InnerView with Josh Penry
By Jason Kosena and Jody Hope Strogoff
Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry is taking a unique approach toward winning the Republican primary for governor against former Congressman Scott McInnis and businessman Dan Maes.
Instead of approaching the state’s GOP faithful with rousing accolades for the Republican Party, the 33-year-old Grand Junction resident is taking a more critical approach to his party’s direction during the last 10 years and, not surprisingly, the people who were at its helm during the time.
In an extended Q&A with The Colorado Statesman last week, the first-term state senator continued his push to win his party over with the same message that won many voters over for the Democrats in 2008: It’s time for a change.
“(The GOP) has a brand problem. People recognize the Republicans as the party with failed policies and the bad choices that we’ve made over the last eight or 10 years,” Penry said during the interview, adding that McInnis is partly responsible for the party’s demise.
“(He) is going to have to explain his record. He’s going to have to explain his votes that added to the national debt,” he continued. “That’s not to say he didn’t do good things in Congress. But, on the fundamental staple of our party — which is fiscal responsibility — he was part of the Republican Congress that led our party, and, frankly, our country, astray.”
Unlike McInnis, who during a similar Q&A with The Statesman last month could not name one policy area where he agreed with Ritter, Penry was quick to compliment the governor on bipartisan education reform.
“We worked well on education, and when I am out on the campaign trail, I always point that out,” Penry said. “This goes back to sort of the Washington paradigm of campaigning versus the way people perceive politics. There are areas where we agree. And where we agree, we should work together.”
But, Penry was also quick to offer criticism of Ritter’s leadership and of the direction the state has gone since he became governor in 2006. Bad budgeting decisions, a misguided approach to oil and gas regulation, and an “indecisive” manner were among many critiques Penry offered.
“This governor has moved the state in the wrong direction,” Penry said. “He’s been weak and indecisive so often, and in the few instances where he has put his shoulder to the plough, he’s moved us in the wrong direction.”
When asked about criticism he received for failing to rope in members of his party who made comments seen by many to be callous and insensitive — including Sen. Dave Shultheis, R-Colorado Springs, who said the unborn children of mothers with HIV should live with the life-ending disease as punishment for their mothers’ promiscuity — Penry stood firm on his own leadership approach.
“I was very clear at the time that the Republicans as a party (must rid themselves) of the harsh judgmentalism,” Penry said, adding another jab at the GOP’s tendency to focus on social issues. “We shouldn’t be the modern-day equivalent of the biblical scribes and Pharisees — always wagging their fingers at other people and lecturing them about their imperfections ... I’m a social conservative, but I think the public’s had enough of us acting like we’re holier than thou. We’re just regular people, too, and I think we have to acknowledge that.”
The full transcript of The Statesman’s Q&A with Penry is printed below. The interview, conducted by Jason Kosena and Jody Strogoff at the The Statesman office has been edited for space and clarity.
Colorado Statesman (CS): The campaign season has started early, don’t you think?
Josh Penry (JP): It did. That’s the unfortunate reality of campaigns, one of the unintended consequences of campaign finance reform. When you’ve got to raise huge sums of money in small increments, you’ve got to get to work. But I also think people are chomping at the bit to get going and lay the foundation for our case next fall.
CS: Do you find that people are engaged yet? The election is, after all, more than a year away.
JP: They are engaged. In 2008, the Democrats hated George Bush and liked Barack Obama a lot more than we liked our ticket. The enthusiasm gap has very quickly dissipated. There is real energy, real enthusiasm, real excitement among mainline Republicans who are tired of losing and frustrated with the direction of the country.
A lot of the conversations when you go to the meetings are about the federal issues — taxes and fees, oil and gas. They want to talk about the budget.
CS: Do people in Denver ask you about oil and gas, or is something else bothering them?
JP: I think they’re broadly concerned about the economy. People are genuinely afraid and concerned, in the broader sense, (about) the direction of the country and the sustainability of what’s happened in both Denver and Washington.
People recognize we cannot continue on the “business as usual” model that’s attached to both parties over the last decade in order to continue to prosper and flourish in the long term. They’re concerned about that, but they’re also concerned about their own personal livelihoods.
Unemployment’s at a 65-year high. People who are working aren’t sure if they’ll be working tomorrow or next month or next year. The economy is the overarching issue.
Now, within the state, I think it manifests itself on a few issues: taxes and fees, the Senior Homestead Exemption — which senior citizens are furious about. Everybody’s mad about the car tax.
The oil and gas issue, interestingly, is an issue that people always want to talk about. I think part of it is residual from the $4 gas experience. People know we need more energy and more jobs, and they want to know why we’re pursuing a policy that limits both in Colorado.
So the umbrella issue is the economy, and I think there are a number of subsets of that issue where this governor has moved this state in the wrong direction. Oil and gas is one.
CS: Do you see Gov. Ritter much now that the session is over?
JP: I would characterize our relationship as friendly. And — I always say this on the campaign trail — while I strongly criticize his policy, he is a genuinely good guy. He’s a nice guy, and he cares about the state. That much shines through. And I think that to not acknowledge that is to undermine our credibility with people who know him.
We don’t have to hate a political opponent in order to make a strong case that he’s moved the state dramatically in the wrong direction. I saw him at the budget meeting, and I had a conversation in his office and an offline conversation before and after.
Our paths will cross, I’m sure, frequently in the next six to eight months — in the Legislature and on the campaign trail.
CS: Have you considered resigning your Senate seat?
JP: No. Because first of all, it’s not in my make up. I ran to serve in the Senate and had a tough primary, with real odds against me in one race, and I made a commitment. I want to finish it. So that’s one.
Two, when I decided to run for minority leader, before I decided to make that jump, I had a lot of people say, “Well, if you’re going to run for another office, don’t do it.”
And I said, “Well, OK. That’s good advice. I’ll consider it.”
But when I made the decision to run, I obviously made the decision to serve it out. So, two, I made a commitment to my caucus.
