GOP Regent’s race goes rogue

‘Thuggish’ behavior, ‘mafia-style cover-up’ alleged in Republican primary contest
The Colorado Statesman

The Republican primary between Matt Arnold and Brian Davidson for the at-large CU Board of Regents nomination — the only statewide race on the Colorado ballot, other than the presidential contest — has mostly crept along below the radar this year.

But that all changed in the last week as a controversy erupted over whether Arnold misrepresented what kind of advanced diploma he earned two decades ago.

CU Board of Regents at-large candidates Matt Arnold, speaking, and Brian Davidson debate the issues at a Denver Metro Young Republicans candidates forum on May 24 at Hamburger Mary’s in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

That’s on top of a lingering squabble over an email sent by an Arnold supporter that GOP officials say wrongly suggested the Arapahoe County Republicans were taking sides in the race. And by Wednesday, Arnold had removed the home addresses of his primary opponent and three of Davidson’s key backers from his campaign website after getting a call from the cops.

Mark Davidson, whose brother Brian is a CU Board of Regents at-large candidate, greets Republicans along with former Owens administration official Drew Bolin and Josh Hursa, membership director for the Denver Metro Young Republicans, at a DMYR candidates forum on May 24.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Arnold contends that attempts to stoke the controversies amount to a desperate bid by the state GOP establishment to cling to power in the face of “motivated conservatives,” which he warns could dampen voter enthusiasm, jeopardizing Republican chances of carrying the crucial battleground state in the fall election.

CU Regent at-large candidate Brian Davidson, right, and his brother Mark, who is helping run his campaign, greet Young Republicans at a candidates forum on May 24 at Hamburger Mary’s in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

The race between Arnold and Davidson didn’t catch fire outside tight Republican circles until ballots went out last week for the all-mail election, which concludes on June 26 when the vote is counted.

The pugnacious Arnold, a captain in the Army Reserves, is best known as the head of Clear the Bench Colorado, an organization that sought to oust liberal Supreme Court judges and monitors what it terms “activist” judges in the state. He also made a bid for state GOP chair early last year.

At-large CU regent candidate Matt Arnold, right, and New Zealander Trevor Loudon, bestselling author of “Barack Obama and the Enemies Within,” share stories before a candidates debate on May 24 at Hamburger Mary’s in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Davidson, a physician and anesthesiologist at the University of Colorado Hospital, narrowly lost a bid for the same CU Regents seat in 2006 to Democrat Stephen Ludwig, who is seeking a second six-year term.

Mitch Whitus, president of the CU-Boulder College Republicans, and Ryan Massfeller, president of the Denver Metro Young Republicans, prepare to ask questions of the CU regent at-large candidates at a forum on May 24 at Hamburger Mary’s in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

His critics charge that Arnold has repeatedly lied about holding a master’s degree from the prestigious Johns Hopkins University when all he has is a graduate-level certificate, but Arnold says they’re splitting hairs over a “shorthand” phrase he’s used on occasion.

Denver Metro Young Republican officers Ryan Gonzales, the Jefferson County director, and Michelle
Massfeller, the DMYR social director, catch up at a candidates forum on May 24.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“It’s not like I was trying to hide my academic background,” he told The Colorado Statesman. “I made it very clear — I’ve got an advanced degree, it’s a graduate diploma, it’s not the same as a master’s degree. But some people are wrapped around that particular axle.”

Sarah Marie Arnold and CU Regent Sue Sharkey, who represents CD 4 on the board, visit at a forum for Republican at-large regent candidates on May 24 in Denver. Arnold’s husband, Matt, is running against Brian Davidson for the nomination.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

He said it’s a point he made at the state assembly in April, when “people pretty much yawned and voted for me,” handing him top line on the ballot with 54 percent of the delegate votes to Davidson’s 46 percent.

Denver County GOP chair Wendy Warner, Congressional District 1 candidate Danny Stroud and District 6 Republican captain Judy Krall mingle at the Denver Metro Young Republican candidates forum on May 24 in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Arnold earned a “Graduate Diploma in International Studies” from Johns Hopkins outpost the School of Advanced International Studies in Bologna, Italy, following a year of study toward a master’s degree in the 1991 school year, but shelved plans to complete the degree after moving back to the United States to work for the Pentagon.

