Public service, not politics, on Ritter’s agenda

Governor reflects on family, medical marijuana, his future

By Ernest Luning
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

LAKEWOOD — As his four years as Colorado’s chief executive near an end, Gov. Bill Ritter said he’s become convinced global warming is the most serious public policy problem, and he plans to work toward solving it after he leaves office next month.

During an hour-long conversation on Dec. 3, Ritter told a group of Jefferson County high school students he plans to continue a lifetime of public service but added that he’s through with running for office because of the toll it takes on family privacy.

Gov. Bill Ritter reflects on his four years running the state with a group of students Dec. 3 at Long View High School in Lakewood. Ritter said his next job will probably involve tackling climate change, though he said he’s done with elective office.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Gov. Bill Ritter discusses education, state prisons and medical marijuana with a group of students at Jefferson County’s Long View High School in Lakewood on Dec. 3.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
Ritter spoke freely with the 50 students and teachers at Long View.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Ritter answered questions from students at Long View High School, an alternative school perched high on Green Mountain overlooking the metro area. Ritter has visited the school — with roughly 60 students, it’s the smallest comprehensive high school in the state — a half dozen times over the years since he was Denver’s district attorney.

“One of the things as governor I’ve become really convinced about is that climate change is a serious issue,” Ritter told a student who asked what he plans to do after Gov.-elect John Hickenlooper, a fellow Denver Democrat, is sworn into office in January.

“I think I’m going to do something that involves trying to keep making the case that we could produce energy in a clean way — not just Colorado, but the entire country — and that we should do what we can to have policies that support a clean-energy future. For you guys, because it’s going to matter a lot more to you than it will to me,” Ritter said.

“That’s the most definitive I’ve been when anybody’s asked me that question, what I’m going to do next,” he said.

Ritter spoke freely with the 50 students and teachers at Long View, answering questions about juvenile crime, nuclear power, whether he knows the Ritters who live in Strasburg (it’s his youngest brother’s family), and how his political career has affected his family. He also fielded all kinds of questions, suggestions and advice on medical marijuana.

Asked why he decided against seeking a second term — an announcement that took the state’s political world by surprise in January — Ritter repeated the reason he’s given all year.

“It was clear to me that governing had become the priority in my life and that other relationships were out of balance,” he said. He added that he had experienced appropriate balance in his life before — particularly when he was district attorney — but that running the state threw things too far out of whack.

“I just looked at my relationships and, seriously, said, I’m not paying as much attention as I should, as a father, as a husband, to these relationships. And that’s actually, in the long run, more important,” he said.

Ritter returned again and again to his upbringing on a farm in Arapahoe County — he was the sixth of 12 children raised by a single mother after their alcoholic father abandoned the brood — as a powerful influence on his life in public service.

Ritter said his early life, including a year his mother spent on food stamps and the difficulties faced by a severely developmentally disabled brother, shaped his conviction that government owes a duty to struggling citizens. “Informed by personal experience,” he said, “is that we have to do what we can to maintain the safety net.”

His relationship with his father, who left the family when Ritter was 13 and then later returned to live with Ritter after he finished law school, taught him other lessons, he said. “What it did was give me an understanding about substance abuse — the addiction, the fact it’s a disease, the way it impacts people’s lives in such serious ways,” he said. As a prosecutor, he started one of the country’s pioneering drug courts as “a way of trying to deal with the addiction and disease that’s not just about punishment.”

Ritter, who worked as a federal prosecutor in addition to stints enforcing the law in Denver, said working to reduce recidivism among state inmates was one of his top priorities as governor.

“For the last two years — for the first time in my lifetime — there are fewer people in prison than there were the year before,” he said. Part of the reduction is due to a falling crime rate, Ritter acknowledged, but he took credit for some of the drop due to mental health, education and vocational training policies directed at inmates.

He also lauded Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien for championing education policies that won’t bear fruit for more than a decade. The Ritter administration made a priority of putting money into helping 3- to 4-year-olds who are at risk of dropping out of school, Ritter said, though the results won’t be known until those children are adults.

“No one’s probably going to remember that we did that 14 years from now,” he said. “It’ll be some other governor and, if we’re successful, they’ll be heralding the success of doing that, but they’ll not hearken back” to the Ritter administration. “A lot of what you do as governor doesn’t have a record of success while you’re governor.”

It wasn’t until about half way through Ritter’s talk that the first medical marijuana question came, but once the topic was out there, it dominated the rest of the discussion.

Ritter told the students he was opposed to the constitutional amendment that established a right to use medical marijuana in Colorado. Not because marijuana doesn’t have medical uses, he said, but because the amendment didn’t provide for ways to obtain the drug legally and because the ballot measure made it too easy to get a medical marijuana card. Ritter noted that a high school football injury “that actually isn’t all that bad but would qualify as chronic pain” could get him a medical marijuana card.

Bills passed by the Legislature this year, Ritter said, now regulate dispensaries and physicians better. But he stands opposed to efforts to legalize the drug or relax restrictions on it.

“In my personal family, we have somebody with a really serious marijuana issue,” Ritter said. “So I’ve lived with that and seen sort of the ravages of an addiction. There are people who say, well, you can’t get addicted to marijuana, it’s a habit. That’s bullshit. You can get addicted to marijuana — it can be an addiction, it can kill ambition, it can make it difficult for you to stay in school, for you to be in relationships, a variety of things.”

Ritter said tax revenues from medical marijuana shouldn’t make it any more attractive to governments. He also batted back repeated comparisons from the students between marijuana and alcohol. “Just because alcohol itself is legal, do we legalize marijuana just because it’s less of an influence where violent crime is concerned?” The answer, he said, was no.

Finally, a student asked whether Ritter’s children wanted to go into politics. Not after the last four years, he said. “My kids didn’t have a lot of fun with me as the governor,” he admitted, not with the daily barrage against their father in the press. “That’s not a very pleasant thing when you’re the son or daughter of a person running for office,” he added.

Ritter concluded the visit with a reflection on his own future.

“As for me, I want to stay involved in public service, but that’s different than politics,” he said. “I won’t ever run for office again, because you put too much of your personal life on the line, you lose your privacy, you lose a sense of living in a way that families deserve to live.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com