InnerView with Colorado Democratic Party chair candidates Baca, Bowen and Palacio
The Colorado Statesman
The three candidates running for Colorado Democratic Party chair talk about the state of the party and what they have to offer in an in-depth interview with The Colorado Statesman. Two weeks before state Democrats pick new leadership, Polly Baca, Adam Bowen and Rick Palacio took stock of their campaigns and had a lot to say about the races that will be run in Colorado next year, when the state is considered a must-win for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign.
All three candidates got into the race last month after Pat Waak announced she wouldn’t seek an unprecedented fourth term as party chair. Democrats pick party officers on March 5 during a biennial reorganization meeting of the party central committee at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver. (That night, the party holds its annual Jefferson-Jackson Day fundraising dinner, this year featuring keynote speaker Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick.)
Baca is a former state senator from Thornton and now lives in Denver. She has held just about every position in Democratic politics except state chair, starting with an internship with the state party almost 50 years ago.
Colorado Democratic Party chair candidates Rick Palacio, left, Polly Baca and Adam Bowen stretch their legs after sitting for an InnerView in The Colorado Statesman office on Feb. 20.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
She served 16 years on the Democratic National Committee, including eight as a national vice chair. When she was elected to the General Assembly in the 1970s, she had the distinction of being the first Latina ever elected to both the Colorado House and the Colorado Senate. She lost a race for Congress in 1980 to Republican Hank Brown and has been an assistant to several Democratic presidents.
Bowen was chairman of the Larimer County Democratic Party for two terms until stepping down to mount an unsuccessful campaign for county commissioner last year. Originally from Northern California and the Midwest, he has said he was inspired to get heavily involved in politics by the Howard Dean campaign. He describes his bid for chair as “evolutionary, not revolutionary,” and points to his management and sales skills, as well as experience running a Democratic Party, as the qualities that set him apart. He has a business installing solar energy devices in Fort Collins.
Palacio works in Washington, D.C., currently but came up through the political ranks in Pueblo County, where his family has been a political force for decades. He ran an unsuccessful primary campaign for Pueblo County clerk and recorder in 2006, losing the election by two votes — a margin he says means he’ll never take a single vote for granted. He worked for House Majority Leader Alice Madden at the Colorado Capitol. He also worked both in the district and in the nation’s capital for U.S. Rep. John Salazar before landing a job with then-Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, where he continues to work. Palacio’s campaign for state chair has a slogan — he regularly refers to the “Three M’s,” which stands for message, money and motivation, three things he says he’ll emphasize if he gets the opportunity to lead the state party.
The candidates joined Statesman editor and publisher Jody Hope Strogoff and political reporter Ernest Luning for an hour-long interview at The Statesman offices on Feb. 20. Over the past two years, The Statesman regularly conducted interviews with Waak and her Republican counterpart, state GOP Chairman Dick Wadhams, most recently in late November and early December. Read those, along with more than a dozen others with prominent Colorado political figures, archived online at www.coloradostatesman.com/innerview.
Below is a transcript of the conversation with Baca, Bowen and Palacio. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Colorado Statesman (CS): How are the campaigns going? Are you all getting around the state, talking to central committee members?
CS: Polly, how about you, are you traveling much?
CS: And, Rick, what about yourself?
CS: Do you run into each other a lot?
CS: There’s a forum that you all are headed to after this. Are there any more between now and the central committee meeting?
CS: And do you feel that it’s adequate opportunity to meet with central committee members and talk to them?
CS: What are you finding are the issues that people are asking you about? Do they have a lot of concerns for the party?
(The White House and DNC got behind U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who had been appointed to the seat, in his primary against former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff. Baca was a co-chair of Romanoff’s campaign.)
CS: Do you find that people —
CS: Polly, is that part of the reason that you decided to run? You were talking about running even before Pat Waak had said she wasn’t. (Waak announced at the end of December that she wouldn’t seek a fourth term as state party chair.)
CS: But there are no major races — there’s no Senate race, there’s no governor’s race in 2012 —
CS: But in terms of the White House’s involvement in the races, I mean would you anticipate that they would —
CS: That was kind of a one shot deal?
CS: The party’s ready to move on from that or — ?
CS: OK. And is that still an issue?
So I think that there’s a big job for the next chair in ensuring that everyone that has an opinion has a place to express that opinion, because there is not a sense of unity. I think a majority of people out there are united in what we’re trying to do, but there is a vocal constituency that feels like they need to be heard.
CS: So it’s not the same as it was two years ago, fresh off the Obama victory and Mark Udall (the Democrat who won the Senate seat previously held by Republican Wayne Allard), things had gone very well for Democrats? Everyone was moving in pretty much the same direction two years ago?
