Doug Robinson, the latest hopeful to announce for the 2018 Colorado governor's race, is the nephew of Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and the 2012 Republican candidate for president. But Robinson is optimistic that his experience in the technology industry, his passion for issues such as education and his status as a political outsider will help him top the better-known candidates with whom he's competing.
The other 2018 gubernatorial challengers with whom we've spoken to date include Republican George Brauchler, the DA in the 18th Judicial District, as well as two Democrats, former state senator Mike Johnston and ex-Colorado treasurer Cary Kennedy. Representative Ed Perlmutter is also running, and among those rumored to join the contest is current Colorado treasurer Walker Stapleton, whom Robinson expects to announce before long, as he notes during the wide-ranging interview below.
A married father of five, Robinson moved to Colorado in 1996 and subsequently co-founded St. Charles Capital, a financial firm that was acquired by the auditing giant KPMG in 2014. Robinson worked at KPMG until this past March, when he retired in order to devote himself to the campaign for governor.
Below, Robinson discusses his family background, the reasons he moved to Colorado, his flirtation with challenging Michael Bennet for the U.S. Senate last year, what he likes and doesn't like about President Donald Trump, and issues that include the oil and gas business, the state budget and marijuana. He vigorously opposed Amendment 64, the 2012 measure that legalized limited cannabis sales in the state, and believes Colorado has a drug problem that needs to be addressed.
Along the way, Robinson proves that he's an unusual breed of politician by actually saying some nice things about Governor John Hickenlooper, whom he hopes to replace, and the others he's running against. Get to know him below.
Westword: How do you introduce yourself to voters who may not be familiar with you?
Doug Robinson: I introduce myself as a businessman who cares about kids and about our future. That's really my passion for getting into this race.
You're originally from Michigan, correct?
Yes, I grew up in Michigan, and that informs a lot of what I'm doing today. My grandparents moved to Michigan in the 1940s. In the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, Michigan was one of the best places in the country to live. The best and the brightest came there, and there was a lot of opportunity in Michigan. But the leaders after those decades really didn't see the changes coming. They didn't really have a plan for where the state needed to go. And now you meet Michiganders everywhere.
I see a Colorado that's changing, with a lot of good things happening. But I don't see an active leadership that's shaping the state. What do we want Colorado to look like ten years from now, twenty years from now? What do we need to do so that this continues to be a place of opportunity, a place where your kids and grandkids want to live?
Do you see warning signs on the horizon that suggest today's Colorado may be going the way of yesterday's Michigan?
It'll be different. But we're changing, and the question is, are we going to have leadership to shape that change? Or will they respond to change as it comes? I think for most people in Colorado, the number-one concern for them is economics. The backbone of strong families and strong communities is good jobs. Unfortunately today, one of four Colorado kids grows up in a household where an adult member of the household doesn't have a full-time job. So that's a concern.
We need to be prepared for the changes coming to Colorado, and I think I'm unique among the candidates in that my career has been spent in the technology industry. The company that myself and others founded, our largest practice area was raising capital and advising growing technology companies. So my career's been all about change. I want to make sure Colorado not only participates in changes as they come — specifically related to technology — but that we're a leader among all the states providing those jobs going forward.
If people are familiar with you at this point, they know you as Mitt Romney's nephew. How close were you to his part of the family growing up?
We were a very close family. My grandfather moved to Michigan with my grandmother in the 1940s, and that's where I grew up. Mitt is my mother's youngest brother. And I was very close to my grandfather [George Romney]. When I was a teenager, my parents divorced, and it was really my grandfather who stepped in to provide adult male guidance in my life. He was a remarkable man. He came from absolute poverty — so poor that he used to tell us that one winter, all they had to live on was potatoes. His mother would make mashed potatoes, fried potatoes, baked potatoes, potato pancakes, potato soup — however she could make it to be edible. He was tough and resourceful and ambitious, and he went on in Michigan to lead the Automobile Manufacturers Association, which was instrumental in the auto industry being able to make planes and armaments for World War II. He came out of there with some business success and eventually was a three-term governor of Michigan. That informed me. He believed you have a duty to make a success of yourself in the world, and then, if you have the passion and desire, to give back to your community.
Are you close to Mitt Romney today? And did you campaign for him in 2012?
I am close to him. But this race is about Colorado, and not so much about national issues. My support is going to come from right here in Colorado. He is supportive; he will be supportive. I was quite involved in his campaigns, and we'll try to leverage some of those relationships. But it's really going to come from people around the state getting to know me separate from that relationship. That's part of who I am, but the core of who I am is my own person, Doug Robinson.
