By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
COLORADO SPRINGS — “It’s weird running against your old boss,” confessed state senator and Republican gubernatorial candidate Josh Penry, 33, of his opponent, former 3rd District Congressman Scott McInnis, 56, both of Grand Junction.
A dozen corporate executives burst out laughing at the roundtable discussion in the boardroom of The Office Club in the Briargate community north of Colorado Springs. The July 30 event was hosted by Buddy Gilmore, CEO of Shape Technologies LLC, a defense contracting firm.
The humorous quip was the first of several zingers that defined the Republican gubernatorial primary as a battle between old and new ideas — McInnis versus Penry. The state Senate Minority Leader never mentioned a third Republican candidate, Evergreen businessman Dan Maes.
Throughout the 54-minute roundtable discussion, Penry portrayed himself as a neophyte David challenging a GOP Goliath, McInnis.
“There are people in this race who have been in politics before. You have to look at their record and what they stand for,” said Penry.
McInnis, a partner in the Denver office of Hogan & Hartson, an international law firm, served in the Legislature from 1983 to 1993 and in Congress from 1993 to 2005.
Penry, who works for a bank in Grand Junction, won election to the House in 2004 and to the Senate in 2006. After graduating from Mesa State in 1998, Penry moved to Washington, where he was press secretary for McInnis, and later staff director for the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health.
“Business guys are looking for people who have some business experience. It’s great that you’ve done that,” said Barry Farah, an entrepreneur who established The Office Club, several businesses and the Springs Calvary Church in the old Tiffany Square shopping center.
“We’re sick and tired of Republicans and Democrats — or whoever you want to throw at us — who have no clue what it’s like to scrape together capital and make a payroll,” said Farah.
“What capabilities distinguish you to be a better governor than your primary competitors?” he asked.
“I think what makes my candidacy appealing is that I’m not part of the Republican Party that sunk us into this ditch,” replied Penry.
“If you look at my time in the Legislature, I’m a person who gets things done,” said Penry, adding that he did not allow partisan politics to “stand in the way of doing what’s good for the state.”
If he wins the primary and general elections, Penry vowed to scale back government programs without raising taxes and fees.
“How do we spread the pain? How do we spread the sacrifice?” Penry asked. “I won’t be the guy asking for a tax increase. I’ll be guy who’s the leader, saying that we need to make the tough choices.”
Over the past three years, Penry said, state budgets have grown faster than the economy. He said the state’s hiring of an estimated 4,000 employees adds to the problem.
“What percentage of the budget right now is arguably bloat that could be cut?” asked Farah.
“We have a $400 million shortfall in our budget right now…. We can cut $350 million,” declared Penry. “We can do that without cutting functions that people around this table deem critical.”
The party, he said, is in a “rat hole” because elected officials acted like Democrats in their lack of fiscal discipline.
“As Republicans, we have to acknowledge that our party holds a real share of the blame,” said Penry of the sinking economy and soaring $12 trillion federal deficit.
The admission of GOP guilt seemed refreshing to most folks — including most of the executives at the roundtable — who want a mix of conservative values and new vision in both the Grand Old Party and the government.
“In the eight years that Republicans controlled all levels of government in Washington, we doubled the national debt from $5 trillion to $9.5 trillion,” he said. “We tripled the number of earmarks and expanded entitlement programs.”
Penry cited U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, as an example of a popular politician who became part of the problem by failing to show conservative leadership during his presidential campaign last year.
“I love John McCain,” said Penry. “Yet, in 2008, in my opinion, he never made the Reaganesque case for personal freedom, personal responsibility, lower taxes, limited government … He never said any of those things.”
Penry called for a return to those basic party principles, which were evident under President Ronald Reagan’s leadership of the 1994 “Republican revolution.”
“I would caution you not to identify too closely with President Reagan,” suggested Mike Stauton, a retired military officer, defense contracting consultant and self-proclaimed “Reaganite.”
Stauton said Penry’s image as a young, energetic leader doesn’t mesh with his memory of Reagan, who at age 69, was the oldest presidential candidate elected.
“Reagan was right for his time, but times have changed,” Stauton told The Colorado Statesman.
“We’re no longer facing a Cold War, and the economy has changed dramatically. The economic fixes that worked then won’t work now,” Stauton said.
Stauton said the party needs to attract young voters — many of whom weren’t even born until after Reagan left office in 1989.
“Penry is young and energetic,” said Stauton. “Those qualities appeal to younger voters.”
“Penry represents the fresh blood in the party,” said Brian Louf, director of business development for Excalibur Associates. “I’m really pleased!”
