By Jody Hope Strogoff & Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Colorado Democratic Party Chairwoman Pat Waak takes stock after a tumultuous election season in a lengthy, in-depth discussion with The Colorado Statesman. In a year that saw massive Republican gains in the midterms nationwide — results Waak calls “sobering” — Colorado Democrats lost two congressional seats, two state offices and control of one chamber of the General Assembly.
But the party also kept the election’s two top races as voters picked Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper to be Colorado’s next governor and gave U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet a slim win over challenger Ken Buck. All things considered, Waak says, Colorado Democrats did better than Democrats did elsewhere, a result she credits to strong candidates and a ground operation “so much better than anything we’d ever done.”
Nearing the end of her third two-year term as party chair, Waak says she’s being urged to seek a fourth and plans to decide whether to run by the end of the year.
Waak says she had to have “the courage to be silent” when charges were being thrown around during state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff’s primary challenge to Bennet, which she termed “far more rancorous” than other recent primaries. Waak says the challenge made Bennet a stronger candidate but also delayed starting the party’s coordinated campaign for the fall election.
At several points in the interview, Waak takes issue with statements made by her Republican counterpart, state GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams, in his own interview with The Statesman two weeks earlier. She didn’t see any evidence of the Republican get-out-the-vote operation in key counties and disagrees with his contention the opposition out-organized Democrats on the ground.
Still, she conceded there were days this summer when she felt compassion — “up to a certain point” — for Wadhams when Tom Tancredo’s third-party run for governor looked like it was turning the state Republican Party upside down.
Waak also says — contrary to what Wadhams told The Statesman — that it is the party’s job to vet candidates. She describes the process she initiates when Democrats approach her about running, which includes conducting opposition research on her own potential candidates. It isn’t the same as pre-selecting candidates and foisting the choice of party insiders on voters, she says, but, rather, a form of “due diligence” that ultimately leaves the decision to run up to the potential candidate.
Waak joined Statesman editor and publisher Jody Hope Strogoff and political reporter Ernest Luning for an hour-long interview at the The Statesman offices on Dec. 1. Her last InnerViews with The Statesman were in February 2009 and this January at the start of the legislative session. Read those interviews, along with more than a dozen others with prominent Colorado political figures, archived at www.coloradostatesman.com/innerview.
The transcript of the conversation with Waak has been edited for length and clarity.
Colorado Statesman (CS): Well, it’s been a crazy year.
Pat Waak (PW): It has.
CS: Are you rested up and all?
PW: No, not really. We had an Association of State Democratic Chairs Meeting and a DNC Executive Committee Meeting, so I did take my husband to the rain forests in Puerto Rico before that. So…
CS: What was the mood in Washington?
PW: I think that, in general, it’s sobering. I think that for us we did pretty well, given everything else that was going on in the country. But for most of the states, they lost everything — their legislatures, their — I mean for example in New Hampshire — the Chairman of the Association of State Democratic Chairs is the chair in New Hampshire — and he lost both houses and typically, Democratic districts even and his congressional seats and only kept the governor’s seat. So it wasn’t like you have nothing, but it feels that way when there’s some really progressive legislation that had passed in New Hampshire and now there’s no veto that’s going to make a difference.
CS: (New Hamphsire Republicans have) veto proof majorities, in both houses now.
PW: Yeah, right.
CS: What a drastic swing.
PW: And I haven’t done the count. You know, I listen to everyone because I had a chance to talk to the White House while we were there — a representative of the White House — about things that we think need to be done to improve things in general. But in general, people… It’s not that they didn’t expect that it wasn’t going to be this sort of — hate the use of “the wave” because I don’t like to use the sort of spin vernacular that’s out there — but obviously this is an off year election for a president, you expect to lose some seats. And I think that people were fighting against that and hoped to do better than they did.
CS: How nervous were you about — I think we all kind of expected that John Hickenlooper would win the governor’s seat —
CS: But how nervous were you about the Senate race?
PW: I wasn’t. I always believed that we would win the Senate race. And I believed that because basically early on when I saw a wing of the Republican Party sort of take over the party, I know how hard it is then to bring things back to a centrist position, which is really what the state is. And so when I saw what was happening there, I was less worried about the Senate race. I was worried about some congressional seats, obviously, and I was worried about particularly the House, state House seats. I think I told one person I just had no feel for the other statewide races. I just couldn’t get a handle on what was going on.
CS: A lot of people said the same thing because — it was just kind of strange, there was really nothing to gauge them against.
PW: I think that one of the things is, we know as political strategists, is that people — the highest vote turnout we’ll have is during (a presidential) election cycle and obviously in 2008 we saw, from the caucus all the way through the election, a real different kind of atmosphere here. And one of our focuses is how do we keep those people involved through the off-year cycle. And we know that that’s always hard because there are so many people who only want to vote when there’s a presidential cycle. But then the fall-off as you go down the ballot, which is one of the very frustrating things for me, is that people don’t inform themselves or get as engaged in the down-ballot candidates, and so they don’t vote. And it’s particularly true in off-year elections.
So here you have an off-year election, you don’t have the size of the turnout that you’re going to have during a presidential year, and most people are going to go and they’re going to vote for governor and senator and maybe their congressman. And then after that it begins to fall off. And so we knew there was going to be some of that, but we had no measure of what the degree of it was going to be. And it varied from county to county. I’m beginning to sit down with different counties. I had breakfast yesterday morning with the chair of Larimer County and — look, John Kefalas won handily in a district that really should be a Republican district. Randy Fischer did the same thing. So there’s a lot of apples and oranges out there, which makes it hard to generalize.
