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First-Time Candidate Donna Lynne Fights to Make Her Mark
Philip Cherner

First-Time Candidate Donna Lynne Fights to Make Her Mark

Still wondering who to vote for in the June 26 primary? To help you decide, we're reprinting the Colorado Independent's profiles of the eight remaining Colorado gubernatorial candidates.

As political strategists tell it, voters typically remember no more than two things about people seeking public office.

Thing No. 1 about Donna Lynne: When John Hickenlooper appointed her lieutenant governor in 2016 she was a health-care executive, not a politician.

Thing No. 2: She said she had no interest in replacing him.

“Things change,” she now says of her about-face on running for governor. “I could see pretty quickly that Colorado needs someone with my skills to lead the state.”

Yet two years into Lynne’s stint at the statehouse and ten months into her first candidacy, some things haven’t changed as quickly as she had hoped. Most Coloradans still don’t recognize the lieutenant governor. And, in a Democratic primary race crowded with three bigger-name contenders, many don’t realize she’s running.

Lynne’s underdog status became clear this spring when her campaign manager and a top consultant left abruptly less than two months before the June 26 primary election. At about that time, the candidate least expected to engage in political antics pulled what so far has been the race’s biggest stunt: Walking into a Larimer Street tattoo parlor and having the words “Fight for Colorado” inked into her left arm. The tattoo is meant to prove her commitment to the state she hopes to govern. And her TV ad about it – with its close-up of the needle pressing into her flesh – was meant as a shot in the arm for a candidacy in need of resuscitation.

“This tattoo ad is the most desperate attempt for attention that I’ve seen in my 30 years in politics. It is just appalling,” said Democratic strategist Steve Welchert. “I don’t know her, but literally everyone I [know who does] says she’s terrific and bright and charming and capable. And they just took all that and flushed it down the toilet with that TV ad.”

Desperate or not, Lynne’s tatt seems to have helped raise her visibility and inject her campaign with some mojo.

“Just watch,” she told me, working the crowd last month at Denver’s Stanley Marketplace.

She introduced herself to Chas Tafoya, a young dad pushing a double stroller past a craft beer stand. He seemed more focused on which brew to order than on which candidate to back until Lynne removed her jacket to reveal her upper arm.

“Oh, right. The tattoo lady,” he said, reciprocating her gesture by showing off tattoos of his kids’ names on each of his forearms.

Tafoya’s handshake turned into a bear hug.

“Right on, Donna. Good on you,” he told her. “Go work it, sister.”

From the Big Apple to a Mile High

After my first interview with Lynne three months earlier in February, “tattoo lady” was hardly how I would have expected to describe the policy-focused lieutenant governor who also serves as Colorado’s first chief operating officer.

It was an hour-long get-to-know-you at her stark campaign headquarters on Colfax, tightly scheduled between her official duties at the statehouse a few blocks west. Legal pad in hand, she was elaborate in the notes she jotted during our interview, but sparing in what she actually told me.

Lynne, 64, was a Cold War baby, born on a Navy base in Florida to military parents who both served in World War II. She grew up in New Jersey and played field hockey for the University of New Hampshire before quitting the team to wait tables so she could pay tuition. She went on to earn a Master’s in public administration from George Washington University and a doctorate in public health from Columbia University. She spent most of her adult life in New York City where she had three children with a husband who left when they were 4, 6 and 8.

She raised her kids while working 20 years in New York City government. Twelve of those were under Democratic mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins when she managed employee benefits and helped lead labor relations with a workforce of more than 300,000 as the city teetered on insolvency. Later, directing Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s office of operations, she coordinated an emergency management plan that was the blueprint for the city’s response to the 9/11 attacks. Giuliani then made her second in charge of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation – a network of trauma centers, mental health facilities, neighborhood clinics, nursing homes, and home health care services, plus the Medicare payment system that connects them.

A former colleague in New York says Lynne has “a knack for synthesizing an enormous amount of complex information,” and a talent for “making sure there’s no drama.” “Donna’s a decision-maker, a builder. In a big bureaucracy like this, that’s not so easy to come by,” she says, asking not to be named because of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s policy forbidding his staffers from engaging in what could be construed as electioneering, even out of state.

