Victor Mitchell, a successful entrepreneur and onetime state legislator, is seeking the Republican nomination for governor of Colorado in 2018. In the following in-depth interview, Mitchell details his unexpected personal story, his rise to business success and proposals that he feels differentiate him from other candidates.
There is no shortage of prominent challengers for the office. Among the declared Republicans who've participated in our gubernatorial-candidate interview series to date are 18th Judicial District DA George Brauchler, businessman (and nephew of Mitt Romney) Doug Robinson and 2016 Denver for Trump co-chair Steve Barlock. On the Democratic side, candidates/interview subjects include former state senator Mike Johnston, onetime Colorado treasurer Cary Kennedy, Congressman Jared Polis and entrepreneur Noel Ginsburg. (Representative Ed Perlmutter briefly threw his hat into the ring before dropping out of the governor's race — and after a change of mind, he's now running for reelection in the 7th Congressional District.)
Like Polis, Mitchell, the CEO and founder of Lead Funding, which offers private funding for the real estate investment market, is using his own resources to help get his message out; he launched his campaign earlier this year with assistance from a $3 million personal loan. He sees his ability to invest in himself as a way to avoid conflicts of interest and spread the word about his takes on the education system, regulatory reform, health care options, marijuana revenue and more. He's also the only guv hopeful to date to come out in opposition to state support for red-light cameras.
Get to know much more about Mitchell below.
Westword: How do you introduce yourself to voters who may not be familiar with you?
Victor Mitchell: My name is Victor Mitchell, and I'm a citizen, a businessman, a family man, a person with a deep love and appreciation for our great state. And like many people, I'm very frustrated and disillusioned with the politics of our day — politicians who can't seem to get anything done. I'm not a politician. I'm a businessman, I'm a leader. And I think we need that type of thinking to really lead our state forward. Our whole campaign is very substantive. We're putting forward very big ideas, a very substantive agenda. We're taking on the big issues of the day and really trying to bring a degree of competence and leadership to our state's government.
You're originally from New York. How did you make your way out to Colorado?
I have an interesting personal life story. I lived in New York until I was eleven years old, when my mother left my two older sisters and my father. My mother is 90 percent blind and deaf. She left and moved all the way to California. So I left my two older sisters and my father behind at the age of eleven and moved cross-country to take care of her. We moved everywhere. We were moving every few months. My mother has a tremendous amount of pride and self-respect. She won't take assistance from anybody. So we moved more than a dozen times over the next few years. We almost faced homelessness at certain times. So I know what it is to face tremendous adversity.
I started working at age thirteen. I'm a product of public schools, I'm a product of a public university. I started my first company when I was 21. I've subsequently never worked for anybody else. I started that first business when I was still in college. I've built six successful companies over the last thirty years and been involved in many community efforts around our state.
How I got to Colorado is a little bit different as well. I built a very successful wireless retail business that was sold to Verizon Wireless in 1995. I had brought them an idea to start a different kind of telecommunication company, and they insisted on me signing a non-compete agreement. But AT&T had heard about my story and some of the success we'd had in California, and recruited us to come to Colorado. So we moved to Colorado early in 1996, and I started a telecom company in Centennial that ultimately became one of the largest, most successful private telecom companies in the country, servicing independent retailers in thirty states. That's how we came here. Two of our three kids were born here in Colorado, and it's become our forever home. I've actually lived in Colorado for longer than anywhere I've lived in my life — 21 years now. My wife and I have very deep roots in Colorado, and we can't see ourselves living anywhere else.
Tell me about your current business.
I founded the business nine years ago — and basically, Lead Funding is a disruptive lending company. We displace banks. We basically lend to one type of product; we lend strictly to small developers, mostly mom-and-pop small developers. We charge about twice what banks charge, but we have a number of proprietary tools, including an evaluation tool, so we can underwrite and displace banks — get rid of all the red tape and aggravation of dealing with traditional banks. We have about 450 clients across six states. The company's probably one of the most successful private companies in Colorado. This year, we'll do close to $100 million in transactions. The company is positioned also to go public in the next year or so. If I win next year, it's going to be a dilemma. I'm going to have to sell the company if I win in order to serve the people of Colorado.