CS: Were you not a little worried when Ken Buck was ahead in the polls nearly a month out?
PW: (Chuckles.) I never believed that he was ahead in the polls. One of the things that has been so frustrating — there are several things that have pinpointed for me in this campaign cycle, has been the type of polling that was being done, and the people who were doing the polling. You know, we tend to — both in the media and even among campaigns, depending on how the poll’s going — we’re always talking about, for example, Rasmussen, which is a Republican-leaning poll and in some states — we’ve had some intense discussions about this at the DNC and among the state chairs — some states, Rasmussen is all they have. And so you look at the methodology and if you are a real political strategist, you’re constantly looking at, “What is the methodology and what is the universe?”
In my household — I’ve said this before publicly — if somebody does one of these push-button polling at my house and my husband answers the phone, he puts the receiver down. If I happen to be there, he’ll say, “Do you want to answer this?” And more than likely I do because I want to know who’s calling, what kind of questions they’re asking, how are they framing the questions, to get a sense of what’s going on there. So it is a pre-selected group, in a sense. It’s who wants to participate in that polling. Secondly, most of these polls, if you look at the demographic spread on them, if you’re Rasmussen or Magellan, you’ve got more Republicans in the pool than you have Democrats. And one poll, I think it was one poll I saw in particular they had like 8 percent was unaffiliated. Well, that means 8 percent of the unaffiliateds selected themselves. They under-polled women and they under-polled minorities, diverse communities. So for me, I tended to look at, “Who’s the pollster? What kind of regime are they using?” And I sort of compared that to some of the tracking polls that were going on through the DSCC and through some of the private polling. And I never believed that Ken Buck was ahead.
CS: Even though it came down to less than a percentage point separating them.
PW: There is a less than a percentage point separating, but as I look at the numbers, if the Green Party hadn’t run a candidate, Michael Bennet probably would have picked up those, and the spread would have been wider. But the fact of the matter is that in the end, it was a fairly close election, but I really always felt that Michael Bennet was going to win that election.
CS: Do you think if Jane Norton had been the nominee it might have been closer?
CS: Or that Jane Norton may have run a better race than Ken Buck?
PW: You know, that’s hard to say. I think she was a very good candidate, and she was clearly more knowledgeable on the issues than Ken Buck was. So it could have changed it somewhat. I think that from my perspective, she didn’t run a very good campaign during the primary. And if that had continued to be the track that they went on, that would have been a problem. The Bennet campaign and the Coordinated Campaign — this is where my counterpart (state Republican Chairman Dick Wadhams) and I disagree — had one of the best ground campaigns that I’ve seen in years.
CS: Dick Wadhams would disagree.
PW: Yes, and I read his interview. In the counties I was watching, there was no presence by the Republican Party in those counties. For example Larimer County — they didn’t even see the Republicans around there. I just know that my worry was we had a late start. Prior to this, we have — when we did the Udall campaign, we actually started our Coordinated Campaign in the summer before the actual election cycle. We would have done that this time except that we had a primary and so we couldn’t start it then. So I was very nervous about the fact that our coordinated was starting so late. But, as it tuned out, we had a lot of people on the ground and I was looking daily, weekly, at the numbers of persuasion votes, how many people had been called, how many volunteers had been recruited, how many people had been knocking on doors, what the responses were. You know, it was really, to me, so much better than anything we’d ever done.
CS: In the primary Republicans had more voters. In the caucus, also, Republicans had more, which Dick Wadhams said pointed to more excitement among the Republicans. Question about the ground operation: If it was as good as you say, it seemed to have just helped Michael Bennet down the ticket. It didn’t seem to turn out folks inclined to vote for Democrats.
PW: First of all you have to look at the fall-off. And I don’t have the numbers in front of me but you start with… I mean more people came out and voted in the governor’s race than in any other race, that was the top race. And then it dropped off a little bit when you got to the Senate race and then it dropped off more when you got to the Secretary of State’s race. And then it dropped off more. That’s kind of typically what you see, is despite all of your urging of your block of voters to vote all the way down the ticket, unfortunately people didn’t do that. And so you begin to see the drop off and you begin to see some of the change.
To me, you know, as someone who lives in Weld County, and if you live outside in rural areas, unfortunately people just don’t get as excited about some of the statewide races. Unless it’s something that’s very locally attached to them, they just don’t have the — I mean, I’m surprised, actually, that as many people voted in the CU regent at-large race as did. That’s unusual.
CS: That’s one of the things that Mr. Wadhams says is evidence of their great Victory operation and ground operation, is that people like Walker Stapleton and Scott Gessler were able to attract (voters) — without running very significant statewide campaigns.
PW: Well, I don’t think anybody ran a significant statewide campaign outside of maybe the governor’s race.
CS: Cary Kennedy was on the air (with television commercials) …
PW: Well, she was out there doing things, but it still did not have the magnitude that any of the other campaigns did.
CS: To kind of penetrate the morass there?
PW: Yeah. You just don’t see that, and you know, I would say that I think that I would be reluctant to take a position. But that’s up to him — he can spin things the way he wants to.
CS: But that’s a real loss for the Democrats in Colorado — Cary Kennedy and Bernie Buescher — do you believe?
PW: Well, I think any seat that we lost. I think we lost some seats. I think that, though, when you look overall, we were told that we were going to be massacred, up until the last minute. At midnight on election night, we knew that Michael Bennet had won that race, but the TV stations were still running the wrong numbers and no one would call the race. I think that what we did with those races that we won is phenomenal, in light of what was happening around the country. But yes, we had some losses too and that’s — you know, we don’t have all the answers for that yet.
