Jim Nicholson, well known in the state, was elected a national committeeman from Colorado to the Republican National Committee (RNC) in 1986. He became vice-chairman of the RNC in 1993, and four years later he was elected Chairman. Under his leadership, the Republican party began to rebound from the disastrous losses of 1996. In 2000, the Republican party won the presidency, a majority in the Congress, and a majority of governorships and state legislatures — a feat not accomplished in nearly fifty years.
During his four years as Chairman, the RNC also set all-time records for fund raising. During that time, Nicholson co-chaired the International Institute for Democracies, a worldwide organization of national political parties.
He was nominated by President George W. Bush to serve as Secretary of Veterans Affairs on Dec. 9, 2004, and was unanimously confirmed by the Senate. He was sworn into office on Feb. 1, 2005.
Prior to his nomination, Nicholson served as U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, a position he held since 2001, where he became a well-known advocate in Rome for the elevation of human dignity, giving special emphasis to human trafficking, religious freedom, starvation and bio-tech food, HIVAIDS, and international terrorism. He was knighted by Pope John Paul II in October 2003 for this work representing the U.S. to the Vatican.
During a holiday visit to Denver, Nicholson sat down with Jody Strogoff of The Colorado Statesman to talk about his recent activities. The interview was conducted in the lobby of the Brown Palace Hotel on Jan. 2.
Jim Nicholson, the former Secretary of Veterans Affairs, stands next to an original oil painting by portrait artist Laurel Stern Boeck. The official portrait was unveiled in late 2010. The piece depicts Secretary Nicholson with the view from his office window at Veterans Affairs with the White House in the background. The official portrait hangs in the VA headquarters.
Colorado Statesman (CS): What are you doing these days?
Jim Nicholson: We live in Mclean (Va.) and I work downtown in the Brownstein [Hyatt Farber Schreck law firm] Washington office. The law firm has offices in 13 cities, 12 of them are pretty much legal offices and there’s the Washington office. We represent people for the Congress, executive branch and regulatory agencies and all businesses. We represent a California water district, things like that. I’m senior counsel and I enjoy it. They take very good care of me and do interesting things, representing businesses dealing with the government. And it’s quite bipartisan and bicameral and a lot of interesting cases, issues. So I enjoy it. I’m only committed there half time.
I also serve on several corporate boards and I’m a co-chair of the national board for the Catholic Church. It’s called the Catholic Leadership Institute — leadership training to bishops and to priests. And it’s a very formal thing — the bishop has to commit to it, it’s got a fixed syllabus (over) a year and a half. It’s quite a commitment on their part. I co-chair that with the Cardinal of Boston, Cardinal O’Malley and we have a wonderful staff and I’m very pleased with the results of that.
CS: And what exactly does it do?
JN: Well, you know, priests, they get a great deal of education, a lot of philosophy and theology, but they don’t get any leadership training and most of them haven’t had that in their background. They end up in these positions of great responsibility. If you look around and see these parishes that have 5,000 or 6,000 families and a big K-8 school, 600 to 800 kids and it’s a lot of management. And they have a lot of employees and they haven’t been trained for that. So that’s what it is basically in a nutshell and they respond to it very well. It gives them, we think, more confidence in themselves, more self assurance. Everywhere that we go — now in over 60 dioceses around the United States — mass attendance has gone up, collections have gone up and vocations to the priesthood have gone up. Every diocese.
CS: And it’s done in Washington DC?
JN: No, the headquarters is in Philadelphia. And the other thing that would interest you — and this has been a real insistence of mine — is that they now also give them media communications training, because they haven’t had that either and they can’t escape it in today’s world. And so they need to know how to communicate.
CS: Do you bring in speakers?
JN: Oh yeah, yeah. And we have really, some of the best communications people that come and talk to them and they do practice sessions and stuff.
CS: And are you still in communication with the Vatican?
JN: I am, I am. And I get back there about twice a year and give the occasional speech or seminar. Just did that at Georgetown University a few weeks ago. Actually, it was the culminating event of the year of the centennial Ronald Reagan’s life.
