considerable percentage of them who subscribe to the philosophy "Welcome to Colorado. Now go away." Plenty of them feel growth has gotten out of control. From what you just said, you don't seem interested in putting up a wall around Colorado in an effort to stop more people from coming here. But is there a way to slow that growth in ways that would help maintain the quality of life people love here in Colorado?
We're a welcoming state, and I think one thing we can do is ensure that the kids growing up here in Colorado have the skills, the educational foundation, to compete for the jobs that are coming here. We've been very successful at economic development here in Colorado. We have brought, and continue to bring, some of the most innovative, forward-looking companies in the country here to Colorado. I've been involved in many of the largest economic-development projects in the state. As CFO of Denver, I helped work on opening up, for example, the area around Denver International Airport for commercial development. And we've seen Panasonic [Enterprise] Solutions coming into that transit-oriented development situation.
As we bring companies like Panasonic and others that want to be here in Colorado, they bring high-paying jobs, they bring innovation and technology. These are companies that will support our economic vitality for decades to come. Right now, many of our companies are having to go outside of Colorado to find people to fill those high-paying jobs. So part of the reason our economy is growing is because many of these companies are recruiting from out of state. I want our kids who are growing up in Colorado to have the educational skills and foundation to compete for the jobs that are coming here, so they can afford to stay here — so we can keep Colorado affordable. They can afford to live here, and they can enjoy the wonderful quality of life we all have in Colorado.
Your entry into the race followed former senator Ken Salazar's announcement that he was not going to run for governor in 2018. Was that a factor in your decision? If Senator Salazar had announced his candidacy, would you have stayed out, or would you still have decided to run?
I think Senator Salazar would have made a wonderful governor. He has been a first-rate public servant, and Colorado owes him a great deal for his many years of service, and I hope someday he gets back into public service, because he really is first-rate. But I had been looking at running for governor for a period of time, and made the decision because I think I'm the right person to lead this state forward.
Why was the timing right for you? Was it personal — where you are in your life? Or was it more about the needs here in Colorado and what you felt you could do to address them?
It was both. It's been a privilege for me to be a part of Colorado's leadership team for the past ten years. We've built one of the fastest-growing economies in the country. Colorado is an innovative, modern, forward-looking state. We're all really proud of what Colorado has become. So I want to be able to step into a leadership role to continue that progress and be able to ensure that everyone in our state can benefit.
After Senator Salazar announced that he wasn't going to run, there have been several campaign announcements, as well as a lot of speculation about who might be jumping in — and one of the names we hear most frequently is Walker Stapleton, who defeated you in the state treasurer's race when you ran for re-election. Would you look forward to the opportunity to take him on in the governor's race and reverse that result?
We don't know who the nominees will be on the Republican side. I will look forward to competing against whoever emerges as the Republican candidate. I learned a lot in that election in 2010, and I'm looking forward to going forward in 2018 and spending some more time listening to people around the state and hearing the challenges that are unique in each community. One thing I've learned as I travel around Colorado is that each community is unique. They have a unique set of challenges and opportunities, and as governor, I will listen and really hear how the state can be a partner and support people who are doing really good work in local communities throughout the state.
One of the criticisms of the Democratic Party in the 2016 race — not just in Colorado, but nationwide — involved allegedly ignoring communities outside of urban centers. You've spent the lion's share of your political career in the Denver area. How will you reach out to people in rural and agricultural areas and let them know that their concerns are your concerns as well?
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I've spent a lot of time this past year traveling around the state meeting with people, learning about issues in communities across Colorado. My track record while I was state treasurer was to bring the largest investment in infrastructure to rural Colorado that I know of in recent history — over $1 billion in school construction, most of which has gone into small, rural communities. I understand that rural areas of Colorado have unique needs and unique concerns. That's transportation, that's broadband, that's transmission, that's educational infrastructure. And what I hear is that they want someone in the Capitol to be their partner — someone who'll listen to them and respect that they know what's best in their community and they just need someone in the Capitol who will support them in accomplishing their objectives. That was my track record as treasurer, and that is the type of leadership I will bring to the Capitol as governor.
We were talking about possible candidates on the Republican side. On the Democratic side, the big Democratic name to enter the race after Senator Salazar decided not to run is Representative Ed Perlmutter. At this early stage, a lot of political observers seem to think that other Democrats who are running may actually be doing so to increase their name recognition so that they can then take on Senator Cory Gardner in 2020. Is that part of your thinking? Or are you focused on the governor's race?
I am running because there are some things I think need to get done in Colorado, and I am the right person to get them done. I want to continue the leadership that has made Colorado the innovative and forward-looking state that we have become, with one of the strongest and most dynamic economies in the country. I want to continue to position Colorado as a leader nationally, and that is why I am running for governor.