CS: When you were in D.C. and talking to other state party chairs and other Democratic folk, did they ask how you managed to keep the tide to a high tide instead of a wave in Colorado? Was it the personalities of John Hickenlooper and Michael Bennet, Ken Buck, that seem to have turned the key here?
PW: I don’t know that they asked those questions, although the DNC Chair called me right after the election to talk to me, which is very unusual, for him to just pick up the phone and call. But I think that everybody’s trying to do their own analysis of what happened in their own particular state. From my perspective — we had some really good candidates, and we stuck to our message and we kept doing what we have been doing for the last six years, which is building the party from the local level all the way up to the state. And so everybody was involved.
I just think in the end, the reason we can buck the tide, despite the fact that $40 million was spent in this Senate race — more than (in) any other state in the country — I think the reason we bucked the tide is because we had a good candidate who, quite frankly, because of the primary, was made into an even better candidate. And we had an excellent ground operation and we just had people who were out there working every single vote. It didn’t save the state House, but the fact of the matter is we only lost the majority by one seat, and that was with less than 200 votes. So I think all-in-all, what we learn from this is we still have to remember that politics is local and we have to work on every single race. The thing that disturbs me the most about this campaign cycle was the outside money that came in was spent in the state. Huge issue for me.
CS: What credit do you give to the extra-party infrastructure? Tom Tancredo is going around the last couple of days saying that that’s what made the difference for Democrats, and that Republicans need to do the same, is realize that the party is basically irrelevant these days, and that a kind of Colorado Democracy Alliance group is what it takes.
PW: I take a totally different approach on this. I don’t believe that state parties are obsolete, which started with Adam Schrager and Rob Witwer’s book. [Ed. note: The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care), a 2010 book co-written by 9News political reporter Adam Schrager and former state Rep. Rob Witwer, chronicled how well funded groups apart from the Democratic Party in Colorado helped Democrats win big at the polls since 2004.] I totally disagree with that. I think you have to look at what the function of the state party is.
First and foremost, we run — nobody gets on the ballot without running through a party. Even Tom Tancredo does not get on the ballot without running through a party of some kind. So we run that process, so you can’t run a — Democracy Alliance, no one, can do that but the state party.
Secondly, we’re the keepers of the voter file, which is probably the most important tool that any party has. We have a voter file right now that is five years old, almost six years old, that has every single ID in it for the last six years, on every single race. And so it is this incredible tool that you as a candidate — and they can only get that through the state party — can use. And it has all kinds of functionalities for mapping, and all kinds of things, and I think it’s going to come into play in re-districting a lot. We’re the keepers of that, because the people who are using it are the county chairs and the candidates and it’s not the Alliance, it’s not anybody else, it’s those people, and it’s the party people (who) are doing it.
And we are the messengers. It’s usually Dick Wadhams and me who are on TV or radio or are in the paper. And I did an enormous amount of writing this year for op ed pieces all over the state, a weekly column, Huffington Post blog, all these kinds of things, because in the end, all this gets translated through the party into what the message is. Now, we get criticized because we didn’t do as good of a job of messaging as maybe the other side did. And there’s a real debate out there about going negative or just telling the truth and all those kinds of things.
And then finally, I just think that ongoing infrastructure that is built on year after year after year that has a historical base, a historical knowledge of local communities and who the players are, is in the party itself. I don’t know what the Colorado Democracy Alliance does — I can’t know. I can’t legally coordinate with them in any way. I know only because I read what you write and other people write about what their function is. So for me, they play no role in the strategy that I’m going to form for my party and how we’re going to win elections. So what I hear, when I hear people like Tom Tancredo say things like that — it means that he doesn’t understand how the party politics work.
CS: Still, there’s what some have called the Colorado Model, turning Colorado from a solidly Republican state into — before this election — a solidly Democratic state. Do you notice the effects of those outside groups out there, or could you do it without them?
PW: I like the fact that they’re doing something out there because I’m assuming that what they’re doing is good. Every once in a while some of the messaging thing, we all shirk from because that’s not the way we would have done it. But the fact of the matter is the fact that someone is out there getting information to people and mobilizing groups and getting them to work together, which is, I assume, what they’re doing, is a good thing for democracy. So from that standpoint I think it’s great. It does not supplant what the political parties do. And that, I think, is a mistake, when you start to assume that they are the major force out there. They are a force that is really important.
But you know, Michael Bennet raised millions of dollars. One of the things that was, I thought, fascinating, watching someone who had never run politically before, was what a tremendous fundraiser he was. The calls that he made and the way he follows up with people. You know, in the end, his campaign was not funded by an outside group. His campaign was funded by the hard work he did as a fundraiser. Now, the outside groups can come in and do media and ad buys and things like that to add to that, but, fundamentally, that candidate’s got to be able to pull in that kind of support. And I think if you make the mistake of thinking you can let somebody else do it, there have been campaigns where I’ve seen that happen and it was just disastrous in the end.
CS: Is that a mistake that Ken Buck made? Bennet out-raised him by three or four to one…
PW: You know, I don’t think that — if you don’t raise your own money, you don’t have control over your message and your campaign. And you know, we could sit and talk about a lot of things that… I mean I went to one debate and I felt like that he was at a loss on some of the issues.
CS: Ken Buck?