CS: Are you involved in any political campaigns?
JN: I am committed to Romney and currently I’m co-chairing Veterans for Romney, but I plan to eventually help them with fundraising and help them with Catholics in the ways that I can.
CS: What’s your prediction for Iowa tomorrow? [This interview was conducted one day before the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus.]
JN: I think probably the top three will be Romney and Paul and Santorum.
CS: Did you think that (Rick) Santorum would catch on as he did?
JN: Well, we knew how hard he was working. I read yesterday in the paper where he’s had 395 town hall meetings in Iowa.
CS: That’s your old stomping ground, right?
JN: Yeah, I grew up there through high school. I just had lunch with two of my sisters and we were talking about the caucuses. And anybody can show up at a caucus and…
CS: Is it different from Colorado?
JN: I have a feeling it’s less formal in Iowa, that it’s just a neighborhood gathering. Whoever wants to come, and they talk a long time and people get up and advocate.
CS: Really kind of grass roots politics.
JN: Really. And then finally it’s time to wrap it up, now it’s time to indicate your preference and to keep a tally sheet, turn it in.
CS: So do you imagine that Romney will be the nominee when it all is said and done?
JN: I do.
CS: Do you think it’ll be contested or do you think that’ll be done before the convention?
JN: It’ll be decided before the convention. I would be surprised if it’s not done by the end of Super Tuesday.
CS: And do you pay attention to Colorado politics?
JN: Well, I try to, because I’m still a resident of Colorado and still vote here. But I can’t keep up with everything that goes on.
CS: You know we went through a somewhat crazy redistricting and reapportionment. The landscape has changed quite a bit.
JN: Yeah. I look at those districts and someone like (U.S. Rep. Mike) Coffman, he’s going to have a more challenging time.
CS: More than before. He’s a great campaigner.
JN: He’s a good campaigner. He is at it all the time. And he’s a very diligent guy and he’s really doing a good job in Congress.
CS: Do you think redistricting nationwide is going to change things, be helpful to Republicans or…?
JN: I think on a net basis we benefit some.
Jim Nicholson, a vice chairman of the RNC during the 1996 national convention, shows his support for the GOP ticket.
CS: Has the tone of the campaigns changed a lot since you were chairman? It seems like, well, from what they say about Iowa, that the negative ads were pretty incredible.
JN: My perspective is that of the 2000 elections… So you know, it’s now 10, 11 years old and things have changed. The biggest thing that has changed is as a result of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform, which was a big mistake and we’re seeing the proof of that now. What it manifests is that there are these super PACs… and they’re in there and they’re independent of the campaigns. So it’s a whole new huge and relevant dynamic. I fought McCain-Feingold for four years when I was party chairman, successfully, and then left and went to Italy.
CS: Do you think there’s always going to be some kind of way to game the system or find the loopholes?
JN: I used to go to the Senate policy lunches every Tuesday for four years. And about 50 percent of those we would have a discussion/argument about the merits of campaign finance reform. And it would usually end up being a discussion between John McCain and me. And what I said then, and I say now, and I used to say, “What is wrong with a system where you have two major parties whose role is to communicate to the people who they are and what they stand for? Inform the people, then try to turn them out and vote so that what they stand for becomes what the governance of the country is because you win the election. And every dollar in and every dollar out is reported.” And I used to say, “We could report it every day.” We only had to report it every month [then.] Actually, we only had to report every quarter but we reported every month at the RNC. The DNC only reported every quarter. It’s totally transparent and the technology supports that. And so everybody can see where people are getting their money and from whom and make their decisions accordingly. But I couldn’t convince Senator McCain of that because he just felt there was some sort of underlying corruption involved in the raising of this money. I would say to him over the four years (as RNC chairman) as my totals would go up to eventually $480 million, I said, “I never once had anybody ask me to do anything that was not only illegal or unethical, but even in any way unsavory.” Not once. And so what’s wrong with this system?