Lynne left New York City government for a job as vice president of the Manhattan-based Group Health Incorporated, one of the largest nonprofit health systems in the country. She was hired in 2005 to run Kaiser Permanente in Colorado, lured partly by the chance to lead an organization rather than be its No. 2. Shortly after she moved here, Kaiser promoted her to oversee not just Colorado, but also its Pacific Northwest and Hawaii regions, which together served 1.4 million patients, employed 16,000 workers and had an $8 billion budget. Her campaign points out that Kaiser, under her leadership, added thousands of jobs in Colorado by moving a call center here from California.

The chicken breast incident

Lynne says she had hesitated to leave her kids – then in their 20s – back East and move to a state where she had no family and only a few acquaintances. If she didn’t make friends, she told herself, she’d “just work all the time,” read books and ski.

But her friends say that meeting people came as easily to her as summiting all 58 of Colorado’s 14ers and zipping down double-black-diamonds while barely turning. She forged close ties in the business community through her service on Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce’s board. And she sat on about two dozen other boards and commissions including the University of Denver, the Denver Public Schools Foundation, the Colorado Education Initiative, the Colorado Mountain Club, and the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

It was in the museum that Lynne married Jim Brown, a technology and marketing consultant, in 2012. The couple met in a Safeway checkout line when she offered him some two-for-one chicken breasts that she wasn’t planning to use. The love connection over bargain poultry was as personal a detail as Lynne offered during our first interview.

She now acknowledges that she isn’t one to serve up pat narratives about who she is nor to divulge private details to advance her political candidacy. She has laughed off unsolicited advice that she should make herself up each day of her campaign “like you’re going on a date.” And she still raises her hand in debates rather than speaking over her opponents.

I asked Lynne what made her want to run for office – an endeavor in which optics and self-promotion matter, like it or not. She paused and smiled before answering.

“Because we need leaders who talk with people rather than talking at them. And because I still think that’s a strength, not a weakness.”

First-Time Candidate Donna Lynne Fights to Make Her Mark
Phil Cherner

‘A Hoover vacuum cleaner of problems’

Hickenlooper appointed Lynne to fill the lieutenant governor vacancy left by Joe Garcia, a popular champion of higher education. The governor’s search for a deputy who wouldn’t run to replace him had been seen as keeping the door open for Ken Salazar, the former U.S. senator and Interior Department secretary who ultimately chose not to run and now works with oil and gas giant Anadarko.

Ideologically, Lynne was a fit. Her moderate, pro-business politics are much the same as Hickenlooper’s and Salazar’s. She told the Colorado Independent in September that she couldn’t think of a single issue on which she disagreed with her boss. (She since has come up with one: She’s against drilling on public lands west of the Great Sand Dunes – which the governor hasn’t opposed, at least publicly.)

As Hick devoted time over the past two years to snagging a role in a would-be Hillary Clinton administration and eying a presidential run of his own, Lynne leaned in to manage state government.

She has launched programs to drive performance and increase accountability among state workers. They include the Governor’s Dashboard, an online tool Coloradans can use to track the state’s progress on issues they care about and keep the executive branch accountable for its metrics. She also has spearheaded a project that lets Coloradans set up new businesses without having to run a circuit between the Secretary of State, the Department of Labor and other agencies.

She has led fights against efforts to scale back Colorado’s Medicaid expansion and worked to keep the Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP) funded after the feds let the program expire. And she has been a proxy for Hickenlooper at events throughout the state where some community leaders say she stays longer and delves deeper than he to understand their challenges.

Business executives at the Chamber of Commerce and other civic leaders started urging Lynne early on to run for governor, and she said she started reconsidering her assertion that the lieutenant governorship would be the “capstone” of her career. “I derive energy from serving this state I’ve come to care very much about,” she says. “I have more service left in me. I have more to give.”

One of her priorities is to make healthcare more affordable and accessible. If elected, she says she’d work toward covering the 350,000 Coloradans who remain uninsured today; give Coloradans better access to information about the costs and quality of medical services and products so they don’t get ripped off; and explore opening the state-employee health plan program to small businesses and people living in especially high-cost regions.

Another priority is affordable housing. She aims to create a cabinet-level position to advance innovative housing policies statewide; earmark $25 million and leverage state-owned land for new housing development; and increase the cap on the state’s low-income housing tax credit to make the projects it funds available to house more families.