PW: Ken Buck. You know, it was like he was kind of amazed at “how did I get here, what do I say now?” So I don’t think he was prepared for this grownup campaign, because he probably didn’t have enough money to bring the right consultants in around him, the right campaign staff, and didn’t concentrate enough on — I heard someone say he had not concentrated enough on a ground campaign until right at the end. And so that, to me, is kind of one of the stories that has to be told about this election, is that this is a man who got in the race, was getting out of the race because it looked like the Republicans had pre-picked someone, got pushed back in, obviously got promised lots of money from people in order to stay in. And that’s not kind of how you want to run a campaign.
CS: Do you think the ads against him, in the end especially, which focused on his opinions on women and women’s issues, were fair?
PW: Well, you know, I think that one of the best chunks of dollars that I spent in this whole campaign cycle was on trackers. Because the fact of the matter is nothing in those ads was untrue. He said all of the things that he said. And so this is the unfortunate part, when you get to be a candidate, you have to realize that everything you’ve ever done and everything you’ve ever said — and especially when you’re going through a primary process — is fodder for a campaign. At one point I was called names by someone whose name I won’t mention because I repeated something he’d said and he said I was a liar, he didn’t say that. And in fact, I had it on tape, I’d seen it. I’d seen the transcript, he had said it. So I think that if the other question you’re asking me is, did the women’s vote have some impact on this, I would say yes. But I thought from the beginning that the women’s vote would have an impact on this. Because women, as a force, if we can mobilize them to vote on issues and for candidates, tend to be a very, very strong force. And they cut across party lines — they’re unaffiliated, they’re Republicans, and on certain issues they will all come together around these issues that are important to us.
CS: When we did our interview with you in, I think it was February or March of 2009, we talked about Ken Buck and I’m just re-reading the interview, and you had said something like, “Oh, I would love Ken Buck to be the candidate, we have so much on him.” Back then, no one ever thought he would be the nominee. But did you feel like you knew a lot of his background back then that would be harmful to him?
PW: I live in Weld County, so obviously there — and some of those things didn’t even come out in the campaign. But I live in Weld County and there were people who were sending me anonymous letters because they didn’t want to be quoted (laughs), or there were incidents in the county where people were calling me up and I knew of some things that had happened. And it was like it was not my responsibility to bring those up. So, from my point of view, if people wanted to use those and bring those up, they could. But you know, there was a lot on the record with regard to things that he had done as the (Weld County district attorney) and even within the group of DAs, that people knew about him. So I think a couple of things came out, but a lot of things that I knew never came up.
CS: Did you have a feeling a year ago about the cloud he allegedly left the U.S. Attorney’s Office under?
PW: I didn’t know the specifics of that. I knew that some of the other attorneys had said there was something in his background. But I’d also heard stories about how he treated people, how he dealt with people and you know, I think that, to me, that matters. How you deal with people, your fairness and your ability to do the right thing. That comes out one way or the other.
CS: You say that some of the most cost-effective spending you did was for trackers — was that just in the Senate race or was that in the governor’s race too?
PW: We started out doing tracking in the governor’s race as well and then —
CS: Early last year, was that when the candidates were emerging?
PW: Yes, yes. Early last year we started doing — this is one thing that you always do, you always want people on the record so that you can come back later and say, “Now you’ve switched your position.” So we had done some tracking in the governor’s race as well, although I must admit that most of our early tracking was on Josh Penry and Scott McInnis.
CS: How much did you spend on tracking? Was that a big line in the budget?
PW: It was not a huge line, but it was a full-time person — I think we started at part-time, I take that back — and then his travel expenses and whatever it took for him to go to meetings. We had one tracker and he got — Jane Norton did not like him at all. It wasn’t just being outed, because they all know who they are.
CS: Didn’t she put a sign — didn’t she not allow him in?
PW: Yes. She got to the point that she wouldn’t allow him in. And he was treated very roughly by some of her people. And it was interesting because Ken Buck liked him and was inviting him into things.
CS: Was that the fellow that Ken Buck confided in about his feelings about some of the Tea Party folks, or was that a different tracker?
PW: No, that was a different one. So we finally decided that (the Norton tracker) was becoming an issue, which he shouldn’t have become. Because we all know who the trackers are on campaigns and we want to make sure everybody’s treated well and so we took him, we moved him somewhere else and we brought in a new tracker who was the one that Buck confided in.
CS: Are the trackers still involved with the party?
PW: No. These are usually young guys who would be working on some part of the campaign but they’ve been trained, and they go through a training and some kind of continual advice and oversight. We look at — they post transcripts and video and we look at them on a daily basis practically.
CS: And then make that available to the campaigns later, is that how that’s done?
PW: Yes, yeah.
CS: Did you have what you feel is good information from trackers on Jane Norton as well?
CS: You were prepared to run the same kind of campaign about something she’d said versus where the voters were?
PW: Exactly. And if you look back at some of the press releases that we put out and some of the things that we posted, we did have a lot on Jane Norton. Some of it was the standard thing: do away with the Department of Education, cut Social Security, do all these kinds of things. And so it wasn’t sort of different messaging and actually, what I heard was that Ken Buck loved the stuff that we were getting on Jane Norton, because he was seeing it too. And so yeah, it was pretty much the same for both. And we had things on Scott McInnis as well.
CS: In addition to what emerged.
PW: Yes, he took care of himself. We didn’t need much of the tracking on him.
CS: Did you have a tracker for Dan Maes early on?
