Second-term state treasurer Walker Stapleton says one of the main reasons he's running for governor of Colorado in 2018 is because he believes the state is at a crossroads, and that if the wrong policies are put in place, the current economic boom may prove short-lived. He explains why, and offers what he sees as solutions in the following in-depth interview.
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Barry Farah and 2016 Denver for Trump co-chair Steve Barlock, in addition to former Congressman Tom Tancredo, who's withdrawn from the competition, and 18th Judicial District DA George Brauchler, who is now focusing on a bid for attorney general.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.
Westword: How would you sum up the reasons Coloradans should elect you as governor?
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.
What are your proudest accomplishments during your time as treasurer?
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.
On the topic of education, you are a big advocate of school choice. How would expanding school choice improve education in the state, given that robust networks of charter schools are already operating in many parts of Colorado?
We should empower families to make the best decisions for their children. No parent in our state should be forced to send their child to a failing school, and all children in Colorado should have access to a high-quality education, regardless of income or zip code. School choice to me is about equal opportunity and investing in our children and the future of our state.
Do you believe schools in Colorado need more funding — or do you feel that education in the state can be improved without significant new investment?
We need to be smarter with the funding we have, first and foremost. Not enough money is getting to the classrooms, where it belongs. We need to pay our teachers well and give them the tools they need to teach our kids, but unfortunately, so much money gets caught up in the bureaucracy and never sees the classroom. Expanding school choice is another method of having our dollars go further, and I would look at every avenue to expand educational opportunities as a means of increasing quality and decreasing the cost of our education model.
A number of Democrats running for governor believe that TABOR [the Taxpayer Bill of Rights] has limited the ability to make schools better or address other problems in the state. What are your views on this subject, and do you feel that TABOR is a positive or a negative for Colorado?
A lot of the Democrats running think the answer to every problem is just throwing more taxpayer money at it. I don’t think that’s right. We need to look at how we are spending taxpayer money, and as governor, I would protect TABOR against those who think taxes and spending are the solution to everything.
When it comes to energy, you are a strong supporter of the oil and gas industry. Have regulations prevented the industry from growing as it should, and if so, what would you do as governor to address the situation?
I believe an uncertain political environment has stymied investment. Jared Polis, who tried to banish the oil and gas industry from Colorado, is the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. If you were making a billion-dollar investment, would you put it in a state where that guy could be in charge?
How would you accomplish these goals while at the same time protecting Colorado's environment?
Having a robust energy sector and a healthy environment are not mutually exclusive. We have some of the most rigorous public safety and environmental regulations for oil and gas development of any state in the country, so the idea that this industry and clean air, rivers and mountains are not compatible with one another is absolutely false.
What are your views about so-called alternative energy, such as wind and solar — and do you think it's been over-emphasized to the detriment of the oil and gas industry?
I believe in an all-of-the-above energy policy that focuses on protecting ratepayers. I believe in free enterprise and an open and competitive marketplace.
What are the biggest shortfalls you see in how the Colorado Department of Transportation has dealt with helping the growing number of people in the state move from place to place, and what would you do to address them?
Colorado’s Department of Transportation spent $150 million on new offices while leaving our infrastructure in shambles. We need new leadership. We traded out a Delaware bureaucrat for the mastermind behind the "Big Dig" in Massachusetts. I will put someone in charge who knows how to build roads and bridges and look to radically decrease the overhead and operational costs at the department, so that they can focus on its core function of building roads and bridges.
You point out that job growth has been strong along the Front Range but suggest that other portions of the state, including rural areas, are being neglected. As governor, what would you do to make sure that people in every part of Colorado have the same opportunities?
Rural economic development starts at the top. As governor, I will support businesses and companies moving to all parts of our state instead of just the Front Range. The rural broadband development bill that just passed the legislature is an important first step, but we need to make sure that rural communities are given the same resources to succeed as any other community in Colorado.
Do you support the prospect of Amazon building its second headquarters in Colorado, and if the company chooses to come here, how would you deal with the challenges such a mammoth project would bring?
I support good paying jobs moving to Colorado as long as we aren’t providing any incentives that we wouldn’t offer to a similar Colorado company.
Do you feel legalizing limited recreational marijuana sales in Colorado has hurt or harmed the people in the state, and would you support the kind of industry crackdown signaled by Attorney General Jeff Sessions?
There have been a lot of unintended consequences that have come with legalization of marijuana. I don’t think a repeal is a realistic option, so as governor, I will work with the industry and stakeholder groups to make this work. We need to have better guardrails in place to keep it out of the hands of children and to address some of the unintended consequences we have seen develop.
You have been outspoken about Jared Polis's gubernatorial campaign and the tremendous resources he has at his disposal — and yet, as a member of the extended Bush family, you would seem to have a lot of resources at your disposal as well. Or has that been overstated, and your financial support is actually more dependent on local donors than some of your opponents have suggested?
I am committed to raising the necessary resources to not only win the primary, but to defeat Jared Polis in the general election. We have received thousands of donations from across the state — some big donors and many small donors. And I am very excited about the amount of support my campaign has received — not only financial, but the support we have received from hardworking volunteers and the dozens of local elected officials from across the state who have signed on to support my candidacy.
Do you embrace your connection to the Bush family, even though some of your rivals may try to use it to make you seem like part of an entrenched political dynasty rather than representing fresh blood?
The voters of Colorado will evaluate my accomplishments and my ideas. I don’t think you give voters enough credit. At the end of the day, my campaign will be judged by the bold ideas I put forth, and it will be up to the voters to decide if my track record on important economic policy decisions and my style of leadership are a good fit for the people of Colorado.
What are the biggest dangers to Colorado if Polis or another Democrat is elected as governor?
Huge tax and debt increases to pay for all their pet projects that will drive businesses and jobs right out of Colorado.
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Recent elections suggest that Colorado has become more blue over time — but do you think that deep down, state residents remain largely conservative and therefore more in line with your philosophy and beliefs?
I think Coloradans are fiscally responsible and understand nothing is "free." I look forward to contrasting my ideas with whoever comes out of the messy Democrat Primary.
How would you describe Colorado's potential — and what will you do as governor to help the state achieve it?
We have a lot of potential in this state, but we are at a tipping point, and the next governor of Colorado will help shape what this state is going to be for the rest of the 21st century. We can go down a path of prosperity and opportunity or collapse under a burden of taxes, debt and regulation that has befallen so many other once-promising states in our country.