Clowns to the Left of Me
The ghost of Ronald Wilson Reagan haunts the Marc Holtzman for Governor campaign headquarters on South Broadway. Images of the nation's fortieth president beam from brochures, and framed photos of him hang on the walls. In most of the pictures, hovering somewhere near the Great Communicator is a mop-haired, bespectacled young man who happens to be the 1980s version of Holtzman.
A poster near the entrance identifies the 46-year-old Holtzman as a "Reagan conservative," in much the same way a poodle might be touted for its pure bloodline. Biographies of Reagan and memoirs by his aides are close at hand, in case the candidate needs to refer a visitor to some detail of his modest-but-life-altering association with the leader of the free world. A special packet of campaign literature targeting nostalgic GOP donors across the country features endorsements from two of Reagan's key advisors, former attorney general Ed Meese and personal secretary (and later ambassador) Helene Von Damm, as well as a handwritten note from "Ron," circa 1979, urging his handlers to find a spot for nineteen-year-old Marc in his campaign: "He's really a remarkable guy."
Fresh-faced staffers scurry about, answering phones and fetching documents. Many of them aren't much older than Holtzman was when he became the director of Reagan's Pennsylvania operation in the 1980 presidential race. And Holtzman, despite a long day of campaigning and a spate of recent setbacks, seems as relentlessly upbeat as his mentor.
This, Holtzman insists, is as it should be. "Ronald Reagan was a larger-than-life figure to me," he says. "It was his commitment to principle, his optimism, his boundless ability to make you feel good about yourself. I never saw him lose his cool."
If you read the papers, you might have the impression that Holtzman's bid to become Colorado's next governor is in crisis. Campaign manager Dick Leggitt resigned two weeks ago, after admitting that he made up poll numbers he'd fed to a Denver Post reporter. His departure came shortly after that of two other top aides, a press secretary and a field director. Holtzman and various staffers have been hauled into an administrative hearing over whether he violated campaign laws during his crusade last fall against Referendum C, which allows the state to keep tax revenues that otherwise would have been refunded under the TABOR amendment. (A ruling on the case is expected in the next few days.) He's in a pitched battle over procedure at the May 20 state Republican convention that was supposed to have been resolved long ago but still could compel him to petition his way onto the primary ballot. And opponents in his own party have unveiled an attack ad that insinuates that Holtzman has more in common with Bill Clinton than Ronald Reagan.
But there's no panic around Holtzman headquarters. Maybe it's the bottle of ginseng extract Holtzman keeps on hand, slipping a drop under his tongue for a burst of energy. Maybe it's the ghost of the Gipper. Like his hero, like a long line of fiercely grinning Republican leaders, Holtzman seems impervious to bad news. There might be afternoon thunderclouds gathering outside, but in this room, it's morning in America.
"I'm pleased," Holtzman says, assessing his progress in the race. "I started this campaign as an asterisk. No one took me seriously. I'd never been elected to public office before. But I've made a concerted effort to talk about issues, to talk about my vision, and I think that's really differentiated me from my primary opponent."
His critics tend to use a lot of punctuation marks besides asterisks to describe Holtzman -- e.g., "That @%%&*#~!!!" His upstart candidacy has created an even more tumultuous situation within the GOP than Bob Schaffer's primary run for the U.S. Senate in 2004, when the party leaders preferred Pete Coors -- a beer peddler who'd never held elected office and was ultimately beaten by Ken Salazar. This time around, the anointed one is Representative Bob Beauprez, who wants to trade in his two terms in Congress for Bill Owens's job. Owens, Senator Wayne Allard, Representative Tom Tancredo, Bruce Benson and other Republican heavyweights have thrown their support to Beauprez.
Both Holtzman and Beauprez present themselves as hardline conservatives: anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, anti-illegal aliens, anti-spending, that kind of thing. But Beauprez, a dairy farmer turned banker who has deep ties to the state's GOP establishment and a public persona of exceptional blandness, is widely perceived as the more electable candidate -- particularly in a race against the Democrats' single offering, Bill Ritter, the earnest but wooden former Denver district attorney.