PW: No. He was at some events where we actually took down what he said, but you know, like most people, I think that we assumed — especially after the insider group got in and sort of pre-selected who the Republican candidate was — was that Scott McInnis was going to be the candidate. Before that, we were watching Josh Penry just like everyone else was, and then we started singling in on Scott McInnis. And I did quite a few press releases but then it just was like a snowball going down a hill, no one had to do anything after that.
CS: Was it a surprise to you, the plagiarism charges? Did you first learn about them reading them in the Denver Post and on 7News, or had you known about that beforehand?
PW: I did, and there’s a little ironic piece to this. You can do whatever you want this — but I’m a former Peace Corps volunteer and I’m in the process of working on a project to take noted Peace Corps volunteers’ narratives about what happened to them for next year, because next year’s the 50th anniversary. So (laughs) one of the people who I was getting the narrative from was Supreme Court Justice Greg Hobbs. And I don’t really know Justice Hobbs, but we were communicating by e-mail and then all of a sudden all of these other things were happening. And I thought, “Oh, well I know who he is!” (laughs), so it was just sort of that ironic thing. And when that came out, look, I had been a published writer for years, myself, and I tend to write non-fiction and I tend to document heavily. So, to me, I knew instantly how serious this was. I, for example, couldn’t believe that anybody wouldn’t know how serious this would be.
Waak: I was stunned at how the Colorado GOP deconstructed
CS: Right. I mean it must have been, in a way, not comical but you must have followed the whole governor’s race on the Republican side with maybe a little bit of wonderment or awe or glee or — what were your feelings?
PW: Well, I don’t know whether you would say “glee,” because I am compassionate to some extent, so I sort of felt for what people might be going through. But I was stunned. To watch, from my perspective, a party deconstruct. A party deconstruct. And the way it was deconstructing was amazing to me. It was like it was totally out of control. And so, I guess, yeah, I probably stood around with my mouth open a little bit, saying, “Oh my God, what is happening here?” And that’s why I’ve often said — and I’ve said to Dick (Wadhams), when I’ve seen him — it’s like you get out of bed in the morning and say, “Okay, what’s going to happen today?” And all I can say is, thank God it’s not happening to me (laughs). But you kind of feel some compassion for the people that it’s happening to — up to a certain point. But I do think that it was just almost something that you couldn’t have scripted. You couldn’t have written a piece of fiction like this, it was just so bizarre every step of the way.
CS: Did Tom Tancredo’s entry into the race unnerve you at any point? Did you see it as, oh my goodness, now we do have a challenge to Hickenlooper?
PW: Once again, I never believed any of the polling that showed him getting closer and closer to Hickenlooper. I mean, look, one of the things that happened when Bill Ritter decided not to run again was, I had a list of 10 people that I went through and talked to individually. I knew as I went into that process that at least two of those people had polled really, really high in 2005 when we were talking about who was going to run in 2006 (for governor). So presuming that as a base and continuing to look at polling — and I know some of it’s name recognition — you knew that there were a couple of people on that list that were pretty popular. One of them took himself off the list almost immediately. And so that left the second one, who was John Hickenlooper.
But I went through every one of those 10 people and got down to three and it was very clear that John was the one who was really interested in running. He’s an amazing guy in so many ways because he does cut across party lines. There are a lot of people who are Republicans and unaffiliateds who like him a lot. And I think he did some very powerful, courageous things like refusing to run any negative ads, which I really like — I don’t like the negative ads. But, on the other hand, I thought clearly, Maes was always going to have trouble getting sort of a ground swell under him. And then the real question was, what was going to happen then. And then when Tancredo got in the race, I didn’t think he was going to win or even come close to winning, but I knew he would attract some people who were single-issue people. Particularly people who were opposed to immigration.
CS: Did he seem a little bit more moderate to you in terms of his mannerisms, and how he ran as a candidate than what you had thought of Tancredo? He seemed to be a little bit —
PW: Tempered is what I’d call it. Tempered.
CS: Tempered his rough edges, right?
PW: He was a bit tempered, although I still think he said some pretty outrageous things. But I think he was a bit more tempered. But one of the things — some of his radio interviews were just kind of off the wall, especially when he was with an interviewer who was a bit off the wall too. Look, the average voter doesn’t want to have the boat rocked too much. They might be — and this has been the interesting thing when we talk about the anger in the voting populous — if you talk to the angry people — which I talk to everybody — they usually can’t pinpoint one thing that they’re angry about. Mostly, they’re fearful. They’re uncomfortable and they’re anxious because the world is changing or some aspect of it is changing. And so I don’t think that putting out a candidate who tries to fuel this kind of anger is necessarily the best way to win an election.
CS: Speaking of the compassion you felt for the Republicans, Dan Maes came within what was it, about 10,000 votes of falling below the 10 percent threshold that would have consigned the GOP to minor party status. Dick Wadhams said, don’t worry, the Legislature will take care of that. Would you have supported that?
PW: No, I wouldn’t have supported that. In fact, Ron Tupa, the (Democratic former state senator from Boulder) who was one of the leads on that legislation in the first place, was basically sending me a lot of e-mails saying, “It was a bipartisan bill, this is why we did it, and we think that it still stands up to that measure.” So I would have felt like you should have — you stuck with what the Legislature passed. Obviously if I were the chairman of the Republican Party, I would be saying exactly the same thing.
CS: You mentioned — going back to the Senate race, for a second — that Michael Bennet in your view, was a better candidate because of the primary. On the other hand, was there some restlessness, do you think, among the Democratic ranks because supporters Andrew Romanoff hadn’t really gelled around Bennet? Or do you think there was some of that left over, some distaste from the primary?
