Ryan Frazier is in fine spirits, all things considered.
He's at ease here, glad-handing and flashing warm smiles, at the clubhouse of the Heritage Eagle Bend 55-plus gated subdivision in southeast Aurora, where the grass is country-club green and the folks are Republican red. It's as if he hadn't read the papers this morning or isn't bothered by what they say.
While the one hundred or so attendees are here to see U.S. Senate candidate Bob Schaffer, it's the 31-year-old Frazier, the event's co-host, who's the subject of much of the chatter. "We'd support Frazier wherever he goes. I think he's certainly mayor material, certainly governor material," gushes Tom Coker, president of Eagle Bend Metropolitan District 2, the civic entity behind this subdivision. "He's a Colorado version of Sarah Palin, with probably more experience."
People began talking about Frazier in 2003, when he was elected to the Aurora City Council at the age of 26. Republicans rallied around his re-election campaign in 2007, even though he supported liberal social causes like domestic-partnership rights, and they helped him build an $85,000 campaign war chest, the largest ever for an Aurora council candidate. More recently, Frazier has garnered state- and nationwide attention as co-sponsor of Amendment 47, the "right to work" proposal on this November's ballot.
The measure would prohibit making payment of union dues a condition of employment in Colorado — an initiative that some people call a much-needed step for workplace freedom and others vilify as conservative union-busting 101.
GOP movers and shakers expect big things out of their rising star; they believe the handsome young African-American could be mayor of Aurora or win statewide office. Maybe, as Coker suggests, he has a shot at the governor's mansion.
There's no question that Colorado Republicans could use a little freshening up. When Schaffer tells the crowd that "the race is going pretty well," he's putting things nicely. Polls show that Schaffer consistently trails Democrat Mark Udall in the race for retiring Republican senator Wayne Allard's seat. The controlling party in Colorado just four years ago, Republicans have since lost control of the governorship, a Senate seat and two House seats. They've also ceded their majorities to Democrats in the state House and Senate. Maybe someone like Frazier could help get the Grand Old Party back on track.
But what about those headlines today?
In an eleventh-hour deal the day before the Schaffer reception, prominent members of Colorado's business community, folks who are usually staunch supporters of right-to-work, joined organized labor to oppose Frazier's amendment. In return, the unions agreed to withdraw four ballot measures of their own — so-called "poison pills" that many feared could cause financial havoc for businesses across the state. Even worse, these business leaders, whom Frazier and his colleagues had been counting on for support, said they planned to donate $3 million to the union effort.
It was the latest fire in a year-long scorched-earth campaign Frazier has weathered since he threw himself behind the right-to-work initiative. He and other Amendment 47 backers, including Jonathan Coors, have faced appeals — if not outright threats — from Governor Bill Ritter, Mayor John Hickenlooper and powerful Denver business executives to back down. Frazier and Coors also became one of the main targets of an aggressive, multimillion-dollar offensive bankrolled by national labor unions.
But unlike Coors, part of a Christian conservative wing of the historically union-antagonistic Coors brewing family, and Amendment 47 co-sponsor Julian Jay Cole, a Golden businessman who helps companies combat unions — critics can't pin many anti-union tendencies on Frazier. And some wonder why the ambitious up-and-comer would stake his career on this particular fight.
"There are members of the business community who, if right-to-work fails and the unions succeed, may want to hold him responsible," says Frazier's 2007 re-election campaign manager, Leondray Gholston. "He may not be elected to another office because of this. That is what's at stake."
If the turmoil has shaken the young city councilman, however, it hardly shows. When he ushers the reception's attendees to an outdoor clubhouse patio and introduces Schaffer, the most pressing thing on his mind seems to be the overcast sky. No matter. He steps to the podium and flashes a wide smile. That and Frazier's trim physique and charismatic mug have looked good on his glossy election commercials.
"As everyone knows, this is a very important election," he tells the crowd. "The future hangs in the balance with whom we elect."
Perhaps the answer to why Frazier seems ready to risk it all for Amendment 47 lies in the story he tells the crowd about a whitewater rafting expedition he took a few years ago. At one point, Frazier found himself out of the raft and floating downstream, beset by raging rapids on all sides. "Sometimes a man has to admit he is lost, and at some point realize when he's in trouble," he mirthfully tells the crowd. "So I called out to our guide, 'Hey, I'm going downstream here!' The guide looked over and said, 'Put your feet down' — so I did and stood right up."