CS: As long as there’s full disclosure.
JN: Yeah. And you know, people say, “Well, they’re buying influences…” Well, if you lay it out there, people can tell who’s supporting whom and what their interests are and what they think they’re doing now and they can vote accordingly if they think that it’s all transparent. And through that they prevailed and through that byzantine system that infringed people’s freedom of expression, political expression, and it’s been nibbled away at, as you know, by the Supreme Court. And now there are these big loopholes that have matured into major avenues of funding for different…
CS: And you don’t know who’s behind it.
JN: Right, and the campaigns have no control over that. And it’s diminished the role of the parties. Diminished it, doesn’t make them irrelevant. They’re still very relevant in what continues to be a great two-party…
CS: At the national level or statewide or just in general?
JN: Well, nationally speaking mostly. Because they’re the major branding instrument for the parties and they still have an important role. Because they can raise money and coordinate with campaigns and they of course have to put on the convention and they have a chairman who’s this spokespersn. That way of thinking, that poll, each party has that and that’s an important dialogue ongoing, not just in campaign season.
CS: Do you think the conventions have changed much? It seems like they’re more a coronation, an opportunity to showcase the candidates versus actually selecting the candidates.
JN: That’s the main difference there. With rare exceptions, because there’s still the opportunity they will not select a candidate, will showcase who the system selects as a candidate in its various primaries. And there’s really no way to preempt that, you can’t get in a smoke filled room anymore and cook up the candidate. It’s about these primaries.
CS: What do you think of the fact that they’re so early and that everything seems to be so fast tracked these days?
JN: I think it’s unfortunate and I mean I’m on record for this. I tried to change it when I was chairman so that we would have four baskets of states… We’d have big states, little… east, west, north, south and by lot you would decide which basket goes first, say this cycle of 2012. And then the next time you had a lot and then they just rotate, I mean every four years it’s a different basket. And the candidates know about 25 percent of the country is diversified geographically and demographically and you know, it got pretty far up the flagpole and generated a lot of interest on the part of the Democrats as well.
But both Governor [George W.] Bush and Senator [Al] Gore at the end pulled back away from it and we couldn’t do it without them. And we can only change our rules at the convention. So I think it’s not a good system. I grew up in Iowa but why should a relatively small state have such a say in choosing who’s going to have the most important job in the world? I mean their argument used to be that well, it’s good for them to practice retail politics and that’s true. I mean that is a plus to it but you combine that with New Hampshire, the party respects those positions. And the combination really gives those two states quite a disproportionate relevance.
Now having said that, that’s what I think is wrong with the system. It was called the Delaware Plan for a while. But what has happened in this cycle is that these debates have affected the relevance of Iowa and New Hampshire, in that the debates have nationalized the primary more than has ever been done before. Because these debates have been very numerous and have really garnered a lot of audience. And so it’s sort of transcended how they’re playing in Iowa and New Hampshire, now they’re playing nationally. And the polls have been national polls.
CS: Not just Iowa.
JN: Right, so it’s been sort of a reverse English thing, in that it played back into Iowa. And I think that’s probably sort of an unintended consequence but I think it’s a positive thing because they’ve really ended up doing a lot more wholesale politics than the conventional retail.
CS: Gary Johnson, former Republican governor of New Mexico, just announced this last week his candidacy for president…
JN: The Libertarian Party, yeah.
CS: Do you see not so much a threat, but potential danger to the two-party system when you have all these other parties?
JN: Well, I don’t see it as a threat to the two-party system but I see it as a threat to Republicans being able to win the election.
CS: Because the Libertarian nominee might take from them.
JN: You know, if he can get two or three percent of the vote, that’s the Ralph Nader effect. It took its impact on Gore in 2000. In a close election that’s very relevant, so I worry about that.
CS: Do you think the GOP nominee is going to have a pretty tough race or how do you view it against Obama at this point?
JN: No, I think it’ll be a very close election and I think Obama’s going to be difficult to beat.