And three, there’s a lot at stake. This is going to be a really important legislative session, and I care about the details. I’m not a guy who just shows up and lets my staff handle the details. There’s a lot at stake in this session, and I want to use my seat, my position as leader of the Republicans, to try and move that agenda in a way that serves my values and the folks I represent.
CS: What did you think of Ritter’s solution to the budget that he announced last week? Do you think he went far enough? Do you think he could have found a different solution in terms of where he got money?
JP: First of all, (there’s) the broad acknowledgement that we have to reduce spending. He’s to be congratulated for finally figuring that out. When the economy’s in the tank, and your budget’s in the red, you have two choices — raise taxes or reduce spending. I think that a systematic strategy of reducing spending in a thoughtful, intelligent way — while not perfect, while not desirable — is (best).
I think a couple of his choices are curious — and, actually, bad public policy.
CS: Such as?
JP: The decision on the prisoners, to me, is just bad public policy. And I’ve talked to the attorney general. And yesterday I was meeting with a group that works for the Department of Corrections to make sure that when individuals are on parole, they have access to the services they need to make sure they don’t recidivate.
There is real concern about this, because they’re essentially going to push this huge new population of parolees out. Remember, these are individuals that his parole board — which, in my opinion, has been too lenient in its parole determinations — has already determined should not be paroled.
And, in spite of that, he’s saying, “Push them out the door anyway six months early.”
I think the system isn’t ready for them, because we already have this 50 percent recidivism rate. I think there will be crimes committed, and these people will very likely return to prison.
So I think that was bad public policy. He’s probably not going to save (any) money because the likelihood is, unless the infrastructure’s in place to help these people when they leave, they’re going to recidivate and be back in prison anyway.
It’s also bad social policy … if they’re out there committing crimes. Clearly, they don’t like the number of people that are incarcerated in the state — “they” being Democrats. They pushed these sentencing reform bills. I think they used this budget crisis as a pretext to push a lot more people out of prison to free up money to spend on other things.
I think it’s bad public policy, and it’s one that we’re going to continue to monitor very closely.
The other decision, closer to my home, was to close the (skilled-nursing facility at the Grand Junction) Regional Center. The unanimity of agreement is there should be some basic social safety net. The 32 individuals that are in this wing of this nursing facility are the hardest cases. These are people with extreme (developmental) disabilities. Only two of the 32 can actually communicate their needs.
There’s no plan to place these people. So you’re closing down, but the courts will never let you just push these folks onto the street. So I don’t actually think he’ll experience the savings.
Those two areas are issues where I think we’ll continue to push back. There are probably others, as well.
CS: I’ve heard that Grand Junction took it hard on this latest round of cuts. Some say that might have been a behind-the-scenes political punch or a message about Bernie Buescher. Your thoughts?
JP: I try not to assume bad faith, so I don’t. I won’t.
There is a fair issue about the Regional Center. There’s been a lot of talk about reorganizing it. I think we should, in a thoughtful, methodical way that saves the state money but also places some of these really difficult cases.
I don’t think (Ritter) is guilty of cynical politics. I think he’s guilty of “Ready, fire, aim.”
I mean, he said, “This isn’t very efficient. Let’s just lop off this division.” And it won’t work.
I think, broadly, he’s been very bad for the Western Slope. He’s extremely unpopular.
The energy sector is really hurting. There are a lot of people struggling. Our unemployment number continues to climb, and he owns a real share of the responsibility of that, in the mind’s eye of the public over there.
And — this is getting into politics — he had made real inroads over there. His policy was bad for Colorado on a policy level, but it was also horrible politics. This governor made tremendous inroads into Western Colorado. I can’t remember the exact number. You’d have to look. But I think (Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob) Beauprez and (Mesa County commissioner and Beauprez’s pick for lieutenant governor Janet) Rowland got something like low 50s in Mesa County in a year when all the rest of us were getting high 60s. He made real inroads.
He won Weld County. These are counties where he made substantial inroads. And he’s going to experience a huge backlash, because he talked about being a stubborn steward of the environment. He’s just been downright stubborn on these energy issues. And it’s going to cost him big time, because people are suffering for it.
CS: What cuts would you make that Ritter hasn’t made?
JP: I think (we did a good job) in the last General Assembly (by suggesting) hundreds of millions of dollars of cuts (that could be made) on a line item by line item basis.
This is an ongoing process within my office. We’re talking to the Legislative Council, and we’re going to have a fairly major announcement on this fairly soon. If you look at the cabinet level offices, the EDOs, the Executive Directors’ Offices, since 2006, the amount of growth that’s taken place in those offices is north of about $300 million, just on the general fund side.
(Ritter’s) office has grown by quantum leaps and bounds. That’s a big number.
Let’s just say you could wave a wand and say, “We’re going to go back to the ’06 level and save a couple of hundred million dollars on hiring assistant directors and deputy assistant directors and press officers and lobbyists, and (we’re going to put the savings) into higher education.”
That’s about what they need.
These are real numbers. So I reject the notion that Colorado is broke or bankrupt. There are people who wake up and they fixate on how we generate more revenue.
But the reality is, over the last three years, we’ve passed record-breaking budgets. We’ve incrementally grown a lot of the arms of government, the organizational chart itself. And now we don’t have money to spend on the priorities.
Rather than just kicking the most disabled among us out on to the streets in order to save $1 million, it seems to me we ought to look at the organizational chart of government first and identify some savings.
CS: Has there been anything that the governor has done since coming into office that you agree with or that you felt was good policy?
JP: Yes. We worked well together on education, and when I’m out on the campaign trail, I always point that out. This goes back to sort of the Washington paradigm of campaigning versus the way people perceive politics.
There are areas where we agree. And where we agree, we should work together. And if you look at my first year in the Legislature, right after Referendum A, the big water fight…. It was essentially an effort to say, “OK, let’s get beyond West Slope versus Front Range and see if we can solve problems together.”
I carried that bill and took some heat from both sides. And people were skeptical. Yet, I think there’s real evidence that it’s working. More needs to be done there, but it’s working.