When did you come to Colorado, and what brought you here?
We moved in April of 1996. At the time, I was 33 years old. I had risen to the top of a firm in New York City, advising technology companies on going public. I happened to have a new client in Colorado, a company called CSG Systems. I flew out. [My wife] Diane and I were frankly struggling with how to make it all work in New York — how to have professional success, but also family success and community involvement. We flew out, I went to my meeting, she drove around — and we'd obviously been out to Colorado to ski and vacation and hike, and we loved the place. She said on the way back on the plane, "Let's move to Colorado." And I said, "That would be great, but I don't know if I can do what I do in Colorado." But just as a total coincidence, three days later, the phone rang. It was a good friend of mine, and a headhunter had called him to say that there was a firm in Denver looking for somebody to create a technology corporate finance practice. Things fell together, as they often do for people coincidentally. We made a decision, and four or five months later, we'd moved the family out. We had three kids at the time, and we moved to Colorado. And it's really been Colorado that's made our lives possible. It's a place where you could have professional success and community involvement — involvement with your kids and living in such a beautiful place where you can go to the mountains or the plains and participate in the outdoors. It's really a love for Colorado that's compelled me to try and do this.
A few years later, you founded St. Charles Capital. Could you tell me about that business and what set it apart from other businesses of its type?
In late 2004, a few of us who'd worked together started talking about if we could do things on our own in a better way. So we started St. Charles Capital. At the time, we were unique in bringing industry focus, knowledge and expertise to smaller, growing companies on a regional basis. We were a corporate finance advisory firm. What that means is we advised companies how to raise capital, to grow and get bigger, and how to get into joint ventures with other companies, or to venture into partnerships, or to buy other companies, so that they could grow and employ more people and be more successful for their shareholders. Our largest practice area was focused on technology companies, and I had primary responsibility for that. And our second largest was in financial services, where we advised primarily banks and other financial companies.
How did you transition a few years later from St. Charles Capital to KPMG, where you worked as a technology investment banker?
We grew our business. There were three of us on day one, and pretty quickly, we were at nine or ten, and we grew over the years and received recognition as a leading firm doing that in Colorado. Then, in 2013-2014, we were approached by a few different firms about joining them. For a number of reasons, we decided that would be the best opportunity for ourselves and our employees and our clients. And so, in 2014, we were acquired by KPMG. I took one sign off the door and put another one on, but we were in essence doing the same thing that we had been doing. They had a different model, which was less regional and more national and global in focus, so it meant some changes for us. But I was a member of their technology, media and telecom team until March 31, which was my last day, when I retired in order to pursue this next challenge.
Was your decision to retire in part to send a message to folks that this campaign is not a whim, it's not taking a flier — it's something very serious that you're going to devote all of your energies to?
No [laughs]. That might have been a good way to approach it. But basically, KPMG, which is a fabulous firm — they have 124,000 employees, but they've never had somebody run for higher office. So they weren't sure how to approach it. They do work for the State of Colorado and many of the states in this country. They advise the City of Denver and so on, and they weren't comfortable with me being an employee and also being a candidate for one party, because they are friendly with both parties and work with both parties. That was part of it. But also, I realized this was going to be a full-time effort. My clients, my colleagues and the constituents of Colorado would be best served by me being able to devote myself full-time to the campaign.
Your name was mentioned as a possible Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate last year. What ultimately led you to decide not to challenge Michael Bennet in that race, and why did you come to a different conclusion when it came to the governor's race?
I had been approached. I'd been actively involved in the Republican Party and the community when the obvious candidates, like John Suthers and Mike Coffman, didn't step up to challenge Michael Bennet. And there was a search for, who can we put forward as a significant challenger? I was flattered that some people approached me about it, and I actually took some time to think about it. But I came to a conclusion on a couple of things. One is that I'm a businessman, more of a get-things-done person rather than someone who just talks about things. I felt that the Senate was maybe not the ideal place for my talents. Also, commuting back and forth to Washington every week is a tough life. And at the time, I felt that the political environment was going to be a challenging one for all Republicans. I was wrong on that. I certainly wouldn't have predicted that Donald Trump would win the presidency.
I learned from that, and as I had people reach out to me as I was exploring getting into the governor's race, I realized that you really can't predict politics or where it's going to be. I had some advice from some folks who said if you personally feel a passion to get involved and try to make a difference, you should do that. That's where I'm coming from. But I'm in this to win. I'm in it full-time, and we've had a very strong response early on to the campaign. I'm feeling good about things.