CS: Do any of you feel that as chair you would discourage primaries?
I think the primaries are a fact of life and that we’ve all got to have, I think, a level of political maturity to deal with it, right? To deal with the fact that we’re going to have primaries and to understand that we’re on the same team, and we’re going to move forward together when those are done. But you know, the thought of making primaries go away or trying to reduce the number of primaries we have, I think helps to create the kind of situation we had in 2010.
CS: One of the things that Pat Waak has said to us is that she tried to vet, as best she could, some of the potential candidates who wanted to run for some of the major offices — governor, senator. What are your feelings about the role of the state chair in trying to discourage or encourage candidates to get into specific races, or to become candidates?
She had kind of a nuanced take on vetting — she said, “Well, we’ll look into folks’ backgrounds and we’ll have a good, hard discussion with them if they’re thinking about running for a statewide office or Congress.” And she might have some other opinions to offer to them. So it’s not kingmaking, but it’s getting involved in the process.
It’s really important that we field candidates everywhere. And some people are going to have personal reasons for not wanting to do it. Maybe they’ll think about it for a few months, then they’ll say, “You know what? I’m not up for this.” And so a good, vigorous candidate recruitment effort I think is important to start early with the state party. That’s something the state party needs to be doing now.
Polly Baca, standing, one of three candidates for state Democratic Party chair, speaks as fellow candidates Rick Palacio, left, and Adam Bowen look on Feb. 20 at the C.B. & Potts restaurant in Greenwood Village.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman
CS: What about weighing in about candidates you might think are not right for (a particular race)?
But I believe that because I ran, Gary Hart got elected that year. He won by less than 1 percent of the vote. But I know that I turned out people in Weld County and Larimer County and you know, even in the mountains, the mountain communities, I know that I did. And Grand Junction — (the 4th District) used to go over to Grand Junction.
So I took great pride in helping Gary get elected in 1980. And so I agree wholeheartedly. I think there’s some validity in taking a look at candidates, and if they’ve got some issues in their background, we need to sit and talk about that. I don’t see anything wrong with that. The key is to field the best candidate, but of course that’s why I support primaries. Because even though if somebody has some issues in their background, you need to let them know they’ll probably come out because, let’s face it, gosh, I’ve led such a public life there’s nothing I can do, still, without it ending up in the newspaper. And I know that, and anybody that gets involved with politics needs to know that—you no longer have a private life — you just don’t — even when you don’t think you’re going to be involved in politics any longer.
How many former elected officials do we still hear about that something happens, they do something, they get a ticket for something and it’s in the paper. And you no longer lead a (private) life once you become a candidate or an elected or even a party official. So you need to let folks know that, so they have no qualms about — I think it’s a matter of informing the candidates of what they’re facing. The fact that they will be scrutinized, everything that they do will be scrutinized. And they will live in a goldfish bowl from the moment they announce. So if there’s anything in their background, it’s going to come out so you might as well say it up front. The big issue for me was, quite frankly, that I married a priest — and I just dealt with it up front when I ran for office (laughs).
I think that, pointing back to some of the divisiveness, there are a lot of people that feel as though the will of Denver or the will of Washington is shoved down their throats, so what we don’t want is to vet candidates and the state party say, “No, this isn’t the guy,” and that be the guy for the local party.
CS: We’re going to do kind of a lightning round. This is a tip of the hat to (former 9News political reporter) Adam Schrager, who did these in all the debates last summer and fall. Can we go around and we’ll just have one- or two-word answers?
Since this could be an issue for the Republican chair candidates, we want to ask you. Have you ever donated money to Republican candidates or committees?
CS: Should the chair position be volunteer or salaried?
CS: Do you plan to work full time or will you keep your day job? Adam?
CS: Who do you hope wins the Republican Party chair race? Who would you like to have as a counterpart?
CS: OK. Rick, who do you think will win?
CS: (Directed to Baca and Bowen) Concentrating on your own race? (They nod.)
CS: Speaking of the Republicans, over the last few years (two-term Republican State Chairman) Dick Wadhams seems to have had a more direct role in Republican politics on a kind of day-to-day, micro level than Pat Waak did with Democrats. When a Republican legislator, you may remember, was “taken to the woodshed” for some things he’d said, he had to go and apologize to Dick Wadhams. And there was some gossip about a Republican legislator calling up Dick Wadhams during committee sessions, asking how to vote on bills. Pat Waak doesn’t seem to have had her fingers in the day-to-day politics to that same extent. What role should a party chair have, both in establishing and enforcing a “party line” in Colorado?