On education issues, Rob Witwer and I were pushing our math and science graduation requirement very hard for a couple of years, and the governor was on a separate track. We picked up the phone and called Mary Kay Hogan over in the governor’s office and said, “Why don’t we work together? Let’s see if we can come together and work on this one.”
I think the package that ensued, while not as much as I would like ... was real progress.
And on education reform, I think on the charter school questions, he’s been a good partner. There will be local issues (such as the proposed closure of the) the Rifle Correctional Facility where I said, “That doesn’t make sense, for these reasons.” He has been responsive along some subset of issues. But I think saying that, first of all, is true.
Second of all, it doesn’t detract from the most important point — that this governor has just moved the state in the wrong direction. He’s been weak and indecisive so often, and in the few instances where he has put his shoulder to the plough, he’s moved us in the wrong direction.
CS: I want to ask you about you being “the new face of the GOP.” Maybe you don’t promote that image, but … certainly supporters of yours have. We asked Scott McInnis about this notion that it’s “his turn,” and he said that you had told him it was his turn. Could you respond to that direct comment from Scott that you, in fact, told him that it was his turn to run for governor?
JP: That’s not true. First of all, I’m not a child of privilege. I don’t think those words ever escaped my lips for anything, any job, any goal or aspiration. So, in the words of my friend Dan Caplis, that’s just crazy.
CS: To follow along on that, a lot of times in talking with the media and other supporters about issues that don’t necessarily relate directly to the governor’s race, you’ll say, “Hey, part of the problem with the Democrats is that they’re adopting Republican habits.”
CS: And if you believe that you haven’t participated in a lot of the mistakes made by the GOP, are you planning to use that to your advantage?
JP: First of all, I’ve been saying (that) for a long time. In the Legislature’s sort-of-new generation — and by new, it’s not even an age factor. There are a lot of new people who are 50- and 60-year-olds and older in the General Assembly who are frustrated by the baggage that we carry as Republicans from our failed stewardship over the last decade.
So, (it goes back) long before there was a governor’s race that (involved McInnis). Long before I even thought about running for governor.… We have a brand problem. People recognize the Republicans (as the party) with the failed policies and the bad choices that we’ve made over the last eight or 10 years.
Now, that doesn’t mean everything was bad. On the War on Terror, I think the Republicans were right in Washington and the fact that Barack Obama is refusing to live up to many of his campaign promises on the national security side of things, I think, is a defense of that. But on the core fiscal issues, on the domestic policies, I think we didn’t govern confidently.
George Will wrote an op ed in the run-up to the 2008 election, talked about how the Republicans had essentially ceded the mantle of competence just keeping the trains of government running on time. I just don’t think we did. So, I think part of what gives us credibility in November is to make the case in the General Election, to make the case among ourselves when speaking to Republicans, and so I will.
The congressman is going to have to explain his record. He’s going to have to explain his votes that added to the national debt. That’s not to say he didn’t do good things in Congress. But, on the fundamental staple of our party, which is fiscal responsibility, he was part of the Republican Congress that led our party and, frankly, our country, astray.
CS: One of the issues that Scott McInnis continually brought up when we talked to him was Piñon Canyon. He thinks that’s the issue that’s going to separate him from you and the governor. What are your feelings about that? Do you regret your decision?
JP: No, I don’t. First, let’s talk about his intervention into the issue in the 11th hour. Bill Ritter, over the last three years, has pushed a whole laundry list of policies that have been bad for the state of Colorado — unionizing state government, the oil and gas regulations, all the battery of taxes and fees, and on and on and on.
We know the list. Never once did the congressman weigh in, never once has he uttered a peep about any of those issues. And now, a couple of weeks before announcing — actually, after announcing privately that he’s running for governor — he weighs in on the Piñon Canyon issue. It’s transparent. It is what it is. It’s politics, and that’s fine. He’s able to do that, but he also has to defend his position. So I think people recognize it, sort of take it at face value.
To the merits of the issue, I think, frankly, part of the Republicans’ problem in Congress over the last decade is they’ve too quickly ceded core principles in order to get a tactical advantage in the short term. I think private property rights are pretty important, last time I checked, both to our country and to the Republican Party. Here’s my position: Fort Carson is important and private property rights are important, as well.
And I supported the bill last year because of fundamental on-the-ground concerns. Historically, the military has said they’re not going to condemn… They said in ’83 that they weren’t going to condemn land (in order to obtain it for their use. That they were going to participate only in) “willing seller, willing buyer” transactions.
That didn’t happen. About half of the current Piñon Canyon range down there was acquired through condemnation.
Flash forward to the debate today. The military does not publicize that they’re looking at the expansion. It sort of leaks out through documents getting out.
And now the military is saying, “Well, we’re not going to condemn this time, either.”
The folks in that community down there, by the way, who are Republicans, many of them, who are military veterans, who salute the flag and are frankly, people that are the cornerstone of our party, are saying, “Excuse us if we don’t take you at face value.”
So my position is this: Both of those are important. That’s why when I (met with the military in El Paso County, I said) “I think the military, in a binding way, needs to take condemnation off the table.”
Right now, it’s a verbal commitment. They’ve made that verbal commitment in the past. It was broken. They need to take it off the table through rule or through federal law. Then the transaction can go forward, and willing sellers and willing buyers can do their deal.
Here’s the concern with the bill this year. The State of Colorado sells a piece of state land in a willing-buyer, willing-seller transaction. The feds buy that land, then come in and condemn the private property around it. The concern is that these private transactions become a beachhead for condemnation. So they’re both important.
If the government is honest and candid in saying they don’t want condemnation, they ought to take it off the table in a legally enforceable, final way. Then, let these transactions, let the conversation go forward — willing buyer, willing seller.
The congressman said it’s not about private property rights. That is offensive to the people who were the subject of the condemnation in the early 1980s and to the people who have lived under the specter of it now. And I can’t wait to engage this debate. It’s not one that I’m going to shy away from at all.