Frazier grins as the audience laughs. Then he turns serious. "What that taught me is there are times when you have to put your feet down and stand up for what you believe in."
At first, Frazier had been reluctant to speak publicly about Amendment 47. He'd agreed to a few interviews, usually to respond to an attack, but mostly issued statements or deferred to Kelley Harp, spokesman for A Better Colorado, the right-to-work campaign. "This is not my defining issue; I am not looking to build a reputation on this," he insisted.
But over the past few weeks, Frazier has embraced his lightning-rod status. He's scheduled television interviews and spent evenings at political forums along the Front Range. "Now that it is getting into the ninth inning, it's very difficult not to engage," he explains. "If you don't engage, people will question your commitment to the issue."
And Frazier certainly has no problem engaging in conversation. Unlike more stoic politicians such as Ritter and Senator Ken Salazar, Frazier seems most at ease in extended chitchat. He listens intently to questions before articulating nuanced responses, his hands flying here and there, his eyes lit with intensity. Always dressed in smart business attire, with a City of Aurora pin affixed above his heart, he speaks at length about his passion for education, about having helped found the public charter school Highpoint Academy for his and his wife Kathy's three children, Elise, four, Sven, seven, and Jalen, ten, and those of his neighbors in northeast Aurora. A manager at telecom company Avaya, he likes recounting stories of the trip he took to Ghana last year as an advisory member of the organization Engineers Without Borders.
Sometimes he risks appearing like he's dabbling in political posturing, but he's so unabashedly earnest that he instead comes off as endearingly hokey. At a recent lunch at a Chinese restaurant in Aurora, he tries with limited success to engage his waitress in conversation using bits of Mandarin, noting afterward that he's been taking classes since attending a global-issues conference in China. At another meeting, he shows up listening to a cover of the Bob Dylan song "Blowin' in the Wind" on his 30-gig iPod (which so far holds only 76 songs). "Ever heard of it?" he asks without a trace of irony. "I know it was written in a time of trepidation and wars and things like that, but a lot of it is relevant today. He says in there, 'How many years will it take for a man to be free?' Man, some of the same things are true today."
Interested in politics since he was three years old, Frazier says he remembers "thinking about what I wanted to be in life. I had dreams of high political office."
Growing up in the poorer part of town in a racially divided Wilmington, North Carolina, "I was always the one pushing the envelope, stirring things up, sometimes getting in trouble. I was always the first one to get a spanking as a kid." That came at the hand of his mother, who, after his dad left the picture when Frazier was seven, became the breadwinner and primary authority figure. "She was my mother and father," Frazier says now. "That's why to this day she is my hero, more than anyone else."
This background makes it hard for Frazier to duck comparisons to a certain Democratic presidential candidate with a similar story. "I certainly don't compare myself to Barack," Frazier says. "He is who he is and I am who I am. At the same time, it is appropriate to say that a lot of black youths, particularly males, have a lot of things in common when it comes to the community and environment in which we grew up."
Then he adds with a laugh that there's at least one difference: While Obama went to Harvard Law School, "I got kicked out of Harvard after three weeks" — at the end of his three-week fellowship on state and local government in 2005.
Frazier also spent five years in the Navy, first as a student at the Navy's Center for Cryptology in Pensacola, Florida, then as a senior intelligence controller for the National Security Agency. "The things I was able to participate in and see are nothing short of amazing," he says. "Some of these things you will read about in the history books."
He met his wife in Pensacola before being transferred to Colorado in 1998, and ended his military career with a new, Republican political outlook — something that surprised his Democratic family. "Everyone was like, 'Huh?'" Frazier's older brother Fred remembers with a laugh. "He decided the former party of Lincoln was the way to go. During Reconstruction, Republicans were cool, but that was quite some time ago."
Ryan patiently explained his reasoning to his family, just as he does to everyone who wonders why he's among a mere 10 percent of African-Americans who cast their lot with the GOP. "I chose the Republican Party because of the principles the party was founded on," he says. "This was the party of freedom. This was the party that sought the abolition of slavery. The principles of the party are relatively simple: Keep government to the lowest practical level, fiscal responsibility, strength in the free enterprise system, and protection of the rights of every individual. Man, I identify with those."