You've talked publicly about voting for Donald Trump, who was defeated here in Colorado. Do you think Colorado voters got it wrong when it came to him?
I think Colorado voters are really smart. I've been involved with the Republican Party and believe fundamentally that more conservative principles create more opportunities for all citizens.... Donald Trump wasn't my candidate from the beginning, but when I had to make a decision between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump and some third-party candidate, with Trump's business background, I felt he would be a better choice for our nation.
How do you think he's done so far?
I've been happy with some of the things he's done, and concerned about others. I'm especially happy about Neil Gorsuch. I think it's a real coup for Colorado to have a Supreme Court justice. It's been quite a number of years since Byron White. I don't know Neil personally, but I have friends who know him well and who went to school with him, and I think he's a terrific choice. That's the best thing he's done. I also think he's been strong internationally in terms of the response to Syria, and I'm hopeful we're going to have a health care bill that is going to put a better plan forward for working Americans and for other folks.
On the other hand, some of his personality — his tweeting and some of his comments — are not reflective of my values.
Would they also not reflect your approach to being governor of Colorado?
No, they wouldn't. It's been interesting: As I've looked at the governor's race, I guess the new model for winning is to be like Trump, but I'm not like Trump. I'm going to run on a more positive vision for where we can go, and I tend to have respect for my fellow Republican challengers, and even the Democrats. It's a hard thing to do to put yourself out there publicly, and I have newfound respect for all our elected officials. I intend to run a positive campaign as opposed to a more negative one.
Let's talk about some of the issues you feel are most important. On your website, you talk about the importance of promoting Colorado's vital industries, and the first one on the list is oil and gas. Do you think the oil and gas industry in the state has gotten short shrift in recent years?
No — but I think it will be interesting to see what happens in terms of the explosion [in Firestone that killed two people as a result of a leak from an abandoned pipeline connected to a nearby well]. I think Hickenlooper needed to do that [order companies to test all flowlines within 1,000 feet of houses]. Our government's first duty is to protect its citizens.
That's certainly true. But it's also likely that environmental groups will use this explosion as a way to argue for more regulations for the industry. Is that a concern of yours?
On my website, oil and gas is one of a dozen or so industries that I listed as being critical to Colorado's economic success. I believe it is, but I also believe tourism is, and quite a number of other industries are. And one of the things I would bring as a businessman would be to go in and really look at all of our regulations — look at them from a cost-benefit-analysis perspective. Are they effective? Are they working the way they were intended? If you come to my house, there's a lot of chaos right now, because we're in the middle of spring cleaning. Diane is making me go through my closet and look at some of these shirts and so on that I probably haven't worn in several years, and she asks, "Do we need this? Do we need this?" So I think there's some benefits, just as there is in business, in government to really look at all of the regulations and how we're running our agencies. Are we achieving the objectives we set out to achieve, and are we allocating our dollars effectively? I would want to do a regulatory review.
I think the oil and gas industry is a critical one for Colorado, but they've got to operate within the rules, and we've got to keep people safe.
You've also identified education as an important issue for you. What's wrong with the education system in Colorado right now? And what would you do to fix it?
It's a paradox that Colorado has the second most highly educated adult workforce in the country, yet I don't think we're doing as well as we should be with educating our own kids. If you look statewide, the statistics are really concerning. The latest numbers I've seen show that 30 percent of our kids are at grade level at math, slightly higher in science and 40 percent in reading. That's just not acceptable. I think everyone on both sides of the aisle agrees that education is perhaps the most important thing for the future of our state, and we really need to come together as a state to look at how we can improve the outcomes for our students.
Colorado is a little challenged, because it's one of the few states in the country where the state board is outside of the governor's direct control. [Boardmembers are] elected directly by the people, and even their chairperson is elected by the board. But even so, the governor does have a great deal of influence, I think, in focusing them on what really matters. And I think we need better outcomes for our students. Specifically, I think there are some innovative models in other places around the country. At the heart of education is our teachers, and we need to make sure we're hiring, recruiting, mentoring and paying our best teachers what they deserve to be paid. I believe charter schools and choice and other innovative models improve the public schools in terms of creating more competition. I'm a big believer in STEM education, including one of the nonprofits I've been involved in, KidsTek....
Early on in Colorado, I was involved in the technology industry and was asked to join the Colorado Technology Association. And a few of us there recognized that the digital divide was a big problem, and that our schools weren't doing an adequate job of educating students, especially those families in inner city and rural parts of the state who didn't have access to technology equipment at home — didn't have computers or other advantages. So rather than just decry the problem, we decided to do something about it. We formed a nonprofit about sixteen years ago called KidsTek.