JN: For one, he’s an incumbent and very few incumbent Democrats have ever been beaten, and he’s going to be extremely well funded and he’s an adroit campaigner. So those are real advantages with the presidential megaphone. And the press, he’s got a friendly press, so that’s a lot of things going for somebody. But what he doesn’t have going for him is any kind of record of accomplishments and the economy is in terrible shape. And he hasn’t led on the biggest problem facing the American people, which is their economy and their outlook about their economy, about their personal financial situation and their future. I mean he’s just… You know, he came into office and he ran everything up to Mount Everest levels spending, a trillion and a half new deficit, and then has gone AWOL and has gone into campaign mode. And you know, you can say it’s clever that he himself is running against Washington and you know, deriding Republicans for not being part of the solutions that are needed.
But the solutions that are needed — and I think enough people are seeing this in the country and especially the independents who are going to be key to the election — that he has been a huge part of the problem and is not a very big part of the solution for the number one problem facing the country and is not leading on it. And so we have to be able to articulate that in our campaign and then we have a clinical example here in the United States to look to in order to see what happens if we continue on the path that we’re on, which is an unchecked deficit spending. And that is, southern Europe. I mean Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, these are not abstractions, these are real time things that are unfolding right before our very eyes and it’s the same pattern of spending beyond your means and not restraining your spending in your society. And we’re just out of control and he’s not advocating, not leading. Whoever the nominee is, it’s going to be both their responsibility and their opportunity, I think, to campaign on that and to really highlight it.
There are all kinds of other issues. On top of the demise of our economy they’re overlaying this whole new regulatory system which is punitive, at best, and wiping out industries, like coal fired electrical utilities. The EPA regulations, I mean the whole Dodd-Frank thing, and then Obamacare. And that stuff hasn’t really even hit yet because all the regulations are still in the promulgation. I was with a bunch of CEOs the other day in Washington and one of them was speaking with authority that said there are not more regulations in the pipeline than there are… that exist in the government.
And he cited an example of one piece of Dodd-Frank, and I think it was the Volcker Rule, you know, just one piece of that — so far there are around 300 pages of draft. The historical precedent for that is the Glass-Steagall Act that was later revoked. So the Volcker Rule is bringing that back, that says that banks can’t trade equities for their own account. Just that part is 300 pages, and that’s just a fraction of Dodd-Frank. That doesn’t speak to Obamacare. So there’s just this damping burden of governmental regulation on top of this economy that has been battered and then there’s no leadership trying to bring us out of this.
CS: Do you think John Boehner and the Republicans in Congress were correct in standing up to Obama the way they did? How do you view the Republican leadership in Congress?
JN: I think it’s good. I think Boehner has done an excellent job. He’s got a very difficult job, he’s got those new Tea Party freshmen that came there with a commitment to their constituencies and said, “We’re not going to do business as normal in Washington, it’s gone on far too long. Which is if we can’t agree, we’ll agree to both then. You’ll get your project and I’ll get mine and we’ll further indenture the government and keep going.” And they’ve said, “Enough of that already,” so that makes them a challenge for Boehner.
CS: You’re in D.C. Do you see a change in the way people perceive what’s going on there these days? Does it seem like the electorate in general is maybe angrier or less patient, or how would you categorize how things are going?
JN: Oh, I think the electorate’s very unhappy with the way thing are going in Washington. They’re unhappy with the president and they’re unhappy with the Congress. I mean the Congress’s approval ratings are single digit most of the time. And it’s sort of a pox on both of their houses because the people are upset and they want to see a path to relief of this and they’re not seeing it because the positions are so intransigent. And it really bottoms on basic stuff — are we really going to try to cut to size this government, the spending of this government, are we really going to rein it in or are we going to continue to borrow and print money to support these wanton ways of our past? And Republicans are pretty committed to the former, the Democrats to the latter and the people get very impatient because they see all the conflagration and not much what they see as progress.
CS: How do you keep people engaged in the system?