CS: Rick, you’ve said one of your Three Ms is messaging, and having a consistent message. Is that partly the party chair’s job to make sure that the party’s on the same page?
CS: This week Governor Hickenlooper’s taking a lot of fire from Democrats for some of the specific cuts, for the general tone of his budget. What would you inform him about? You’re talking to Democrats every day — what would you let him know if you were party chair?
For example in Fort Collins, the people have just voted in a 2010 election — it was pretty much a conservative leading election — people in the City of Fort Collins voted to increase city sales tax in order to preserve critical services — police, fire, that sort of thing. I think this is part of the process. I don’t know if we’re going to have these huge, huge cuts to K-12 education, but I do think by making this proposal I think that there’s going to be an increased awareness of the trouble we’re in on the budget, and also it really overlaps quite a bit with the ongoing fiscal crisis, the TABOR-created fiscal crisis that we’ve struggled to deal with for what, 19 years now?
CS: — and the loss of the (federal) stimulus funds this year makes it even more dire —
CS: Will that be a role for the Democrat Party?
CS: Is that the first step to actually tackling that?
CS: Rick, what would you tell Gov. Hickenloooper after this week?
CS: If you are elected state chair, is there anything you can think of at this point that you might do differently than Pat Waak has done for the last three terms?
I’ve talked a lot about the Wellstone Program that probably all of us have participated in over the years. We need to create an infrastructure such as that so that when we are out recruiting candidates in Durango or in Grand Junction, it’s not just, “Great, you’re vetted now go out and try to get elected.” (Instead,) we have something in place to teach candidates and their campaign volunteers how to raise money, how to put a press plan together, how to put a field program together, how to do field organizing. So I think that’s an improvement that can be made at the state party level.
CS: Do you feel that that’s been lacking under Pat Waak?
I’ve heard from people who have been candidates especially in districts that aren’t favorable to Dems, and those folks I think don’t feel like they’ve had support. And, you know, you’ve got to use your funding in areas where it’s going to make a difference — and that’s why there’s organizations like House Majority Project and the Democratic Senate Finance Committee. But I do think that some of those candidates that aren’t targeted by those organizations could use some additional support. For example, when I was chair in Larimer we sent candidates to Wellstone, and that was a priority we paid for, that they went to Wellstone. And of course we did trainings for activists, we engaged the students, we sent them to student conferences in D.C., that sort of thing. So all these I think are evolutionary changes from what Pat and the current team has done.
CS: We’ve heard some concerns about Organizing for America coming in next year with a very clear objective and maybe bigfooting the local Democrats —they’re not concerned whether there’s a county commissioner elected in some small county in Colorado, they want the vote turned out for Barack Obama. What are your thoughts on that and how do you plan to deal with any potential conflicts with OFA?
The Obama campaign is going to roll in like a freight train. They’re going to do their thing. I agree with Adam that we need to have an open line of communication, we need to encourage the Obama campaign to utilize our local activists to the best of their ability. To make sure that if they’re paying people to go out canvassing, going out and knocking on doors, that they’re not shipping people in. The people that they ship in, their heart is in the right place, but if you’re shipped in from Vermont and you’re dropped off in La Junta, and they ask you to go and cut turf and create neighborhoods to knock on doors in La Junta, you’re not going to be very good at it regardless of how good your intention is.
So we need to encourage the Obama campaign to utilize our county chairs where they’re able. If they’re going to pay people, they should start with our local activists to pay or to recruit. If they’ve exhausted all of those possibilities then move outwards. But I think that there’s a dual role — it’s communication with the Obama campaign, and then it’s the state party focusing on the down-ballot races, rebuilding our bench, and allowing those candidates to ride the coattails of Obama.
In particular, I think there was a lot of feeling at the local level that people who have always worked at the grass roots level were not utilized, especially in paid positions. I would want to encourage OFA that if they were to utilize — if they had funding — their best bet would be to utilize some of the local talent that we have as their campaign folks. I’d (also) like to share some activity that I saw in this past election that, quite frankly, was a waste of money and that we’ve got to be much more efficient with our money, regardless of who is putting the money in. Whether it is at the OFA level of whether it’s — well, we won’t have it this time, but senatorial campaigns, etc. — we’ve got to make sure that every dollar is spent in the most effective and efficient way possible. That can’t happen unless there is good communication between all the parties involved. And I want to make sure that we share the knowledge and the experience and the skills that we have here in Colorado with the national entities that have an interest in making sure Colorado stays Democratic.
CS: Polly, do you think they’ll be open to that?