In the late 1990s, Frazier, then in his early twenties, started attending Arapahoe County Republican Party meetings. He was, as he puts it, "a young black guy walking into, let's be honest, an entirely white gathering" — but he was warmly embraced. "I was pretty fired up about him," recalls Bo Cottrell, former chairman of the Arapahoe County Republicans. "I was hoping someday he would run for office. He had the right mindset: 'What can I do to make things better?' I don't think it was, 'What can I do for me?'"
Cottrell wasn't the only Republican who saw election potential in their exciting new member. While some fans began pushing him to run for the state legislature, Frazier's mentor, Dick Poole, area representative for Senator Allard's office, suggested a different route. "I told him that running for the state legislature would effectively bury him. The state legislature deals with, in my opinion, very mundane issues that don't impact the daily lives of the constituency," he says now. "And that if he wanted to keep up his profile, he needed to be within the City of Aurora. That's where the real decisions are made, at the county and municipal level."
Both Cottrell and Poole got their wishes. At age 25, Frazier, then working for defense contractor Raytheon, announced his candidacy for the Aurora City Council.
His brother Fred, who was staying with Frazier and attended that press conference, remembers pondering what his sibling was getting himself into. "This is going to be a very interesting choice," he thought. "You are putting yourself into one of the fiercest public arenas ever. That's what the political arena is like right now. They are going to dig into you and find the dirt if there is dirt. Fighting dirty is the way to win."
In 2003, Aurora residents saw Frazier's face on VH1, CNN and ESPN. It was the first time an Aurora City Council candidate used television advertising, and it worked. That November, he won an at-large seat on the ten-member council with 14,672 votes — nearly 3,000 more than his closest challenger.
He became one of the youngest elected officials in Colorado, at the helm of a city with 311,000 residents, the third largest in the state — and one that, with a prominent new medical campus, an innovative water supply system and major transportation projects in the works, is no longer just a bedraggled Denver suburb.
It's a place Frazier's well suited for, whether he's shmoozing with executives at a commercial groundbreaking across the street from the new Anschutz Medical Campus or chatting through translators with Spanish-speaking mothers at a school traffic-safety meeting. When one of those mothers asks him, point-blank, whether next year's budget will have enough money for more traffic signals and signs, he breaks the tension by joking, "If I say no, do I still get to eat the food you brought?"
Frazier keeps a list tabulating his city council victories, such as helping to guide decisions on Aurora's ambitious Prairie Waters Project water-reuse program and implementing COPLINK, a data-sharing software program for law-enforcement agencies that's now being used around the state. He also catalogues disappointments, such as his inability to bring a NASCAR track to town and his failure to tweak the city's retirement plans to shift more of the financial burden onto employees — though this list is much shorter.
Along the way, he's earned admirers of all kinds. "He's always been an honest person," says Gaurdie Banister Sr., a longtime Aurora activist. "We are politically different — he's a Republican, I'm a Democrat. But I have great respect for Ryan."
Frazier earned a shout-out on www.hiphoprepublican.blogspot.com, and bigwigs within the state GOP began to notice. "I think very highly of Ryan," says Colorado Republican Party chairman Dick Wadhams. "He's gotten elected to the Aurora City Council twice. Getting elected like that — that's a high-profile position in the metropolitan area. I believe he has great potential to do other things in public life if he chooses to seek those opportunities. I think he is truly one of our rising stars."
Frazier himself says he's not sure what office he will shoot for next. "So long as there's fire in my belly and the people will have me, I will look at what opportunities I have to serve a broad community and make decisions appropriately."
But Frazier's time on council has also earned him enemies. "I basically have nothing good to say about him," says Randy Rester, president of the Aurora Fire Fighters Protective Association. "We endorsed him during his first race, and we felt like we have been misled by him." Frazier incurred the firefighters' union's wrath when he supported asking the voters to give the city and department chiefs more control over the hiring and promotion of firefighters and police officers — and his support of right-to-work hasn't helped relations.
