By Anthony Bowe
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Three candidates vying for the Republican nomination for state treasurer bucked heads Monday during a debate in front of a small group of business owners in Centennial.
The South Metro Chamber of Commerce forum featured Walker Stapleton, Ali Hasan and J.J. Ament jockeying for distinction while uniformly offering proposals on how to challenge Democratic incumbent Cary Kennedy for the statewide office. One candidate will emerge from the August primary as the GOP standard bearer to oppose Kennedy in the November general election.
Jeff Wasden, a member of South Metro Denver Business Meetup Group, moderated the debate. The candidates took several questions from the audience after making introductory statements.
A continuing dispute between Hasan and Ament regarding their investments in bailout companies permeated the debate and afterwards.
Immediately following the event Ament produced a document from the Secretary of State’s office showing that Hasan has earned income from investments with Merrill Lynch, a company saved by federal bailout loans.
During the debate, Hasan whipped Ament for investments he made with Citigroup because it received bailout funds.
“You’re still getting an income from a Citigroup subsidiary,” Hasan told Ament during the debate. “I think this is a massive conflict of interest to walk into the state treasury when you’re getting an income from a Citigroup subsidiary.”
“I invest in my own company,” Ament said in his own defense. “I just never sold the shares of my company while I worked for them. That’s a big distinction.”
Hasan’s campaign slogan, mentioned throughout the debate, is ‘divest from Washington losers, invest in Colorado winners,’ which he said means he’d divest Colorado’s investment budget from companies that received bailout money and invest in local bonds instead.
Hasan’s campaign manager, Drew Dougherty, said Hasan is still in the process of divesting his own investments with Merrill Lynch and is placing them with American National Bank, a Colorado bank that received no bailout funds.
“Responsible, systematic divestment from bailout companies is not an overnight process — it is an exercise that Hasan strongly commits to, especially as the next State Treasurer of Colorado,” Dougherty said in a statement issued Wednesday.
The dispute between the two candidates originates from a 24-page campaign piece Hasan produced in January criticizing the records of Ament and Stapleton. Prior to Monday’s debate, Ament volunteers distributed a letter on the chairs of audience members from former Colorado Deputy State Treasurer Dick Murphy in which he dismissed most of Hasan’s claims.
“The document my family received from Hasan and my public observations of him tell me that Hasan simply does not understand the role of the treasury in our state government,” Murphy said in the letter.
Sparks also flew during the debate when Ament alleged that stocks from Stapleton’s company, SonomaWest Holdings, Inc., are difficult to acquire because “70 percent are owned by his mom and dad and him and the company.”
Stapleton immediately interrupted Ament, who was answering a question about transparency, and called Ament’s statement entirely inaccurate.
“The point is transparency, let’s tell the whole truth about these things,” Ament said.
Stapleton quickly lashed back, “Well then let’s start by you doing it.”
Stapleton said later that he and his family own 48.6 percent of actual stock.
Endorsements vary among the three Republican hopefuls
Stapleton, great grandson of Benjamin Stapleton, Denver’s longest serving mayor from 1923 to 1931 and 1935 to 1947, said he’s running on a platform of independence and experience. With an MBA from Harvard coupled with years of experience running a business, Stapleton thinks he would be respected as a treasurer with an independent voice representing taxpayers and business owners.
“It’s important the state treasurer has independent credibility, is not aligned with any specific interest, isn’t backslappin’ buddies with lobbyists…isn’t backslappin’ buddies with a bunch of old school Colorado politicians, but actually has credibility (with) an independent business career and a successful business career, and that’s what I feel like I bring to the office,” said Stapleton, who is currently the chairman, president, CEO and CFO of SonomaWest.
Stapleton has raised more money in the treasurer’s race than Kennedy and his GOP opponents. However, he trails Ament, son of former Colorado lawmaker Don Ament, in political endorsements.
On his Web site, Ament offers a long list of current and former Colorado officials who are supporting him, including former governor and treasurer Bill Owens, former U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez and Colorado Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction.
Hasan has netted endorsements from House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, and former U.S. Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Stapleton’s endorsements are mostly from Colorado business leaders such as Phil Anschutz and John Elway, as well as former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo and a few others.
Ament said he’s running as the only candidate with experience in public finance. He touts his record from the last ten years working as a financial consultant to numerous state treasurers across the country, including Colorado’s Kennedy.
“We need somebody in there who has the experience and the knowledge of dealing in government finances, dealing in private sector finances, who can get our state back on the right track fiscally because there are needs to be met and they’re not being met right now,” Ament said, adding that he would be the first treasurer in 40 years with a career background in finance.
Hasan dismissed his opponents’ business experience, reasoning that the treasurer’s office requires a talented manager, not a financial wiz.
“My vision is to appoint a very good deputy treasurer with a solid CPA accounting background and then from there are three people on the investments division. Those are the people I want to work closely with,” he said.
Hasan, son of a wealthy businessman, said he has won over 35 awards for his small business as a filmmaker and knows how to run a successful operation.
As treasurer Hasan said he would use the state’s $6.3 billion investment portfolio to invest in bonds like those for the Arapahoe Library District, which he said has an AA3 rating and would yield a 5.7 percent return. Ament said a certain level of liquidity from state investments must be reached to fund government operations. Slower maturing bonds would not yield tangible returns quickly enough.
