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Most Colorado gubernatorial candidates have historical persona

By: Robert D. Loevy, Special to The Gazette
May 12, 2018 Updated: May 16, 2018 at 11:40 am
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Former Colorado governors (from left) Bill Ritter, Bill Owens and Richard Lamm.

There is a persona - a set of common characteristics - for Colorado governors. They have all been males (although a woman came close), have almost all held a major elective office before becoming governor, and have mainly been from the Denver metropolitan area.

With the start of mail-in voting in Colorado's 2018 Democratic and Republican gubernatorial primary elections just one month away (early June), now is a good time to review the last 60 years of Colorado governors and see how the crop of 2018 candidates in both political parties compares to them.

Start with Steve McNichols, a Democrat who was elected Colorado governor 62 years ago in November 1956. A native of Denver, he was an activist Democrat and a successful reformer. Among other things, he strengthened state planning, expanded the state highway system, and established the University of Colorado Medical Center in Denver.

McNichols had previously served as lieutenant governor. That is good news for Donna Lynne, the current lieutenant governor, a Democrat, who hopes to repeat in 2018 McNichols' feat of rising from No. 2 to No. 1 in the governor's office.

Steve McNichols was succeeded in the governor's chair by John Love, a Republican from Colorado Springs. Love was governor during the turbulent 1960s. He is credited with keeping the state on an even keel during the urban unrest, minority demonstrations, and student protests that characterized that era.

Love had never been in elected office before. His only political experience was running for chairman of the El Paso County Republican Party, an election he lost by one vote.

Love's example should gladden the political heart of Doug Robinson, a businessman and nephew of George Romney. He is running for the Republican nomination and, like Love, has never held elected office.

Love resigned as governor in the early 1970s to take a job in the Nixon administration in Washington, D.C. He was replaced by Lt. Governor John Vanderhoof, from Glenwood Springs on the Western Slope, who ran to be elected governor in his own right but was defeated.

Democrat Richard Lamm beat Vanderhoof in 1974 and was governor for three four-year terms. An outspoken environmentalist, Lamm called for limiting Colorado's population and thereby preserving Colorado's natural beauty. He appointed the first woman and the first Hispanic to the Colorado Supreme Court.

Prior to being elected governor, Lamm served as a state representative from Denver. That sets a precedent in 2018 for former state Rep. Victor Mitchell, a Republican, and former state Sen. Mike Johnston, a Democrat, to rise to the governor's office from the state Legislature.

Lamm was succeeded in 1986 by Roy Romer, another Democrat, who also served three four-year terms. Romer was an activist who provided state government support for three projects in Denver that benefited the entire state - the Denver Convention Center, Denver International Airport (DIA), and bringing in major-league baseball (the National League Colorado Rockies).

When Romer was elected governor, he was finishing a second term as Colorado treasurer, a statewide elected office.

Two candidates in 2018 will find cause for celebrating the "former state treasurer" example. Republican Walker Stapleton, who is currently completing a second term as state treasurer, and Democrat Cary Kennedy, who was elected state treasurer in 2006. Kennedy was defeated for re-election as state treasurer by Stapleton in 2010.

In 1998, Romer was replaced as governor by Bill Owens, a Republican. Owens narrowly defeated Gail Schoettler, the Democratic candidate.

Owens was famous for T-REX, the widening of I-25 from the Denver Tech Center to downtown Denver to five traffic lanes in each direction. It earned him the nickname "Ten-Lane Bill." He also was credited with championing Referendum C, a timeout for state government from the strict financial limitations of TABOR, the Taxpayers' Bill of Rights.

Owens preceded his election to the governorship, like Romer, by serving as state treasurer. That is even more points in 2018 for Stapleton and Kennedy.

And now Bill Ritter, the Democrat elected governor in 2006 to follow Bill Owens. Ritter had great plans for advancing environmental protection and K-12 education in Colorado, but the 2008-10 economic recession reduced tax income to state government and left Ritter cutting the budget rather than increasing state spending.

Ritter rose to the governorship from an important local, but not statewide office in Colorado - Denver district attorney. That makes him a successful role model for Republican Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker, who also is seeking to move up to the governorship from a local rather than a statewide office.

Lopez also can look for inspiration to current Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who served two terms as mayor of Denver.

The most unusual 2018 candidate for governor, historically speaking, is Democrat Jared Polis, who is hoping to move into the governor's mansion after serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from Colorado's 2nd Congressional District (Boulder County and environs).

In the past 60 years, no member of Congress has been elected Colorado governor.

Except for Polis, all the candidates running in the Republican and Democratic primaries for governor in 2018 can find a previous governor with an electoral persona similar to their own.

Based on historical gubernatorial persona alone, the 2018 candidates rank this way. Republicans: Stapleton, Mitchell, Lopez, and Robinson. Democrats: Kennedy, Lynne, Johnston and Polis.

Obviously, this gubernatorial persona analysis places a strong emphasis on who has previous electoral experience and service in office - particularly statewide office.

Bob Loevy is a political scientist at Colorado College.

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