Mike Dunafon has thrust himself into this year’s race for governor, adding to the traditional sparring usually reserved for the major party candidates for the state’s top office. He became certified for the ballot a couple of weeks ago as an unaffiliated candidate, securing the necessary 1,000 valid signatures and positioning himself to officially take on popular incumbent Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. He also faces Republican nominee Bob Beauprez, a former congressman from the suburbs who ran for governor in 2006, and third party candidates Harry Hempy from the Green party and Libertarian Matthew Hess.
“If we lose this campaign, we will have changed the debate and how it happens,” proclaimed Dunafon, the current mayor of Glendale whose forcefulness and optimism are well known.
The colorful candidate is proud of the fact that to date, he has not accepted any campaign contributions. He and his wife, Debbie Matthews, have put less than $15,000 of their own money into the campaign, yet he’s feeling invigorated.
Debbie is admittedly less optimistic about her outspoken husband’s candidacy for governor than he is – she thinks he’s tilting at windmills, Don Quixote style – but Dunafon insists that he’s not running solely on idealism. He actually wants to win; and he thinks he has a sporting chance.
“I have never been a spectator,” said the former wide receiver for the University of Northern Colorado.
He joined the Denver Broncos in 1976. Injuries a year later ended his career with the orange and blue – but Dunafon ended up playing professional rugby in the British Virgin Islands for a few years before returning to Colorado and the business world.
“In any sport I never watch them. I either play them or I’m doing something else,” the competitive candidate noted.
He hopes to get his chance to play in the political arena on Sept. 17, when he participates in a gubernatorial debate hosted by his old alma mater at UNC. Dunafon can’t claim the support of a big party or well-funded backers in the race, but he does bring the force of his passionate ideas and a personality tailored for social media. His athletic appearance is currently helping him channel Dos Equis beer spokesman Jonathan Goldsmith in a YouTube campaign.
“This isn’t a personality race,” Dunafon said. But he admits, “It will be on TV.”
Dunafon has been mayor of the small but feisty city of Glendale, an enclave of Denver with a population under 5,000, since 2012. He served two terms as mayor pro tem prior to that, and has been involved in city government since 1998, when according to his own admission he “got pulled into it.”
That was when a city ordinance threatened to shutter the iconic Shotgun Willie’s, the strip club owned by his wife, by regulating things like light and tip pole use.
“I was angry at the cellular level,” he said. So he took action.
“Beautiful women, free beer tickets, voter registration cards; 31 days later there was an election scheduled – three councilmen are out and the ordinance is dead. That’s what got me into politics,” Dunafon reminisced.
Dunafon is passionate in his critique of the traditional political parties, dismissing the Republicans and Democrats as “big government.” His campaign literature labels him as culturally and fiscally conservative but socially progressive.
“I’m not a libertarian,” he says, preferring to call himself an “objectivist,” along the lines of writer Ayn Rand’s philosophy. “I was a libertarian for a short time. I found they agreed on 99 percent of everything, and then when it was time to take action they fought over the 1 percent… I think you’ll find that’s why they don’t lead much; you don’t find a lot of them leading.”
There are not a lot of third party politicians in charge, either, but Dunafon thinks that might be about to change. Polls indicating American voters would consider voting for a third party candidate usually ebb and flow according to the political climate and election season, but even in Colorado – a state that tends to nurture third party bids – voting behavior typically has not supported a third party win. Interestingly, Dunafon has picked up at least a few former campaign staffers from recent gubernatorial candidate Tom Tancredo, who also ran for governor as the standard bearer for the American Constitution Party in 2010.
Dunafon said he is aware of concern – and, on the other side, hope – that he might split the vote for 2014 GOP nominee Beauprez, though he noted that his rival has hefty monetary support from the Republican Governors Association among other outside groups. But the Colorado GOP say they welcome Dunafon’s entry into the race.
