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."
Decades later Bill Daniels amassed a fortune from cable television and spent some of it to run in the 1974 primary against the last GOP incumbent governor, John Vanderhoof. Daniels lost, and then Vanderhoof lost to Dick Lamm, starting a six-term reign for Democratic governors.
In 1980 Howard "Bo" Callaway spent a bundle of the money he made after founding Crested Butte ski area to run for the U.S. Senate, only to lose the GOP nomination to Mary Estill Buchanan, who lost the general election to Gary Hart.
Terry Considine was yet another Republican who found that money couldn't buy him an office. In 1986 Considine ran for the U.S. Senate by spending his own money and lost badly in a primary. In 1992 he spent almost none of his own money, won the primary and came close to beating Ben Nighthorse Campbell, who was then a Democrat. "Terry was a much more credible candidate when he didn't spend his own money," says veteran GOP strategist Dick Wadhams, who was the campaign manager for Considine in his second run.
Wadhams also points out that two of the most successful politicians in Colorado history are Romer and former GOP senator Bill Armstrong. Both were successful businessmen, but neither spent significant chunks of their own money to campaign.
"Ultimately, you have to build a base to get people to support you," Wadhams says.
Terry Walker points to the example of John Love, who was a political outsider when he decided to run for governor in 1962. Walker also notes that Love was defeated in his bid to be a county chairman the same year he won the governorship.
"Oh, God," says Wadhams, now a spokesman for Allard and soon-to-be head of the Owens campaign. "He's right about Love, but every hopeless candidate ever since then has trotted out his name as proof that he can win a statewide race."
Love himself, who still practices law in Denver, says that Colorado was a simpler place back in '62--he ran his entire campaign on $100,000. By comparison, Bruce Benson spent more than $3.5 million of his own money, mostly on TV ads, in a losing effort against Romer.
The tab for Walker may have to be even higher.
In the meantime, if you go to a political rally and you see a short, balding, rumpled guy standing in the back of the crowd smiling awkwardly and handing out simple brochures, you've run into Terry Walker.
Unlike several of the previous unknowns, Walker is no polished performer. He's folksy and casual. Some may call him vague, others may say quirky.
Like others of his political bent, Walker rails about government intrusion. He puzzles himself about the oddest things. For instance, he says he doesn't understand why there are road signs that announce fines for littering when there are other signs announcing that some group or other is cleaning up a stretch of highway. "I think we should either enforce that law or get rid of those signs," Walker says. The same man, who lives in a plush mountainside mansion, also likes to talk about how his wife cuts his hair and how he washes his own car in the summer.
His father, he recalls, was much more tightfisted. Walker was born one of five children to a Chrysler-Plymouth dealer in Gary, Indiana, who thought of little else but work.
"I never really saw my dad much until I was twelve," says Walker. "That's when he put me to work in the garage changing oil and doing whatever other little things there were to do."
After college, Walker had a chance to get into the dealership but decided not to because he realized he would be working for his father "until they carried him out of the dealership in a box."
Walker left the Midwest and studied statistics and the newly emerging field of computer science at Florida State University, then earned a doctorate at the University of Alabama. He taught at several schools, including Georgia State University and the University of Houston, and wrote a couple of textbooks. Though interested in politics, he says, he never considered running for office. Instead, he focused his time on plans to convert his computer knowledge into projects and profits. People who knew him at his last stop in higher education, at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, say that even then he was a person with a vision for projects that nobody else believed could happen.
Duane Blumberg was a fellow department head when Walker proposed creating a Center for Advanced Computer Studies, a joint operation of the colleges of science and engineering. "Terry was the one who really developed it from scratch," Blumberg says. He adds that he's not surprised that Walker is running for governor. "He faced a lot of obstacles, but he's never been one to let a perceived barrier stop him," Blumberg says.
Walker had plenty of ideas but eventually tired of university life: "I kind of said to myself, 'Okay, I know how to do that, let's move on to something else.'"
So, still on the university payroll, he started a private software company that aimed at computerizing medical records.
Walker's former boss at the university, David Andrew, says he remembers evaluating Walker a year after he started the private company. "I argued with myself about whether or not I should grade him down because he was spending so much time off campus," Andrew says, but he decided to give him high marks because he still did excellent work at the school.
Eventually, Walker sold his company to a much larger software firm. The sale, he says, included a non-disclosure clause, so he can't talk about it. But he made enough on the deal that he decided to move away from Louisiana, he says, and retire to a mansion in Hawaii. That didn't last long, though. "You can only play so many rounds of golf," Walker says. "I know I'll never retire again."
Returning to the computer business, he went to work for the Computing Research Association, a new organization designed to lobby Congress for more money for higher education to do computer-science research. He says he was paid "into six figures" for that work, which brought him to Washington, D.C., six months a year for three straight years.
David Gries, head of the Computer Research Association board when Walker was hired as executive director, says Walker established the D.C. office from scratch, with no experience in the capital. "He didn't seem like a big political operator," says Gries, "but he did a great job getting that office going."
Once that organization was up and running smoothly, Walker says, he returned to his private computer consulting and real estate businesses. Newly married, he decided to move to Colorado to be near his daughter and son-in-law, who had earlier moved to Denver.
Walker sits on the boards of three companies, according to documents filed with the Colorado secretary of state, and has served as a computer consultant both in Hawaii and here. A current project involves a small company that publishes wedding planning guides. He hopes to sell the company for a seven-figure sum. The candidate won't reveal his net worth but says he wouldn't blink at spending $2 million or more on his own bid for office.
While he's immersing himself in Colorado politics, however, he still shows his Southern roots and deep religious beliefs. His bird, Curly, has been trained to sing two songs: "Dixie" and "Jesus Loves Me." God, he says, is his campaign manager. "I have a strong, abiding faith," Walker says. "Any success I've had has come from Him." And Walker's only media ads so far have been in the Colorado Christian News and the newsletter of the Christian home-schooling movement.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
With that in mind, it's disconcerting to visit the small gambling room in Walker's mansion, complete with an antique slot machine and an old-timey painting of a naked lady.
In public, he wears a cross next to the Rotary pin on the lapel of his corduroy blazer. To those who don't know him, the cross and the number of times the phrase "sanctity of life" appears in his brochure are signs that he is part of the religious right.
"He is out on the fringe," says GOP state senator Don Ament, a rancher from northeastern Colorado who has heard Walker speak at a couple of Republican functions. "He is off the radar screen."
Walker, however, remains confident. He even says his current lack of visible support is a plus. "The longer Bill Owens thinks I'm not a factor," he says, "the better it is for me.