Former Colorado House majority leader Alice Madden is one of the nine Democratic candidates eager to send U.S. Senator Cory Gardner packing in 2020. But she has nice things to say about him personally, in part because she knows him from his time as a state rep before he made the leap to Washington, D.C.
There are limits to her compliments, though.
"I worked with Cory and always liked him. He went to CU law school," notes Madden, whose numerous past positions with the University of Colorado include a recent stint as executive director of the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment. "I used to tease him before he went to the mic: 'Don't embarrass our alma mater.' We had a good relationship, as you should as colleagues. But now he truly seems to be listening more to his high-dollar donors than he is to actual, ordinary people."
Gardner's apparent vulnerability, as the most prominent elected Republican in a state that was swept by a blue wave in the 2018 election, has inspired a slew of notables to enter the race. At present, they include former state senator Mike Johnston; onetime speaker of the state House Andrew Romanoff; ex-U.S. Attorney John Walsh; ex-U.S. ambassador Dan Baer; Stephany Rose Spaulding, who gave District 5 Representative Doug Lamborn a spirited run in 2018; plus Denver's Lorena Garcia, Englewood's Diana Bray and Superior's Trish Zornio. (Another candidate, Grand Junction's Keith Pottratz, withdrew earlier this month and is now endorsing Garcia, and both former Boulder Democratic Party chair Ellen Burnes and Denver's Dustin Leitzel recently dropped out as well.) Moreover, no one would be surprised if former governor John Hickenlooper decides to join the field should his current presidential bid flicker out.
Plenty of these hopefuls have declared Colorado's senatorial contest to be the most important in the country, and Madden is no exception. In her words, "There's no path to a Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate without Colorado."
Madden's own journey began in her home town of Wellsville, Missouri. Her dad ran a textile factory in the tiny burg, which she notes is "even smaller now than it used to be." (The population as of the 2010 census was 1,217.) But the family paid attention to the wider world. "As I grew up, I heard a lot of talk about what was going on at the time," she recalls. "Some of my first memories were about Watergate and the Vietnam war. My two oldest brothers-in-law joined the National Guard. So it was a topic of nightly conversation what was going on in the United States, and to my young and impressionable brain, the result was that I thought, 'If you don't really pay attention, the bad guys take over.' That may sound silly, but that's literally what I thought — which is why I decided right then, 'I'm going to run for office some day.'"
It took quite a few years to realize that dream. As she approached college age, she made CU Boulder one of her top picks, and a visit to the campus after a side trip to a ski area quickly cemented the move. She studied biology and psychology at the university, as well as working in a halfway house that served individuals with alcohol and drug disorders being released from state and federal prison. She also bartended at a now-defunct watering hole called the James, "which to me was a bar for old people — which meant they were probably in their thirties."
One of Madden's regulars at the James subsequently gave her a tip about a job opening as a technical trainer and writer at a Longmont disc-drive manufacturer called MiniScribe, which became one of the most infamous Colorado businesses of the late 1980s as the result of a bizarre scandal. "Disc drives now are the size of your fingernail," she points out. "But back then, they were about the size of a brick, and they were shipped in what looked like shoeboxes. So a series of very corrupt and greedy people decided to literally put red bricks in those boxes and send them to an off-site warehouse to be able to count them as shipped goods at the end of quarters, so they could make a couple more million dollars. But they got caught and it ended careers. Two people went to jail, the stock was taken off the market, and people lost so much money. It was horrible."
Fortunately, Madden has a fonder memory of her time at the firm: It's where she met her husband, Pete, in what she describes as "a ridiculous love-at-first-sight scenario. We were kind of checking each other out and he was walking behind his boss, and when his boss stopped, Pete preceded to pour a hot cup of coffee down his boss's back. We both turned purple and kind of scurried away. But we got to know each other after that and got married in 1985" — and they both left the firm long before the red-brick scam.
Eventually, Madden enrolled at CU law school, and upon earning her degree, she landed a position at a Denver firm, Fairfield & Woods P.C., and gave birth to two sons. Upon their arrival, she remembers, "the urge to do more really kicked in. I'd wake up in a panic and think, I'm not doing enough to save the planet. So I got onto a land-trust board and started getting more involved with political campaigns. I became a precinct chair and volunteered quite a bit with the Colorado Women's Bar Association, which is a truly amazing organization."
Her connection with the CWBA continued after she returned to CU law school as a director of alumni relations; she also taught classes in legal writing and advocacy. In March 2000, she says, "I organized this event in partnership with the Women's Bar and the Colorado Women's Chamber of Commerce called 'Entering Politics: What's Stopping You?' I got two Republicans and two Democrats to speak, but I wasn't doing it for me. I was doing it for other women."
Then, fate intervened: "About two days before the event, this woman who was running for state representative where I lived dropped out of the race suddenly. So I thought about it, and on the day of the seminar, I decided, 'What the heck is stopping me?' I literally walked over to the secretary of state's office and got an affidavit to run. While I was there, I borrowed their phone — my cell phone must have died — and called Pete and told him what I'd done. His response was perfect. He said, 'What took you so long?'"
Despite her late entry, Madden won both the primary and the general election and soon found herself a minority member of the Colorado House, where, she says, "I was able to make some bad bills better, and I was able to stop some bad bills. But probably most importantly, I was able to drive more money into higher education, which is on the chopping block constantly, and K-12 funding, and create a state revenue stream for transit funds that didn't exist until then. We had RTD, but we didn't have a fund that went directly into transit, just regular transportation. So that was one of my prouder moments."