I’ve already been at meetings with (McInnis) supporters — County Commissioner Sallie Clark, who’s his big support in El Paso County — a fine person, who, by the way, never testified on the bill. We never heard from the county commissioners on this bill.
It’s interesting, after the fact, that it’s become such an issue. But Sallie came and got after me in a public meeting, and I pushed back and I said, “Sallie, Fort Carson is important. But private property rights are important, too.”
I methodically walked through my position. On the way out the door, I had a bunch of people say, “I’m with you! Good for you! Thanks for standing up!” These are El Paso County Republican primary voters who understand the importance of private property rights.
CS: Scott is pushing Piñon Canyon as a jobs issue rather than a private property issue. He said, “Piñon Canyon’s is the first step to getting out of this economic recession in Colorado.” What’s your reaction to that?
JP: Fort Carson is important. It’s important from a jobs perspective. They are a major, major employer. But here’s the problem. The conversation’s at an impasse. You have folks coming in and throwing bombs in order to create political gain, and that’s only inflaming the other side more.
And, frankly, there are some on the other side who don’t want willing sellers to even be able to sell, which I don’t agree with. What you have is an impasse. And as long as that continues, the folks down in southeast Colorado are going to live under the specter of condemnation, and the military’s never going to get any expansion of Piñon Canyon.
So that’s a leadership vacuum. There has been no effort from any leader in the state to say, “OK. Enough. What does the military legitimately need?”
What do they legitimately need to move forward to meet the need? One, from a national security perspective. But to keep Fort Carson around and in Colorado.
Two, how do we do that in a way that’s consistent with things that are important, like private property rights? How do we make Fort Carson an active member of the southeastern Colorado community and not just the El Paso community?
In other words, getting beyond the press release approach to public policy that I think defines the congressman’s position thus far. Getting into the details and saying, “How do we figure this out?”
That’s what I have said to both sides of this debate.
It’s a leadership issue, an opportunity for somebody to say, “Here’s a way forward. Military, you take condemnation off the table. We know you don’t like to set the precedent. We know you don’t want to do it. But if you want this expansion to happen in any way, you’d better do it. Because if you don’t, it’ll continue to be an impasse.”
So he’s right that Fort Carson is important. But he’s wrong that we should steamroll a region and brush aside the philosophical importance of private property rights.
CS: We also asked him about the dynamics of you two running against each other. You worked for him in Washington. And when you became a state senator, you ran against Matt Smith, Scott’s brother-in-law. Did that plant any bad seeds? How easy or difficult will it be for you two to engage in this campaign?
JP: I’m happy to answer the question. I will say, before I answer it, that most people don’t care. I’m going to win this race because I’m the candidate that’s focused on ideas, and I plan to move the state forward. A guy who’s honest enough to say, “Our party blew it, and here’s a better way forward.” I think, at the end of the day, that’s a message that will sell.
But I think the intrigue question is legitimate. People want to know. It is peculiar to have two people from a small town like Grand Junction (run against each other for a statewide office).
My first job was working for Tillie Bishop, who is a real important person to me at the State Senate. Then, when I graduated from college. I worked for Scott for a couple of years. I enjoyed working for him and the opportunities and the issues we were able to work on together.
I came back, ran for the State House against a longtime party activist. Won. Decided to run for the State Senate. Scott thought that his brother-in-law was the person who had the experience to get the economy back (and) the will and the guts to move the economy forward. (They) ran essentially the identical campaign they’re running now.
My primary opponent in the Senate race was saying, “He’s not ready. He’s not ready. This race is about experience, experience, experience.”
The mantra is identical. And what I said was, “You’re right, Matt. You have punched the political clock longer than me, and, for that, you deserve a nod, because you’ve served well. But this isn’t a question of who’s punched the political clock the longest. It’s about who’s gotten things done and who’s got a vision to move the state forward.”
Scott was an active participant in Matt’s campaign. He raised money for him. At our nominating assembly, he went right for my jugular in a very direct way.
And we won, almost 70 to 30. Here’s why: At the end of the day, these offices don’t belong to people. And they certainly don’t belong to families. This isn’t Great Britain. We are not a monarchy. Those who have had power don’t get to bless those who come after.
These offices belong to the people, and they should be earned … I play sports, so I think it’s important to be gracious in victory and defeat. So after that, I called the congressman and said, “No hard feelings. Life goes on. We move forward.” So there was no residual there.
His decision to run is entirely his prerogative. I think it’s good for us to have a healthy debate within the party, but he’s not entitled to it. The entitlement thing is what’s gotten the Republican Party into the mess that it’s in.
(Saying,) “It’s my turn. I’ve been around longer, I’m the guy who scratched this guy’s back so therefore it’s time for me to have my back scratched on the threshold to the governor’s office.” That’s not how it works.
He’s entitled to go out and make his case. I’ll make mine and, ultimately, the Republican voters in the state of Colorado will decide who our nominee will be.
CS: Some people say you’re too ambitious and you’re too young to be serving in such an important role — that you moved from the State House to the State Senate too fast, that you approached leadership too quickly and that your age limits your wisdom. How do you respond to that?
JP: Well, if who’s punched the clock longest were the measure of who our nominees were, then history would have turned out very differently. Washington, D.C., would have been named after Strom Thurmond long ago. The reality is, you look at the people back in Washington now who are creating the mess that we’re in. Those are the people that have been in a really, really long time and have been diminished, contaminated by the length of their stay.
I noticed in your interview that the congressman takes a new position on term limits. I think term limits is a good idea. I think refreshing the system with new energy, new ideas, people who are can-do instead of sort of cynical — I think it’s a good and a healthy thing.
To the criticism, all I can point to is my record. When I ran for the House, I got things done in the House. It’s a real sacrifice to be 250 miles away from your family to make whatever we make — $30,000 a year. To miss and be away from your kids five nights a week for four and a half, five months out of the year.
I decided I wanted to run for the Senate because that’s where I can make the maximum impact. And I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish in the Senate.