PW: I think there always is, and that’s why, in general, I will say that as a state party chair — and I always get in trouble for saying this — I don’t like primaries. I don’t like primaries because I do think that some of — because in a primary, just like a general election, you tend to demonize the opponent. They may be really good people, but part of your objective of winning is to make the other guy look really, really bad. And so people, psychologically, carry that picture with them, so it makes it hard for them then to step back and say, “We’re all one.” That is why we did our big coming-together rally at the Capitol, was to give everybody a chance to come in together. And Andrew Romanoff did a great job of coming out there, talking about how important it was to support Michael Bennet.
But that was a pretty rancorous primary and far more rancorous than the ones that I’ve seen in the last few years. But look, let’s face it, there are still people who liked (2004 Democratic Senate candidate) Mike Miles better than (eventual nominee and winner) Ken Salazar. There are still people who liked Hillary Clinton better than Barack Obama. That’s what happens in primaries, is that we get into this sort of rancorous thing and then we’re supposed to, the next day, drop it all and walk in and — And so I think that from my perspective, is that many people who supported Andrew Romanoff, you know, put their boots back on, got out in the streets, knocked on doors, made the phone calls, did what happened. And there probably are a few who didn’t. They may have voted, they may not have voted, it’s hard for me to say because I still don’t have that breakdown yet. But the fact of the matter is the vast majority of them did what they — they supported the Democratic candidate because they knew what the alternative was. So, do you still have to mend those fences? Absolutely, and that’s part of the job of the state party chair, is to be constantly mending the fences. But I did take a lot more abuse over this primary than I had over others in the past few years. It was tough.
CS: Are the fences still needing some mending?
PW: I think in some little spots here and there, but as I talk to county chairs, they are bringing more of those people together. They brought them in for the general election and they’re going to continue to work to solidify that and consolidate that. And we do it every two years. I just talked to you about six years of having to bring people back together — we still bring those people back together.
Will decide by end of year whether to seek a fourth term as chair
CS: Speaking of which, when we did our last interview with you, we had the impression that you had stated pretty firmly that this was going to be your last term. And I think there is an impression out there that you somehow have that message. Now we’re hearing that you may be considering running for a fourth term. Can you comment on that?
PW: Most party chairs serve one term, and I agreed to serve a second term. And I was not intending to do a third term, and I got convinced that I needed to do that. And I was not intending to serve a fourth term, and basically I’m getting an enormous amount of pressure from county chairs, from elected officials, from political people to reconsider that. So I’m not saying one way or the other at this point. I’m trying to give myself a little space and time to really think through, quite frankly, what would be my best contribution in the next few years. And it could be as the state party chair, but I’m also looking at several other things. So I’ve made the decision not to make the decision quite yet.
CS: What kind of timeframe are you looking at?
PW: I would say no later than the end of the year because I think that if there are other people who are interested in running for chair, they need to declare that in January, which is what I did in January of 2005. So we’re going to have a State Executive Committee (meeting) coming up on December 11th — I’m not planning to make any big announcement there at this point. But I’m also talking to other people who might be interested in being chair. So the doors are wide open at this point. But the fundamental thing for me is, where can I be of best service?
CS: We have the presidential race, of course, coming up. No major statewide races. Are you up for another presidential race? You had great success with Obama — and the DNC, of course. Are you nervous that perhaps the time for Colorado to go Democrat for president again may be up?
PW: If you’re going into this on the basis of will I stay too long and everything will fall in around me, I try not to think in that direction because that could have been this year (laughs) for that matter. I believe that Colorado is going to be a targeted state, there’s no question about that. And clearly, at this recent meeting I was at — we had somebody from the White House — I did a fairly long presentation to him on behalf of some of the other chairs about some of the cooperation and collaboration that I’d like to see in the next two years with the state party from the White House and from the DNC. I followed that up with a memo and then other chairs have talked.
I think that I believe that there’s work to be done, but the work that needs to be done, as far as I’m concerned, is we’ve got to do a better job of telling Coloradans what’s being accomplished in Washington. I mean we have — the president has accomplished some major, major things and one of the things that we have not done a good enough job of is telling people not only what those major things are, but how it relates to their individual lives. And so I think that if we do that, Colorado will go for Barack Obama again, but it means that we have to work. We’re going into reorganization, we’ll have county parties that change over. Those people have to be retrained, we have to look at how Organizing for America has been working in our state and how we want it to work. We have to look at the structure within the party and see how it best services the state. I’m already beginning in these conversations with the county chair, basically where I began almost six years ago was what are the three things you need for the party? So we could refocus ourselves.
CS: Are you leaning in a direction that you might — is it 50-50 or do you think you might…?
PW: You know, Jody, I’m not doing percentages at this point. I mean I truly, truly am looking at — I’m talking to people about several different things out there and I’ve just got to work through those. That’s the way my life works.
CS: Can you share what some of your other options are?
PW: I can tell you generically, one of the things that I’ve been looking at for quite some time is, because of my theological background, I’ve been really looking at ethics in politics and trying to create some kind of national dialogue on ethics and politics. Everything from campaign finance reform to the whole issue about polling, to the way we communicate, to the kinds of people we’re running for office. That’s something that really appeals to me. I could do that as a chair and still write about it and put a compendium again, or I could do that in alliance with some other organizations. So that’s one of the things that I’ve been sort of playing around with. And there’s a few other things but I can’t talk about those as freely as I can talk about that.
CS: In terms of your role as state chair, one of the things that your Republican counterpart talks about is, it’s not his job to vet candidates.
