Longform

Ryan Frazier puts his job on the line with Amendment 47

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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."

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner