Innerview: Bill Owens
By Jody Hope Strogoff
Bill Owens, Colorado’s 40th governor, officially left office at the beginning of 2007 after term limits prohibited him from running for a third term. But the popular Republican officeholder, who defeated his last Democratic opponent, Rollie Heath, by the greatest majority in Colorado history, still remains in the spotlight.
In fact, even though Owens says he is very content working in the private sector as a principal with land development firm JF Companies and as vice chairman of RBS Capital for the Royal Bank of Scotland, he is typically mentioned as a potential candidate for office again, most usually in the context of the upcoming 2010 U.S. Senate race in Colorado.
In a free wheeling interview recently with The Colorado Statesman, Owens — once proclaimed ‘America’s Best Governor’ by National Review — dashed all speculation that he’ll return to the political arena as a candidate. But he did acknowledge that there is one position he’d clearly like to have down the road... See pages 6-7.
Colorado Statesman (CS): What are your political plans for the future?
Bill Owens (BO): I’m not going to run for anything.
BO: Seriously. This is what everybody wonders.
Am I burned out? No. Loved it. Thought it was great.
I wasn’t embittered, left with pretty good numbers, know I did a good job. But I just don’t want to do it anymore.
People can’t believe that.
I was talking to Governor (George) Pataki of New York, and he’d been governor 12 years. He said, “Everybody thinks I still want to do it, and I don’t.”
I mean, when I see the blizzards come in or the forest fires, I think, “Boy! Am I glad I don’t have to get on the helicopter today!”
CS: If there hadn’t been term limits, would you have run again?
BO: I don’t know what the answer is, because I would have been a strong candidate for my party. And, obviously, I know that if the other party wins, some of what I’ve worked for is going to go away.
But I think that everybody probably has a limit. John Love was elected to 12 years and left in his 10th year to be federal energy czar. Dick Lamm — he’s a close friend of mine — was elected for 12 years, but at about the 10th year, it seemed like he started to do national stuff.
And, then, Governor (Roy) Romer. What did he do in his 10th year? He became chairman of the DNC — something that I turned down in my party in my seventh year.
And, so, I think that you’re not burned out after eight years. But when you do that ninth State of the State, the ninth budget, when the 10th one comes around, you’ve probably decided you’re not going to run for another term. You’re not as motivated in terms of, “I’ve got to do this to win.” Around year 10 is the natural limit, probably, for being a governor effectively.
Would I have been as excited running for a third term as I was for the first?
And would I have been as excited about doing a third inauguration?
Some time I’ll ask Dick if my theory holds, whether he agrees that the three governors ahead of me all seemed, around their 10th year, to start to focus on other stuff.
CS: So would you have run?
BO: Maybe. Though I’m glad I wasn’t forced to have that choice — because, financially, it’s such a huge challenge.
It’s not fair to keep legislative and executive salaries where we do. We’re losing our best people. And I know a lot of good people who just can’t afford to run. And it would have been a huge impediment to me to make $80,000 for another four years.
The governor hasn’t had a pay raise in 10 years because you can’t raise it while you’re in office.
And I tried to raise it…
It’s where I disagree with (Democrat and former Speaker of the Colorado House) Andrew Romanoff. I went to Andrew in my last year and said, “I will push a bill to raise salaries for the next governor.”
And they were a new majority. And he and (Democrat and former Senate President) Joan (Fitz-Gerald) wouldn’t.
I said, “I’ll take the flak. All you have to do is make sure you have enough votes to pass it.”
Now Bill Ritter is stuck at $90,000 for his next two years. And they’re not going to be able to raise it in this recession.
So we’re going to go for 16 years without a pay raise. And that $90,000, (if it had been adjusted for) inflation, would have been $150,000 — which is livable.
So, anyway, to answer your question. Nope. I’m enjoying being on the sidelines.
CS: What have you been doing since leaving office?
BO: There is life after politics, and I’m enjoying it very much. But I still care about the process. I’m still active in the party, and I still — throughout the day — am involved with various people and legislators who either want my advice or want to check in.
CS: Have you met with potential
candidates for 2010?
BO: Several. But I won’t give you names.
I had a businessperson call me the
other day and say he wanted to run for governor. He’s not well known. He said he’d sold his business. It had been a very small business.
I asked him, “What have you done in the party?”
He said he’d gone to the caucuses in the ’90s a couple of times.
And then I said, “What have you done in the community?”
He said, “Well, I was asked by my homeowner’s association to be on the board.”
And I said, “How much money are you willing to commit of your own?”
He said, “Oh, $5,000 to $10,000.”
And then I said, “Do you know anything about the Joint Budget Committee or about water?”
And I said, “Do you know any of the 64 county chairmen?”
He said, “How do you do it? Does somebody drive you?”
I just said, “You can’t run for governor. I’m not going to play around. It’s not going to work … It’s a tough process.”
CS: How do you view the current
BO: Things change quickly in the American democracy. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson won by a landslide and swept huge majorities into both houses of the Congress.
In ’66, Republicans won 47 seats and took the presidency in ’68. In ’72, Nixon wins this huge landslide. Two years later, it’s fatal to be a Republican.
In 1992, President Clinton wins narrowly, but he has a large Democratic majority in the Congress. Two years later, we have a Republican Senate and House.
I think politics runs in cycles. And I think a majority party eventually splits and gets arrogant and fat and happy — and gets beat. I think that my party had control of all the levers of power for a while and — just as typically happens every time — eventually we turn on ourselves.
We start to have primaries. We start to get a little arrogant in terms of how popular our party is.
And we lose. And the Democrats do the same thing.
CS: Do you think 2010 is too early to expect a turnaround?
BO: Hard to say. It depends. The stimulus package is disliked by most Americans, and it’s not a good start. I don’t know if 2010 is too early, but I know it can change quickly. And so I’m optimistic. I think it’ll be 2010 or 2012, but it’ll be a cycle.
Democrats will start to think that all they need is (support from organized) Labor. They’ll start to think that they don’t really need to win the rural parts of the state. And I’m already seeing some of this.
And Republicans will be a little bit hungrier and a little bit more willing to accept diversity within our base. We’ll get hungry, having been out of power, and we’ll be more disciplined and focused.
CS: Do you see any indications that Republicans in Colorado will become more accepting of diversity?
BO: I think so. And by diversity, I mean moderates. I’m a conservative, but I won by appealing to moderate voters — by not scaring them away.
And, yet, I remain true to my conservative principles.
But you know, you can’t scare away the voters and tell them that they have to join your exclusive club. And sometimes we’ve done that. Not always, but sometimes. I think that we’ll have fewer primaries and we’ll quit killing each other in primaries and start winning some general elections. I just think they (primaries) may be a little different in tone.
Sometimes, when you’re not the ruling party, your primaries are a little bit more moderate because you don’t want to split that smaller base.
CS: Were you surprised that things went so Democratic last year?
BO: No. Not with Iraq being as unpopular as it was.
Especially with the economy, higher gas prices. I mean, what on Earth would John Kerry have done — had he won the presidency — to lower gas prices?
Nothing. He wouldn’t have drilled as much.
President Bush was being criticized for drilling up until the time prices went up.
Then the Democrats said, “No! We’re pro-drilling, too!” We’ll now see if they really are. Because with lower gas prices, my guess is, we go back.
CS: Have you ever met President Obama?
BO: I haven’t. I wish I had, because I think I’d like him. I think he’s a genial, charismatic, caring person. I hope he’s not as liberal as he was in the U.S. Senate and in Illinois.
CS: Sometimes, when you get into office, you tend to move more towards the center.
BO: Right. And there have been a couple of interesting pieces recently on how moderate he is in foreign policy. And how he really hasn’t reversed President Bush’s foreign policy.
Now, it’s only been three weeks. But Guantanamo got a lot of publicity. Congressional Quarterly just had a long piece on other national security decisions that he’s making — and they’re the same as President Bush’s.
The point of another analysis I read was that a country’s foreign policy is really bigger than any one president, and that there are things in the country’s best interest that are not personal to the president.
Any president is going to do 80 percent of the same things.
They (Obama’s administration) said they’d talk to Iran. No preconditions.
Vice President Biden went to Munich and said, “Actually, we have two: End your support of terrorism and give up the bomb.”
That’s exactly President Bush’s position.
CS: You still seem to have a keen interest in foreign affairs.
BO: I do. I follow them closely. Dick Lamm and I are teaching a class at DU — basically kind of a “hard choices” class. It’s a two-day graduate seminar, and we just came up with our list of subjects.
We’re going to talk about global warming … I’m not as convinced as he is, and I’m not afraid to say it. There’s a lot of science that says, “Maybe not.”
And we’re going to talk about whether things are getting better or worse.
But what I just added — with his consent — was a discussion of foreign policy. Because I think the United States has been remarkably successful in foreign policy, even through recent years.
We’re the only country that has the alliances. We’re the only country that has the military. We’re the country everybody looks to in order to solve problems.
Whenever there’s a conflict, they bring in the U.S. as the mediator. And, so, in many respects, I’m much more optimistic about where we are than some.
CS: Even with the Iraq war?
BO: Yes. I think the Iraq war has been won.
They’re still going to have bombings. They’re still going to have casualties. Turkey has bombings. Indonesia has bombings. But we are not in armed conflict as we (once) were in Iraq. That’s why President Obama’s able to put 12,000 or 17,000 new troops to Afghanistan
A friend of mine — a Major who’s just back from Iraq — was just talking about how different it is on this second tour. He said one of our air bases is being made into a shopping mall. He said Fallujah has just been turned over to the Iraqis. The Green Zone has just been turned over to the Iraqis. The elections weren’t marred by violence.
I’m still interested in foreign policy, just because it has always been an interest.
CS: What about the former Soviet Union?
I know that was always a country you were fascinated with.
BO: Yes, and I still go there a lot. I’m on the board of a large Russian company.
CS: When was the last time you
BO: A few weeks ago.
It’s changed, obviously. I was first there in the ’80s. And then it changed all through the ’90s. And then it became very modern and wealthy.
And, right now, it’s having real problems.
CS: What exactly do you do in your
BO: I’m on five corporate boards. And that takes a lot of time. I help run the company as a member of the board.
I work with Chris Paulson and Joel Farkas here. We have land primarily in Colorado, Arizona and Texas.
I’m primarily a full-time businessperson.
CS: Has the economy affected
BO: It’s affected all the businesses I’m in. It’s a challenging time. But, you know, it’s probably the same thing with advertising revenue. You just have to work a little harder, be a little smarter, spend a little less. So I think, in six months or a year, it’ll be much better.
CS: Because of the stimulus package?
BO: I really don’t (think so.) I’m not being critical. I want President Obama to be a success. I’m an American, and I’m an American nationalist, and I want the U.S. to be successful.
So I like it when we have a successful, popular president.
But I’m disappointed in the sense that the analysts basically say that he let (Speaker of the House and California Congresswoman) Nancy Pelosi write the bill. And she threw in everything her constituency wanted — which had very little to do with stimulus.
We’re just borrowing money. I’ve got three kids. And Mark, Monica and Brett are going to have to pay this off. Nancy Pelosi and (Senate President and Nevada Senator) Harry Reid want to spend it today — and that’s not right. We’re leaving a tremendous debt to our kids. And I think we ought to be more responsible.
I would have made (the stimulus package) more towards infrastructure. We started out thinking it was going to be this
(opportunity to) rebuild.
Everybody put in essentially earmarks, though they didn’t call it that. And it’s 1,000 pages that nobody had read. And it wasn’t very transparent. And they didn’t allow amendments in the House.
So I’m disappointed.
I think the president delegated too much authority. And, yet, I know that in the first three weeks of being president, you’re probably pretty busy.
CS: Do you miss the state Capitol?
BO: Some day, I’m going to call up a state trooper — one of the guys that protects Governor Ritter —and see if I can go see the picture (of me). Because it wasn’t hung when I was there.
CS: Do you feel like there’s a kinship among former governors?
BO: I do. I think there’s a respect. As a governor, I never critiqued Roy (Romer.) I gave him credit — CSAP for example.
And it’s why I don’t like President Carter as a post-president. I think he’s small and venal. And I think it shows.
I think President Clinton respects the Bush presidents. Got to be friends with them — and I think that’s the way it should be.
Once you’re out of office, I think it’s perfectly appropriate to talk about policy. But you won’t see me critiquing Governor Ritter directly, or his direct policies.
CS: Do you think President Bush’s
reputation is taking a beating?
BO: I think that he was president during tough times. I heard President Clinton one time say at the Aspen Institute, “If my CIA told me that there were weapons of mass destruction, I would have done the same thing President Bush did.”
Now, this was early in the war.
And I remember I called Karl Rove and gave him that quote.
President Bush did not try to influence the CIA. There’s no evidence that he forced them to come to that decision.
He could have said, “We’re going to invade Iraq because the guy’s a genocidal maniac, and the world’s going to be better off with him gone.”
I’ve talked to Andy Card, who was (Bush White House) chief of staff. He said it was a very dark day at the White House when the CIA came in and said, “We were wrong.”
The president takes all the blame.
President Bush — who I know and like very much — was hampered. First of all, because he was a minority president. Al Gore got more popular votes, and there was a perception that the election had been stolen by the U.S. Supreme Court. So he started off under a cloud because of the way the election went.
Our Constitution says the popular vote’s irrelevant. It’s the electoral vote that counts, and that’s the way it is. President Bush isn’t the first president to be elected that way, but it hurt him badly.
And, then, Iraq. In a democracy, it’s hard to have a long war. And this war was a long one. Most wars start out badly and get better as they go along.
In this war, we made some mistakes. We disbanded Hussein’s army, and we shouldn’t have. Figured that out later.
And so there were mistakes made in this war, just as Abraham Lincoln made lots of mistakes at the start of the Civil War. His first five generals were failures. But he was smart enough to figure it out.
There’s a historian named Victor Davis Hanson who’s written on this. Most wars evolve. And this war evolved. But in a 24-hour news cycle, you don’t have the long window.
So, yes. Iraq hurt the president badly.
The economy was basically very good for the first six years of the Bush presidency. But because of the collapse in the final months, that’s what he’s going to be remembered for. I don’t believe that it would have made any difference.
John Kerry wouldn’t have reined in Fannie Mae. He wouldn’t have reined in Freddie Mac. He would have had more spending. He would have had less tax cuts. And I think all of those things would have led to a worse economy earlier. But it won’t change the fact that George Bush was in charge.
CS: Bob Beauprez said President George Bush told him that if he really wants to affect change, governor is probably the best office to run for — versus the U.S. Senate. Does that surprise you?
BO: No, not at all. I know the president believes that. And I believe that. I’ve talked to a number of people who have been both. And, without exception, they say that governor is a position (of more power). This is not to denigrate being a U.S. senator. It’s one of the highest honors you can have.
When I was a freshman governor, I met with George Voinovich, the senator from Ohio who had been Ohio’s governor.
He said, “Enjoy it. I’ve been a governor now, and a senator.”
He said, (as governor) “I would veto. I would sign. I would direct. I would manage. I would articulate. I would order.”
“Now, as a senator…” — and he was a junior senator at the time — he said, “I’m the ranking minority member on a subcommittee. I speak when spoken to. I have a staff of 18. When it rains, I’m in the junior office, and the water comes in through the basement. I live in a walkup on Capitol Hill.”
So I would agree.
CS: Which Republican would you like to see run for governor?
BO: You know, we have a number of good candidates, and I’m not going to try to pick just one. Josh Penry would be an outstanding candidate.
I think Scott McInnis is looking at it. He has a long record of service.
I think Bob Beauprez is looking more at the U.S. Senate.
I think that Dan Caplis would be a good candidate. He knows the issues. He has long Colorado roots.
There’s a lot to like about somebody like a Dan Caplis — along with a Bob Beauprez and Josh and Scott.
I had a reporter call me and say, “Well, you know, Scott and Bob have both been around the track before.”
I said, “What do you mean? Mark Udall has been a congressman five times. We don’t think of him as stale just because he’s been in Congress five times.”
CS: You didn’t mention Mark Holtzman, who used to serve in your cabinet before he ran for governor.
BO: I don’t think Mark’s going to run. Mark’s overseas 90 percent of the time. He just hasn’t been in Colorado.
CS: Are there still hard feelings?
BO: No. I’m kind of agnostic when it comes to Mark. I don’t think he’s a factor anymore, and tough things happen in campaigns.
CS: Are you able to forget about some of the people who didn’t support you over the years?
BO: Absolutely. Dad used to say, “Be like a duck, and let the water just flow right past. Don’t absorb it.”
And I thought of that often. I mean, yesterday’s friend is sometimes today’s opponent on an issue. But I really try to not personalize it.
Many of my good friends — John Hickenlooper, Andrew Romanoff, Ken Salazar — I fought them hard. But I like them. And I’m socially very close to all of them.
There are folks that we would have disagreements with (and) I can’t even remember some of the fights.
Life’s too short. It really is.
CS: Were you surprised by Governor Ritter’s selection of Michael Bennet to replace Ken Salazar in the Senate.
BO: Yes, I was.
CS: Have you met him?
BO: I know Mike Bennet. I respect the job he did at DPS. I worked with him some in that regard.
I thought (the Senate appointee) would be John Hickenlooper or Andrew Romanoff or Joan Fitz-Gerald. And I was surprised also at the selection of secretary of state, because I thought it would be Andrew Romanoff.
CS: Dick Wadhams suggested that perhaps Governor Ritter might be
worried about being overshadowed by John Hickenlooper.
BO: Be glad to talk off the record about it.
(Ten minutes later)
CS: Any problems with Dick Wadhams running for another term as state party chairman?
BO: No, no. I’m glad he is. The party went from having a huge deficit to having hundreds of thousands of dollars in the bank. And while we can’t compete with the
Democratic Labor Party — which is what it is — we’re going to be in better shape next time.
And, also, having the Democrats in control allows us, just as Newt Gingrich did from the back bench, to be an effective, loyal opposition.
CS: Whatever happens under your reign, you either claim it as good or you take the blame.
BO: USA Today had a headline, “Obama’s war in Afghanistan.” And I happen to believe he’s doing the right thing. But I’m glad they’re calling it his war.
You know, my left-wing friends won’t stand and fight for very long. They will bail out of Afghanistan sooner rather than later. But I don’t think President Obama will.
CS: What do you do for fun these days?
BO: I don’t have much time. Last night I was at the Mizel Museum with Mark and Monica. If I’m in town, half the time I’m out with one of the kids or over to the house. Frances and I and the kids go out to dinner frequently.
CS: It seems like your divorce is pretty civil.
BO: Yes, it is more than civil. And we’re both good parents.
I went skiing this weekend up in Vail.
And can’t wait for baseball season. I’m going to try to go down to the Rockies’ spring training.
My goal is to be the commissioner of Major League Baseball. You can announce that here. I haven’t done anything to effectuate that goal. But I need to talk to the Monforts and start the boomlet.
I also go to a lot of Nuggets games. But we haven’t been to as many Avs games
CS: What else do you do for fun?
BO: I continue to buy and be given more books than I have time to read. I’ve got a huge library. But it seems that so many good books come out. I’ll buy them, and then it takes a long time to read a book.
Basically, my reading is the Wall Street Journal daily, cover to cover. Plus a lot of business magazines, and then some popular stuff, as well — like other periodicals.
But I regret the fact that I don’t knock off more books. Frequently, the ones I like are the big ones that you can’t travel with because they won’t fit in your briefcase.
So I’m about to get a Kindle. And that’ll help because you can store the books on it. I haven’t used one yet. Friends have them, and I’ve looked at them. There’s a brand new one coming out that has a waiting list. It’s probably already out. I’m going to wait to get that in a month or two.
CS: Are you computer literate?
BO: I do e-mail a lot, but I’m not as computer literate as friends of mine who can bang out a workmanlike letter with all of the right graphics and move and cut and paste and add attachments.
I hated it when I heard John McCain didn’t e-mail or BlackBerry. My BlackBerry’s back there in my office. In fact, I have two of them and use them all the time.
CS: Do you know (Republican National Committee Chairman) Michael Steele well?
BO: I think he’s great. Had I been on the National Committee, I would have voted for him. He was in my office when I was governor and he was running for governor of Maryland. He was the lieutenant governor — and he’s a great spokesman for our party.
I turned down a chance to be chairman of the RNC. My last year as governor, I got a call from Karl Rove, and he asked if I wanted to be chairman.
And he said, “Will it make any difference if the president calls?”
I said, “No,” because I was ready to move out. The fundraising component of politics is hard. And so they later had this senator from Florida, Mel Martinez, and then he left, and it was Mike Duncan.
CS: No regrets that you didn’t do that?
BO: No, no. Not at all.
CS: So, you’re really not going to run
BO: You know, it’s funny. The people who haven’t been in politics typically believe that those of us who have have this eternal desire to be in it.
But I always tell people (to look at) three names: Hank Brown, Bill Armstrong, Tim Wirth. Those three all retired from politics in their 50s. They all could have run and won forever. And I thought several of them were potential presidential candidates.
But I can’t see a scenario where I’m going to run again.