JN: The answer is the election. Republicans have got to have control of the Senate, the House to really make the changes that are necessary. We’ve got to make some fundamental adjustments. I don’t think they’re going to be too painful — if we do them we’re going to have to make some adjustments to our entitlement program, Medicare and Social Security to ensure their solvency, their future. We’ve got to rein in the whole attitude about spending, which is that everybody goes to the federal government to get help. It’s become habitual. The federal government’s out of money and they can’t just continue to do it. But to take care of the fundamentals first; you’ve got to have national security and you’ve got to make sure that the people that are eligible for the programs that are the law, you have to have the money there to take care of them. But a lot of the other stuff, we just can’t any longer afford for now.
CS: What’s your prediction? Do you think Obama will be defeated or…?
JN: I do, I do. I think Romney will be the nominee and I think he will win and he will win because he’ll be successful with the independent voters. Obama will hold his base real strong and we will, and the battle will be fought out.
CS: How does Romney attract independents? What’s the reason they would go with him?
JN: I think the economics. The deficit and the path to progress, improvement. And that’s his sweet spot; he’s a businessman, he’s a scholar at the Harvard Business School, he practiced it successfully in business… turned around a very big, complicated organization like the Olympics and then he got himself elected Governor of Massachusetts and did a solid job there and he talks about economics well. That’s going to be the big issue.
CS: You said you plan to, if he’s the nominee, raise money?
JN: I do.
CS: Is it for him or the party or…?
JN: Well, I’m helping Reince Priebus [current chairman of the RNC.]
CS: How do you think he’s doing?
JN: I think he’s doing very well. I think he’s smart, I think he’s working hard, he’s a good listener and he’s doing a darn good job.
CS: Do you ever see Michael Steele? [former RNC chairman who succeeded Nicholson.]
JN: I don’t. I see him on TV.
CS: Do you keep in touch with a lot of people back in Washington?
JN: I try to. I host a lunch every quarter for Priebus at the office [for] the past national chairmen. Every quarter and it’s been very useful to him, I think, and for us because he’s told us ways we can be helpful and people can help him.
CS: Has the RNC changed much, do you think, since you were there?
JN: You know, the big change is in technology. Much more reliance on new technology, which I need to do.
CS: Are you up to date? Do you tweet or do any of that kind of stuff?
JN: Do I what?
CS: Do you tweet or… are you on Twitter?
JN: No, I don’t. I do a lot of e-mail.
CS: But it [technology] has changed dramatically, hasn’t it?
JN: It has. And the blogging and… You do that?
CS: Somewhat, yes. Do your kids do much of it or…?
JN: Yeah, they… Well I don’t know if they’re tweeting… but they text me. I communicate a lot on e-mail. It’s efficient. It’s cheap.
CS: Do you ever run into our two senators back there?
JN: I do. I see them occasionally. They come over to the firm once in a while.
CS: What’s your impression of Michael Bennet?
JN: Well, I don’t know him real well but he seems to be very intelligent to me, and I think a nice guy. But you know, the problem is not with those individuals, it’s with the caucus. What they want, what they stand for is very different than what we do and it’s difficult for me to see how people like that who are intelligent and probably love this country as much as I do can watch what’s going on in Europe …and they’re so intelligent, they can see the similarities… but not be worried about what we’re doing to our country if we don’t stop it, change it.
CS: What are your plans for the future?
JN: Well, my plans are to improve my golf game.
CS: You’re playing a lot of golf?
JN: No (laughs). I keep wanting to but I haven’t been able to say no yet very well. It’s probably not going to be this year.
CS: Is there anything else we haven’t touched on?
JN: No, I think we’ve covered it pretty well. You can put me down for predicting that we will also take back the Senate. I think it’s going to be a long, tough campaign, but in the end we’ll win the presidency and hold on to the House and win the Senate. The winds will start to turn this big battleship around.
CS: Well, it should be an interesting election.
JN: Boy, I’ll say. It’s going to be fascinating, it’s going to be brutal. But it’s so important that we’ve got to get everybody engaged that cares.