Its purpose is that in schools with greater than 75 percent free and reduced lunch, we provide excellent instructors and innovative curriculum through project-based learning in order to give kids additional technology skills so they can be successful in the modern world we live in today. We've had good success with a number of our graduates going on to college, and also getting a job. And the high school programs we're in, kids that apply themselves can get a networking certification, a Microsoft office specialist certification, and can get a higher-paying job right out of high school. That's an example of an area where we took action and have made a difference. We're in approximately 24 schools right now, mostly in Denver, Aurora, Adams County, Boulder. We did have some up in the northern part of the state, too, and that's a model that could be adapted in other parts of the state to provide additional STEM education. To me, it's an example of the innovative things I think Coloradans are so good at — looking at problems and coming up with private, if you will, solutions to these problems. KidsTek has never taken any money from any government source. It's from foundations and individuals, and the schools pay some of the costs. I'm proud of what we've been able to do in that environment.
As you mentioned earlier, the governor doesn't have direct control over the state school board — and neither does the governor have a formal, hands-on role in a lot of aspects of education in Colorado. So would you use the bully pulpit of the governorship to move things in what you see as the right direction?
Absolutely. But even more than that, the governor has the opportunity to have all the school-board members come to your office. You can sit down with them, talk about priorities and what your priorities are. And even though you don't have the direct control, I think there's a lot of influence that can be exerted in order to bring people together. I think our school board does want our performance to be better and is trying their best to do it. I think we need to have a robust conversation around what are the changes we can make and how can we support our best teachers and support innovative models that are working and really support rural schools, which are really having a hard time in attracting science, technology and math teachers. I'm a believer in online learning and education and integrating that into the classroom. I think as a governor, even though you don't have direct control, there's a lot that can be done to make a positive difference for our kids.
On the subject of bringing people together, there's the perception that Colorado is a less partisan environment than you would have encountered had you been elected to the U.S. Senate and gone to Washington, D.C. Is it your hope that as governor, you will be able to get people from different parties to work together to achieve positive outcomes?
Yes. And I think that's something an outsider who isn't in politics brings — perhaps a more practical approach at looking at issues and trying to solve problems, saying, what are the outcomes we want? And I think most Coloradans want our schools to be better, and they don't want to be necessarily paying more in taxes, but they want them to be more efficient. They want their roads fixed, they want water infrastructure, they want housing prices to come down. To me, these aren't partisan issues, and one of the things I love about Colorado is that people are generally involved in the community, they're educated on the issues, they want to be involved and give back. So I would see bringing the best minds together, wherever they are on the political spectrum.
You've also talked about Colorado having a drug problem, with specific references to marijuana. Did you oppose Amendment 64, which legalized limited recreational marijuana sales in the state?
I did. I actually played quite a role in the campaign [opposing Amendment 64]. And we lost. At the time, I didn't think it was the right thing for Colorado and for our kids. But 55 percent of the voters said that it was. It's in the [state] Constitution. That's the law. A lot of the conversation among the politicians has been, has youth usage gone up or down since it passed? But to me, I think that's really irrelevant. Youth usage is too high. We're the highest in the country in some of these measures — not just in marijuana, but heroin and opioids and some of these other problems we have. So my focus since then has been, let's keep these products out of the hands of our young people. Let's educate them as to what they are and keep them out of their hands. Coloradans want a marijuana industry and we have one, and I think most of the industry wants to be responsible partners, too. Those that I've talked to, they also don't want these products in the hands of young people. They tell their kids, the owners of these businesses, don't use this stuff. It's not appropriate for an eleven- or twelve-year-old, or even for a sixteen-year-old.
Do you perceive that it's too easy for kids in Colorado to get marijuana? And what would you do to improve the situation?
There are a few things. We were promised that the black market for marijuana would go away and we would get the benefit as citizens of taxing marijuana consumption. That really hasn't happened yet. The black market and the gray market are pretty much the same in some of the data that I've read. I think Governor Hickenlooper should be applauded for some of the steps he's taken this session to try to address those issues. So I think we need more focus on having people use the regulated market and dealing with the problem of the black and the gray market.
We also need to educate the public and also our kids about the products being sold. The state really doesn't have an inventory of the products being sold, and they vary a lot. Some have almost no THC, like CBD oils that seem to have a positive medical effect. At least [former Denver Broncos quarterback] Jake Plummer and others think so. But there's also dabbing and waxes and shatters that are 80 or 90 percent pure THC and have been shown to be damaging to youth and to others. So we need to have an inventory of the products being sold and have a conversation across the state about potency and whether some of these highly potent products are appropriate. We're the leaders in the nation on this, and I feel we need to show leadership on this, and make sure that unintended negative consequences don't come from this new industry.