"The thing I can best say is that he's very ambitious in politics," adds Pam Bennett, one of Frazier's 2007 opponents who's running again this year — and she doesn't mean that as a compliment. The $85,000 in funds and roughly $25,000 in in-kind contributions Frazier reported for his 2007 re-election campaign — roughly twice the campaign chest of Brad Pierce, the other victorious 2007 at-large candidate — makes Bennett wonder what, exactly, is Frazier's goal, and who, specifically, is helping him.
"For some reason, he was on cable all of October. That isn't cheap, but there he was," she says. "You don't work that hard to become a city council member. Ambition for an $11,000-a-year job? There's more there."
Part of the answer comes from American Furniture Warehouse, which donated $1,000 to Frazier's campaign and contributed $5,000 worth of TV ad production and development. The furniture company's CEO, Jake Jabs, and general manager, Andrew Zuppa, are key supporters of Amendment 47.
But if Frazier was simply out to do the bidding of the GOP establishment, he's made some pretty odd choices. In 2006, he stood alongside Democratic Denver mayor John Hickenlooper in public support of Referendum I, which would have allowed domestic partnerships, and when that measure failed, Frazier said he wanted Aurora to provide benefits to same-sex partners of city employees — the sort of stuff that makes moral conservatives in his party apoplectic. He's also ambivalent when it comes to pro-life issues: "I am not a fan of abortion, but I struggle with whether it is the appropriate role of the government to place itself there."
Nor can he be counted on to come out strong for his party's presidential ticket this November. "I'll decide at the ballot box," he says of the presidential race.
"I can see already that comments like this will not make some people in my party very happy," he says, adding that in the past, he's gotten "hundreds of calls from Republicans who are just livid with me." But he isn't the only Republican who seems to be eschewing the state party's long-held cultural-conservative playbook. Other GOP thirty-somethings, like state senator Josh Penry and state representatives Frank McNulty and Cory Gardner, are shying away from the culture wars and sticking with fiscally conservative stances. Even prominent state Republicans like party elder Hank Brown have come out against Amendment 48 on this November's ballot, which would define a fertilized human egg as a person and therefore, many believe, outlaw abortion.
It could be indicative of a fundamental shift within the statewide GOP apparatus. After Republicans saw that their fixation on unborn babies and marriage licenses got them nowhere except out of office, they've opted for a reboot, a return to the small-government, personal-freedom ideals of old.
"I think that's an astute and correct observation," says Steve Schuck, a prominent Colorado Springs Republican and onetime contender for Colorado governor. "I am pleased that the Republican Party is moving in that direction, higher regard given to policy issues than social issues. Partly, it's a failure of them to be effective. There are so many examples of us not being successful that can be attributed to a preoccupation with social issues."
Frazier agrees. "I think Republicans got fat and happy and, in the process, forgot about what was important, and that's principle," he says. "That it's about standing for something greater for yourself." That's why he's standing for Amendment 47. For him, it's all about principle, even though that principle has come with a price.
"I'll be honest with you, man," he says, shaking his head. "This past year has been, for me, one of the most challenging experiences I have ever faced."
Over the past seventy years, nothing has been quite as divisive in labor issues nationwide as the question of whether employees can be required to pay union dues in order to work at a unionized workplace.
Federal law passed in the 1940s left it up to individual states to decide whether unions could require all employees to pay dues. Since then, 22 states have passed right-to-work laws, which make obligatory union dues illegal, usually over vocal objections from unions that such regulations are businesses' attempt to divide and weaken workers. Most of the rest are "union security" states, meaning that union dues can be a condition of continued employment.
The Colorado Labor Peace Act, however, makes this state unique. Here, unions can make dues obligatory, but only if three-quarters of the employees in a workplace vote to allow it. So while both unions and employers like to grumble about it, everyone can agree that the 1943 act, actively enforced since the 1970s, is at least well named: For decades, it's helped keep relative peace.
"[The act] was a compromise everyone was willing to except," says Ray Hogler, a management professor at Colorado State University and a right-to-work opponent. "Nobody wanted to open that can of worms."