I’m in this business for a reason — to move the dial, to move the agenda. I show up to work every day trying to get things done. And, of course, I want to be in a position where I can move the agenda in the strongest way.
On the issue of my age, you know, it’s been interesting thus far. When I decided to run, I tried to be methodical about my decision. So after the session, I went out and I talked to a lot of people.
I said, “What do you think?” And the age thing is a huge asset. People are intrigued. They’re excited about a new face, new leadership, new energy, new ideas. But, also, I’ve got to close the deal. Because they want to know that it’s about something.
As this race takes shape, I can’t wait for the contrast in the primary to unfold, because, for me, it is about something. We’re going to talk in real detail about what we do, what I do if I’m given the chance to serve.
I think that’s the best way to address those questions. They’re fair questions for people to ask, and I’m happy to answer them. Part of what you have to do when you’re running for these offices is answer those types of questions, and I’m going to do it by being the candidate who’s talking about the challenges the state faces and the solutions.
The last thing I would say is that (if the nay-sayers were in control) Bobby Jindal would not be a governor. David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative Party in Great Britain … (would not be) a few months away from being the leader of that nation.
If the arguments of who’s been around longest prevailed, neither of them — and many other leaders — never would have been elected in the first place.
CS: Have you enjoyed campaigning?
JP: I do, but that’s not why I do it. There are some people, I think, who love campaigning more than serving. I like accomplishing things, and I’m a policy guy, I’m a details guy.
But I enjoy people and we’re doing our best (to tap into the enthusiasm they have) and to give them something positive to be excited about.
The family thing has been fun, too. For the first six weeks of the campaign, the family was on the road with me a lot. And I just feel very fortunate. I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to go out there and make my case, to have a real chance to win this thing. I just feel very honored — and that’s how we’re approaching it.
The next three or four months are going to be a little tough because the family’s going to be in Grand Junction, and I’m going to be doing the back-and-forth thing.
But, as I said at the top, come January we’re going to pull up stakes and travel the state together. My parents are going to help babysit the 3-year-old, and the same with Jamie’s parents. This is about moving the state forward. But for us, personally, it’s an incredible opportunity. And that’s how we’re approaching it.
CS: You took some criticism this year primarily from Democrats when Senators Dave Schultheis and Scott Renfroe would say certain things that, to some people, were offensive and over the line. But you didn’t come out and say, “Hey, let’s be respectful here.” What’s your response to the criticism that you were a bad minority leader because you couldn’t rein in your people?
JP: Well, first of all, I was very clear at the time that the Republicans as a party (must rid itself of) the harsh judgmentalism. We shouldn’t be the modern-day equivalent of the biblical scribes and Pharisees — always wagging our fingers at other people and lecturing them about their imperfections.
I said at the time that I disagreed with their comments and their tone. I know there were some on my side who thought I went too far in saying I didn’t agree with it, and others on the other side who wanted to take a whack at me — which is what happens in politics.
I’m a social conservative, but I think the public’s had enough of us acting like we’re holier than thou. We’re just regular people, too, and I think we have to acknowledge that. You know, I co-sponsored the bill that gave rise to Dave’s comments. I’m a supporter of the bill. I think for the exact same reasons that I’m pro-life, I actually supported and co-sponsored that legislation.
CS: Do you think whether a candidate is pro-life or pro-choice is on the public’s mind?
JP: I think what the public values is authenticity. America’s essentially split on the issue. A recent poll showed slightly more people in America now identify themselves as pro-life than pro-choice. But, essentially, America’s divided about 50-50 on the issue. I think what the public values on a lot of these complicated moral questions is authenticity.
I’m pro-life. It’s not the reason I’m running. It’s not the primary driver of my candidacy. But I am pro-life.
But to answer your question, it doesn’t come up very much. I think the economy is what’s on people’s minds. People are worried and they are scared to death.
Republican primary voters are focused on fiscal issues right now. They see what’s happening in Washington and Denver and say, “This just can’t sustain itself.” So that’s where most of the energy and motion is being focused.
Inevitably, it’ll come up, because it’s an important issue to some people. I was in Carbondale, and actually had a person who raised her hand and said, “Republicans have got to stop being pro-life and be pro-choice.” I said, “Well, I respect your opinion. I’m pro-life. It’s not the reason I’m running.”
I’m going to be very consistent on what I believe, and I think people walk away and they say, “OK, at least I know where he stands.”
CS: How’s fundraising going? Do you anticipate being where you need to be at the end of the third quarter?
JP: We’re going to do well. I didn’t just jump into this thing. I wanted to be methodical. There are certain things that you have to have, that make sense for your family.
I know why I want the job. That part was quickly answered. (But it’s harder to answer the question) “Is it right for your family, and can you get the resources to drive the message?” And the answer is, we are doing well.
We feel very good about the response that we’ve gotten in an environment with campaign finance laws the way they are. A big donor — a billionaire — can give your campaign $1,050, and then you’ve got to go and find the next check. So it’s all about breadth of support, and that’s why I think we’re going to do very well over time, in terms of fundraising.
You can only call in so many political IOUs. At some point, you have to have a message that inspires a large number of people to give you money. And that’s why I think, in the long run, we’ll do very well and have the money we need. We’re going to have to.
In August or September of 2010, the president of the United States is going to land an airplane out at Denver International Airport. And while Democrats increasingly don’t like this governor and are frustrated with his leadership, they’ll show up and they’ll write their $1,050 checks because they’re going to want to hear Barack Obama give a speech. This governor will have the resources to run a strong campaign. We’re going to have to match him in order to win.
CS: How do you see the state moving out of its fiscal problem in the long run? Not just this current budget crunch, but the problems that are getting worse over time?
JP: There are two stages. You have triage — we’ve got to slog through tough times and make sure that the decisions we’re making today to balance the budget aren’t going to worsen our situation in a year or two. And that’s what this governor is so horrible on. The next governor of this state is going to inherit an unadulterated mess in the budget — a $1 billion structural spending gap in the budget where we’re funding permanent programs with nonpermanent dollars.