The folks who are in favor of the marijuana industry often compare the business to the alcohol industry. With alcohol, we have beer, but we also have 100 proof whiskey. Do you see no corollary between these two industries? And do you believe there should be a ceiling on how potent marijuana products should be?
There clearly is a corollary. Just as you start at 3.2 beer, you can move up in strength and potency. You might drink a few beers, but you probably wouldn't drink the same amount of vodka. So I think there's an education piece of that. People need to understand the differences between these products, but we also need to do more research. There's some that's started, but we need to understand the influence of dabbing and some of these high-potency products. We need to see what the impact is and perhaps the negative consequences of some of these high-potency products.
You've also talked about the state's budget situation. What do you see as the primary problems, and what would you do to address them?
Many people say we need to raise taxes, we need to have more resources. And as I've studied this, Colorado spends more per capita than almost all of our surrounding states. Wyoming is an exception, because of their small population and their industries and so forth. But to me, it's not that our state budget isn't big enough. It's looking at how we're spending it. Coming from a business background, I'd look at what is the outcome we want to achieve, and are we allocating it effectively in order to achieve that? And I think the areas that we need to invest in are in transportation, our infrastructure there, and education, and dealing with the drug problem.
So where does that money come from? I think you have to look at two sources for that money. The first is around our Medicaid expansion and how it's been allocated in our state. The percentage of Medicaid in our budget has gone up ten points in just the past few years. That really has crowded out a lot of other priorities. There are some models in other states that are working well. Rhode Island, for example, was able to get a waiver from the federal government to use more home care for the elderly rather than put them into nursing homes, which are quite expensive — often six or seven or eight thousand dollars a month. People prefer to stay in their homes, and you can have very high-quality home care at something like half the cost. Some of these things require a waiver from the federal government in order to try some new approaches. But I think we absolutely have to look at how do we deliver health care to those who need it in a compassionate way, but at a lower cost and more effectively, so that we can spend those resources on other priorities.
The other thing is, I think we need to do a review of all our state agencies. A lot of them have grown significantly in terms of their size. The governor's office itself has had significant growth. We need to look at what's the outcome we're trying to achieve and [whether we're] spending our money effectively in order to get that.
Running for governor is very expensive, and you're doing so as a self-described outsider. Are you planning to use personal or family funds to help finance your campaign? Or are you looking at other sources?
I think that you've got to do both. I'm fortunate that I'll be able to spend some of my money in the race, but you've got to include others in your vision, you've got to get them on board. One of the things that's really been gratifying to me — we just announced the campaign, and we quickly turned on the website. We weren't quite ready; we're still making that a better story about my vision and so on. But we turned it on because we were out there and we wanted to raise money, because it's important to get your message out. At the end of the day, I don't think the person who raises the most money or puts the most money in will automatically be the victor. But just in a week, we were at about $100,000 raised from other folks — hundreds of them that have come and contributed. I'm encouraged by that. Our previous nominees on the Republican side, it's taken them close to a month to get to that same point. So we're off to a good start, and my message is being well accepted. We're going to look to raise resources here in the state, and I think that's the key to a successful campaign.
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You sound as if you believe you'll be able to compete with the other candidates who've declared even though they have greater name recognition than you do, at least right now.
I do feel that way. The disadvantage to me is that I'm well-known in certain business and community circles, but most people in the state are just hearing about me for the first time. My challenge is to get around the state and meet people and understand their concerns and listen, but also to raise the resources in order to get my message for Colorado's future out. I feel good about our ability to do that.
My last question is a very straightforward one: How would you sum up the reasons that Colorado voters should back you for governor in 2018?
What I'm excited about is, I think we've got some good candidates in the race. These are serious candidates on both sides of the aisle, and I'm friends with other Republican candidates who are in, and I think our state treasurer will likely get into the race. I've known him for a long time as well. So I think we've got some good choices. But at the end of the day, I think what differentiates me is my business background, my ability to get things done, to pull together people from different backgrounds in order to look at creative solutions and have the courage to implement them. I think that skill set connects to my vision for Colorado — our need to get Colorado ready for the future so we can thrive as a place that is the best place for opportunity for our kids and grandkids. I hope that we'll be able to get support in various ways — that people will take a look at us and tell their friends, so we can have a victorious campaign.