There is no shortage of prominent challengers for the governor's office, as seen by the list of Q&As with hopefuls that Westword has published to date. On the Republican side, we've spoken to businessman (and nephew of Mitt Romney) Doug Robinson, state Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, entrepreneur and former state legislator Victor Mitchell, tech expert and author Barry Farah and 2016 Denver for Trump co-chair Steve Barlock, in addition to former Congressman Tom Tancredo, who's withdrawn from the competition, and 18th Judicial District DA George Brauchler, who is now focusing on a bid for attorney general.
On the Democratic side, candidates/interview subjects include former state senator Mike Johnston, onetime Colorado treasurer Cary Kennedy, Congressman Jared Polis and ex-Republican-turned-Dem Erik Underwood, as well as businessman Noel Ginsburg, who dropped out of the contest last month, and Representative Ed Perlmutter, presently engaged in a re-election effort for the 7th Congressional District.
As the great-grandson of Benjamin Stapleton, who served as Denver's mayor from 1923 to 1931 and again from 1935 to 1947, Stapleton has deep Mile High City roots. His lineage is also entwined with that of former president George W. Bush and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, his second cousins.
In the following Q&A, conducted via email (a first for our series of gubernatorial candidate interviews) prior to his campaign's decision to withdraw its petitions over questions about signature collection, Stapleton discusses his background and the importance of public service in his family. He also highlights his proudest achievements as treasurer before digging into what he considers to be the biggest topics on Colorado's agenda: sanctuary cities, educational choice, debt racked up by the Public Employees' Retirement Association (PERA), transportation challenges and more.
On April 14, the Colorado Republican Party will hold its state assembly at the Coors Events Center on the CU Boulder campus (click for more details); the same day, the Colorado Democratic Party is staging its own state assembly at the 1STBANK Event Center in Broomfield (click for more information). These events are expected to winnow the large field, but most observers expect that Stapleton will still be standing when the festivities conclude. Get to know him better below.
Walker Stapleton: In my time as treasurer, I led the fight to kill the largest two tax increases in Colorado history and have been a vocal and tireless advocate for reforming our pension system, which has up to a $50 billion unfunded liability, the largest debt we have as a state. I will continue to lead in the governor’s office on issues like public safety, stopping sanctuary-city policies and fighting for the taxpayers of Colorado.
Could you share some details about your background — where you were born, a little about your parents and immediate family, and what schools you attended?
I was born on the East Coast but I am the fourth generation of my family to call Colorado home — and my kids, Craig, Coco and Olivia, are the fifth. I want the Colorado we leave for all our kids to be filled with economic opportunity so they can afford the same quality of life that we enjoy here today.
How did you get your start in business, and could you tell us about your work as an investment banker for Hambrecht & Quist, your role at Live365, and the other business enterprises in which you have engaged over the years?
I have been lucky enough to learn from a lot of great people in business and from successes and failures of different companies and roles. I have been able to take those experiences and apply them to my role in public service. The biggest thing that has really stuck with me is that you can’t be afraid to stand up for what you believe and you can’t be afraid to lead. I have been lucky enough to be able to lead on many of our biggest economic issues in Colorado, fighting to reform our pension system that has a $50 billion unfunded liability and defeating terrible ballot initiatives like Amendment 69 [the ColoradoCare health plan] that would have bankrupted Colorado.
At what point did you develop an interest in public service — and how much of an influence on this was your father, diplomat Craig Roberts Stapleton, not to mention your great-grandfather, former Denver mayor Benjamin Stapleton?
I have always had an interest in public service and giving back. My great-grandfather died way before I was born, but my dad has always been a role model and inspiration to me. I believe giving back to one’s community is an important part of life, and I am honored to be continuing in my family’s tradition of public service.
What was your first involvement in Colorado politics, and why did you decide to seek out the office of Colorado treasurer?
Way back in 2009, I saw the impending disaster that was Colorado’s pension system. The fund was underfunded then as it is now, and there were so many things structurally wrong with it. It is and was built to fail. And the problem with that is it would leave our public servants, who are counting on those funds, empty-handed and leave taxpayers on the hook. That big fiscal problem is what got me into public service, and other big economic problems like health care and infrastructure are some of the reasons I am running for governor.
What are your thoughts about running for governor against Cary Kennedy, whom you defeated in the 2010
We will see who gets out of the Democrat primary. It should be interesting.
I have fought every day to reform PERA, to protect taxpayers and public servants, and led the fight to defeat two of the biggest tax increases in Colorado history as well as passed many pieces of bipartisan legislation to make Colorado more fiscally responsible.
What are the reasons you decided to run for governor in 2018, and was it a difficult decision?
I decided to run for governor because I think I am in the unique position of having had a successful career in the private sector, making payroll, balancing budgets and creating jobs, but have also had front-line experience on important economic policy decisions as state treasurer. These experiences have given me an insight into both the public and private perspective of public policy and how there can often be conflicts between the two. I think our government needs to engage more with the private sector and make sure that legislation from Denver that may have been [created] with the best intentions does not lead to unintended consequences that are bad for average Coloradans.
The first issue you list on your campaign website is sanctuary cities. Do you believe this is the most important issue facing Colorado today, and what is your definition of a sanctuary city?
Sanctuary cities are a direct threat to public safety in Colorado and are a violation of federal law. We should work with law enforcement officers, both local and federal, to make sure we are keeping dangerous criminals off our streets. This issue has nothing to do with going door-to-door or breaking up hardworking families, but has everything to do with using all law enforcement tools at our disposal to keep illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes out of our state.
Do you believe Denver is a sanctuary city? What would be your approach as governor to the issue of undocumented individuals in Colorado? And are you at all concerned that changing policies might make some undocumented crime victims feel afraid to seek help from law enforcement, potentially putting them at risk of further victimization?
Denver has put policies in place that prohibit coordination with federal immigration officers, which makes it a sanctuary city. I believe we should put faith and trust back into the law enforcement community to make decisions on when it is appropriate to pass along information to immigration officers when there is a serious threat to public safety. Someone reporting a crime is not a threat to public safety and should not be treated as such. Public safety is an issue important for all Coloradans.
You've also raised concerns about PERA, which you estimate as having billions in unfunded liabilities. What would you do to address this matter, and what are the dangers of allowing the situation to go unchecked?
The unfunded liability is anywhere from $30 [billion] to $50 billion depending on what rate of return you use. We have to be more realistic with our investment assumptions to ensure we can afford to pay out retirement benefits to our public servants and aren’t leaving taxpayers on the hook for a huge, unfunded liability. Allowing this situation to go unchecked would be an economic disaster for our state, and the longer we wait, the more money from our budget will be spent on paying off the debt and not on essential services like schools and roads.