Still, she concedes that "being in the minority isn't that much fun," and as the 2004 election neared, she became part of a group behind a strategy to win the five seats that would put the Democrats in charge. The result, achieved with the financial assistance of some of the state's wealthiest progressives, including billionaire Pat Stryker, Quark chairman and founder Tim Gill, Bighorn Center for Public Policy think tanker Rutt Bridges and future Colorado governor Jared Polis, was a gain of seven seats, as well as a groundbreaking political formula outlined in a book titled The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).
The victory led to Madden being named majority leader and the passage of progressive legislation aplenty: "We were able to get tens of thousands of more kids onto CHIP [the Children's Health Insurance Program], which got more federal dollars into the state. We made some inroads on pharmaceutical drug costs, and we got to pass the second-parent adoption bill twice; the first time, it was vetoed by Governor [Bill] Owens, and the second time, Governor [Bill] Ritter signed it. And we were able to address the funding deficit in K-12 with Referendum C," which suspended the funding limit in the Taxpayer Bill of Rights for a five-year span that TABOR creator Douglas Bruce grouses has never ended.
Term limits hit Madden in 2008, but rather than run for the state Senate, she chose to take a job as deputy chief of staff for Governor Ritter, where she specialized in implementing the whopping 56 clean-energy bills the state legislature had approved after he took office. And in 2013, in between various gigs at CU, she worked as principal deputy assistant secretary for intergovernmental and external affairs at the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs in Washington, D.C.
Less happy was her run for University of Colorado regent in 2016, which she narrowly lost to Heidi Ganahl, a key member of the GOP majority that was able to overcome strong opposition to name former Republican cngressman Mark Kennedy the latest president of the CU system in May. Madden makes it clear that Kennedy wouldn't have earned her vote had she been a regent, but she says, "I truly hope he does a great job. I wasn't thrilled when [former head of the Colorado Republican Party] Bruce Benson first got appointed, but he sort of shunned his partisan past and moved forward to raise a lot of money for his school. So I hope Mark Kennedy does well and serves the community, because 30,000 people work there and we educate tens of thousands of people. CU has a huge effect on the economy; it has to thrive."
Doubting pundits have suggested that Madden's defeat as regent — a statewide race — doesn't bode well for her chances against Gardner in 2020. But she rejects that thesis. "I won't make any excuses, but I will say there's no comparison between running for regent and running for the Senate. Regent is a Republican-versus-Democrat race with virtually no breakthrough for candidates. We were in the middle of a presidential year, we weren't on radio, we weren't on TV, and a lot of Democrats didn't even bother to vote for regent. A hundred thousand people who voted for Hillary Clinton just skipped the regent race."
To her, "A better takeaway is that over 1.2 million people have voted for me in this state, and Cory Gardner had about 940,000 people vote for him." She laughs as she says, "So I've already beaten Cory Gardner. That's the way I look at it."
By the time Madden announced her candidacy, the field was already not just crowded, but packed. However, she insists that she's not worried about the competition.
"I had a pretty amazing job at the law school," she emphasizes. "I was really happy there, so I wouldn't have gotten into this race unless I saw a real path to victory. And I'm driven by a sense of urgency to act on saving the environment and addressing climate change. I see that as being where I can really be effective on day one in D.C. So it's great when voters have choices. I respect all the folks in the race, and I'm getting to know more of them. But the so-called frontrunners are all male, and I've been called the highest-profile woman yet in the race. That could change, but we have yet to elect a woman to this seat, and I know there's a real hunger to do that. And I feel like I can get support not only across the state, but across the country, because I'm considered to be the strongest and most experienced environmental and clean-energy advocate in the race. I'm hoping I can get people who care about the environment to support me, too."
As these comments suggest, climate change and issues tied to it are among the most important issues for Madden; she hasn't embraced the entirety of the Green New Deal, but she sees a lot of promising elements in it that could and should be pushed forward. She's also a strong voice for protecting public lands, an area at which she feels Gardner is especially weak. "The League of Conservation voters does a scorecard every year, and Cory's score is 7 percent. I don't even know how you can do that. It's pretty appalling. Think about what is important to people in Colorado. Even if you don't get up to the mountains, you know they're there. You enjoy the vistas, our amazing blue skies. Our outdoor economy in Colorado is huge, too, and that's at risk. Cory is doing nothing to save our tourism economy, and he supports a president who denies climate change. I don't know who directs his motives anymore, but it's certainly not the people of Colorado."
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When it comes to health care, Madden would like to see the country "grow toward a public option," but with choices intact: "Some people may want to keep their private insurance, but I think the government can handle that if it's rolled out in a good way. At the same time, if an insurance company is a for-profit corporation, there's money not being spent in the best interest of the people and revenue that's not being invested in people. If you think about that philosophically, it makes sense to have a nonprofit or government-run entity to get the most bang out of your buck."
Also important to Madden is gun safety, especially in the wake of the STEM school shooting. One of her sons who used to be a wildlife firefighter is now a public-school teacher, "and I never thought I'd be in the position where I'd be more worried about him in that position than when he was putting out raging fires."
Despite her past associations with the likes of Stryker, Gill and Polis, Madden isn't counting on the largesse of wealthy friends to help her separate from the Democratic pack — and she isn't going to take corporate money, either. Instead, she hopes average voters will see her as an investment worth making.
"The limit on contributions is $5,600, and that's a lot of money," she acknowledges. "But when I'm talking to people about this, I say, 'Think about what it would be worth to you to win this seat, take over Democratic control of the U.S. Senate and get rid of Donald Trump.' Then it becomes a different equation."