Holtzman has only lived full-time in Colorado for eight years and has earned little name recognition, despite serving as Owens's technology czar and as president of the University of Denver. Still, he's built on the contacts he made in the Reagan administration and as an investment banker in post-Cold War Europe to assemble what admirers have called the largest Rolodex in the world -- now converted to a hefty palm pilot -- and his animated, occasionally fiery debating style has given Beauprez a run for his money. On top of that, there's his personal history; did I mention his connection with Ronald Reagan?
It's shaping up as a classic primary showdown: the Snooze versus the Shmooze.
Holtzman, of course, insists there are vast differences between himself and Beauprez. He sees himself as engaged in a battle for the soul of the party, an effort to rescue it from a leadership that's "become detached from reality" and drifted from the "core values and principles" of conservatism. The effort has cost him considerable political capital, but he rejects the notion that he's some kind of spoiler in the race.
"Our problem is with a very small slice of the senior leadership of the party," he says. "I'm not the anointed candidate, but I'm not anti-establishment, either. Every time I have a chance to appear on an equal platform, we prevail. I'm the only candidate in this race talking about issues and ideas, and that's what people want to hear."
Running for statewide office as a dark horse requires bold thinking. Some mavericks rent billboards or saturate the airwaves. Holtzman bought a jumbo-sized recreational vehicle, put his name in big letters on the side and hit the road.
A staffer estimates that the team has put close to 80,000 miles on the Marc 2006 RV in the past year. Holtzman has visited all 64 counties in the state, many of them several times, pressing the flesh at county fairs and backyard barbecues. He's spent more than two months in El Paso County alone, wooing the heart of the state's conservative hardliners.
The road show has drawn both accolades and ridicule. "When you go into small towns like Yuma or Cortez, everybody in town knows you're there," Holtzman enthuses. "We're building enough of a critical mass in our campaign that everywhere we go, we're getting people honking, thumbs up out the window."
He pauses. "We've had a few of the other kind [of hand gestures] as well, but that goes with the territory."
For several months, Holtzman kept a blog of his travels on his website; he says he hasn't had time to update the entries lately. But he doesn't regret the mileage.
"I think it's made me a better candidate," he explains. "I've stayed in a lot of people's homes, and that last hour before lights out, you really learn a lot about what's on people's minds, what they expect from government."
This grassroots, man-of-the-people theme is sounded repeatedly in Holtzman's campaign. His official bio says he was "born in the blue-collar coal country of northeastern Pennsylvania" and saved $25 "from his after-school job selling cameras" to pledge to Reagan's 1976 campaign. Omitted is any mention of Holtzman's affluent background or that his after-school job involved purchasing a million dollars' worth of cameras a year as a buyer for Jewelcor, his dad's national catalogue business. The candidate may be a man of some people -- the kind of people who have a condo in Cherry Creek and a 6,500-square-foot second home in Carbondale -- but he's hardly Everyman.
However inevitable it might be as a piece of strategy, the populist approach seems an ill-fitting choice for Holtzman. What's striking about his precocious rise to White House insider and subsequent successes is his willingness to pursue his own passions and hunches, regardless of the kind of grief he might get from others. How else do you explain a sixteen-year-old Jewish kid, the spawn of Hubert Humphrey Democrats, becoming so obsessed with Ronald Reagan that he campaigned door-to-door for him?
Reagan and his inner circle soon realized that Holtzman was, indeed, a remarkable guy. The 1976 campaign fizzled, but Holtzman became a pen pal of the future president. In 1977 he persuaded his father to hire Reagan to speak at a catalogue-showroom trade show in Chicago, for the modest sum of $5,000. He picked up his idol at O'Hare, and he still recalls the gate number (F6) and other minutiae from that historic meeting: "He was the first one off the plane. I remember grabbing his briefcase, and he carried his carry-on bag."
After that, Reagan chartered Holtzman's father's plane when he was in Pennsylvania, and Marc often went along for the ride. By the time he was twenty, Holtzman was running Reagan's Pennsylvania campaign. After the election, he moved to Washington and began fetching pizza for the future Cabinet. By the time he was 24, he was the executive director of Citizens for America, a conservative lobbying group, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Joe Coors and grabbing photo ops with the Gipper. "Who's that older man shaking hands with Marc Holtzman?" teased a headline in the Washington Times. A 1986 Rolling Stone profile, "Revenge of the Nerd," depicted him as the geekiest of all the young Reaganites.