Congressional District 1 candidate Richard Murphy talks to House District 1 candidate John Kidd before the CU regent at-large debate gets under way on May 24. Both are on the ballot for the June 26 primary election.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“I’ve apologized for not always being precise in my language describing my advanced, post-graduate education,” Arnold said. “But I don’t think the average voter really cares all that much. Obviously, some people in academia do care.”

That would include Davidson. In addition to his medical degree, Davidson has an executive MBA in healthcare administration from CU-Denver and a graduate certificate in healthcare quality and patient safety from Denver’s Regis University.

He said that Arnold’s loose distinction between a diploma and a degree absolutely should matter to voters, particularly because of the office he’s seeking.

“The issue at hand is the false, misleading degree,” Davidson told The Statesman. “Claiming it is potentially disqualifying for anyone who wants to sit on the higher education board. I think it’s very relevant to that.”

Still, Davidson says he plans to keep his campaign focused on cutting spending, containing costs and curbing rampant tuition increases at his alma mater.

“We’ve had our positive, active campaign mailing and messaging going out and this popped up the last week and a half or so, and, by the nature of what happened, we’ve responded to it,” he said.

It’s the same set of issues Arnold says he hopes voters consider, arguing that he offers a more clear alternative from the politicians who have left CU approaching a fiscal crisis.

“People are going to look at who amongst the candidates has a better vision for reforming higher-ed at CU,” he said, “and who is better able to articulate that vision.”

Arnold points to what he calls the student-loan “debt bubble,” warning that what amounts to more than a trillion dollars of unsecured debt “is likely to burst in the next six years unless something is done, unless some real reforms are made, unless we can really get at cutting some of this wasteful spending and focusing our scarce resources on providing the core mission of the university, which is to provide a quality education.”

The recent flare-ups, however, were enough to sway a few prominent supporters away from Arnold.

Former Senate President John Andrews, who heads the conservative Centennial Institute at Lakewood’s Colorado Christian University — and nominated Arnold at the state assembly — pulled his support and cast a ballot for Davidson late last week, although he told The Statesman that the dust-up over Arnold’s diploma was just icing on the cake.

Andrews, noting that he still counts Arnold as a friend with “significant potential for public office,” wrote on his blog on Friday that the candidate’s “erratic and evasive handling of the Arapahoe email fraud is a forfeiture of trust. We need a higher standard of judgment and probity in our elected officials than what he has demonstrated.”

The email controversy centered around a get-out-the-vote message sent to Arapahoe County Republicans two weeks ago by an Arnold supporter using an email address — “Captain Arapahoe” — still under Arnold’s control. GOP officials charged that the message improperly implied an endorsement by the county party and demanded a retraction. Arnold apologized, blaming an ardent volunteer and his own lack of oversight, but party officials didn’t buy it.

Although Andrews said that fallout from the email was enough to change his mind, subsequent revelations cemented his position.

“Since then we’ve seen Arnold unable to account for claiming a master’s degree that he never completed and scoffing at the whole notion of academic degrees, which is a very strange position to take if you want to be in charge of the state’s flagship university system,” Andrews said. “To me, it’s a disqualifying infraction on his part on top of the mafia-style cover-up of what really went on in the Arapahoe County email fraud.”

In addition, incumbent CU Regents Jim Geddes and Sue Sharkey withdrew their endorsements of Arnold over the weekend.

Arnold acknowledged that he was “disappointed that people made that switch,” laying blame on The Denver Post, which quoted him referring to “academic BS that no one cares about” when asked about the fracas over his diploma.

The article, he said, “distorted my views on the value of higher education a bit,” missing the point he was making about “the importance of the content and the substance of the education rather than focusing on the labels.”

Still, Arnold said he understands the pressure some Republicans have been under to support his opponent. The tug-of-war represents “a test of the Liberty movement in the state,” he said.

“It’s the last gasp of the old guard desperately clinging to perqs and power, versus the statewide insurgency of principled, largely young, but definitely motivated conservatives that want to make a difference,” he said.

