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Colorado’s own Bernie Sanders mulls a run for governor

Author: Dan Njegomir - December 12, 2016 - Updated: June 6, 2017

To say the least, Michael Merrifield is a fan of Bernie Sanders.

The 69-year-old progressive Democrat and state senator from Colorado Springs pretty much idolizes the 75-year-old populist firebrand and U.S. senator from Vermont.

“I was the first elected legislator to endorse him,” Merrifield said when we caught up with him Friday seeking details about his own recent talk of entering the 2018 Colorado governor’s race.

“I admire Bernie. He absolutely is my inspiration,” Merrifield said. “I’m that kind of politician.”

Could Sanders’ unconventional blitz for the presidency this year offer a model, of sorts, for Merrifield’s possible political aspirations? Colorado, you’ll recall, turned out to be Sanders country; he walked into the Democratic National Convention last summer with 41 of Colorado’s delegates supporting him to 25 for eventual nominee Hillary Clinton. Although Sanders ultimately endorsed Clinton against Donald Trump after a bruising spring primary battle, he urged his supporters to continue the “political revolution” his campaign had helped ignite.

Merrifield would like to see that revolution continue right here in the Centennial State. That includes challenging his own party’s establishment.

“People in Colorado want a more progressive, populist voice,” Merrifield said. “Not the fat cats and plutocrats, not the Denver-centric Democrats.”

“We need somebody who’s passionate and outspoken and not afraid to speak his mind.”

Is Merrifield that somebody? He says, he has been asked to consider a run for governor.

“I’m talking to people from the Western Slope who feel they haven’t been listened to by the party for a number of years,” he said. “We’ve ignored Western Slope and rural Colorado to our peril as Democrats.”

Rural Colorado is where he traces his own roots. Though he grew up across the border in Wyoming, the 35-year Colorado resident’s family originally hails from Holly and Lamar on Colorado’s eastern plains. His father, he said, graduated high school in Holly with former Gov. Roy Romer, a Democratic Party lion and Democratic National Committee chair in the Bill Clinton years of the 1990s. (The elder Merrifield and Romer “even double-dated.” Well!)

In his first term as a state senator, the veteran lawmaker was elected to the state House in 2002. He served eight years; ran into term limits; sat out for four years more, and won his Senate seat in 2014. Throughout that time, the retired schoolteacher has been a standard bearer for public-education policies pushed by teachers unions, and he has been a relentless critic of education reforms—school vouchers, charter schools, wide-ranging accountability measures—advanced by Republicans as well as centrist voices within his own party.

Flash forward to a couple of Democratic gatherings in Colorado Springs earlier this month, where Merrifield hinted at a gubernatorial run and said he was “looking at options.”

So, is he definitely in?

“I’m definitely exploring,” he said. “For me a public servant is someone doing everything they can to serve the public. The way the election played out in my mind points out the need for that kind of voice.”

Where would he get his money?

“I would not be coming to any kind of race with a fundraising advantage,” he acknowledged. “I would hope to tap into some of Bernie’s supporters,” he said, adding, “There’s a lot of ways to get your message out nowadays without necessarily spending a lot of money.”

Then there is his decidedly leftward tilt—arguably, like Sanders’s, a double-edged sword that could limit his reach beyond his core Democratic Party base. So, has Merrifield evolved over the years in that regard?

“Not so much philosophically,” he said. “I got into politics for the same reason I’m still in.”

If his views haven’t changed, how about his style? The often-pugnacious Merrifield’s red-faced exchanges with Republicans during his days in the House is the stuff of minor legend.

“I’m more open-minded and willing to listen to the other side,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons a statewide office appeals to me because I like to listen to people.”

Any regrets from his political tenure to date? Any particularly ascerbic comment he’d take back—like the time in 2007 a muckraking website obtained an email Merrifield had sent a colleague denouncing school-choice advocates and observing, “There must be a special place in Hell for these Privatizers, Charterizers and Voucherizers!” Under fire, he stepped down as chair of the House Education Committee.

Nope. No apologies.

“I wasn’t talking about the parents who send their kids to charter schools,” he now says. “I was talking about people like Devos who want to privatize public education”—i.e., Team Trump’s pick for education secretary, school-choice advocate Betsy Devos.

Nearer term, Merrifield plans to be back at it in the 2017 legislative session, which begins Jan. 11. That means taking up the fight in a state Senate where he is in the minority and on a Senate Education Committee where even some fellow Democrats at times vote with Republicans.

He’ll be pressing again to ease up on standardized student testing, one area where left and right have converged in recent years.

And, presumably, he’ll be pondering the pluses and minuses of running for governor. While he’s at it, he’ll have to weigh the odds of displacing his party’s heavyweight potential contenders like Ken Salazar, a former Interior secretary, U.S. senator and Colorado attorney general.

If he’s intimidated by them, it doesn’t show. The fact that they represent his party’s establishment is, to Merrifield, a liability.

“I don’t think there’s any bad candidate on our side,” he said. “But I think the qustion is who influences them, and they all come from Denver.”


Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir

Dan Njegomir is the opinion editor for Colorado Politics. A longtime journalist and more-than-25-year veteran of the Colorado political scene, Njegomir has been an award-winning newspaper reporter, an editorial page editor, a senior legislative staffer at the State Capitol and a political consultant.