CS: Could you each talk briefly about why you think you have the edge over the other two candidates? In other words why should people vote for you after hearing everybody speak?
I’m also fairly young — I’m 36. Colorado has a very young electorate. We have a very young electorate and we have a growing Latino population. I think that both of those things are favorable from my standpoint with me as chair. I have the ability to talk to people that are in both of those camps, they qualify. The checkmark is checked for both of those that perhaps my colleagues don’t have that same ability. So, it’s a combination of experience and where we are as a state, I think, that is really of benefit to my candidacy.
But I also have — since I left office, since I left elective office, I’ve been involved in leadership development and my passion has been to share the experience that I’ve had. And so I’ve mentored and I’ve actually developed leadership programs. When I was with the Hispanic Institute I ran a multicultural leadership program, out of which came several legislators. And then more recently I was involved in a candidate development and training program with the Colorado Latino Reform that produced, again, legislators. You know, we had three people from that leadership development program get elected to office and we also had several campaign managers that came out of that. And I was one of two people that put that together.
I’ve also mentored — I’ve been involved with mentoring young people, including people that have been involved in the various movements, no matter who they might be. Which is why I have so much support from the young. I’ve got both the current president of the Young Democrats and the former president of the Young Democrats supporting me. And I doubt that there are very many young people that I — I have even been asked by some legislators to help them in terms of the knowledge that I bring to the party.
But in addition to that I’ve also maintained the networks that I have at the local, state and national levels with individual big donors. I’m the Treasurer of Jared Polis’ Victory Fund, you know, I’m close to Rutt Bridges, he and I are good friends — I haven’t seen him in a while, we have to have lunch soon. And Al Yates, who I brought into the state; I was on the recruitment team that brought Al to Colorado State University. We had to twist his arm, but we got him here. And I know Tim Gill — and so those were the big four in 2004.
But in addition to that I also have very good friends who have given the big bucks to the party. But I don’t think it’s just about money. And, by the way, Rick works for (House Minority Whip) Steny Hoyer. Steny and I were Young Democrats together. Nancy Pelosi was on the DNC when I was Vice Chair of the Party and Tim Kaine and I, he knows who I am. I can’t say we’re friends but he’s certainly… And this past election, prior to the election I was on, and I still am on, all the White House calls. I’m on a call with the White House every two weeks, and I always get invited to the White House holiday parties. That was one of the places I was encouraged to run when I was back at the holiday party on December the 16th. One of the gentlemen in the political office had heard I might run and he sought me out and he encouraged me to do so. And after he did, then I paid more attention to those here at the local level who were encouraging me to do so because I can raise the money. And that money is needed. But I’ve done it in the past, I’ve raised money in the past so I’m not afraid of doing it.
I also want to take advantage of the new social media. I’m on Facebook, I’ve been on Facebook quite a while now and I tweet. (Laughs) And so you have to use the new media to — because this next election is going to be an opportunity for new social media to be used to a far greater degree than it has in the past, so I understand that. One of the things I bring to the party is an understanding of all the different things that happen both through — well, it’s through personal experience, you know, that I have that to offer. And it’s true that at times I’ve taken a year or so off to re-energize (laughs), but I’ve been pretty involved and have kept my relationships current for decades. And so I think I have a lot to offer.
Most important, I think, is the passion that I bring. I just feel passionate about the importance of electing Democrats and I get — I mean, every time I see the Republican messaging that has misinterpreted who we are, it gets me angry and it gets my juices going and I want to be in the fight together. I want to be out there doing what we need to do to win. And I bring public relations skills, had my own public relations firm for a while, was a public information officer at the White House. I’m a writer, put out a newspaper, you know, and I know how to develop messages. I’ve done that for candidates and I’ve done it for myself in terms of developing the kind of messages that win elections.
If you look at Howard Dean in 2004 when he was running for president, he really didn’t know anything about information technology or using the Internet as a fundraising tool or as a communication tool, but he had the right team. He was open to the ideas of — he had Joe Trippi managing his campaign, and they brought in tools that he as a candidate didn’t really know existed before. But he put those to work because he had the right management skills, basically — he knew when to recognize a valuable idea and how to get that into top gear and get some traction. So I think that’s how I differ from these folks and I really, really hope that we work together afterwards, because it’s going to take all of us to win these 2012 elections. But I think above all, to be the chair of the Democratic Party in this state is going to take some real management skill and a proven track record leading organizations, and that’s what I’ve got.
CS: Well, it seems that you’re all highly intelligent and have a lot of respect for each other, and I wouldn’t anticipate this is going to be an ugly, nasty race.
CS: Would you agree?