By then, Holtzman had already made his first stab at running for office himself, seeking a congressional seat in his home district of Kingston, Pennsylvania, a Democratic stronghold. Despite raising a million dollars, he was trounced by a 2-1 margin. He went to work for one of his father's companies, at a time when the catalogue-showroom business was spiraling downward. (Jewelcor would file for bankruptcy a few months after Holtzman left in 1989.) But then he found his real calling in post-Communist Eastern Europe, forging deals between Western investors and Eastern entrepreneurs -- and reaping millions in the process.
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.
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.
"There was a distancing in our relationship before that, but certainly nothing that should have accounted for what transpired," Holtzman says, adding that Owens "tried to get me to stay neutral. In good conscience, I couldn't do it. He told me if I opposed C that he would not support me, that I would never be governor, that he would endorse Bob Beauprez."
Shortly after that meeting, Owens did exactly that. The governor's endorsement pointedly praised Beauprez as "a third-generation Coloradan with deep roots in our state," someone who "knows what it's like to put in a hard day's work, build a business and meet a payroll." (Translation: He's not that carpet-bagging, globe-trotting, non-native opportunist Holtzman.) Holtzman says he hasn't had any contact with the governor for the past year. Owens did not respond to Westword's requests for comment.
Beauprez was a late entry to the field of Republican candidates. The early buzz had centered on Holtzman, Lieutenant Governor Jane Norton and state treasurer Mike Coffman. But then Coffman and Norton bowed out -- and Beauprez, much to Holtzman's dismay, bowed in.
"Bob came to my office in February of 2005," Holtzman says. "I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. Bob told me that he'd just been appointed to Ways and Means, that there was a 99 percent chance he was going to continue his career path in Congress, that it was highly unlikely he was going to run for governor. The last thing I asked him to do as he left was to keep an open mind and not endorse anyone until mid-year, to give me five or six months to put a campaign together that's worthy of his consideration. He said he'd do that."
Two months later, Beauprez was in the race. Perhaps the politic thing would have been for Holtzman to step aside at that point, rather than risk splitting the party with a fractious primary. Certainly, people with greater claims on the party faithful than Holtzman have ducked the governor's race, precisely because of the GOP leadership's insistence on toe-the-line loyalty in its champion. One of those who declined to run is former senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, ex-Democrat turned moderate Republican. "What they want is absolute obedience," Campbell complained to an Associated Press reporter a few months ago. "I wasn't worried about losing. I was afraid of winning."
With 1.1 million registered Republicans in Colorado, nearly 40 percent of all voters, the party has a distinct edge in statewide contests. The rest of the voting population is almost evenly split among Democrats and unaffiliated voters, many of whom tend to vote conservative. But the highest turnout in a gubernatorial primary was the 214,000 votes cast eight years ago, when Owens knocked off Tom Norton. Even if 300,000 turn out for the August 8 primary this year, that would seem to give the insiders' candidate a strong advantage.
But Holtzman has another scenario in mind. Deep in his psyche is the story of a certain maverick candidate who defied the kingmakers by running for governor of California in 1966, even though he'd never held public office. All of the Republican bigwigs endorsed his primary opponent, the former mayor of San Francisco, who was deemed the only man capable of unseating the eminently popular Democratic governor, Pat Brown. Brown's people even poured money into the Republican primary, hoping that long shot Ronald Reagan would win the nomination.
And he did. And he kicked Pat Brown's ass.
"The point is this: The establishment isn't always right," Holtzman says. "The same thing happened when Reagan ran for president in 1976. Every Republican state chairman, all fifty of them, signed a petition begging Ronald Reagan to get out of the race."
The Gipper lost that one. But he carried Marc Holtzman's precinct.
Snubbed by the governor and blindsided by Beauprez, Holtzman set about trying to establish himself as the "true" hardline conservative in the race. To the unenlightened, there might not seem to be a dime's worth of difference between the two candidates, but Holtzman wanted to show voters that he and Beauprez stood on opposite sides of a moral and ideological abyss.
As he stumped the state urging defeat of Referendum C last fall, Holtzman lashed out at his opponent for not being sufficiently outraged about the measure. Beauprez had remarked that the budget-boosting plan was a "bitter pill" the state might have to swallow, and Holtzman pounced on his ambivalence. After C passed and the two began to speechify about other matters, Holtzman denounced Beauprez as a big-spending, flip-flopping party hack who bends with the prevailing political winds and was a Johnny-come-lately on hot-button issues such as immigration reform. The rhetoric was so aggressive that after a couple of debates, the Beauprez camp threatened to pull out of future joint appearances, then reversed its position -- providing more ammo for Holtzman's attacks on the man he calls "Both Ways Bob."
In response, Beauprez has cited his 100 percent rating from the American Conservative Union and endorsements from other groups that have praised him as a solid fiscal and social conservative. But Holtzman won't back down.
"This is a very calculating person who puts politics ahead of policy," he says. "It's very easy to manipulate a voting record. He completely changed his voting pattern in 2005, when he decided he had statewide political ambitions. He has truly earned the label ŒBoth Ways Bob.' Who knows where this guy is going to be tomorrow? When you're governor, you've got to be willing to lead."
As an example of his opponent's supposed perfidy, a new flier from the Holtzman campaign claims that while Beauprez has called for an end to "sanctuary cities" that encourage illegal immigrants to come to Colorado, he actually voted against various measures that would have aided that cause, including an amendment sponsored by Tom Tancredo. But Beauprez spokesman John Marshall says his man voted against an early version of the Tancredo amendment because of its form, then supported it in later versions.
"There have been five, maybe six votes on sanctuary cities," Marshall notes. "The first ones, they were trying to legislate it in appropriation bills, and that's something you don't do. Bob voted no. As the issue continued, Mr. Tancredo used different vehicles for that amendment, and Bob's voted with him ever since then."
Marshall calls Holtzman's latest attack on his boss an act of desperation. "I think Marc understands that he's in significant trouble," he says. "It's hard, when Tom Tancredo is supporting Bob, to say that Bob is a squish on immigration. It's hard, when Joel Hefley and Wayne Allard are supporting Bob, to say that he's a squish on spending.
"The reality is that Marc is struggling to be relevant. When you don't have a record to run on and you don't have a base of supporters, the only thing you're left with is to spray machine-gun bullets into a crowd."
Yet the Beauprez campaign has found Holtzman's campaign relevant enough -- or at least enough of a threat -- to do some tommy-gunning of its own. The Beauprez website features recent polling data that indicates Beauprez now holds a slight edge on Ritter in a head-to-head contest. The site has launched a "disclosure watch," making much ado of Holtzman's refusal to release his tax returns and wondering about the "hidden" source of a half-million-dollar loan he made to his own campaign. (The source, it seems, is Holtzman.) A radio ad paid for by an "independent" political committee with close ties to Referendum C and Beauprez supporters accuses Holtzman of having a credibility gap worthy of "Bill Clinton under oath."
Holtzman argues that the increasingly nasty tone of the contest shows how deeply he's angered the party leadership by daring to take on its champion. "Bob can't defend his position on the issues, so he and his surrogates have resorted to these frivolous attacks and ridiculous statements," he says. "They're trying to distract attention from his accountability."
By contrast, he adds, his single experience debating Bill Ritter one-on-one was delightful. "I found him to be a perfect gentleman," he says, clearly relishing the prospect of a "civil" campaign against an unabashed Democrat after the primary is over.
But first Holtzman has to survive the slings and arrows of his own party. Of all the efforts to neutralize him, the probe into his role in the anti-C campaign has been the most damaging -- and the most revealing. The complaint that triggered the hearings was brought not by some tax-and-spend liberal, but by Steve Durham, longtime GOP activist and a Beauprez ally. Testimony suggested an uncomfortably close arrangement between the "If C Wins, You Lose" committee and Holtzman's own staff, in possible violation of campaign finance laws. Dick Leggitt's admission on the stand that he concocted polling numbers he gave to a Denver Post reporter -- because he suspected the reporter was spilling his guts to the Beauprez machine, and Leggitt wanted to send a "message" -- ultimately cost Leggitt his job as Holtzman's campaign manager. (Ironically, while Leggitt didn't have the actual data, his basic assertion to the reporter, that the Referendum C battle had raised Holtzman's profile among Republican voters, was confirmed by an actual poll done for the Rocky Mountain News last year.) And Holtzman's own performance on the stand, in which he contradicted what he'd said in a deposition by stating that he'd had "another recollection," provided the fuel for the Clinton comparison.