The governor seems eager to have a debate. There’s a lot of whispering in reporters’ ears, ‘ask him about the (federal) stimulus (package).’ He wants to debate the stimulus with me, and I can’t wait. I mean, what he’s used the stimulus money to do is push off tough choices today until tomorrow, when they’re going to be more difficult to manage.
So, to your question, we have to get through it by making tough decisions today. When things turned down, I called all the (former Gov. Bill) Owens people and some Democrats who went through the last budget cut and they said, “Do it sooner than later. Don’t wait! Don’t push off! Don’t use one-time gimmicks, because it only makes it harder.”
We need to reduce spending in the near term. I don’t think you raise taxes in a recession.
That’s our first priority. When the economy recovers, revenues recover too. But we need to have a thoughtful plan about where we’re going to spend money in this state. Over the last three years, we had a huge windfall of cash, and Colorado is still broke, according to some.
I honestly don’t believe it’s a revenue problem. It’s a spending problem, and so what we’re going to talk about is how, as the economy recovers, and revenues recover, this is how we will prioritize it.
Obviously we do have restrictions in the Constitution with Amendment 23. But a big piece of that expires, and so that’s less of an issue going forward than it has been in the near term. I do think there’s real flexibility within the budget to prioritize the areas that have been short changed. But in our campaign I’m going to talk about that.
I’m not just going to say, “Rah, rah, I’m for the economy. Rah, rah.
I’m going to go in and be a leader.”
(I’m going to say,) “Here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s how we’re going to balance the budget. And here’s how we’re going to spend revenues when they begin to recover.”
CS: What’s been the hardest part about campaigning for governor so far?
JP: It’s actually been fun. Inevitably both sides will turn (their) cannons. There’ll be some of that, and that’ll be a challenge. But it’s been really fun so far. I’ve enjoyed it. A lot of long days, a lot of windshield time. But that’s fun, too. If you didn’t enjoy it, if you didn’t really want the job, if you didn’t really have a passion to do something, I would highly recommend against doing it. But I do have a passion, so I’m having fun.
CS: On the subject of the oil and gas regulations, if you are elected governor, what could you do to reverse those? After all, they’ve been passed by the General Assembly after all those hearings. Could you do anything to change that? And could you change the perception of the oil and energy industries to signal that Colorado is open for business?
JP: Yes, just by saying that at the outset. To say that this barrage of negative policies that have come your way is over. We’re not turning over the keys to the kingdom. We’re going to drive a hard bargain. We want you to come and participate and pay your fair share and be a good partner and neighbor, which means, if you break environmental laws, if you contaminate water, for example, we’re going to fine you. But treat it like a business relationship in that respect.
So, one, send that signal.
Two, the rules themselves were established through a rule-making process. The Legislature blessed them as part of the Rule Review Bill. But they can be changed through the rule-making process. We’re going to talk (about) … a better way to do things, (about a way) to fix the mess that has been created (by a) rule.
The last thing is we need to be talking proactively about what we can do to encourage the demand for our resource.
A lot of focus has been on the rules. A lot of states are saying, “We’ve got natural gas and coal. What can we do to maximize this resource?”
I think we should be building combined-cycle natural gas plants all over the state of Colorado. Let’s enter into long-term agreements with these companies so they can have a built-in demand.
That will increase the demand, which will increase jobs, which will increase severance taxes. There needs to be a proactive side to an encouraging, thoughtful development, too. To answer your question really in a direct way, a governor could have real influence on that issue at the beginning, and, I think, very quickly.
CS: There was a recent article in the Pueblo Chieftain that quoted players in the (Colorado River) Compact committee saying, “This isn’t as effective as we originally hoped, and it may never be effective.” You’ve been a supporter of the Compact. What’s your reaction to those comments, and how do you think the state can move forward today with the knowledge it’s gained in the last four years?
JP: First of all, I support the concept of the state supporting community stakeholders to solve their water problems. The sort of top down approach that was embodied in Referendum A was rejected because it doesn’t work. For the same reason, Republicans don’t like the federal government imposing one-size-fits-all-solutions. I think, in a real way, that applies to Colorado — one.
Two, there is not enough urgency, and I said this in front of the Water Congress just last week. While the framework is a sound one, you need to be spurred to action. Enough glossy, bound reports, enough symposia, enough navel-gazing.
We have a huge water-storage deficit in this state. And if we don’t store more water, water providers will systematically buy out and dry up irrigated agriculture. If we value open space, if we value the agricultural economy in this state, we need water storage.
I think (we need a sense of) urgency, and folks at the top of that conversation saying, “Enough dithering! Get to work!”
Finally, it’s not just a Front Range issue, and this is the other thing I said to the Colorado Water Congress — the populations along the Colorado River Basin, according to most of the demographic analyses, are set to explode, to nearly double in a relatively short time horizon.
So if you’re on the Western Slope, you need more water storage. If you’re in southwestern Colorado, you need more water storage. And, of course, we know the Denver area and the Front Range communities need it, too. We all have a need for more storage.
What we’ve got to do is get busy figuring out how to do it. It’s another example of government just having dawdled. We’re living on the inheritance of Wayne Aspinall, who I’m a huge fan of. He’s probably my all-time favorite Democrat. Got stuff done. And his inheritance is sort of running out, and we need to pick up the mantle and solve the problem for ourselves and for the next 30 or 40 years by building additional storage.
CS: How do you make inroads with Democrats as well as Republicans?
JP: First of all, we’re going to speak to the traditional Republican places. Obviously, that’s the foundation when you’re running for a nomination. But we’re also going wherever people want to hear us. I spoke to a group of Pakistani business owners celebrating Pakistani Independence Day one Sunday, and had a great response. I talked about running the economy, education reform, energy and balancing the budget. And the message was resonant, and a lot of them said, “Republicans never come. Thanks for coming and taking our message.”