“That’s money we can keep right here in Arapahoe,” he said.
Hasan, who earned the reputation for having a flashy speaking style in his 2008 state house race, used large cardboard posters during the debate to show the audience how Colorado is investing its money. He criticized Kennedy for placing state investments with bonds from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Ament said the Colorado bonds in which Hasan wants to invest probably don’t have a maturity rate that would qualify for the treasurer’s investment portfolio.
Hasan said he would look for bonds maturing between one and five years.
Stapleton didn’t go into specifics with how he would invest if he became treasurer but lauded his investment experience.
“The last three years of my company’s lifespan…if you’d have invested in my business you would have received over $20 million in dividends and you would have actually made about quadruple your money,” he said. “I would argue that we need more private sector investment experience at the state capitol and not less.”
The real target is Democrat Kennedy
During Ament’s introductory remarks he said he considers Kennedy a friend but said she shouldn’t be treasurer. He told a story about a meeting he had with Kennedy in her first year in office in 2007. He said Kennedy passed on advice he provided that would have saved the state $7.5 million.
“I told Cary to put some basic financial principles in place and lock in the spread and make sure the taxpayers aren’t subjected to risk,” Ament said about the state’s involvement with riskless returns.
As a seasoned financial consultant, Ament said he would be more efficient with the state’s money because he understands financial intricacies that he said Kennedy, a trained lawyer, doesn’t.
“It’s hard because you can bet that the career bureaucracy that makes up our government doesn’t pull these efficiencies to the surface and throw them onto the cover page of a memo and throw them across your desk,” Ament said. “You gotta know where to find these things.”
Stapleton sounded a similar note. He criticized Kennedy as a “rubber stamp” to Gov. Bill Ritter and the Democratic-led legislature, a charge he has made in previous debates.
“Colorado…independently elects a state treasurer, so you would hope that because that is the case, that the state treasurer actually disagrees with the governor often on things,” he said. “And I think Cary Kennedy over the last three years has disagreed with Gov. Ritter less than 10 times on all the initiatives that have come forward — hundreds of them. Over three hundred of them.
“That is not, to me, an independent state treasurer,” Stapleton said.
Kennedy’s campaign responded in a statement on Wednesday.
“The fact is, Cary Kennedy has posted solid gains in the public investment portfolio during one of the worst economic downturns in American history,” said spokesperson Tyler Chafee. “I’m sure there’s no shortage of people who want to look back and try to second guess things with various scenarios, but the fact is, she’s done a great job protecting and growing the public dollar.”
Chafee added that Kennedy is “looking forward to meeting whoever wins the Republican primary.”
The three GOP candidates held the same opinions from their last debate regarding the Public Employees’ Retirement Association and the Tax Payers Bill of Rights.
Hasan supports the full privatization of PERA, while Ament wants to partly privatize it. Stapleton said that the PERA board should to be replaced by people who don’t benefit from the program in order to eliminate a conflict of interest.
All three candidates candidates stated their interest in strengthening TABOR. They agreed that tax mandates, such as Amendment 23, which was co-authored by Kennedy and annually increases public school funding, must be relinquished for wider industry equality.
Stapleton said the public school tax mandate is a money siphon that has yielded hardly any results.
“Why are we spending all of this money in our public education system due to these automatic ratchets in our budget, which basically give education a free pass?” he said. “We need to stop the process of automatic ratchets in the Colorado state budget system, especially when we have a finite amount of tax dollars to spend.”
Attendance at the debate was minimal, with only five to 10 people present other than media and campaign volunteers.
Stapleton expressed his concern about the low attendance after the debate.
“How are people going to be informed if they’re not here,” he said, wondering aloud.
Former Centennial treasurer Susan Bockenfeld attended the event and said she’ll be voting for Ament. Bockenfeld said Ament has a better transparency policy. During the debate Ament said he believes in full disclosure.
“If I were the treasurer I’d put that [paperwork] up on the Internet and let people see. And if the legislature didn’t like it they can pass a law that makes me take it down,” he said. “There’s no reason not to put everything up there and let the public see the whole picture and decide for themselves whether we’re doing the right thing.”
Other business owners said they attended the debate to get a better feel of what a treasurer actually does.
“I really didn’t know what a treasurer was two hours ago and I’m sure I know now, but this was good for that,” said Sandyn Skudneski, owner of an IT consulting shop in the metro area. Skudneski hinted that his vote may be narrowing between Hasan and Ament, but said he respected Stapleton’s “quiet confidence.”
“I’m not sure I got a central message from Walker Stapleton,” he said. “Should Ali win and use J.J. as his deputy or should J.J. win and use Ali as his hound dog?”
Three more GOP debates among the candidates will be held next week. All three candidates will debate on the Eastern Plains at the Akron Event Center on Monday March 8, and they will meet again in Colorado Springs on Tuesday, March 9. Ament and Stapleton will debate without Hasan on Saturday, March 13, at the West Arapahoe Republican Forum.
In the March 5 print edition of The Colorado Statesman, the paper stated Walker Stapleton, Republican candidate for treasurer, “loan owned” 75 percent of stock with his family for his company SonomaWest Holdings. That statement is incorrect. As previously stated in the article, Stapleton and his family officially own 48.6 percent of the company. We regret the error.