Who Is Walker Stapleton?

Editor's note: We dove into the backgrounds of the gubernatorial candidates vying for the governor's mansion this November. Read Jared Polis's story here.

Walker Stapleton’s political future was thrown into a blender less than a week before the April 14 Colorado Republican Assembly. A company the Republican gubernatorial candidate’s campaign hired had faked signatures to get him on June’s primary ballot, which Stapleton publicly admitted four days before the GOP gathering.

A primary nomination that seemed destined to be his was now in jeopardy. Stapleton had to win 30 percent of the vote at the state assembly or he’d be toast before the campaign of his life really began.

“Nervous” is how Tom Tancredo describes what the two-term state treasurer was feeling on the eve of the assembly, where Tancredo had agreed to introduce the candidate. However, Stapleton not only won, but he cruised to victory, claiming 43 percent of delegates’ votes for the top spot on the primary ballot, which he eventually won handily as well. (Stapleton did not return our requests for comment on this story.)

GOP insiders credit Tancredo, a former U.S. representative and a deep-red Republican, for helping coalesce the different factions of the state’s Republican Party around Stapleton; one even tells Westword that Tancredo’s introduction had “saved [Stapleton’s] butt.” But Dick Wadhams, a longtime GOP political consultant, credits Stapleton’s personality — which is rarely seen in public — for rescuing his own campaign.

“Walker’s always had a very friendly personality,” Wadhams says, noting that many of the undecided delegates were swayed by Stapleton himself as he spoke with them individually. “He’s pleasant to be around. People naturally like him when they meet him. That’s a very powerful trait to have as a candidate.”

Now all that stands between the 44-year-old Stapleton and the governor’s mansion is Democrat Jared Polis.

So who is Walker Stapleton?
His journey begins in the leafy New York City suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut, where Stapleton grew up and went to the elite all-boys Brunswick School. The oldest of two children and the son of a prominent ambassador, Stapleton played squash back in his high school days (and was good, or at least popular, enough that his squash coach donated to his 2010 Colorado state treasurer campaign).

After graduating from high school in 1992, Stapleton went to Williams College, a small liberal-arts school in western Massachusetts, where he received a bachelor of arts in political science in 1996. Stapleton shared a six-person dorm with, of all people, current Democratic Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut during their sophomore year. But Stapleton’s personal political ties run much deeper than that.

His great-grandfather is former Denver mayor Benjamin Stapleton, a connection that has made national headlines because of the elder Stapleton’s strong ties to the Ku Klux Klan. Stapleton’s mother is first cousins with President George H.W. Bush, and that faction of the family regularly stumps for Stapleton during campaign stops. Staunchly conservative H.W. even spoke at the liberal-leaning Williams College’s 1996 class commencement.

It’s a connection that can be challenging for a relatively lesser-known candidate to rise above, says Wadhams.
“I think he’s in a tough position,” he says of Stapleton’s Bush ties. “On one hand, I think the Bush family is very respected in Republican circles, and yet Walker wants to be his own man. It’s a very delicate balance.”
Considering his family lineage and the wealthy town from which he hails, it’s easy to see why some think Stapleton was born with a silver spoon — a perception the candidate tries to distance himself from, presumably to speak to rural voters in Colorado.

“I had no personal issue with Walker,” says Vanessa Wruble, who attended Williams and knew him during his college years and helped organize the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. “[But] a friend of mine used to use this expression, and I think it’s appropriate here: Walker Stapleton was born with seven silver spoons up his butt. While I don’t think that disqualifies you from public office, it also certainly doesn’t qualify you.”

"We just started talking, and he was delightful. He had all of this energy and enthusiasm and wanted to get involved, and it wasn’t until later that I found out what his background was."

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After Williams, Stapleton crossed the pond and went to the prestigious London School of Economics for a year, earning a graduate degree in business economics in 1997. He returned stateside to launch a startup in Silicon Valley before diving into real estate and several other business ventures. Stapleton has been successful, injecting about a million of his own dollars into this gubernatorial campaign.

But a particularly ugly DUI nearly twenty years ago could have ended all political chances.

Early in the morning of June 20, 1999, a 25-year-old Stapleton was driving through downtown San Francisco when a taxi hit the back of his Jeep. According to witnesses, Stapleton fled the scene, but according to Stapleton, he tried to get out of the way of traffic and pulled over as soon as he could. Court documents suggest that Stapleton may have been high, as well.

“He was unsteady on his feet, and loud and belligerent,” reads the police report from that fateful June night, according to a 2010 Colorado Independent story.

The hit-and-run charges were eventually dropped, but Stapleton would plead guilty to the DUI and serve three years’ probation, attend twice-a-week Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and perform community service.

Stapleton recovered from his misadventures in California by enrolling in Harvard Business School from 2001 to 2003, earning a master’s degree in business administration. Records show that while at Harvard, he donated $500 to Colorado Republican Bob Beauprez’s campaign in 2002 (“I didn’t know that,” Beauprez admits to Westword), the first political donation to a Colorado cause that Stapleton made.

Shortly after graduating from Harvard, in 2004, Stapleton met his wife, Jenna, at a New York City dive bar. In a September interview with Colorado Politics, Jenna Stapleton said that Walker offered to buy her a drink if she gave him a stick of gum. A year later, they were engaged.

Stapleton moved to Colorado, where his family had long ties, at the age of 29, settling in Arapahoe County. He almost immediately dove into politics, albeit in a surprisingly low-key way.

Lynne Cottrell, former chairwoman of the Arapahoe County Republican Party, describes her first encounter with Stapleton in the mid-2000s, shortly after he had moved to Colorado: “I was vice-chair of the Arapahoe County Republicans, and in walks this tall, handsome guy,” Cottrell recalls. “[Stapleton] said: ‘I want to get involved in the Republican Party here.’ I said, ‘That’s great, we’d love to have you.’ We just started talking, and he was delightful. He had all of this energy and enthusiasm and wanted to get involved, and it wasn’t until later that I found out what his background was. He never mentioned it. Very humble. He just wanted to help and was interested in what I was doing.”

Stapleton launched his campaign for state treasurer in 2010. Though still a relative newcomer to state politics, he had already earned the respect of longtime Republican politicos.

“When Walker first ran [for treasurer], I’d been an admirer and a good friend for a long time,” recalls Beauprez, who was also the 2014 Republican gubernatorial nominee. “I didn’t dislike Walker, but I was very close to [Stapleton’s 2010 primary opponent] J.J. [Ament]. So it was natural for me to support J.J. I told Walker that, and I wished him well.

“Often, people [would] react angrily” to that, Beauprez continues. “Walker said, ‘Obviously I don’t like that,’ but he pledged right there that he was going to work hard to earn the nomination. That’s part of the reason I admire him. He didn’t take that negatively.”

In 2010, with Cottrell’s help and a campaign full of money from wealthy New York City-area donors, Stapleton barely squeezed out of two tough elections: First, he defeated Ament by fewer than 7,000 votes in the GOP primary for state treasurer. A few months later, he flipped the state treasurer’s office red by topping incumbent Democrat Cary Kennedy by a slim 51-49 margin in the general election.

Stapleton’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign has been fairly standard, if not a little boring (the same could be said for Polis’s run). He’s periodically nagged by accusations of lying in ads, straying too far to the right and not being personable enough.

“If [there’s] one thing that I wish was more visible to voters, it’s his sense of humor,” Wadhams says. “I think it’s very endearing. Here in Colorado, that is the most important threshold you need to cross. [Voters] want to know if you’re a good person. If you’re likable.”
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Chris Bianchi is a Westword contributor interested in politics.
Contact: Chris Bianchi