Americans love fads. Whether it was hula-hoops on the playground, or new math in our schools, or management by objectives on the job, we could hardly wait to embrace the very latest rage. Granola, Pilates, gluten free everything — bring them on! Following the successful recall of two state senators by populist mobs and the clobbering Colorado voters administered to Amendment 66 on Election Day, it appears the progressive agenda for the Centennial State is trapped on a careening bus without brakes headed for a precipice. Unfortunately for Democrats their driver is humming “Rocky Mountain High” while toking a big, fat spliff.
Mike Melanson, the Governor’s 2010 campaign manager and director of the Yes on 66 campaign, calls himself a numbers guy. He has certainly proven he can piss through 10, maybe 12, million dollars in just six months and lose voters each and every day. Last spring, when he briefed the remnants of the successful Referendum C Coalition, he reported that voters were split 50/50 on funding for the implementation of Senate Bill 213 and its agenda for education reform. He unveiled his proposed gameplan for securing a 52 percent victory by micro-targeting just the right mix of voters. When asked what the right message would be to persuade them, he discounted the importance of specific arguments in favor of reaching the right voters. He would win with a heavy turnout from the intrinsically sympathetic. He would embrace the Obama campaign strategy of flogging soft supporters all the way to the polls.
By late summer he returned with a refined campaign strategy that would overwhelm his opponents with an overpowering ground game. He introduced his campaign manager, who had never actually run a previous campaign, with the emphasis on his blue ribbon degrees from one of the best American universities — the smartest kid on the block, we were assured. When a few timid hands were raised to challenge what the campaign’s message would be — answering the natural question that would form in voters’ minds, “Why are we throwing another billion dollars at K-12 schools?” — Melanson assured us that polling showed it wasn’t wise to talk about specifics. The campaign would focus on a gauzy promise of happier children, more competent teachers and expanded “reforms” including more art, music and extracurricular programs. His real secret weapon would be turnout by the right voters. We know how that turned out.
Democratic State Senator Mike Johnston, who engineered the re-write of the state’s school funding formula in SB 213, was designated as the paladin who would criss-cross the state to explain the deficiencies in the longstanding Colorado School Finance Act. Written nearly forty years ago, it deliberately shortchanged Denver and most other urban districts, while rewarding what are now wealthy communities like Aspen and the Cherry Creek school district. In order to win their tepid support for his bill, Johnston committed to holding them harmless under his proposed rewrite. This concession probably doubled the price tag for his long overdue restructuring of Colorado’s K-12 funding formula. By Election Day, there probably weren’t three voters in a hundred who understood this connection between Amendment 66 and the substantive educational reforms contained in SB 213 that would be funded with the additional dollars that were being approved.
As former Democratic Senator Paul Weissmann observed recently at the Blue Parrot bar in Louisville, where he works, “Proponents failed to set the table for voters.” Johnston, who is one of the brighter lights at the Capitol, has only held elected office for a few short years. Elected from a safe Democratic seat, he has proven remarkably naïve about the rough and tumble of electoral politics. Permitting himself to become captive to a campaign designed by others who promised to raise millions of dollars on his behalf, it is hard to know whether he was able to discern the impending disaster ahead of him. As late as the week before the election, the whiz kid who was running the Yes on 66 campaign was assuring audiences he had a win “…in the bag.” Whether he was delusional or simply a consummate liar is hard to tell. He still offered no explanation for why the current school funding formula is intrinsically unfair — designed for a Colorado that no longer exits — no explanation that every child in Colorado, regardless of his or her zip code, deserves an education that will prepare them for the 21st century economy.
If Sen. Evie Hudak faces her own recall election in the near future, she would be well advised to consider carefully whether she wishes to embrace the micro-targeting straight jacket currently being offered to Colorado’s Democratic candidates. Even more so for our Governor, who is almost certainly expecting Melanson’s OnSight Public Affairs firm to steer his re-election campaign to another victory. It might be a good time to sack these micro-targeters in favor of an agenda for Colorado — a clearly delineated program for his second term that goes beyond running the state like a brewpub. Don’t cry for Melanson, as he and his colleagues undoubtedly pocketed 15 or 20 percent of the millions they raised to peddle Amendment 66. Mike Bloomberg and Bill Gates can afford the hit. Sacking a few Cabinet members and cleaning out his political/policy staff would also send a positive signal to voters. I place the chances of this actually happening at little better than 50/50.
It is difficult to reject the loyalty of those who have propelled you into office. The last Colorado governors to actually fire members of their executive team were Democrats Dick Lamm and Roy Romer. Whether John Hickenlooper can value the contributions of his current staff and still recognize that they likely stand in the way of his re-election will be a measure of his judgment. Either that, or his staff needs to radically alter its current course without complaint. Tom Tancredo and the growing chorus of Republican candidates for governor will offer a competing agenda that will be easily understood — one that the eventual candidate believes will drive voters to the polls out of passion rather than a computer generated reminder to vote.