At least until last year. Emboldened by newly won majorities in the state legislature, Colorado Democrats pushed through House Bill 1072, which would have gutted the Colorado Labor Peace Act and made Colorado a "union security" state, allowing unions to require dues without a special vote. Infuriated, business interests and conservatives mobilized against it, and in the fracas, Governor Ritter vetoed the bill, incurring the wrath of labor and his own party. But the move wasn't enough to wholly pacify those irate over HB 1072. Even though he vetoed the legislation, the governor indicated that he agreed with the principle of dismantling the Colorado Labor Peace Act, and two months later, in November 2007, in a conciliatory gesture to labor, he allowed state employees to unionize. To some observers, the message seemed clear: It was only a matter of time before Colorado became a union-security stronghold.
It was against this backdrop that Frazier and others decided something had to change. "I was having some conversations with a group of individuals about the recent labor situation in the state," he says. "We were seeing more and more of a growing trend by labor leaders to push the envelope and to make this state more unionized."
He won't name those colleagues, aside from Cole and Republican state senator Ted Harvey, who has tried several times to pass a right-to-work law. "Whether or not this state becomes more unionized, we thought workers should have the choice as to whether they wanted to unionize," Frazier continues. "So right-to-work was born." And when it came time to decide who would actually put their names on the initiative to put the matter on the November 2008 ballot, Frazier stepped forward: "Sign me up. The rest is history."
Cole is owner of the Golden consulting firm Cole Associates, which, according to its website, "has a superior track record in defeating union organizing attempts and in winning union elections."
"I've never heard him say one bad things about unions," Frazier says of Cole. "I don't believe he's motivated by spite or hatred for unions, but rather because he believes right-to-work is a good thing."
As for Jonathan Coors, an executive with Coors spinoff CoorsTek, which contributed $200,000 to the Amendment 47 campaign, Frazier says, "He and I are vastly different, but one thing we have in common, among others, is his commitment to freedom."
Cole and Coors have kept mum about their involvement, however, and didn't respond to requests for comment. But Jake Jabs has embraced the spotlight by running commercials for Amendment 47. At an October press conference, he told reporters he wanted "to frankly hurt the pocketbooks of the unions."
Frazier, though, insists that right-to-work isn't about busting unions. While many right-to-work supporters have focused on the idea that the legislation encourages business and job growth, for Frazier it's about freedom. "It's been over ten years now that I've been a supporter of right-to-work," he says. "If you want to join labor unions, I believe you have that right. But you should also have the right not to join unions or pay union dues."
To bolster his point, he mentions a friend and former union steward at a company where union dues were required, a guy who tells stories of workers not having enough money for both mandatory union payments and medicine for their sick kids.
Frazier notes that some strong Colorado unions are already voluntary, like the Colorado teachers' union, Aurora's plumbers' union, and even his critic Randy Rester's Aurora firefighters' union. "I believe that as long as a labor union is providing value, their members will continue to be part of that union," he says. "And they will pay their dues."
But Amendment 47's opponents argue that right-to-work isn't that simple. They say the evidence is far from conclusive that it spurs economic growth. "What I think it does do is reduce union density and create a climate of anti-union behavior," says Hogler. He points out that since all employees at a unionized workplace enjoy the benefits of the union, everyone should equally assume its cost — and that unions usually need the leverage of a unified, workplace-wide membership to win such benefits to begin with.
And in these tumultuous economic times, he adds, it hardly seems wise to be undermining anything that may help get us out of this mess. "What actually helped to prevent depressions and downtowns in the past were unions," he says. "A member could buy a house, he could have a fairly stable income and life, and those things were provided by unions. I don't think things that hurt unions are necessarily good for this country."
Not to mention that in Colorado, just 8.7 percent of workers are in a union, which is lower than the national average. Studies also show that most Colorado workers, when given a choice, don't seem to have a problem with obligatory dues. Between 1978 and 1998, workers voted to require compulsory dues in 234 out of 351 elections, meaning that each time, at least three-quarters of voters were for it.
To Amendment 47 opponents, the evidence is clear. They see this measure, along with two others on the ballot — Amendment 49, which would ban automatic payroll deduction for union dues, and Amendment 54, which would prohibit unions and contractors with no-bid government contracts from making political contributions — as a concerted effort to obliterate unions by a small group of conservative business interests. And Frazier, they say, is just an opportunistic politician.
