Colorado Republican Doug Robinson looks ahead in gubernatorial run: ‘We’re not going to drift to a better place’
Author: Ernest Luning - August 20, 2017 - Updated: January 14, 2018
Doug Robinson compares winning the Republican nomination for governor of Colorado to getting hired after a really long job interview, and he believes his background and experience will give him the edge.
One of seven declared GOP candidates for next year’s election — with at least three heavyweights waiting in the wings — Robinson speaks highly of his leading primary opponents but suggests his experience founding and running a financial firm that advised technology companies sets him apart.
During a recent interview with Colorado Politics, Robinson mentioned 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton and entrepreneur and former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. (Brauchler and Mitchell are in the race, while Stapleton has yet to make his candidacy official.)
“Probably 80 percent of what I would say would be the same,” Robinson said. “We all come from that Republican base — that government’s role is to level the playing field, create opportunities, not to give handouts but to give a hand up. The differences are more around the individual, what background they come from and how they can effectively lead the state. My background has been in business and community life.”
Then he brought up the job interview.
“They have a lot of the same skills, their resumes may look similar, but who’s got that leadership ability to rally people and align them around a common vision, where we can get past party politics and do what’s right for Colorado?”
Answering his own question, Robinson displayed an affable earnestness honed over a career as an investment banker. (The firm he founded, St. Charles Capital, was acquired by KPMG a few years ago, and Robinson stepped down from running it in March so he could run full-time for governor.)
“Some guiding principles for me have been what I call the three A’s,” he said. “Analyze — get as much data as possible to understand what the solutions are; then it’s allocating scarce resources; then aligning people around that vision in order to have the political or other will to get it done.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Robinson discussed his path to the GOP nomination, listed the Colorado campaigns that have inspired him, talked about the Republican Party’s relationship with President Trump — basically, it’s a bit complicated — and sized up the Democratic gubernatorial candidates. He also made clear why he intends to campaign on an issue — “Colorado’s drug problem and how to fix it,” he says without hesitation — the consultants tell him to avoid.
Robinson moved to Colorado in the mid 1990s after growing up in Michigan, where his grandfather George Romney was governor and ran for president. (His mother’s youngest brother is Mitt Romney, another one-time governor and presidential candidate.) It was Michigan’s swift fall from one of the leading states in the country to one of the most moribund that Robinson said inspires his approach to governing Colorado, even as the state enjoys the country’s best economy and historically low unemployment rates.
“My message is, Colorado’s doing well, but we’re not really thinking about the future,” he said. “We don’t have a business plan — what are the jobs and the opportunities? I come from the technology industry. I think we’re just in the early phases of how technology disrupts business. There are winners and losers that come out of these sorts of disruptions, and we have to make sure that Colorado comes out on the winning side.”
That’s where he said his background will make the difference.
“My career has been advising growing businesses on how to grow, how to raise capital, and how to put other businesses together. The first thing I would do when I walked into a new client is say, ‘Can I see your business plan?’” Noting that roughly half the companies didn’t even have one, he said, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to get there. We’re not going to drift to a better place.”
Then he offered at least a partial compliment to Gov. John Hickenlooper, the Democrat who’s term-limited after next year’s election.
“When Hickenlooper came in in 2010 — I didn’t vote for him, but I heard some things that got me excited, what he was going to do,” Robinson said. “He sounded like he had a business plan for the state. But somehow, over the years, that seems to have been dropped, kicked to the side. Nobody knows. We need a plan for what we want Colorado to look like 10, 20 years from now.”
Robinson nodded, because he’s given it plenty of thought after a career grappling with the question. It means tackling some problems the state can’t ignore, he said, including education, health care and transportation.
“When you get out to the rural parts of our state, people are not doing well like they are on the Front Range. There’s a lot of angst about the way of life. They’re concerned about jobs and economic opportunity,” he said, echoing a growing complaint about the rural-urban divide straining Colorado. Noting he recently used a credit card in the mountain town of Rangely and was surprised to hear the screech of a telephone modem connecting, Robinson added, “We need to get those communities into the modern age.”
Equally important, he said, is buckling down and figuring out how to fund transportation needs.
“All over the state, people are concerned about congestion and traffic and roads. That comes up almost all the time,” Robinson said. “I’m late for literally half my meetings — you cannot predict the traffic. I’m a conservative in terms of my values and the way I live my life and so on, but I’m running on issues I think matter to everyday, working people. It’s not left or right — if you’re sitting in traffic on I-25, it doesn’t matter what your party background is.”
He conceded that a bipartisan transportation funding package floundered in the Legislature this year when a handful of Republican senators refused to let it pass out of committee. Robinson said he agrees with their critique.
“I don’t think a sales tax is the right mechanism to fix our roads. I think there is money in the budget. If I were elected governor, I would say, ‘This first $500 million, that is going to the debt service and the interest.’ We’re going to do TRANS bonds II, and we’re going to raise that $3.5 billion. There’s a plan ready to go.” He listed shovel-ready projects across the state and said several others could be ready to go quickly once the funding is in place.
“That’s where a governor who comes from a business background can come in and say, ‘We can argue about other stuff, but this is priority one.’”
Then there’s marijuana, legalized for recreational use by Colorado voters in 2012.
“We’ve got to deal with this drug issue so it does not destroy our state,” Robinson said. “This is a threat to us. We can make marijuana be a contributor, but we’ve got to get the taxes it should be paying to us, we’ve got to keep it out of the hands of our kids.”
Robinson shook his head.
“The political consultants all tell me, ‘Oh, don’t talk about it, it’s a third rail. You can’t talk about it,’” he said and then proceeded to talk about it.
“People want to make sure that it works for us. They do want it to be legal here, and it is legal here. That’s not going to be overturned, I believe. But we want the taxes we were promised. And we were sold that the black market would go away once we turned it legal. No, it hasn’t. We need to more aggressively go after the black market. We need to educate our kids that this is not the same marijuana their parents or their grandparents might have used. The potency is five, six, 10 times higher.”
Coloradans should be free to make their own choices, Robinson maintained, but he argued that legalized recreational marijuana has created problems the state isn’t resolving.
“People are concerned about homelessness. People come here and haven’t been able to find a job, so they sign up for Medicaid and get public assistance and panhandle. I’m making some generalizations,” he said, “but that’s a result of some of this.”
One solution might be to change the requirements for medical marijuana cards, Robinson said, noting that people with the cards can avoid paying taxes on the drug.
“You have to look at it going forward, does it take two doctors? Some of the states have said you have to have an existing relationship with your doctor to have them prescribe — you can’t just show up and pay something and get your card,” he said. “These are changes I think could be made that would have an impact going forward.”
Robinson said the three recent Colorado candidates he’s studied are U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, the Aurora Republican who fended off two prominent Democratic challengers by wide margins; U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, who unseated Democrat Mark Udall in 2014; and Heidi Ganahl, who won an at-large seat on the CU Board of Regents last year, running well ahead of most Republicans up and down the ticket.
“What they did was talked about issues that really mattered to Coloradans,” Robinson said. “They’re all conservatives but talked about issues that really matter.”
Robinson said he’ll be happy to campaign with Trump, although he acknowledged that the Democrats are likely to use the polarizing president as a bludgeon in next year’s races.
“If the president of the United States wants to come and care about your race, even if you don’t agree with him 100 percent — but if he says stuff that’s wrong for Colorado, you stand up for that, you call him out on that,” Robinson said.
“The Democrats are going to say, ‘What about Trump?’ ‘They voted for Trump.’ But I think Coloradans, at the end of the day, voters are going to look for Colorado issues.”
Robinson admits Trump wasn’t his first choice but said he voted for him because the alternatives — voting for Clinton or having his vote not count — were unacceptable.
“Some of the things he’s done, I’ve been very pleased with. At the top of the list is Neil Gorsuch as a Supreme Court justice,” Robinson said, adding that the administratin’s aggressive approach to reducing regulations also wins points.
“But him going after Jeff Sessions in public drives me crazy. Some of the way he uses Twitter,” Robinson said, shaking his head and trailing off. “I’m very disappointed we don’t have a health care law. But now we’ve got another shot. We have to get this tax reform done. If we don’t, it may be a really tough conversation for any Republican running next year, including in the governor’s race here. I think the congressional delegation understands that they’ve got to get something done, and if they do, it will be very positive for the country, and people will see that.”
