Up-and-coming politicians with their eyes on the prize of higher office could do a lot worse than to follow the example of Wayne Williams. He is, of course, Colorado’s amiable, accessible and — by all appearances — politically unambitious secretary of state.
The Republican Williams, an attorney and a former El Paso County commissioner and county clerk, comes across as someone who doesn’t have his eyes on any prize other than his current calling. That certainly is his professed posture whenever he’s asked if he will enter the increasingly crowded field of gubernatorial prospects for 2018. He reaffirmed it just yesterday.
“I’m a declared candidate for secretary of state of Colorado in 2018. I love the job. I enjoy it. I understand it. I think I’m doing a good job,” said the 53-year-old Williams during a phone chat on his way home to Colorado Springs after another day at his Denver office. “I didn’t run to be secretary of state because I wanted to do something else.”
Of course, jaded pols, pundits and newsies will say that is precisely the image Williams has shrewdly cultivated ever since winning the office in the 2014 election.
They’ll point to the infrastructure he has put in place — like the quirky-cute videos posted to the secretary of state’s homepage — that raise his office’s profile and tout its services but also, arguably, provide him a springboard to whatever’s next.
They’ll mention Lynn Bartels, the respected (and sometimes feared) veteran Colorado political reporter he hired in 2015 to run the communications shop at the secretary of state’s office. The super-networked and widely known Bartels is a publicity phenomenon in her own right. You can’t help wonder if she was issued a Twitter profile instead of a Social Security number at birth. She has staked out turf as a pretty unconventional government spokeswoman: She regularly chronicles her office’s and her boss’s activities, as well as Colorado politics in general, on her own blog affiliated with the secretary of state’s website.
Alongside all that, Williams himself seems to have effortlessly glided into the limelight simply by executing his duties. As the state’s chief elections official and, by law, the one who summons the state’s presidential electors to tally their votes for the Electoral College — an obscure formality in most years — Williams landed in the middle of last month’s brouhaha over the so-called Hamilton electors. As one of the states in which a handful of dissenting Democratic presidential electors sought to monkey-wrench the election of Donald Trump, bellwether Colorado made national news, and Williams — darn him! — became the focus of national media attention.
Williams’s approach to public office, calculated or not, is a study in how to succeed in politics without really trying. Or, at least, without appearing to.
It all stands in stark contrast to the tumultuous tenure of Williams’s predecessor, fellow Republican Scott Gessler. Whether by design or by default, or perhaps both, the combative, controversy-courting Gessler seemed to revel in conflict. His many critics say it was all grandstanding. During his one term, he duked it out with Democrats, the press and even the county clerks with whom the secretary of state is pretty much expected to get along.
It surprised no one when the restless and glory-bound Gessler hopped into the ring in an ultimately unsuccessful bid for governor in 2014.
Upon his arrival at 1700 Broadway in Denver, Williams hit the reset button. Where Gessler routinely, if vaguely, raised the specter of voter fraud, Williams talks about improved voting systems. Where Gessler accused the media of ganging up on him and went into interviews with his guard up, Williams prides himself on his office’s openness to the media and public. Gessler appeared agitated and often enough angry; Williams is all smiles. Where Gessler was accused of ethics violations, Williams stands accused of — nothing.
Yet Williams will tell you the changes he has made simply are for the good of his office, not the prospect of a higher one. Bartels plays a key role in that, he says.
“Having Lynn there has helped us transform the expectation for what government communication should be about,” he said. “Bringing Lynn on was with the intention to say we can make a better process.”
Bartels, reached for her input on Tuesday, says her job isn’t about helping her boss lay groundwork for any other endeavor. No surprise in her saying that, but she does make a persuasive case.
Said Bartels, “I have had people say to me, ‘Wayne isn’t running for governor? I thought that’s why he hired you.’ And I always say, ‘I was hired to be the communications director for the secretary of state and that is what I am doing.’
“What I had in mind was more pay, better hours and less stress while dabbling in a field I love: politics and elections. I never dreamt I would fall in love with the job.”
As noted, Williams says he loves his job too. And as any career counselor will tell you, loving your job offers the surest path to an even better one.