"This is an ideological crusade," says Jess Knox, executive director of Protect Colorado's Future, a union coalition that's fighting Amendment 47. "Frazier, in my opinion, is trying to jump from Single A to the major leagues in one fell swoop."
But there's no clear proof that Frazier is backing right-to-work for political gamesmanship. Maybe, just maybe, this guy actually believes in it. After all, if he's aiming for the big leagues, he picked a tough way to get there. As American Furniture Warehouse's Zuppa puts it, "The five-dollar-book on how to be a politician in 2008 says that if you want to be successful and win elections, don't take stances on anything controversial."
And as Frazier and his colleagues have discovered, right-to-work in Colorado is as controversial as it gets.
The first ominous commercial appeared last March.
It portrayed cartoonish dollars flowing from a smoggy company labeled Carollo Engineers to a grinning Frazier. "An Arizona company wanted a $9 million contract with the City of Aurora. On the same day Carollo got a positive recommendation for the contract, fifteen Carollo employees sent Ryan Frazier identical amounts of campaign money," a voice says over gloomy music.
The commercial, paid for by the anti-Amendment 47 group Protect Colorado's Future, ended with Frazier's face on a dollar bill.
Frazier, in China for a conference, first heard about the ad while talking on the phone with his son Jalen, who wanted to know if his dad was going to be on the dollar.
The incident in question, involving multiple $99 contributions from Carollo employees, had occurred a year earlier but got a lot of attention just a few weeks before the commercial aired thanks to Foster Hines, an Aurora resident and Teamsters member. Hines says he learned about the donations at an informal meeting of union members, and that at the time he didn't know Frazier was backing Amendment 47.
"Since I am one of his constituents," says Hines, "I though I should ask this guy what happened." Hines filed several information requests but didn't get an answer, so, with help from Protect Colorado's Future, he sued Frazier.
The situation earned the councilman a spot on the non-profit group Colorado Ethics Watch's top-ten list of most corrupt Colorado officials.
"We live in a country where you can support me if you choose," says Frazier of the Carollo contributions. "You have to be kidding me if you think I am going to give up my integrity, sell my vote, let alone cheap enough for $1,500."
He adds that he had nothing to hand over for Hines's records request, which he says should have been sent to the city clerk's office.
Aurora City Council member Larry Beer, chairman of the water policy committee that recommended Carollo for the contract, backs Frazier's assertions. "Ryan wasn't on the committee," he says. "The contract was unanimously moved forward to the council, and the contract was unanimously approved by the council. It's hard to make the case that Ryan or any of us were the deciding vote on that contract." Beer notes, however, that the "timing could have been better" for Frazier to receive the donations.
In June, an Arapahoe County judge dismissed Hines's lawsuit — but by that point, Frazier was busy defending himself against a complaint that his campaign was misleadingly vague about its contributors. Then came a lawsuit, later dismissed, alleging that Amendment 47 was on the ballot because of fraudulent signatures, and another menacing commercial noting that the company Frazier and his colleagues hired to collect signatures had employed criminals, including a sex offender.
"I'm from the South; I can take a little heat," Frazier says of the attacks, all of which he attributes to big labor unions. "We see this as David versus Goliath."
Frazier seems almost proud of the beating he's been taking, of the fact that his opponents, with a roughly $15 million war chest, are likely to outspend their $2 million-plus campaign by an enormous margin. It makes Frazier and his colleagues seem like the little guys, the ones idealistically fighting against the odds, while the unions play the role of the big, brutish bullies. While the large staff of his opponents, Protect Colorado's Future, has ensconced itself in a sizable office bedecked in dry-erase board lists and voter district maps, the pro-right-to-work campaign, A Better Colorado, makes do in a two-room office with mismatched furniture and an unmarked front door. The only obvious indication that the office has anything to do with Frazier's ballot issue is the "Yes on Amendment 47" television backdrop against one of the walls. "We were pretty excited when we got that," says spokesman Harp, one of the campaign's only employees.