You mentioned that you're not a politician, but you have served in the state legislature. Can you tell me a little bit about your time in that position?
I loved that time. I think we desperately need to have more businessmen and entrepreneurs come into government, because they bring a different perspective. We simply have too many lawyers in our legislative process. Lawyers essentially control 100 percent of the judicial branch of the government; they control the majority of Congress and of state legislatures. The last thing we need is another lawyer anywhere near the governor's mansion. I think a different type of perspective is frankly what's needed to move the state of Colorado forward. We have very vexing issues facing our state. Close to 40 percent of our population can't meet health-insurance deductibles and their co-payments, so they effectively have no insurance at all.
I went into the legislature as an outsider ten years ago. I beat Jim Sullivan, a guy in Douglas County who had never lost in thirty years of running for office; he was the state representative at the time, but he'd been a county commissioner and was sort of a stalwart politician before I put him into retirement. Back then, I was hearing the same things I'm hearing today, which is, "You're not a well-known name yet. We've got to elect a party establishment figure." But I beat him.
When I was in the legislature, Republicans were a super-minority. There were only 25 Republicans out of 65 members of the Statehouse. Even with that said, I passed very substantial legislation when I was down there, including getting an Alzheimer's bill passed that saved the taxpayers of Colorado money in search and rescue, but more importantly, it saved people's lives. It was actually the only Republican bill that got passed that required new funding. I was also the sponsor of any number of other bills, including bills on tuition assistance. I worked with Democrats to pass a bill on regulating payday lenders. So I was very proactive, and it's worth nothing that most of the 25 Republicans that I served with nearly a decade ago are actively supporting and helping me in my campaign for governor.
You only served one term in the legislature, but you continued to be involved in public issues.
I have. As I said, I'm not a career politician, and I don't need to run from one job to another in order to stay in politics. I think the real question is: What have you done since you left office? And I've been extremely active since I left eight years ago. I ran in opposition to Proposition 103 [a 2011 school-funding measure]. We were significantly outspent, and yet we defeated by more than two to one what would have been the largest tax increase in Colorado history. I've also taught at two major state universities, including CSU last year, as an adjunct professor. I founded and built one of the most successful private companies that still exists today here in Colorado. And most importantly, my wife and I raised three incredible kids. Our daughter just graduated from CU. She's an engineer. And our son is a cadet at West Point.
Why did you decide to get back into politics and run for governor?
I've had a lot of people over the past several years asking me to run for office. A great many of my colleagues and people in the business community. And there's just been the culmination of the absolute ineptness of our state government. We can't seem to fix anything and make people's lives better. We've had an extraordinary erosion of loss of confidence and trust in our institutions and elected officials. And unless we can bring somebody in who's smart, who knows how to run things and build complex organization and new markets, who can actually think imaginatively and not be risk-averse — actually take chances, take risks to move our state forward — we're not going to get anywhere.
I feel the way most Coloradans do about the state of our political discourse. We elect hyper-partisan people who come to power and talk about how conservative on the right or how liberal on the left they are — but they're really not problem-solvers. And we need to start fixing some of the vexing problems that are facing us, whether it's on health care or higher education or many other issues. We've got to make higher education much more affordable; we need to make sure our kids graduate with the right type of disciplines.
How would you accomplish that goal?
My plan on higher ed, which I talk about quite a bit, is to triple the amount of STEM graduates — science, technology, engineering and math graduates. My plan also calls for freezing in-state tuition rates for any in-state kid for the entire term of my administration. Right now, they're growing by anywhere from 5 to 8 percent, and it's upwards of $35,000 a year for a kid to go to CU today. And the third thing I'm going to do is to drive down the high cost of student housing. There are very few affordable housing options for any of our in-state kids in higher ed, and that's roughly one-third of the cost. I plan to do a lot more to promote affordable housing for students in our state.