“With each passing day, it becomes more clear that Coloradans across the board do not want another four years of Gov. Hickenlooper’s failed leadership,” said Owen Loftus, communications director for the Colorado Republican Committee. “The fact that Mike joined the race further highlights this point.”
State Chairman Ryan Call, however, was a little more pronounced when he addressed Dunafon’s candidacy at the July 30 meeting of the Arapahoe County Republican Men’s Club.
“I like Mike Dunafon, I think he’s a fun guy. I have moral objections to the way he makes an income,” Call said about the Dunafons’ involvement with a strip club.
But as a mayor, Call acknowledged, Dunafon “has done some remarkable things. He created a little island of liberty in the midst of Denver, which is fantastic, but in our system of government in Colorado, the candidate who receives the most votes wins.
“Say that again, because some people seem to forget that. The candidate that receives the most votes wins, and so if you want someone to win, you need to vote for that person. If the candidate cannot win or is not going to win, then any votes cast for that candidate are simply a protest or a waste,” Call stated.
“If you want to protest, go stand on the street corner with a sign. If you want to elect a governor that can repeal the laws that are hurting Coloradans, if you want a governor that can lead this state, then vote for Bob Beauprez,” the state chairman emphasized.
Beauprez and Hickenlooper are statistically tied in recent polls. Dunafon’s name has yet to appear in official polling.
“I like them both,” Dunafon said of the two major party nominees. “I think John’s made some mistakes and I know Bob has. … I’ll know how well I’m doing by which group is attacking me. Hopefully it will be both of them.”
Dunafon thinks as governor, his real challenge would be “to change the philosophy of people on both sides of the aisle.” He’s not worried about making the jump from local government to statewide office, calling it a “myth” perpetuated by the two major parties that politics change according to scale.
As mayor, Dunafon cut the Glendale city government workforce by 40 percent, improved their bond rating from BB to AA-, and helped develop Glendale’s Infinity Park, a sports and entertainment venue that hosts Denver events and acts as unofficial home to the United States national rugby union team.
Dunafon particularly wants to apply the policy of de-legislation that he’s successfully used in his home turf. Much like Glendale, the state is probably breaking many of the unnecessary laws buried in their own codebook, he said.
“How many of these arcane laws are sitting on the books right now that are landmines for some smart developer or smart person that has the resources to destroy a small businessman?” he asked. Dunafon said he would use the legislative process to take these so-called “landmine laws” off the books.
Dunafon is also strongly pro-marijuana (he endorsed Amendment 64 and is the only Colorado mayor to do so) and pro-gay marriage (last year he officiated a same-sex marriage, even though they are not currently legal in the state). He would like to get drug offenders currently in state prisons out into work incentive programs. But ask him about other social issues like abortion, and he will say the parties spend too much time on them when they should be focused on economic issues like OPEC.
The unaffiliated candidate hopes to use social media, such as the “new pamphleteer,” to educate voters who don’t know who he is or why his stances on the issues don’t fit into party “groupthink.” The power of social media, after all, prompted him to join the race in the first place. Dunafon promised he would run for governor if he attracted 60,000 ‘likes’ on his Facebook page before he turned 60 in April. He got them, and he’s still counting. His unorthodox candidacy garnered the attention of national media and prominent supporters like Dana Loesch, a conservative talk radio show host who interviewed him on the Glenn Beck show in July. Meanwhile, his YouTube campaign – dreamed up by Patrick Guthrie, his media-savvy campaign manager and a former FOX Sports producer who Dunafon met in his previous rugby career – calls him “The Most Interesting Politician in the World.” The line is a paraphrase from a Dos Equis beer advertisement. In the clips, Dunafon explains some of his positions while holding a cigar.
As it turns out, though, Dunafon is not a big beer drinker. His favorite beverage is Big Red Blend, a wine mixed from several red varietals and billed as satisfying the craving for the bold and daring – not too dissimilar from Dunafon’s quest for higher public office this year.