In the bad old days, many American politicians who happened to be gay either denied or downplayed this aspect of their life. But Dan Baer, a former U.S. ambassador during the administration of President Barack Obama who's running to unseat Senator Cory Gardner in 2020, has made it central to his campaign's narrative in a state that made Jared Polis governor last November.
"I feel lucky, in a sense, to be gay — which is something weird for me to say given the number of years I felt like that was an albatross around my neck and thinking it was going to keep me from leading a fulfilling life," Baer says while seated beside his husband, climate economist Brian Walsh, in their Five Points home. "I feel like I'm fortunate to have grown up gay in a place" — he spent his formative years in Littleton — "that wasn't yet hospitable to LGBT people. Obviously, there's still work to do. But that shaped me in ways that's been a driving force behind my human-rights work, because it made me care about creating the ability for people to live lives of their own choosing."
As a gay white male, Baer knows full well that he's not nearly as vulnerable as, say, a trans woman of color, who risks becoming a target of hate simply by going about her daily activities. But he also understands how the lessons he learned in Colorado provided a road map for his journey. In his words, "I think the empathy you develop when you've been excluded, and the toughness you develop when you take on people who've tried to put you down or knock you out, are valuable attributes. And I don't think anybody else in this race brings the combination of experience and those attributes to the table."
The introductory campaign video for Baer's campaign underscores plenty of differences between him and the rival Dems itching to take down Gardner at the ballot box. They include former state senator Mike Johnston; onetime speaker of the state House Andrew Romanoff; ex-U.S. Attorney John Walsh; and Stephany Rose Spaulding, who gave District 5 Representative Doug Lamborn a spirited run in 2018; plus Denver's Lorena Garcia and Dustin Leitzel, Grand Junction's Keith Pottratz, Englewood's Diana Bray and Superior's Trish Zornio.
The clip boasts shots of Baer with Obama-era figures such as Hillary Clinton and John Kerry that date from the period when he served as deputy assistant secretary of state and U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. But arguably more memorable is footage of him driving for Lyft, which he says he does on occasion as a way of meeting and learning about a wider range of people than the typical candidate encounters.
Here's the video, titled "Driving Change."
Born in Denver, Baer lived with his family in Golden as well as Littleton, and after he graduated from Heritage High School, he earned graduate and undergraduate degrees from Harvard University and Oxford's Madalen College, respectively. He later taught ethics at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business and served as a fellow at Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics before joining the Obama team in 2009 and sticking around for more than seven years.
"At first, I worked on human rights from Washington and many places around the world," he recalls. "I covered Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe, as well as multi-lateral organizations."
Walsh, for his part, came of age in suburban Chicago and went to Notre Dame and then Yale, where he studied particle physics for two years before relocating to Geneva to do research using the Large Hadron Collider, touted as the planet's biggest and most powerful particle accelerator. A few months after his arrival, he was invited to a dinner where he met Baer, who was in town to speak at a United Nations forum. They began dating a few months later and married in 2014, the year after Baer became the American ambassador for the OSCE, which is based in Vienna.
Prior to getting involved with Baer, Walsh concedes, he was "maybe a little cynical about institutions and politics. But meeting Dan and getting to see these really thoughtful people and learning what the civil service does really got me invested. It was easy from there to go to Austria and be the bright young gay face of America."
He jokes that Baer's youth and sexuality were so distracting to the people they encountered that most could only focus on one at a time. But there were exceptions, Baer notes: "When I arrived, the British ambassador came to me and said, 'The Russian ambassador has been going around for a few weeks saying, 'The new American ambassador is a homosexual — and he's 36!'"
Others took notice, as well. "At one point, the representative of the Holy See read Bible verses to me at a formal meeting after I'd spoken up in favor of LGBT rights," Baer says. "I don't know if he would have done that to someone who wasn't gay. But on the other hand, it was totally ineffective, and I think he lost more ground in that room by doing so. And certainly the Russians were uncomfortable, but I tried to use that discomfort against them. Nothing drove them more nuts than having their lunch handed to them by a young gay American ambassador. So it was a gift, and it led to some really meaningful experiences. We went to the Jordanian ambassador's house for dinner, and I presume we were the first gay couple they'd ever had for dinner; they were very religiously conservative. Those are the kinds of things that happen outside of formal negotiations but are an example of why various forms of diversity in our diplomatic corps and civil service in general help tell the story of America in a more complete way."
When Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, the mission changed. The morning after, he and Walsh "had a conversation about what this election meant for us, for our community, for our country. And we made the decision that we were going to move home to Colorado and try to be in the fight for good things in a moment where we felt good things were under assault. We flew home on inauguration day, after we'd signed up from Vienna to be volunteer marshals for the Women's March the next day."
The march was both emotional and empowering, Walsh emphasizes, especially given that Baer had just gone from being an important arm of U.S. policy to a diplomatic lame duck. "We were kind of alone in Austria...so when we came back to Denver, we were looking for community, and there was the feeling that, 'These are our people.' It was 53 percent of the popular vote — more than one in two — and they were as energized and jazzed about it as we were. So we found a community right away."