Robinson said he hasn’t decided whether to go through the caucus and assembly process or try to petition onto the primary ballot.
“I think you’ve got to put the grassroots organization in place that will allow you to go through the caucus and get on the ballot that way, and then, as you get closer, you make a decision whether that’s the best path or whether petitioning is,” he said.
As for the Democrats running for governor, Robinson said he was glad U.S. Rep. Jared Polis had jumped in, even though the multi-millionaire has virtually limitless campaign funds at hand.
“It’s actually helpful to have Polis in the race,” Robinson said. “He’s polarizing for a lot of Republicans — they see him as threatening to the future of the state that they believe in. They feel he wants to turn us into California, that he wants to blow up TABOR, that he wants to basically put the oil and gas industry out of business, that he wants to raise taxes. I don’t think he’s said those things explicitly, but if you read his policies, that’s under there. That’s been a good thing for Republicans in general. It’s gotten some people to say this election really matters. It’s going to decide the direction of this state.”
Robinson said two of the other Democrats running — former state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy — were fine people but dismissed them as threats. Johnston, for instance, “is sounding a lot like Bernie Sanders to me,” Robinson said. “‘Free college’? Nothing’s free. When people start to say something is free, you check — where’s your wallet?”
Another possible Democratic candidate, however, drew some praise from Robinson.
“If Donna Lynne gets in the race, she comes from a business background,” Robinson said, referring to the lieutenant governor and former Kaiser Permanente executive who has said she’s exploring a run. “She seems to me like more of a problem-solver, more of a moderate. Frankly, I think she’d be the toughest candidate to face. She’s an attractive woman who has had success in business and some political experience,” although he noted she isn’t well known around the state.
“On our side of the race, we’ve got some good candidates in the race, who seem to be thoughtful, who seem to be addressing the issues, who don’t seem to be running as far right as possible — which is what typically happens, and then it’s hard to win the general,” Robinson said.
In addition to declared candidates Brauchler and Mitchell and likely contender Stapleton, others in the running include early Trump supporter Steve Barlock, Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter III, former Parker Mayor Greg Lopez and activist Greg Rundberg. Potential candidates include Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and former CSU Athletic Director Jack Graham, who ran second in last year’s U.S. Senate primary and self-funded that race to the tune of roughly $2 million.
Robinson led the GOP pack in campaign contributions last quarter, posting $207,532 in donations — supplemented with a $57,000 loan to his own campaign — ahead of Brauchler’s $183,398 and Mitchell’s $15,676 (counting a few thousand dollars raised in the previous quarter).
But those numbers by themselves are deceiving, as Mitchell launched his campaign by writing himself a $3 million check and still has a big chunk of that on hand. One of Stapleton’s assets is his ability to attract contributions, too, and he’s already off to a fast start raising funds for a super-PAC style independent expenditure committee.
“You don’t have to raise the most, but you have to have enough,” Robinson said. “You have to have enough to get your message out. We think that’s $3 million-plus between now and the June primary. We think that’s enough to get the message out to Colorado voters and have them know who I am and my messaging and be able to make a good decision.”
It’s still early in the campaign, he noted, and the big donors are mostly sitting on the sidelines.
“When you go around the state, the first question from the big donors is, ‘How can you win?’ They want a Republican to win, and they don’t want us to beat each other up in the primary,” he said.
“Most of them are taking a little bit of a wait-and-see, see how it develops. But there are a lot of people who have done really good in this state and are not in that group you might think of, that $100 million-plus group — they’re plumbers and dentists and attorneys. They’re engaged, and their questions are around issues: What are going to do about roads and transportation? What about health care? What do we do about education? How do we get ready for the jobs of the future? That’s who I’ve been connecting with.”
That doesn’t mean he isn’t talking with the big donors, he added with a grin, and then revealed how he answers their question.
“My pitch is that I’m absolutely in this to win, and how I win is, I focus on messaging, and that I am really a candidate who can win the general election.”
And that message, Robinson said, is about what lies ahead.
“I’m going to run a positive, future-focused campaign, and that’s going to resonate with people. That’s my message.”
Then he broke into a smile.
“The reality is, I don’t know,” Robinsons said and then, after a dramatic pause, laughed and shrugged. “The voters will decide.”