This under-funded underdog image probably isn't completely by choice. While Amendment 47 has received endorsement from business groups like the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, the Colorado Farm Bureau and the Colorado Chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, several major business groups are noticeably absent, most notably the powerful Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
When the chamber came out against Amendment 47 in June, it had nothing to do with the idea of right-to-work itself, says spokeswoman Kate Horle, adding that if circumstances had been different, "there might have been another vote in the chamber that day." But the organization couldn't judge this ballot issue on its own merits. "When we looked at Amendment 47, we connected it to Amendments 53, 55, 56 and 57, which were the four amendments unions put forward in response to Amendment 47," she says. If any one of the four — which dabbled in fraud laws, health-care benefits, employment rules and workers' compensation regulations — had passed, she adds, "it would have devastated our economy."
In business circles, it was assumed that Frazier or Cole, the only ones capable of doing so, would pull the ballot issue they'd co-sponsored in order to get labor to do the same. That was the only way, it seemed, to avoid mutually assured economic destruction.
There was only one problem: Frazier and his colleagues wouldn't back down — even when very powerful people demanded that they do so.
"Let's put it this way," Frazier says. "Between the labor interests and certain Denver business executives, it was coming from both sides. Most of it was political in nature: 'Ryan, if you do this, your political future is in question.'"
There were stern phone calls, tense meetings, point-blank assertions that Frazier's intransigence could upset the delicate balance between Colorado's labor and business interests for a long time to come. But none of that seemed to matter.
"What I found out is, nothing changed my belief," says Frazier. "The choice was pretty clear: to not waiver and move this thing forward."
On October 2, organized labor pulled their four poison pills just hours before the deadline to do so. In return, they were joined by business leaders — including Bill Coors, Jonathan Coors's great-uncle and former Coors Brewing Company president, who had a falling-out with Jonathan's father in the 1990s over equal employment rights — and interests that agreed to donate $3 million to fight Amendment 47.
Now Frazier and his colleagues were on their own.
"He has unified people in a way that seldom happens," Jess Knox says sarcastically. "When you have businesses and labor leaders and elected officials joining against this initiative, that's really good for Colorado and really bad for Ryan Frazier."
Frazier is once again in a cheerful mood, despite the latest dispiriting news.
He's sitting in a back corner of the concert hall at the University of Denver's performing arts complex, calmly preparing for his first major televised debate on Amendment 47 — where he'll face off against Knox, the head of the organization that's been going after him all these months. "I'm feeling good," he says, even though a public-opinion survey just concluded that only 21 percent of those polled supported Amendment 47. "Notice that all those people had was the ballot language. We know from internal polling that if you go with just the legalese, our amendment struggles. But we know that if we're given the ability to connect the dots on right-to-work, our polling goes way up."
Connecting the dots is exactly what he tries to do when the cameras start rolling on the debate. With his smart business suit and charismatic panache, Frazier makes a stark contrast to Knox's rumpled shirt and tousled hair. Turning to the camera, making eye contact with the audience, Frazier quotes from a CNBC study — "and I do believe this debate is on an NBC affiliate" — that right-to-work states perform better economically than others.
When Knox mentions the deal between labor and business leaders last week to demonstrate the wide coalition against Amendment 47, Frazier counters that, "with all due respect," any other time an organization like Knox's used threats to get money and support, "it would be illegal." The councilman quotes from Samuel Gompers, founder of the American Federation of Labor ("I don't know if you know Gompers," he says to Knox): "I want to urge devotion to the fundamentals of human liberty, to the principles of voluntarism. No lasting gain has ever come from compulsion."
Again and again, Frazier sidesteps his opponent's demand that he reveal who, exactly, is funding the right-to-work campaign.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
It's a performance that helps introduce a young, motivated and telegenic politician named Ryan Frazier to television viewers across the state.
But as the face of this issue, Frazier is more likely than Amendment 47's other backers, most of whom are safely ensconced in the private sector, to take the fall if it fails at the polls — or, worse, if it destabilizes labor relations for years to come.
As Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli puts it, "For his personal identity and image and possible moving up in the Republican Party, this could very well be positive. He will certainly be better known than he was. But there is also a risk. To win support at the state level and win bigger offices, you need to be a coalition builder, not just a person who can be easily identified. That may be a challenge."
No matter what happens on November 4, the sun will still come up on November 5, says Frazier. "The birds will still be flying, folks will still be working, and as long as I know I did what I did because I believed it to be right, let the chips fall where they may."