Republican Walker Stapleton: A political unknown 8 years ago who is the establishment GOP’s hope to break a blue wave.
Read The Colorado Independent’s funding analysis of the gubernatorial candidates’ campaigns.
It was the day before Walker Stapleton’s 44th birthday and Colorado’s Republican state treasurer looked relieved.
Dressed in a crisp white shirt, red tie and dark blazer, he was leaning on a metal barricade in a Boulder convention hall as hundreds of GOP delegates in NRA hats, bolo ties and red-white-and-blue dresses streamed out of the party’s April 14 state assembly.
Minutes earlier, the party establishment’s favorite and assumed front-runner for governor had earned 43 percent of the vote from the GOP’s grassroots base. The vote secured him a spot on the June 26 primary ballot along with three lesser-known candidates.
Speaking to a gaggle of reporters, Stapleton — who has a habit of letting his eyes dart around everywhere but on the people with whom he is speaking — knew he had just escaped a political death sentence. He had planned on avoiding the assembly process by instead qualifying for the ballot via petition. But that plan blew up just four days earlier when he learned the company he hired to collect petition signatures had apparently committed fraud and he asked the Secretary of State to invalidate his signatures and take his name off the ballot. The only way to make it back on was to court the votes of the party’s activist base at the assembly — a breakneck turn in his run for governor that gave him about 90 hours to relaunch an entirely new strategy.
His scramble paid off, snagging him 13 percentage points more of the assembly vote than the 30 percent he needed to qualify for the ballot. Based on the week he had, he said after the vote, he would have been happy with 30.1 percent, noting he planned to spend the following day in pajamas.
Since then, Stapleton’s campaign is approaching the final stretch of the primary race like a machine carefully constructed by the GOP’s establishment, but not without some fritzy wires and glitches.
He’s leading by double-digits in recent polls and is the only Republican who’s previously won statewide. He has raised the most money in the GOP pack, netted the top endorsements from newspapers, and has backing from the high-roller donor class, the party’s legislative leaders, its Grand Poobahs and its gadflies alike. By all indications, he’s the Republican to beat in the four-way primary that includes entrepreneur Victor Mitchell, former investment banker Doug Robinson, and former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez.
If nominated, he will carry with him the embraces of President Donald Trump and the Trump-of-Colorado, Tom Tancredo, along with his own statements slamming “illegal aliens” and liberals into a general election in a purple state, a hotbed of #NeverTrumpism and #TheResistance, where voters have elected only one GOP governor in the past four decades.
Stapleton’s real test this mid-term election cycle, says Republican pollster David Flaherty, will be what kind of campaign he runs in the fall if he gets there.
“I don’t know if he can do it or not,” he says. “This is not 2010 and 2014”— when Stapleton rose to power in Colorado — “This is 2006 when Democrats took so many heads it was ridiculous.”
Go West, young businessman
Walker Stapleton is no graduate of The Cory Gardner School for Slick Operators.
He is not a candidate who oozes charisma or makes crowds swoon with an eloquent speech. He opens his eyes wide when speaking and can become shiny and fidgety under camera lights. His sense of humor can trip him up, like when he recently said he avoided a teacher rally because he was afraid of being firebombed with a molotov cocktail. He can get rattled, but he can also rattle, like when publicly challenging his 2014 treasurer opponent, Betsy Markey, to explain what a “yield curve” is — “It’s public finance 101, Betsy” — and laughing when she could not. He talks fast and sometimes answers questions too quickly, with a habit of saying “absolutely! 100 percent!” He is, as a former state party official observed in a moment of candor, “your white, puffy, suit-wearing country club”-type Republican, though he has slimmed down since he started running for governor.
Stapleton grew up in Connecticut and is an extended scion of the Bush political dynasty. His mother is a cousin of former first-lady and first-mother Barbara Bush, who died in April.
His father, Craig Roberts Stapleton— who served as the U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic and France under George W. Bush — grew up in Colorado before moving East. His grandmother still lives here. Walker says his dad’s public service work likely factored into his calculus to run for office just seven years after moving here from Boston following Harvard Business School.
Walker’s family ties to Colorado politics go back three generations. His grandfather, who was involved in Democratic politics, served on a water board under five different governors and was a top advisor to former U.S. senator and presidential contender Gary Hart. Walker Stapleton’s great-grandfather, Benjamin Stapleton, another Democrat, was a five-term mayor of Denver during the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s and a member of the Ku Klux Klan who appointed klansmen to his administration when the group dominated Colorado politics.
Walker says he didn’t hear much about his great-grandfather’s KKK involvement when he was growing up and that his family isn’t talking much about that aspect of his life. In his first campaign eight years ago, he ran an ad in which he spoke glowingly about Benjamin Stapleton’s accomplishments in Denver. But this year, he’s not drawing as much on Ben Stapleton’s legacy to win votes, though he’s mentioned his name in campaign material. Efforts are underway in Stapleton — the roughly 25,000-person northeast Denver community built on land that used to be the airport named after the former mayor — to remove the name because of the Klan connection. Walker Stapleton says he condemns racism and that it should be up to those in the community to decide what they do about his great-grandfather’s name.
“It’s 100 years ago, 30 years before I was born,” he says of the recent focus on his great-grandfather’s legacy. “If everybody started trying to apologize or explain what happened with ancestors of theirs who died 30 years before they were born, people would be doing a lot of explaining. I’m interested in focusing on the future.”
The married father of three who lives in Greenwood Village in Arapahoe County has always been a Republican, though not always a politically active one. Focusing more on business, he became an analyst at Wall Street investment firm Hambrecht and Quist and then COO for the private, San Francisco-based Live365, which became the first radio Internet community. In Colorado, he made nearly $400,000 a year when he took the helm of a small publicly traded real estate company with commercial holdings in California called Sonoma West in which his family held a 48-percent stake. He later took the company private.
Asked if he moved to Colorado with a plan of one day running for high office, Stapleton said, “I don’t think that I had an exact design on how or when I would be involved.”
He didn’t think the deliberative nature of the legislature would suit his temperament, so he eyed an executive branch role. An interest in tackling state economic policy, including the long-term sustainability of Colorado’s public pension system, PERA, drove him in 2010 to run for state treasurer in his first bid for elected office. The position offered a platform and a bullhorn. It also served as a potential launching pad. Two former governors, Roy Romer and Bill Owens, were both state treasurers.
At 36 and a political unknown, Stapleton vaulted a three-way GOP primaryrace that included then-investment banker J.J. Ament who is now the CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. Stapleton cast himself as a job-creating businessman outside of politics and tagged his opponent as a “debt-bond salesman” whose close work with lawmakers and the former treasurer’s office made him a fixture of state government.
In one debate, a moderator asked how voters could know the candidates weren’t just seeking a stepping stone to higher office. Stapleton joked that, given the missteps of Republicans in that year’s parallel race for governor, it would perhaps “make more sense” if he ran for that office but his skill set was better suited for treasurer.
Ament was the early favorite in that race and had consolidated establishment support as well as backing from Tea Party types. Ament crushed it at the state assembly, but Stapleton — who sidestepped the assembly process by petitioning directly onto the ballot — out-fundraised him, and campaigned hard. In a year when voters were looking for something different, “Walker was in a lot of ways seen as an outsider,” says Jesse Mallory, who ran Ament’s campaign and now runs the state chapter of the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity group and is neutral in the governor’s race.
After winning the primary, for which he raised more than $220,000, Stapleton extended his potential runway toward the governor’s mansion by narrowly defeating the popular Democratic incumbent, Cary Kennedy, in what was then the most expensive race for treasurer in state history, with each spending more than $1.5 million. Kennedy is now also running for governor. If they both win their respective nominations it will be a bloodsport rematch eight years in the making. In one 2010 debate, when a moderator asked if Kennedy and Stapleton had their sights on higher office, Stapleton said, “I’ll never become a professional politician. I’ll serve my time, speak from my heart, and then go back to my career in the private sector.”
That 2010 election was a wave year for Republicans when yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags still waved at rallies Stapleton would attend. During the campaign, Kennedy hammered Stapleton with ads about his 1999 arrest for DUI in San Francisco, calling him “reckless” and “irresponsible.” He also faced a hit-and-run charge in that incident that was later dropped. Admitting to his DUI in a debate, Stapleton told a reporter, felt like “being forced to eat a doo-doo sandwich.” In his current campaign, the DUI has come up — and likely will again if he is nominated. He says he regrets the mistake he made in his early 20s, and, “If that’s the best that they’ve got … bring it on.”
The year Stapleton was elected treasurer, Democrat John Hickenlooper took the governor’s mansion in a race that included a damaged GOP nominee, Dan Maes, and immigration firebrand Tom Tancredo, a former Republican congressman who was running as a third-party spoiler. While Colorado voters handily elected a Democrat to the governorship in 2010, they also threw out two Democratic statewide officeholders, including Kennedy and an incumbent secretary of state.
Stapleton had picked a good year to jump into Republican politics.
PERA put him on the map
In Colorado, the state treasurer’s chief job is to invest the state’s tax dollars, oversee unclaimed property, and serve on the board of the Public Employee Retirement Association, known as PERA.
Upon taking office, Stapleton’s arrangement to moonlight up to 250 hours per year at Sonoma West, his former company owned largely by his family, drew scrutiny about potential conflicts and was an indication that running the treasurer’s office, which paid him $68,500, was effectively a part-time job. Once in office, he visited agency departments to learn about how the state works and where tax money was going and visited all 64 counties to meet with local treasurers, a move that earned him broader recognition throughout Colorado’s rural areas. He saved businesses money by refinancing unemployment insurance and helped pass a bipartisan law to allow counties to continue to invest in U.S. treasuries.
People who have worked with treasurers under different administrations say the office has traditionally benefited from a strong and professional staff of career workers who keep things running smoothly. State treasurers in Colorado tend to distinguish themselves on how they use their positions to advance projects. When Kennedy was treasurer she tackled how to fund construction of dilapidated public schools with a financing program called BEST, which she persuaded lawmakers to pass through legislation. She now touts the program in her campaign for governor.
Stapleton’s pet project has been rallying to reform PERA, which currently has a $30 million-plus funding gap that threatens the state’s bond rating and affects more than 500,000 current and former public employees. Put simply, “It’s PERA that put him on the map — his opposition and criticism of PERA,” says Bob Leovy, a retired Colorado College political science professor, about how the once-unknown Stapleton made his imprint on the GOP political landscape.
Stapleton’s plans for PERA have included freezing benefits, raising the retirement age, and hitting the snooze button on cost-of-living raises until the system recovers. He wants to change the makeup of the 15-member board so it has fewer plan members on it. As treasurer, he unsuccessfully sued the PERA board to obtain information on the identities of the state’s top retirement system beneficiaries. In 2017, Stapleton cut ties with John Forbes, a deputy treasurer he hired and sent to PERA meetings as his proxy, after Forbes told the PERA board to “all go fuck yourselves.”
But Stapleton’s role over PERA has become a pressure point for his opponents who accuse him of being all talk but no action and not personally attending many of PERA’s board meetings. (In 2015 he attended 9 out of 11, in 2016 he attended four out of 11, and in 2017 he attended seven out of nine. He says he often appeared by phone or sent a proxy.) This year, when the legislature passed an 11th-hour bill to help fix the fund, which Stapleton both praised and poo-pooed, he was absent from the public discussion. His proudest accomplishment during his eight years of fire and fury over PERA, he says, was the board twice lowering the fund’s expected rate of return, which he still thinks is too high.
Ask a Democrat and a Republican what they think about Stapleton’s work and you’ll get what you might expect.
“Walker never really was there being proactive on things,” says former Democratic Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino. “The only thing you’d hear from him about was PERA.”
But without Stapleton’s constant public attention on the subject, “I’m not sure we could have done what we did this year,” says Carbondale GOP Rep. Bob Rankin, who calls the recent PERA bill a significant step.
Henry Sobanet, a Republican and the outgoing budget director for Hickenlooper who served in that role under previous administrations, said Stapleton’s and the governor’s priorities haven’t always aligned. “But our offices worked well together and he had strong people handling the affairs of the office,” says Sobanet, who supports Democratic Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne in the race. “I did see Treasurer Stapleton dig in and learn about the issues over the years.”