Hickenlooper hasn’t endorsed Lynne, but at public appearances touts her as the best lieutenant governor Colorado has ever had. He has said she’d make a great governor. He also has described her as a “Hoover vacuum cleaner of problems.”

“They just disappear, and everyone’s happy.”

‘I didn’t know there were turns.’

Lynne has a stellar resume, some powerful friends and a ski house in Vail. But those who know all four Democratic contenders say she’s the one whose experiences most reflect the struggles Coloradans face.

It’s with matter-of-factness that Lynne describes raising three children as a single mom without child support or help from her parents, who died when she was in her 30s, leaving no inheritance. She says she spent many years preparing dinner at dawn so her kids wouldn’t have to wait for her to cook it after she’d return to Queens from Manhattan at night via an hour subway and bus ride.

It’s also with no hint of “woe is us” that Lynne recalls being refused representation by a New York real estate agent because Lynne’s then-husband is black and their kids biracial.

It’s without fatalism that she speaks about the extent to which girls of her generation were preened to tuck in their career goals and plumed as women to be at once ogled yet overlooked in the workplace. “We were all harassed, right?”

Lynne’s “Fight for Colorado” tattoo isn’t, incidentally, her first. She has two others – one of a bitten apple and the other of a Chinese proverb that loosely means “Be bold.”

“People see you in a certain light,” she says. “Yes, I’m a business person slash professional who wears traditional suits, but at the same time we have other things in our lives that have influenced us: Your marriage, your successes, failures. The tattoo has something to do with the fact that I’m not just the lieutenant governor and chief operating officer, but also a mother and somebody who cares a lot about working class people because, quite frankly, I’m the only working-class person in the race, despite the successes I’ve had in the later part of my life.”

Lynne neither dwells on obstacles nor apologizes for her ambition. She  rejects grumblings among some Cary Kennedy supporters who’ve suggested that, as a woman, she should have waited her turn to run.

“I didn’t know there were turns,” she says. “And I guarantee you that men don’t have those conversations about whose time it is and who should sit out until the next election.”

She gets directly to the point, even if that point is sharp or politically inconvenient.

In 9News’s recent Democratic debate, during which her three rivals were bickering about school funding, she was the only one willing to say that fixing the education system will require a tax increase. And when U.S. Rep. Jared Polis and Michael Johnston promised to power Colorado with 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, she noted that whoever becomes the next governor won’t be in office beyond 2027 and can’t possibly carry out such a pledge.

A few days later, she said she’s tired of the bull.

“I have to tell you, I listen and I’m thinking I can’t believe what they’re saying,” she said of her opponents. “I’m concerned that some candidates aren’t, let’s just say, leveling with voters.”

Noel Ginsburg, the Denver businessman who ran in the Democratic primary race until March, knocks Polis and Johnston for “trying to hoodwink” voters with over-promises and lauds Kennedy and Lynne for keeping it real.

“It matters whether what these candidates are promising is even doable,” he says. “It matters if they have the integrity to keep this campaign within the realm of possibility.”

Assets and liabilities

Primary races, unlike those for general elections, prod contenders to appeal to their party’s base. Although Lynne benefits from her ties to a popular Democratic governor, she also carries what some in the party see as liabilities.

At a time when insurance costs are off the charts, some Democrats say her background as a healthcare executive doesn’t win their confidence. Nor, others say, do her years working for Giuliani, a Republican who has thrust himself back into national headlines by defending a president many Dems see as indefensible. In the eyes of some party faithful, it also didn’t help that she sidestepped the Democratic assembly process by petitioning onto the primary ballot.

Lynne is quick to note that she’s a lifelong Dem who has “many, many friends in unions” despite her work leading management-side labor negotiations in New York. State and federal campaign finance records show that she has given more than $70,000 to Democratic candidates and causes over the past decade. On the state level, she maxed out in donations to Hickenlooper in his 2010 and 2014 campaigns and gave $10,000 to a failed campaign pushing a $1 billion tax increase for education. On the federal level, almost all of her nearly $40,000 in donations have gone to Democrats, including Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Michael Bennet, Mark Udall and at-risk senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Mary Landrieu and Patty Murray.