Would this be funded through saving in other areas?
First and foremost, we're not talking about additional funding. We're talking about redirecting the current subsidies that we provide for all of our students at major state universities and tie them directly to STEM disciplines. Right now, if you get a degree in electrical engineering or physics, they tend to be some of the most expensive degrees. Get a degree in gender studies or other liberal arts, and they tend to be some of the least expensive. I want to reverse that, because in the modern economy, we have so many relevant jobs, and we need kids to take on some of these tough disciplines. These are the jobs that change people's lives. If you can take a kid who's at risk, take him through high school and get him through college with a STEM degree, they're immediately in the middle class. There's nothing more you can do to deal with income inequality. Many of these jobs start at $80,000 a year or higher the first day out of college. We have a tremendous shortage of computer scientists, computer engineers, electrical engineers, physicists and so forth. So I really want to promote very aggressively the amount of STEM disciplines we graduate our kids with today. We're currently at about one in four, and I want to get it to three in four. And that's not going to require new funding.
Would redirecting that funding diminish funding for some degrees that may have less bang for the buck from a purely economic standpoint?
Exactly. Every single Colorado kid who goes to an in-state university, like CU, CSU and Mines — everybody's going to benefit, because there's going to be significantly less expensive student housing. In addition to that, as I said, we're going to put a freeze on tuition rates for the length of my administration, so everybody will benefit from that as well. Kids that are studying for liberal arts degrees, for example, will pay more for those degrees than they currently are, whereas kids who are pursuing STEM disciplines will pay less. But everybody will benefit from our program because of the savings in housing costs....
My goal is to drive down student housing by 70 percent. It's just ridiculously expensive, and at a school like CU Boulder, they really only have student housing for freshmen, which is completely inadequate. That's one of the fundamental problems. It's also a major profit center for many of our major universities here in Colorado. We're going to have a dichotomy — the haves and the have-nots. We're already seeing that. When I taught up at CSU, I was amazed that 60 or 70 percent of the kids I taught had significant student debt loads.
Another one of your major issues involves cutting regulations, correct?
We need to do much, much more to decrease regulations. Under the Hickenlooper administration, there's been 120,000 pages of new rules and regulations that have been passed and put into law since 2009. And that's just not good enough. It's crushing vocational trades, because kids want to become electricians or plumbers, but they're blocked by four- and five-year apprenticeship periods, largely because of the regulatory environment. We've had thousands of small businesses close since 2014. We've got to start promoting entrepreneurship and small business again, and instead of whining and complaining, I put myself out there to be part of the solution. I've never been one to sit by idly when there are so many serious challenges facing our state.
You've also talked a lot about the TABOR Amendment. There are some gubernatorial candidates who argue that TABOR has caused a lot of problems in the state by preventing officials from being able to deal with new problems that crop up. But you have a different point of view.
TABOR has worked for Colorado. Our problems would be much more severe if we didn't have TABOR restricting the growth in government. To put it in some perspective, when I was in the legislature ten years ago, the budget was about $18 billion. Today, it's $28.6 billion. We've had roughly a 22 percent increase in population since that time and roughly a 40 percent increase in the size of our government. So TABOR by no means has restricted the growth of the government. But the question is, what are we doing with the money? We have such incredible waste and inefficiency — the way we're using our resources. And everything is so partisan. Once something becomes part of law, it's treated like a sacred cow. They can't reform it, they can't touch it. There's no objectivity.
That's why I believe in zero-based budgeting. And I want to change a committee in the General Assembly called the Legislative Audit Committee. It's a committee that has equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and the House, and I want to change that company's mandate from financial auditing to performance auditing. That takes all the partisanship out of it, so we can effectively audit all the state's bureaucracies and right-size those bureaucracies to find out the right number of employees and what kind of information technologies can be implemented effectively. If you can save just 3 or 4 percent on that, it's a billion dollars a year that can go into better pay for teachers, improved infrastructure and lowering the high costs of higher ed.