Holtzman maintains that he did nothing wrong. His opposition to Referendum C cost him more than he gained, he insists, including his friendship with Owens and some support in the business community. "I paid a significant price," he says. "But if I had to do it all over again, I'd do the same thing."
And the administrative hearing? "It was a significant distraction," he says. "I think it was intended to be."
The body blows the candidates have been trading may be a source of some alarm to party insiders -- and giddy amusement among Democrats -- but not everyone sees it as a bad thing. "Whoever heard of a primary that isn't contentious?" asks Douglas Bruce, the El Paso County commissioner who authored the TABOR amendment. "I don't see that there's any blood on the floor in this race."
Bruce hasn't endorsed either candidate yet. "I see more of a difference in style and emotion," he says. "I suspect they'd be on the same side 90 percent of the time, and I'm confident that whoever prevails will have the support of the other candidate."
But other party stalwarts are genuinely outraged by Holtzman's campaign. Bruce Benson, the former state party chairman and 1994 gubernatorial candidate, is so incensed that he bankrolled the attack ad challenging Holtzman's credibility. "I just think he's an embarrassment," Benson says. "He's trying to rip the guts out of this party. He's wooing the far-out, and I think he's dangerous. I've opposed Republicans before, but I've never felt this strongly about any candidate."
Benson has collected stacks of Holtzman mailings, which he contends are full of gross exaggerations and "bullshit," on everything from Holtzman's ties to Reagan to his contributions to the party to the Photoshopping that seems to have raised his height in some pictures. "Marc is whatever he thinks it's appropriate to be," he says. "The guy just makes anything up, and he could care less."
Holtzman calls Benson "a leading figure in the establishment" who resented his opposition to Referendum C. He insists he's the candidate of ideas and principles in the race. And it's true that he can be thoughtful, even disarming, on the issues.
He talks about the actions a Colorado governor could take to pressure the employers of illegal aliens and to "unite other Western governors behind a common agenda." He talks about what a "green Republican" could do to limit damage from oil and gas drilling and promote statewide standards for smart growth: "My party has done a pretty lousy job in the past and can do a better job in the future, putting forth market-oriented, conservationist alternatives to left-wing, environmental extremist policies that aren't cost-effective or realistic. We're guilty many times of not offering any alternative at all."
But a fuller discussion of policy might have to wait -- until the next RV odyssey, perhaps. Right now his staff is piling on the homework, including a list of fifty state assembly delegates Holtzman is expected to call tonight. (His running mate, former state legislator Lola Spradley, has another fifty names on her list.) The negotiations over nominating procedures at this weekend's convention are at a perilous stage, with Holtzman fretting about possible "fraud and manipulation" and promises reneged. (Marshall says that the Beauprez campaign has agreed to all of Holtzman's demands, and that the rules Holtzman is now protesting were set by an El Paso County official who happens to be a Holtzman supporter.) And there's the matter of his upcoming wedding: A lifelong bachelor, Holtzman plans to marry Kristen Hubbell, spokeswoman for the Colorado Attorney General's Office, in July, in a ceremony involving a rabbi and a Presbyterian minister.
It's enough to make some men forswear politics and public life entirely. But not Holtzman. He isn't about to lose his cool.
At campaign headquarters, the most recent photo of Holtzman with his hero dates from 1996. A smiling Reagan is sitting on a couch in California with two visitors, Holtzman and the president of Poland. It's shortly after the great man's battle with Alzheimer's was announced, and Reagan doesn't even recognize his former pen pal. How much he understands of what is going on around him is anyone's guess.
Holtzman is smiling, too. Reagan may not know who Holtzman is, but Holtzman knows who Reagan is -- and what it takes to win one for the Gipper.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.