“I think, for a Republican, Josh Penry seems to have a nice, energetic and forward perspective on governing,” said Kelly Roth, president of Delta Solutions & Strategies.
“He sends the message that there really are people in the Republican Party who think in a forward manner,” said Roth.
In 2010, Penry said, voters will have a choice between “business as usual” or “change” leadership.
“El Paso County is very, very important,” said Penry. “There are a lot of Republican voters in this county. You play a major role in deciding the primary election and general election.”
“Bill Ritter is a decent guy who cares about Colorado,” said Penry. “His number one asset is that he is likeable.”
“But, the governor has moved our state in the wrong direction. He’s raised taxes and fees, just in the last session by about a billion dollars,” declared Penry.
“The first job as governor is to get this economy back on its feet again,” said Penry.
Penry criticized Ritter for trying to appeal to both union and business interests while failing to improve the state’s economic climate to attract new businesses.
“The union fights have been a mammoth, catastrophic waste of time,” declared Penry. “The fight between labor and business interests is a wonderful example of what happens when you try to be all things to all people.”
“The governor should have been focused on bringing more jobs to Colorado rather than arbitrating a fight that he helped initiate in the first place,” he added.
Not surprisingly, Penry said that, if elected governor, his first action will eliminate the business personal property tax that applies a levy to machinery, equipment, property and furnishings. Colorado is one of the few states to impose the tax on businesses.
The executives applauded and cheered.
Earlier this year, Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, sponsored a bill to phase out the tax, which generates $350 million in revenue a year. After the Appropriations Committee severely amended the bill, Scheffel withdrew the measure.
The Colorado Statesman
The business roundtable discussion touched on gun rights, budgets, health insurance and the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP). The program requires student testing in third through 10th grades to assess student achievement levels, teachers and schools.
Some complained that CSAP requires too much class time, from prepping students in advance to conducting the exams over four days. Others said the test results help or penalize the teacher or the school, but do nothing for low-scoring students who need remedial help.
“Standardized testing is necessary,” said Penry, who supports CSAP, but would consider revising the questions to shorten the tests.
“We agree to disagree,” said Stauton.
Although most of the executives work in the defense industry, no one asked about the new law to prohibit the sale or lease of state-owned land in Piñon Canyon. The law impedes Fort Carson from expanding its training site in Piñon Canyon.
Penry had voted for the bill; McInnis opposed it.
“I would have liked to hear more about Penry’s position,” said Stauton.
“It’s not that important. It’s not necessarily a defense contractor issue,” said Roth.
In closing, Penry emphasized the importance of the 2010 gubernatorial race — and again painted the difference between himself and McInnis.
“I think the way you make the judgment is based on past performance,” he said.
“People who were part of the problem will have a very difficult case to make that they should be the driver of the solution. They won’t be!” asserted Penry.
Penry said that he plans to continue working hard, zigzagging across the state to pitch his campaign. Penry began and ended this day in El Paso County — starting with an early morning meeting with young Republicans at the Tri-County YMCA in Monument and closing with the business roundtable.
Perhaps Penry has “rock star” quality — a couple of students asked him to autograph the candidate’s “Our best days are ahead…” campaign brochure.
“Over the next 16 months, as we get out there to state my case for the job to get this state moving in a new direction, my family will be with me each and every step of the way,” said Penry.
Penry said he’s looking forward to campaigning with his wife, Jamie, and their children, 7-year-old Chase and 3-year-old Emme. He said his wife will resign her high school teaching position in order to join him on the campaign trail.
During the legislative session, Penry had a tough commute between Denver and Grand Junction. Now there also are trips to his campaign headquarters in Littleton and stump speeches across the state. The solution may be renting a home in the Denver metro area.
Penry said that the couple is selling a rental home in Fruita and the family home in Grand Junction.
He said he will maintain his residency in Grand Junction.
“We’re going to fight hard to win the governor’s race!” vowed Penry.
At this event, Penry won high scores and several advocates for his candidacy.
Gilmore was so impressed that he resigned as El Paso County GOP executive director to dedicate more time to Penry’s campaign.
Like other political activists, Gilmore had heard the rumors that Penry is on the verge of hiring state GOP Executive Director Michael Britt.
“I’ve had a multiple conversations with several candidates,” said Britt. “I’m not ruling anything out with any candidate.”
Asked about Penry, he said, “I’m not going to rule it out.”
Britt said he plans to mull over the offers next week while vacationing on North Carolina’s Outer Banks.