PW: I disagree with that.
CS: Can you talk a little bit about that? How does that work?
PW: I have a different focus on that and that doesn’t mean that you’re always successful (laughs). But I have, actually, a process. If a candidate comes, if someone comes to me and says, “I want to run for public office,” and they usually have picked their office, I am amazed — and I’ve said this repeatedly from the beginning — the number of people who wake up one morning and decide they want to be a U.S. senator or a member of Congress.
And so, to me, the process first starts with intention, which is, you sit down and say, “Why? Why do you want to run for office? What is the passion that gets you up out of bed every morning?” Because you need to be running for the right reasons — because authenticity is important and for people out there to know that you’re really a serious candidate, they need to know that you are fueled by something that you care about deeply and they care about. And it also is that energy, because it’s a grueling process. It’s not just about getting your picture taken with the governor or the president or something, it is the process of lawmaking. So there’s that intention process.
The second is, what is there in your background that could possibly embarrass you? I was told years and years and years ago, “Go do opposition research on yourself.” Is there anything out there? And we do now, in the state party, do oppositions research on all of our candidates, as of a few years ago, because we ran into a problem with a candidate that we didn’t do that on. So we really look into people’s backgrounds for the most part and counsel them on that.
And then, “What is your network?” Who are the people who are going to be out there to support you when you do this? This is before you even get into the party process and build your constituency. But, do you belong to the PTA or the Rotary Club or you’re a former Peace Corps volunteer or any of these things? What are those pieces that are going to be the support system for you to begin to raise money, to build a campaign organization? What’s your history with the party? Because if you’re going to walk into even a vacancy committee and think that you’re going to be the nominee when the woman sitting next to you has been a precinct worker and a party officer and has paid their dues. And, have you ever done fundraising? Do you have any concept of what it’s like to raise money and what’s involved? What are the issues and where you stand?
So it’s a whole process you go through. And then I think the responsibility of the chair person, if it’s the chair who’s doing this, which I feel it should be, is to say, “You know, you’re a really great person but here’s my recommendation: Why don’t you start by running for city council, because you’ve got this network out here. Or why don’t you start by getting yourself known in your party by being a precinct chair or working at the precinct level and building your way up? Or why don’t you, instead of running for U.S. Senate, run for this House district because there’s nobody out there running for it?” Can you always convince everyone not to get in? In one congressional district one year, I talked six people out of running.
CS: Can you say which district that was?
PW: CD 6. We had six people who wanted to run, and in the end I recruited somebody else totally different. Not because they were bad people, it was just that there was some big block there. But then, I can remember with CD 7 when I had these conversations with Herb Rubenstein and Peggy Lamm and Perlmutter and they still ran. So you’re not always successful. But to me, the responsibility of the chair is to go through that process, because — and this gets down to a basic philosophy for me in Colorado — when I took this job, I knew that we were the bottom third of the registered voters. So the only way that we could win was by having the best candidates. So that’s where you begin — you’ve got to have that candidate that’s head and shoulders above everybody else. So you need to spend the time to recruit the right people to run. And I’ve actually run sessions with counties, multiple counties, on how they can identify people in their community and groom them and build the bench and bring them up to run for local or house district.
CS: So what you’re talking about is all the way from the Legislature up through (statewide races), or do you talk to potential legislative candidates too?
PW: Anybody — a lot of legislative candidates will come in and ask if they can meet with me and talk to me. Now a lot of those are vetted through the House Majority Project and the Democratic Senate Campaign Fund. But I’ve had many of them either go to them and then come to me or come to me and then I’d introduce them to them. So anybody who comes to me, but particularly when you start going up the ladder.
CS: Statewide and congressional offices you’re talking about?
PW: You know, there was somebody who wanted to run against Cary Kennedy when she first ran for the State Treasurer and we had a long conversation and finally convinced them that she was a much better qualified candidate.
CS: What do you do, though, if someone like Dan Maes comes along? How far back in someone’s background do you think it’s necessary to look? Do you think that Colorado Republicans should have known about some of his discrepancies in his resumé, or are there certain qualities or things in their background that automatically would disqualify (someone as a candidate)? Say if Dan Maes had been a Democrat, would (the party) have known about his background?
PW: Dan Maes or Scott McInnis, or Scott McInnis.
You know, I think that we would have. This is a governor’s race, you know? This is a huge thing. You owe it to the candidate themselves — and to the people who are going through the nomination process and the voters — to know either that this exists back there, and you may decide to run anyway, but what’s your response to this? Usually, my question is: “Do you know of anything in your background that can embarrass you? How do you explain that?” Because we all have things in our background that embarrass us and sometimes there are good explanations for it. But I do think that if you are going to put your party behind a candidate, that’s my opinion, that yes, you need to do that opposition research from your point of view.
CS: On yourself.
PW: Yeah — on yourself. And the party, once you get ready. Because look, if you have someone like that who wants to run anyway, there’s nothing you can do about that. They’re going to put themselves up for the public and say, “I’m running.” But if you can get them to disqualify themselves because — I won’t say who, but there was a candidate recently where I heard, I was starting to get rumors about. And so I had a closed-door meeting with them and said, “I’ve heard this,” and they began to tell me — I said, “I don’t want to know all that stuff. Just tell me if the answer was no, it was just rumors people started.” And then another rumor popped up, so I called back again, “No.” And so I knew that they were going to be honest enough that if there was any realm of truth, that they would be… Because I said, “Look, you have a wife, you have children, if this comes out it could be very embarrassing. There’s going to be scrutiny, no matter what.” You owe it to your candidates, you owe it to your party and you owe it to your voters to know as much as you can and to give them the best advice that you can politically about either how they’re going to deal with this or is this something big enough that it disqualifies you from running for office.