We have to do more with less. TABOR is a good law, it's an effective law. The problem is, the government has been so badly managed, and we have so much waste and inefficiency. We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem.
A lot of educators feel that education funding in the state is far too law, and they blame TABOR for this underfunding. Do you feel education is underfunded, too? And can that be addressed without raising taxes?
Absolutely — especially in higher education. In K-12, there have never been more opportunities to do more with less. The content available online, the ability to teach online courses, the ability to pull from websites that have an extraordinary amount of information about subjects like physics and chemistry and math and science. There's never been more that we can do with less, but we have to get the systems right. The teachers' unions are simply too powerful in Colorado. They have too much influence, and they block every type of reform.
Let me give you an example. As I mentioned, I've taught at two major universities in the state, including CSU. But I'm not qualified to teach K-12, because I'm not accredited in any public school in Colorado. I've traveled around the state — I've visited over 48 counties, and we've done more than 200 events — and I consistently hear, most often in rural Colorado, that they can't attract math and science and other types of technical teachers. And that's largely because of the accreditation process. Yet they have retired engineers in their communities who'd love to be able to teach.
We need to take away the power of the unions. We have to start teaching vocational trades in our public schools. We need to promote STEM disciplines, including teaching coding, earlier — perhaps as early as the second grade. We have to do things very differently. That's why I'm a big supporter of school choice, including charter schools, home schools, online schools and revisiting the debate about vouchers. I also think we should repeal the Blaine Amendment, which basically restricts vouchers because the amendment discriminates against Catholic schools and any kind of faith-based schools. You can't put any public money into those schools, and that really hurts the kids who are most at risk. Fifty percent of our at-risk kids in Colorado who graduate from a public high school have to do remediation in order to do college-level work. Fifty percent. That is a crisis of tremendous proportions. We have do anything we can do to help these at-risk kids and look at any type of schooling that will help these kids do better.
On the topic of health care, there's been a lot of concern among officials that federal changes in what's popularly known as Obamacare could cause Colorado to spend a great deal more money than it does currently. Where do you come down on that subject? And what would you like to see done in order to improve health care in the state?
I'm so glad you asked me that. The two things I talk about the most are health care and regulation reform. My wife and I, we've been supporting a rural health clinic in southern Virginia. We were at the Army-Navy game, and we drove some 400 miles after Army won to go visit this tiny clinic that we'd been supporting — and it was nothing less than a miracle what we saw. This tiny clinic in the middle of Appalachia is run entirely with nurse practitioners. They provide just about every kind of service you can imagine when you think of primary care. They do colonoscopies, mammograms, wellness services, they do mental-health screenings, they use tele-medicine. And this tiny little health clinic doesn't take any insurance whatsoever. They charge $10 per visit. They negotiate directly with the pharmaceutical companies. They give you a prescription drug voucher for $4. This tiny clinic serviced 25,000 people last year on a budget of $1.5 million.
As I said, the clinic doesn't accept any insurance, but most of the people who go in there do have it. They just don't spend enough to meet their co-payment. And the clinic also serves a lot of young people who've opted not to have insurance at all.
The reason I mention this is because instead of having this binary debate about the repeal of the Unaffordable Care Act or the replacement of Trumpcare, I support a complete, outright repeal and pulling out of the exchange and stopping the $600 million-plus expansion of the Medicaid program that we've had, and which basically only helps poor people,. Most people can't access high-quality primary care because there's no transparency in pricing and there are no clinics that work for them, because they can't meet their deductibles. That's why I believe we should be opening up health clinics all over the state run by physician assistants and nurse practitioners. These types of clinics can also work very effectively for mental health, too. There's a great amount we can do.