“Really, it’s a fundamental split. You’ve got the status-quo guy, the establishment guy, the person with deep ties to the administration guy,” he said, referring to his opponent. “And then you’ve got the outsider, the occasional malapropism-prone but earnest guy, who is trying to make a difference, who is trying to push for much-needed reform in an area that it’s definitely needed.”

The stakes, he said, are high, especially this year when Colorado could determine the outcome of the presidential election, at least according to some swing-state projections.

“If the Liberty movement candidates are defeated by the machine, I think you’re going to see a lot of people staying at home and being discouraged and retreating out of politics,” he said, adding: “There’s a lot of important things happening this year, and we can’t afford to have machine politics translate from Chicago to Colorado.”

Davidson disputed the notion that his nomination might turn off conservative voters.

“People are excited about the fact that someone with an interest in the University of Colorado is part of their party is in this for the right reasons,” he said. Compared to the 2006 election, when Democrats made big gains at the polls in Colorado, he said Republicans seemed far more engaged this year.

“Republicans for the most part are very organized, they’re very energetic in their approach to this race,” he said.

Charges of harassment and “thuggish” behavior

The contentious primary took another turn on Tuesday night when Davidson supporters called the cops after Arnold posted their home addresses on his campaign website. The public display was an effort to push back against what Arnold termed “harassment tactics” against his own backers.

Charging that the Davidson camp had been subjecting Arnold supporters to “repeated harassing phone calls and e-mails” urging them to switch sides, Arnold removed the entire list of his own endorsements from his campaign website and replaced it with a message calling on the Davidson campaign to “cease their relentless haranguing of my supporters.”

The message from Arnold, charging Davidson supporters with the “worst sort of thuggish behavior,” was followed by the home addresses, phone numbers and email accounts for Davidson, along with his brother Mark, former CU Regent Norwood Robb, and political consultant Mike Ciletti, all fixtures of the Davidson campaign.

Arnold’s site included a notice urging his supporters to keep it cordial: “NOTE: when contacting anyone from the Davidson campaign — BE POLITE! Do NOT stoop to the level of harassment that our endorsers have been subjected to by their campaign. There is NEVER any excuse for threatening or abusive language or behavior.”

But Robb and his wife, Barbara, became alarmed when told their personal information was there for all to see, so he filed a complaint with the Arapahoe County sheriff’s office. According to a deputy’s report, Robb said he was concerned because “Matthew has been known for his irrational behavior when it comes to campaigning, such as throwing bricks through windows or having one of his supporters damage property.”

Although Arnold removed the street addresses after Sheriff Grayson Robinson called him about the complaint, he bristled at the suggestion that he was the one who had crossed a line.

“What Norwood said is absolute slander and libel,” Arnold said on Wednesday night. “I cannot believe they would stoop to such a level. That is absolutely outrageous.”

He said the 76-year-old Robb was among the Davidson supporters who had been waging a relentless campaign to flip his supporters, including sending a fusillade of emails.

“John Andrews has suggested that perhaps, due to the current controversy, this might be time for Matt to resign from this race,” reads one email sent by Robb — signed “Robby” — to an Arnold backer on Tuesday morning. “Matt could then position himself for a future leadership role in the party. Since you have an endorsement on Matt’s web page I respectfully request that you consider removing it and support Brian Davidson for CU Regent.”

On Wednesday night, after news broke that the sheriff had gotten involved, Arnold said it was the opposition that was dragging the campaign into the mud and working to inflame the headlines.

“He calls the cops, and somehow I’m the bad guy?” an incredulous Arnold asked. “There is apparently no depth to which these people will not stoop.”

Ciletti told The Statesman that Arnold’s allegation of “harassment” by the Davidson campaign was bunk.

“Nobody’s harassing anybody,” said Ciletti. “He’s simply trying to deflect from his lying about having a master’s degree.”

The consultant said Arnold was likely misinterpreting the usual free-spirited discussions that Republicans engage in during a primary.

“There’s probably some overzealous supporters and volunteers out there that go to a Republican breakfast and ask each other who they’re supporting,” he said with a chuckle. “Everybody gives everybody a hard time. But we’re going to leave no stone unturned until election day. Until the ballot's cast, you’re fair game.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com