In 2014, Stapleton handily won re-election against his Democratic rival, former Congresswoman Betsy Markey, despite attempts by Markey’s campaign to highlight what it claimed was his frequent absence from his office during work hours. He raised nearly $1 million and outspent her in a campaign in which he touted the earnings of Colorado’s investment portfolio beating the national average.
Revving on up
Since his re-election, Stapleton has been positioning himself as a potential candidate for governor.
He became an outspoken opponent of a 2016 statewide ballot measure for universal healthcare and toured Colorado debating its supporters. The unpopular measure, a boogeyman for Republicans, lacked the backing of many leading Democrats and went down in flames at the ballot box. It enabled Stapleton to raise his profile by leading the charge to defeat a Bernie Sanders-style single-payer system that would have come with a massive tax increase.
Following the 2016 election, in which Stapleton voted for Donald Trump, a national group called U.S. Term Limits ran an ad campaign for its popular cause and used Stapleton as its pitchman, putting his name and face before voters statewide. But as other candidates announced bids for governor throughout 2017, Stapleton held off.
While he waited, he steered fundraising money toward a super PAC called Better Colorado Now, which is now running ads on his behalf. As long as he didn’t officially announce, he could help the group raise money in a state where direct campaign contribution limits are low. It was a novel strategy in Colorado and one pioneered by his cousin Jeb Bush in Bush’s brief 2016 run for president. While Stapleton’s rivals haven’t made a big deal out of the move, The Denver Post’s editorial board wagged a finger, writing, “We wish the treasurer had set a better example and not led us down this path — for others surely will follow.”
When Stapleton finally announced his run in October, he reminded voters he is “Colorado’s longest-serving statewide elected Republican,” and “the only person in this race that has actually won a statewide race — not once but twice.” A major reason he is running, he says, is to offer a full-throated defense of the state’s oil-and-gas industry against Democrats, environmental groups, and cities and counties that want it regulated more tightly.
Stapleton says he would be an advocate for business and fewer regulations. He wants to re-bond gas tax revenues to pay for infrastructure projects and promises to install an engineer to head the state transportation department. He would seek to end Colorado’s Obamacare exchange, which covers about 8 percent of Coloradans, on the belief that the federal government will eventually kick grants back to the states so governors can handle Medicaid expansion on their own. He has been vague about what specifically he would do if that happened, other than to say it would be a “managed” model. The candidate who has the endorsement of the state’s Associated Builders and Contractors group, says he would make housing more affordable by giving developers a right to fix problems before they can be sued over defective construction.
He supports school choice, wants to de-fund so-called sanctuary cities, and believes too many medical marijuana cardholders in Colorado don’t really need one and are just using them to pay fewer pot taxes. He supports randomly testing for people on public assistance for drug use, saying, “If you are on the government dole, absolutely you should subscribe to random drug testing.” His pitch to out-of-state supporters is that he will keep their Colorado vacation home property taxes low.
Asked in an interview about the widest-reaching changes he would champion as governor, he said shrinking Medicaid expansion and retirement entitlements in the pension system and finding a long-term solution to the state’s infrastructure woes.
Unlike all the Democrats running, he does not want to change parts of Colorado’s 1992 budget-limiting Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendment, called TABOR. But he might be open to tinkering with a constitutional amendment called Gallagher that limits residential properties to 45 percent of the statewide property tax base and can cause revenue in local municipalities to dry up.
Strength vs. Stumbles
When an exhausted Stapleton filled out candidacy paperwork on the floor of the state assembly, he said he felt like he’d aged “about a decade” in the four days leading up to it.
A month later, he touted the way he handled the petition-fraud scandal that led him through the assembly and could have killed his campaign. “I will be known as somebody who made decisions based on character and integrity, and that’s the best way to be known,” he said. He believes he is the first candidate ever in Colorado to put together a winning assembly bid in such a short time.