If you look at how health care is delivered in Colorado, we're the healthiest state in the country, we have the lowest amount of obesity, we have a young and very well educated workforce. Yet most of the people we have can't access high-quality primary care. So we've got to think about how we should have insurance for emergencies, we should have insurance for specialty care, but we shouldn't be using insurance for primary care. Primary care isn't designed for that, and right now, with the expansion of Medicaid, it's taking so much money out of the budget that it's affecting everything. It's affecting primary care. There's no transparency in pricing. But it's also affected people like prison workers. Their working conditions have been damaged in large part by the expansion of Medicaid. We've seen this affect our ability to adequately fund transportation projects in our state, as well as higher ed. So we need to get out of the exchanges. It's been a failed experiment. And we have to do more with less by having innovative health solutions like the health wagon that my wife and I have been part of in southern Virginia.
What happens to someone who goes to a mobile clinic of the sort you're describing and has a more serious problem that can't be addressed there? Do they have access to insurance coverage for that kind of care as well?
Absolutely. I'm not advocating for doing away with insurance. But i'm advocating for solutions in regard to what insurance was designed for, which is exactly what you're talking about. Somebody has something serious like cancer, lymphoma, diabetes. They have a chronic condition that requires specialists. That's what insurance is really designed for, and those people should have access. But the beauty of the health-wagon clinics is that they've been able to negotiate with specialists. You can get much better pricing that way.
Let me share one example. I was recently up in Rocky Ford, and I met this wonderful family — and the father needed an MRI done. He had some medical issues. They have insurance through the exchange, and their deductible is something like $10,000 or $11,000. The MRI was $2,500, and they didn't have the cash to do it. So when I got back home, I actually called Dry Creek Imaging in Lone Tree and I got the identical procedure done for them for $600. So they had to drive three hours from Rocky Ford to Englewood, but they got the procedure done.
There's no transparency in pricing in any clinic in the state, where you can go online and see what peer-to-peer reviews are, where you can see patient reviews, where you can see their à la carte of services and pricing. Why can't we have transparency in pricing, where every time you go to a clinic, it lists all the pricing, whether you're paying with cash or insurance? That's what we should have. That's the first step in empowering patients to having more control over their health care.
You've talked about the need for improving and updating infrastructure in the state. But again, you feel these things can be achieved without tax increases. Is that right?
I recently met with Shailen Bhatt, who's the executive director of CDOT, and I've looked at their budget — and they have a $1.5 billion budget, but only about $400,000 or $500,000 out of that total actually hits contractors' hands. They have 3,300 employees, and it's probably the most inefficient state bureaucracy. I want to bring in a new executive director, someone who comes from the outside, with thirty, forty, fifty years of building experience. Somebody who's not going to ever run for office and who isn't going to be conflicted, and reform the whole bidding process — right-size the department to figure out exactly how much money should be going into roads and how much should be going into overhead. I don't think CDOT should be spending more than 20 percent of their total budget on overhead. And if you could get it down to down to 20 percent, that's another $700 million a year that would immediately go into roads by just operating it more effectively. CDOT also has roughly a billion in cash and cash equivalents on their balance sheet today that could be deployed immediately into infrastructure.
We're going to have a lot of changes in the coming years with autonomous vehicles. We're going to have to think that through. We've never had a twenty-year transportation plan, either, which I plan to implement as well. I believe we'll be able to put as much as $2 billion into infrastructure in the first year of my administration without increasing taxes or fees or anything like that, but doing more with less and reforming CDOT. It's a political bureaucracy right now, and it's very inefficient, and they can't seem to fix anything. I've lived in Colorado for more than twenty years, and our roads and highways have never been worse — and they never seem to get better.
One aspect of transportation that you've talked about that I haven't seen other gubernatorial candidates discuss is your opposition to red-light cameras.
I will do away with all red-light cameras anywhere other than in self-rule cities, because I believe in local control. But from a state level, we're going to cut off all funding to red-light cameras. Red-light cameras are probably the most intrusive, Big Brother type of policy I've ever seen. It's an absolute fleecing. Law enforcement always plays this game that it's about public safety, but this has nothing to do with public safety. This is about getting into our citizens' pocketbooks — taking money from them to put into big government bureaucracy. If people are traveling too fast on some roads, put law enforcement on those roads. But I don't believe in Big Brother and I think we've got to get the government off our backs. I think that's one of the most egregious examples of Big Brother looking over us: photographing us and then sending us a ticket in the mail.