Lynne has fierce support among women, many with whom she worked at Kaiser or served on various boards. Loyal friends who take turns tagging along on the campaign trail speak of her insistence on elevating other women’s careers and crediting the work of others, regardless of gender. The candidate rarely uses the word “I” on the stump, preferring instead the pronoun “we.”

Susan Casey, a former Denver councilwoman who helped manage Gary Hart’s presidential bid, joined as an advisor this spring because she sees in Lynne an authenticity she says the other Democrats lack.

“She has lived a real life compared to the other political upstarts and wannabes who are fine people, all of them, but politics is all they’ve done and all they’ve wanted to do and they’ve lost who they are in the process,” she says.

Support also has come from the Greater Metro Denver Ministerial Alliance, a coalition of black pastors who like Lynne’s emphasis on affordable health care and housing and appreciate that, as the mother of biracial kids, she understands racial complexities.

Lynne also has gleaned support from some unaffiliated voters and Republicans who value her experience running big, complicated organizations and her desire, as one observer put it, “to govern rather than to be the governor.” Presley Askew, a retired financial advisor and longtime civic leader who recently unaffiliated from the Republican Party, is one of them.

“From what I understand, when Giuliani was mayor of New York, she pretty much ran the place. If she can do that, she can run Colorado. She’s a manager, and I’m biased toward strong management.”

The money problem

The breadth of Lynne’s admirers hasn’t translated into financial contributions. Some of the business and civic leaders who had urged her to run pulled their support this winter when her fundraising wasn’t gaining much momentum, sources close to Lynne say. Now that primary ballots have dropped, she has raised less than the other Dems despite the $61,000 she gave of her own. “One reason I’m behind raising money,” she says, “is that I’m actually going to work most days.”

In recent debates, she has tried leveraging her funding disadvantage by criticizing her opponents for letting wealth and special interests influence them. But those remarks seem to have come too late to draw much attention from the swell of campaign finance reformers who won Colorado for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential caucus. After all, the pro-business moderate is no Sanders-style firebrand.

Any way you cut it – low name-recognition, fundraising, or showing in polls – Lynne’s bid for governor is struggling. She doesn’t sugarcoat it. But, as the June 26 primary nears, she doesn’t count herself out, either.

“I’ve been defying the odds for a long time in my life and happen to like being an underdog,” she says.

Since campaign manager Ethan Susseles and consultant Curtis Hubbard left in late April and early May, Lynne has rebuilt her campaign team, which now is run by women who she says “would lay down on the tracks for me.”

“One of the things you find out about in campaigns is who stands up for you and who doesn’t.”

Lynne was thrilled to win the Durango Herald’s endorsement early this month. And she was dismayed last weekend when Grand Junction’s Daily Sentinel wrote that she’s “probably the most qualified candidate to run the state” yet, without explanation, did not endorse her. “So I wonder,” she says, “is there something under the surface there?”

Despite mixed reactions to her now-notorious tattoo ad, even critics agree it managed to put a candidate with virtually no name recognition in the game. This week, she has launched a new, $100,000 TV ad that emphasizes her leadership experience and is decidedly less fleshy.

Lynne says she’s “optimistic enough” to believe that TV spots, which her fellow Democrats have been able to buy far more of, aren’t a deciding factor for voters. But she’s practical enough to realize that talking policy and flashing her tattoo in person “isn’t the most efficient way” to garner votes statewide.

As Casey tells it, Lynne wouldn’t have needed a tattoo, “nor would her resistance to selling herself have mattered” had the business and civic leaders who urged her to run helped her raise money to carpet-bomb the state with ads throughout the primary race.

“Those who know Donna, know her story, know her experience, and have seen her leading know that she would be the best governor,” Casey says. “But the voters don’t know her and don’t have the chance to know her story in this environment of billionaires controlling the information they get. That’s the shame of this race and that’s the shame of where we are in money and politics where elections can be bought.”

Corey Hutchins contributed to this story, which was originally published by the Colorado Independent. Read the Independent's profile of Mike Johnston here, the profile of Cary Kennedy here, and the profile of Jared Polis here. See more coverage of the gubernatorial campaign on the Independent's Colorado Governor's Race 2018 page.

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