Before long, what seemed like a golden opportunity presented itself to Baer: 7th Congressional District Representative Ed Perlmutter announced that he was giving up the office to run for governor. Baer promptly joined the race to succeed him and exhibited a fundraising prowess that gave him a great chance of victory. Mere months later, however, Perlmutter dropped his gubernatorial bid, and after flirting with political retirement, he declared that he would seek re-election to Congress in 2018. Faced with the prospect of taking on an incumbent in a contested primary, Baer left the field.
Today, Baer tries to put this turn of events into perspective. "Ed and I are friends. I talked to him before I announced for this race, and we've worked together to support other candidates running for office, including Jason Crow [who defeated Mike Coffman in the 6th Congressional District]. So, sure, it was frustrating. But there are many people in America who are taking bigger risks than I am and who are far more vulnerable. And part of what Brian has urged me to do in this moment is to recognize that I'm fortunate to have led the life that I've led and that I'm in a position where I can take a risk for values we believe in. Taking risks sometimes means things don't turn out the way you expected, and sometimes there are curveballs. But even though the particular endeavor changed, the fight didn't change — and I've remained committed to trying to figure out the most effective way to contribute."
Some positives came out of switching his target from the House to the Senate, Walsh believes. "Are we going to complain about two additional years in Denver?" he asks with a laugh. "And Dan's gotten the opportunity to get to know Colorado leaders and institutions more deeply."
Indeed, Baer was appointed as the Colorado Department of Higher Education's executive director by former governor John Hickenlooper. The gig gave him an up-close-and-personal view of a system that he sees as under siege by Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to whom he wrote a scathing January letter related to what critics see as her attempts to weaken Title IX protections for victims of campus sexual assaults.
"Betsy DeVos should not be the Secretary of Education," he says. "The only reason she's the Secretary of Education is because she bought the job."
He's just as critical of Gardner.
"This is going to be a race that not just Colorado, but the entire country is focused on," he allows. "And Cory Gardner deserves to be fired for the way he's carried out his duties and failed to live up to the commitments he made to Coloradans. He's not served us well by the way he's sided with President Trump."
Gardner's actions represent "the height of cynicism," he argues. "It's one thing if you do it out of ignorance, but I don't think he's ignorant. I think he knows his policies are hurting Colorado. So he's doing it out of ambition. He made a calculated choice to endorse Trump early, and he's making a calculated choice to hem and haw about the national emergency" — meaning claims that a wall must be built along the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent a de facto invasion — "but ultimately come out supporting it even though he knows it's a bogus solution for a real problem. He's tried to use the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a place to distinguish himself from Trump with strongly worded statements. But when it comes down to voting, he still votes for unqualified nominees and he still supports the poor leadership of the State Department. And I'm the only candidate who has the foreign policy experience to go toe-to-toe with him."
If elected, Baer says, his top priority would be "tackling corruption and the role of big money in the system. I made a pledge from day one that I'll accept no corporate PAC money, and I've gone a step further and said I will never become a federal lobbyist. I think the revolving door where people go to Washington and serve for as long as they serve and then quickly go to K Street and become millionaires as lobbyists is corrosive to the public confidence in Washington."
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He's also a strong advocate for legislation to address climate change; he stops short of embracing the Green New Deal, but praises the proposal for the way it demands major progress on an urgent issue as opposed to settling for small, intermediary steps. His time with the Colorado Department of Education has also convinced him "that we need to no longer think about education as purely a social benefit and start to think about it as an investment in the United States in respect to AI and automation. We need to make sure Coloradans have the skills we need to have good jobs in the next ten to twenty years, and the federal government needs to take a leadership role on the R&D side. That's why there's some portion of education spending that should come from the Defense Department budget — and that's a conversation I'd like to have, because education is a national security issue."
Another big agenda item for Baer is universal health care. He prefers immediate steps to help people without coverage now as opposed to making an all-or-nothing bid for a single-payer system in part because of what happened in his own family. "My dad got cancer for the first time when I was in high school, then went into remission for eight years. But he was diagnosed again when I was in graduate school. We had health insurance, but the hospital, in the summer of 2002, told him that he had used up the hospital days that were on the policy and had to go home even though he wasn't really in a condition to do that. So I came home from school to help my mom and help with a seven-year-old brother who required care, too. And my dad died at our house on Dexter Street."
Accomplishing chores like these will be challenging, but Baer is confident he's up to the task, in part because of what he went through to become the man he is today.
"A lot of people who go into politics have had the dream of doing it from high school on," he grants. "I didn't, partly because I grew up gay in Littleton. I grew up when Amendment 2 [a measure that would have outlawed 'special rights' for gays had it not been ruled unconstitutional] was passed. So politics wasn't on my radar screen, because it seemed so unthinkable and impossible. The idea of running for office really wasn't something that occurred to me until after the 2016 election. But we came home looking for ways to contribute at a moment where we felt a lot of institutions and values were under threat. Right now, the problem is in politics, and although it hasn't been a lifelong goal of mine, it's obvious to me that we need to flip the Senate, and defeating Cory Gardner is pivotal. And I think I'm the best candidate to do that."