Advocates of red-light cameras also talk about the amount of revenue that's generated. Is that a false argument — the claim that this money is doing good?
There'll always be the argument if we just take a few more dollars out of the private sector, a few more dollars from our citizens, our public will be better off. But I just don't buy the premise. I think red-light cameras are there for one and only one reason, which is to fleece our citizens and make government bigger and more obtrusive. My whole administration is going to be about trust and bringing confidence and competence to government, where the government works for people effectively. And you can't do both. You can't be fleecing people who are driving in the middle of the night, going fifteen miles an hour over the speed limit on a dark road where there's no traffic, no congestion, there's not a public-safety issue, and then they get a $200 or $300 bill in the mail. There's no confidence and trust in our institutions when this happens.
On the subject of marijuana, you don't call for a repeal of Amendment 64. But you seem alarmed by the lack of information about where marijuana revenue is going. Do you fear that some of this money is being directed into areas where it's not doing as much good as it could?
There's no question about it. The money's being completely ripped off. I've talked to more than a dozen school districts all across the state, and I'm calling for transparency and public accountability and scrutiny with every dollar of marijuana revenue. We're going to have a website where anyone can log in and see where the money's coming in and where it's going out in real time.
But I'm also going to lead a public-awareness campaign as governor to make sure people are well-informed about the recreational aspects of marijuana. Marijuana is not like alcohol, contrary to what the industry is advocating. It is a gateway drug, as the toxicity of marijuana is much greater. It stays in your system for weeks, if not months. It's not in and out of your system like alcohol, and there are DUI-related incidents every day that are marijuana-related. We need to be able to speak truth to power and educate our public. There is a counter-narrative to what the marijuana industry, the well-heeled industry, is putting out there. But that doesn't mean I support repealing Amendment 64. The voters have spoken. I didn't support Amendment 64, but I believe in the rule of law, so I plan on enforcing that.
In terms of your campaign, you're using some of your own resources to help get your message out. There's been some criticism of other candidates, particularly Jared Polis, for taking that position. What are the benefits of being able to use your own resources?
I think the biggest benefit is, I'm not indebted to any special interest groups whatsoever, so I'll be an independent-thinking conservative who'll always put Colorado first in everything that I do. My opponents are all taking big-dollar donations, big-dollar special-interest money. Frankly, I think there's something fundamentally wrong with that. It perverts our whole system of electoral politics. People who get elected owe favors to other people — people who've given them large amounts of money. And I think there's something wrong with that.
My situation is a little different. I've put some money into my campaign because I'm going against a high-profile government lawyer [George Brauchler] who's been in front of the cameras for six, seven, eight years. He's got a higher ID than I do starting the race off. I need to be able to compete with that. I also have to beat George Bush's cousin [Walker Stapleton, who has not yet declared but is widely expected to do so], I have to beat Mitt Romey's nephew [Doug Robinson]. I've got to beat some very big power players. I'm an outsider, I'm a businessman and I'm a problem solver, and in order to be competitive, it does cost a lot of money to run a statewide campaign.
Given the number of well-known and well-financed candidates in this race, how do you feel you'll be able to step to the front in the race?
We already are stepping to the front. I think Colorado Pols now has us as most likely to win the nomination — the reason being that I'm the only candidate who has this specific set of personal and life experiences. I'm also the only candidate who has a unique blend of public- and private-sector experience. And I'm the only candidate putting substantive, big, fresh, new ideas forward, along with a plan to actually implement them. All my opponents, they talk and they talk and they talk, but they say a lot of nothing. It's about time that we get people from the outside who have a vision and have actually done complex things in their lives. We put such a great emphasis on nominating somebody based on how well they deliver a three-minute stump speech and do they share my values. Well, that's just not good enough. Coloradans want more than that. They want somebody that actually can make their lives better, and I hope to be that person.