I think part of what we can’t do strategically as Republicans is just hole up and talk to ourselves. I’m taking my message wherever people will hear it, and (members of both parties will listen). Ronald Reagan proved it. Bill Owens proved it.
In my case, I had as many Democrats (vote for me) as Bernie Buescher had Republicans. I’ve had great Democratic support by focusing on those issues, so I think the issues are what the sell is.
That’s where ….the Republicans have blown it … People have a party brand. That doesn’t mean they always vote for Democrats. I think we need to reach out and make a concerted effort. I’ve already got a nice cadre of Democratic endorsements that we’ll be rolling out. We should not take any of those voters for granted, because I think Bill Ritter’s economic policy has been just as bad for them as it has been for independent and Republican voters.
CS: Have you thought about the role of
JP: First of all, I think the office is drastically underutilized. Here you have a person who presumably is a capable person. I think the current occupant is a very capable person. (But) we don’t give them anything to do. It’s a big state with lots of functions. I thought Hank Brown’s idea was a fantastic one. He said, “Let’s dump the office or give it something to do.” I’m in the camp for giving it something to do.
We’re going to pick a talented person who would be prepared to be governor for whatever reason if they had to be… But also, more importantly, (who) will help us govern and will help us lead. Who will help us prioritize and do the things we need to do to be a successful administration.
We’re obviously thinking about names. I’m not going to share names now. But we’re also thinking about what role we want them to play in government.
You have a Department of Local Affairs that hands out grants all across the State of Colorado with a whole upper level of management that costs a lot of money. Is that a function that should be folded? Or higher education, is that something that should be folded into the Lieutenant Governor’s Office? I want to make sure that we pick a good person and that the person can actually help us lead and govern and do the right thing.
CS: What is your position on the death penalty? Obviously Ritter said he would not take a position on that. Why do you think that became such a hotbed of controversy this year?
JP: I think it became symbolic of Democrats in the Legislature sort of losing all perspective. You look at these wild tangents — getting rid of the death penalty, abolishing the Electoral College, the In-State Tuition Bill, grocery bags. The list of bills (indicates) that (Democratic legislators) are drastically out of the mainstream of this state.
And I think people grabbed onto that one in particular. It’s not like we’re in Texas, where we’re executing people as often as the sun comes up. We have used it sparingly — twice in 40 years. And, still, there’s this sort of ideological drive to get rid of it just for the sake of it.
I think people gravitated towards it because it’s out of the mainstream of where people are. But I think it’s also what happened in the end. You know, we’ve got the Republicans on board, a handful of moderate Democrats who just said, “This is ridiculous.”
It points to why we need a Republican governor. You know, we’re pushing hard to take up ground, take back ground in the Legislature and the House and the Senate. And I’m confident we’ll make progress. We could win back the Chamber. At a minimum, we’re going to close the gap. One way or another, we need a backstop. If there’s a proposal to blow the caps on spending, it would have been nice to have a veto.
Death penalty, Electoral College, I mean all these names … I think a strong part of our case, you know, a proposal to blow the caps on medical malpractice liabilities, that’s at a time when health care costs are on people’s minds. They should know that Bill Ritter will sign that bill, and I’ll veto it.
I think we’re going to talk a lot about these wild tangents that the Democrats have gone on and say, “I’ll stop this. I’ll put an end to it.”
Alice Madden coined the phrase “Too extreme for Colorado.” They’re running right into that same bus, they’re missing the sweet spot of where the public is on these issues.
CS: Do you buy into the notion of a New Energy Economy, whether or not you like the governor’s approach?
JP: I think that renewable energy is important, and I’ve supported a number of the governor’s renewable energy policies. The public gets this. We need all of the above. And he’s been right to push wind and solar.
He’s been wrong to push this aggressive agenda against traditional fossil fuels. If I’m governor, I’m going to be an all-of-the-above energy guy. The New Energy Economy, though, has become a slogan. It’s not a policy. It’s a punchline. It’s not a program. It doesn’t mean anything when you strip it away.
And I think he’s always out there preaching his New Energy Economy and how great it’s been. He has a problem, and the problem is it doesn’t mesh with anybody’s reality. Unemployment is at a 65-year high. People are struggling right now. And if he wants to go and brag about how good his New Energy Economy has been for the state, I think he starts looking like George Bush the First, who didn’t know how much a gallon of milk costs. There’s a huge disconnect. So as a policy, pushing renewables is good. But we also need conventional, traditional sources of energy.
CS: Do you think that those two can mesh well?
JP: They have to. It’s an imperative — a national imperative that we have to produce energy wherever we can get it. This is another area where I’ve been critical of Republicans. Republicans usually say, “Renewable energy is important but…” And then they spend the next 10 minutes trashing renewable energy. (Laughs.) No. Renewable energy is important. Period.
At the same time, Roan Plateau’s important, so let’s go drill it. I mean drilling offshore, ANWR, that’s where public opinion is. The public is far more attuned to where we should be than I think the elected leaders. Republicans need to get off the anti-renewable gig. Democrats are going to have to recognize that we have to aggressively produce conventional sources of energy. I knew the debate had turned on energy when I saw Mark Udall standing on an oil derrick in the fall. He’s an astute politician.
CS: And he talked about nuclear as well.
JP: The devil is always in the details. He wants nuclear, but we can’t store it anywhere. Well, great. How are we going to have nuclear? And they’re for drilling, but I never actually hear where they’re for drilling. I always know where they don’t want to drill.
I think energy’s a great issue for Republicans if we articulate a balanced approach to it. And that’s why I’m proud of my record. I voted for a lot of the renewable energy policies. (Ritter) had a net metering bill that was stuck in the mud in the Legislature, and I helped broker a deal to make it more sensible and get it out because that was … I think that’s another area to your question earlier, have you worked with him? I think renewable energy’s important, and I’ve tried to support him in pursuing those policies.
CS: Next year’s going to be an important legislative year. Where do you see the biggest fights coming in between the two parties, and how do you hope to be a candidate for governor and be one of the leading voices of the party at the same time? How do you hope to broker that issue or those issues?