In that scramble to re-calibrate his campaign, Stapleton reached out to alt-right avatar Tom Tancredo — the controversial former GOP congressman and Breitbart author who filed for the governor’s race but later dropped out — to ask if he would nominate him at the assembly. Tancredo, once dubbed Colorado’s “Lord of the Gadflies,” agreed because he believed Stapleton could win a general election and he’s tough on Tancredo’s pet issue of sanctuary cities. In his nominating speech, Tancredo spoke of the “left-wing loonies” and “nutjobs” who would be fleeing for “safe spaces” if a Republican captured the Colorado governor’s mansion. Of his role aiding Stapleton’s gambit at the assembly, Tancredo says, “I want to think that it was helpful.”
Courting Tancredo, however, might haunt Stapleton in a general election if he makes it there. Jerry Natividad, a well-known Republican businessman who was the former chair of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, understands the politics behind that move — it was the Republican assembly and delegates lean far right — but he says Tancredo speaks only to the far-right of the party and is not an all-encompassing Republican. “When you go to Tom Tancredo and say ‘Hey, will you join me on stage?’ you will end up having to explain yourself to people — to people like me who see Tancredo not as an asset but a liability,” he says.
Stapleton says he would campaign with Tancredo, or Trump, in the general election if either of them offered. In his latest TV ad, airing as voters learn about the Trump administration separating children from their families at the Mexico border, he’s unwavering, saying he’ll “stand with Donald Trump to get illegal aliens who commit crimes deported.”
In the nine months he has been campaigning, Stapleton has racked up endorsements from more than 50 county commissioners across Colorado, all but two of the state’s GOP district attorneys, 18 Republican sheriffs, and Nick Rogers, president of the Denver police union. He has raked in money from GOP power-brokers like Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, Pete Coors, and Broncos owner John Elway as well as the Bush family and oil-and-gas, financial investor, and real estate interests. Newspaper editorial boards in Grand Junction, Durango, Colorado Springs and Greeley have endorsed him.
Each of the four Democratic candidates for governor says she or he expects to run against him in the general election, and the Democratic Party of Colorado has been breathless in its publicity of missteps Stapleton has made in his bid. In October, he omitted his blind trust from a personal financial disclosure document he filed with the state. He since has skipped multiple debates. And he came off as unprepared during a tough national interview about gun policy on Fox News. He has come under fire from media for continuing to air a TV ad making the false claim that he was the only state treasurer to support Trump’s tax plan. Asked in a debate if he learned anything from the mistake in his ads, he said, “No, I actually have not.”
While the other GOP contenders have courted press attention, giving their cell phone numbers to reporters for easy access, sitting for multiple interviews, listing a public campaign schedule and inviting press to events, Stapleton is a more guarded candidate who delegates media contact through a spokesman.
In recent weeks, former state Republican Party chairman and longtime political consultant Dick Wadhams, who is neutral in the race, has been on TV ringing alarm bells. “I think there have been some serious stumbles by him that he cannot afford to make in a general election campaign,” Wadhams says about Stapleton.
Still, Flaherty, the Republican pollster, says the treasurer has improved as a candidate. It is hard, he said, to have the kind of personal charm of someone like Cory Gardner or the aw-shucks likability of Hickenlooper. “You’ve got to be who you are,” he says. Flaherty notes that his data show Stapleton has a 51 percent favorability rating among Republican primary voters and a strong image rating, and is someone well-respected by conservative voters despite his family name and wealthy background. He sees Stapleton gliding toward the GOP nomination.
Colorado has only elected one Republican governor in the past 43 years. Stapleton’s test will be to buck that trend in a midterm election year when his party, led by the most controversial president in at least a generation, is struggling. Eight years ago, he jumped on a Republican wave and since has been able to ride it. This year, he says he expects to win the nomination and face Boulder Congressman Jared Polis, the candidate who has drawn most of his fire, but he’ll happily take on a Kennedy rematch, too. “I think they both represent the far left of the Democratic Party,” he says, “and I can’t wait to explain why that is to voters.”
In a purple state that has trended blue in top-ticket races for two decades, Stapleton puts on a brave face as the anointed torch-bearer of this year’s Republican cause. In a recent TV ad, he says he’ll “take the fight to the liberals.” And, with a glance back in time, he promises to “beat ‘em again.”
Tina Griego contributed to this report. Photos by Corey Hutchins (top) and John Herrick (insert)