CS: By doing that, do you think that puts the state chair in a position of being the kingmaker — or queenmaker?
PW: I don’t. I think there’s a difference between you standing and saying, “This is going to be our candidate for the U.S. Senate or the governor,” and doing your due diligence as the leader of your party to make sure that whoever’s running has at least had the opportunity to face the kinds of charges that might come up against them, so they either disqualify themselves or don’t. That’s not a kingmaker, that’s doing your job.
I laughingly qualified recently that the job — somebody said, “What’s the job of state party chair?” And I said, “Fundraiser in chief, communicator in chief and counselor in chief.” That falls under the counselor in chief part of it. But the point is there’s a difference between saying, “I’m going to go in the back room with a bunch of people and decide who’s running for Senate or who’s running for governor,” versus you having a conversation with the candidates themselves and helping them think through the process of what they’re going to face down the road and whether it’s really, really in their best interests, or the voters’ best interests, for them to be running. That’s two different things. Do you understand that distinction?
CS: You had this conversation with all the major statewide candidates who were on the ballot this year, including those in primaries?
PW: Pretty much. Although the ones who were in primaries, pretty much I knew. I knew them well enough to know their background well enough to know what was there or not there. I have to say that one of the things that I learned during this last primary that was reinforced for me, as if I hadn’t already known it, was what I call the courage to be silent. Because sometimes when things were being thrown around, I actually had other facts and knew other things. But I felt like it was not my role to correct the record, except with them privately. That that was just not the role. I don’t go on radio shows and yell at candidates and things like that.
Waak: It was a real tough year for raising money for the state party
CS: How is the party financially?
PW: We’re in pretty good shape right now. We had a tough fundraising year this year. Very tough fundraising. We never went into debt, which was good, but I tell you, this was a slogger. Partially, I think, because the primary — I mean I got letters from people saying, “You’re not supporting Bennet so we’re not giving any money to the party” and “You’re not supporting Romanoff so we’re not giving money to the party.” But I just think that because of all the races and all the fundraising that was going on, we had some really tough months there. But we’re ending up with money to carry over into next year and I wasn’t sure we were going to be in that situation. So that’s good.
CS: Your counterpart said (in last month’s Statesman interview) that you served and represented the party in your own unique way — he said it as a compliment. Would you be able to return that compliment in terms of how you think Dick Wadhams did as state chair?
PW: Dick and I had very different styles and I probably could be critical of the way he did certain things. But I know that he works very hard and I feel some degree of compassion for him because I think that some of the criticism that has gone on, I’ve received also, and I’d like to say, for example, I don’t have a red telephone on my desk that has a direct line to the president that tells him what he can and cannot do in my state. I think Dick was in a similar position where he gets blamed for things that he really didn’t have any control over. But there are also some things that he did that I wouldn’t do, but that is the difference in style.
CS: Is there anything we didn’t ask you that you want to add?
PW: No, I think that if I look back on the things that I’ve been proudest of in this state, I think that this legacy in the last six years — and we don’t know what’s coming — but in the last six years, is first and foremost I think we have a much stronger party than we’ve ever had before. I’m really proud of the candidates that we’ve run for office and the work that they’ve done, the ones that didn’t get re-elected, I can agree with that because I think they served the party and the public really well. I just had lunch with Sarah Gagliardi today and I’m getting together with Debbie Benefield and Dianne Primavera. [Ed. note: Gagliardi, Benefield and Primavera are all northwest metro Democrats who lost state House seats in the November election.] Really, really good public servants and so it’s sad not to see them there.
We did attract the DNC for the convention. We got the DNC to look to the West, which they were not doing prior to that, and I think their investment in the West is going to continue to pay off. I think the fact that Colorado did what it did, and the kind of national atmosphere, is the miracle. Forget 2004, it’s the miracle that we did what we did. And I just think that that’s a lot to have at stake when the DNC Chair calls you and says, “You’re the bright spot on the map.” It means that they recognize the hard work that we’ve been doing and that’s great.
CS: Some of the Democrats who did lose in this last election — do you see a future in the party for them?
PW: That’s one of the things that I’m talking to some of them about. I’ve had a long conversation with — I’ve talked to Bernie (Buescher), I’ve talked to Cary (Kennedy) about what kind of their plans are. I’ve talked to Melissa Hart (who lost a run for CU regent at-large) who’s one of the bright, shining stars in the party. Talked to (attorney general candidate) Stan Garnett. I’m just really proud with the quality of the candidates this year, it’s just phenomenal. And as far as the House is concerned — I mean I hated to see Bruce Whitehead go, because I thought he was terrific — but as far as the House is concerned, we just lost some really good people — Joe Rice. So I know Joe already has plans but I’m sort of going through talking to them about what their plans are and making sure that we still have them involved in what we’re doing.
CS: What about John Salazar?
PW: You know, John Salazar — and I was saying this to staff again this morning — did so much for the state party. He was one of our biggest fundraisers and one of our biggest cheerleaders. And I’m actually going on December 19 to a luncheon that some of the counties down in the San Luis Valley are holding for him. I don’t know what John’s going to do — I left him a message, I haven’t had a chance to talk to him or Betsy (Markey) — but these are two phenomenal human beings that have made great contributions, so I want to find a way to keep them involved in some way in the party. And we just have to give ourselves some time to figure out what that looks like.