JP: Well, I think the big issue is going to be to reduce spending or to tax. The Democratic leadership in the Legislature has put a big bulls-eye on those tax credits. Their playbook is so predictable.
A (Terrance) Carroll e-mail, a Denver Post story, a Denver Post editorial and then a Democratic proposal. You could see the chain of events. (Laughs.) And to their credit, it’s been a system that has worked for them, and it’s not just Carroll but it’s a lot of those think tanks. They are clearly ramping up the dogs of war to go after those tax credits.
I think that’ll be the real debate — do they want to raise taxes on food in the middle of a great recession? Do they want to raise taxes on gasoline during the middle of a great recession? Do they want to increase taxes on manufacturing businesses in the middle of a great recession? Do they want to raise taxes on open space and agriculture production (through) the Conservation Easement Tax?
I don’t think we should. As I always say on the campaign trail, I went to Mesa State College. There are some in Grand Junction who think that Mesa State is an Ivy League school. I’m told that it’s not, but you don’t have to be an Ivy League economist to know the worst time to raise taxes is in the middle of a recession.
CS: So you’d be against conservation easement?
JP: When my friend, Mike May, proposed it, I said it was a bad idea. I don’t support it. And he and I have communicated on this issue, and it was covered, I think, in a number of newspapers.
First of all, it’s not a credit that benefits Boulder liberal environmentalists or the Sierra Club. This predominantly helps agriculture, farmers and ranchers stay on the land in a way that benefits important conservation principles. It is a market-based approach to environmental conservation that Republicans should embrace. It’s better than lock it up and throw away the key, which is what the other guys support. I’m pushing hard within our caucus. If they want to get rid of that program, let them do it. We shouldn’t, because it’s a program that historically has had some problems with some abuses, but Alice Madden, Jim Isgar and I have been the three strongest champions of it.
We fixed it. We’ve cut through some of the loopholes. And so we want to keep it. So, no, I don’t think we should do away with it.
The other ones I think are the same. I think the governor’s in for it. It’ll be an interesting test of his leadership, because he’s said no taxes and fees. But now he’s trying to parse it and saying, “Well, not this one.” He’s in for a dilemma of figuring out how to manage the folks within his own leadership and his own party. I think that will be the central debate within this coming General Assembly.
CS: Are you going to be fighting for reduced spending, leaving the tax credits where they’re at or, in a sense, trying to broker a solution?
JP: I think the solution should be reducing spending. If they want to increase taxes — (increase) the manufacturing tax on business by $100 million instead of $500 million and call it a compromise — I’m not going to support it and I’m going to tell the people of the state that that’s hurting business at a time we should be encouraging business.
It’s just bad policy. If there’s less money in our pocket, then these manufacturing companies are spending less. It means they’re hiring fewer people, which means the state’s collecting less in income and sales tax. It’s just bad economic policy to raise taxes in a recession.
We’re going to continue saying government needs to make tough choices, smart choices. We need to prioritize. We shouldn’t just swing open the floodgates or the prison doors or throw the developmentally disabled out on the street. Let’s make the tough choices but the right choices to bring the budget back.
CS: Would you comment on how you feel the governor has done in terms of his leadership skills?
JP: First of all, he is a nice guy. But he has been weak and indecisive. And, as I said, in the instances where he kind of has put his head down and pushed hard and showed some leadership, he’s moved the state in the wrong direction.
On the weak and indecisive side of things, this was a governor who, as recently as last December, when the whole world knew we were headed for a really painful recession, was still saying the budget was going to grow and that we could still grow programs and do these things. That, to me, is just an unwillingness to acknowledge basic reality.
On the death penalty, this is a guy who served as DA for whatever number of years, and he can’t articulate a position on whether or not we keep the death penalty? And those are just two examples.
During the tough times, the public and leaders in the political process value leadership. It’s when people stand up and say, “We’re moving and this is the direction we’re moving in. Here’s the reason we’re moving in that direction.”
This governor hasn’t done that. I want to make this a leadership race. I want to be the guy who’s saying, “We need to make the tough choices today for a better tomorrow. America’s greatness is defined by each succeeding generation doing the right thing, which is sometimes the tough thing that’s necessary for their country to grow and prosper and thrive in the long term.”
This governor hasn’t met that leadership test.
CS: How do you perceive press coverage in terms of the governor’s race, and just in general? Do you feel there’s a liberal bias?
JP: My dad is really a no-nonsense guy. He grew up in poverty in rural Alabama, went off to war, paid his way through college. A really successful guy, but he’s lived a tough life.
He’s hardened, and he did not tolerate whining. Don’t whine at the refs. Don’t whine at the umpires. They’re going to miss some. Deal with it and move forward.
That’s kind of how I view the press. First of all, they’re not always going to get it right. Life goes on. Move on. Make your case. And I’m also not afraid of the press.
I think part of a job of a leader is to communicate ideas and values and make the sale. And the press’s job is to be skeptics and to point to the weaknesses or perceived weaknesses in your argument. Part of leadership is responding forcefully in an even-tempered way and recognizing that it’s just part of your job.
So I’m not a cynic when it comes to the press. In terms of their coverage, obviously, they get it right some days and wrong some days. And if you spend all your time worrying, or, as my dad would say, “whining about it,” you never get anything accomplished.
CS: I didn’t mention Dan Maes. Is he a factor in this race?
JP: You know, Dan is a good guy who’s running for all the right reasons. He’s frustrated and wants to push back, so I welcome him. Whether he’s a factor, I think, remains to be seen. It’s 15 months out. He’s worked very hard. He and I are at a lot of events together, so I know he’s out there hustling. I’ve seen him a lot more on the campaign trail than I’ve run into the congressman. I think he’s doing it for the right reasons. And to the point I said earlier, he has every bit as much right to seek this nomination as any of us who have run for other offices before. And may the best man, in this case, win the primary. And then we’ll figure out how to beat Bill Ritter afterwards.