Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne traded her Big Apple for a Gold Dome at the Colorado Capitol
Author: Joey Bunch - November 2, 2017 - Updated: January 30, 2018
This is the first in a series of personal profiles Colorado Politics will publish about the candidates for governor — as people — before we tear into their politics as the race heats up. No politics were discussed in the making of this article.
In her office on a Friday afternoon, the person in charge of operating the state of Colorado was fumbling behind furniture to find her past.
“That’s Abe Beame. That’s Koch. That’s Dinkins. That’s Giuliani,” Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne said as she laid out framed commendations the size of college diplomas from the New York City mayors she worked for.
Lynne worked with Beame and Ed Koch as they brought back the Big Apple from bankruptcy in the 1970s and ’80s. She left during David Dinkins’ administration in the early 1990s to work for a healthcare nonprofit, before Rudy Giuliani called.
The then-moderate Republican had big plans to clean up the city, and he didn’t care that Lynne was a Democrat.
“He said, ‘I want you to come back; I know you know the city,’” she recalled, referring to how the city runs.
Giuliani picked Lynne to be his director of operations. In all she spent 20 years in New York City government, at the right hand of four mayors.
“It was a lot of what I do now,” Lynne said.
Indeed, last year, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper plucked Lynne from her job as a top executive with the Kaiser Permanente, where she ran hospitals, foundations and company’s massive operations in Colorado, the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii. She was not only the lieutenant governor but, most importantly, Hickenlooper’s first chief operating officer.
Lynne stowed the commendations from the famous mayors because there wasn’t a place to put them in her office at the Capitol.
Yet a coiled whip hangs on the wall, as a joke from her friend Katherine Gold, a trustee on the Rose Community Foundation, in case Lynne ever needed to crack it. There’s also a cheap trophy on a bookcase for the best chili in the governor’s office cookoff.
As she ate a six-inch Jimmy John’s sandwich and drank water from a cup for lunch at her office conference table, there was nothing to suggest a powerful executive does business here. Her unremarkable desk would fit in just fine at the DMV.
If you define her as a rich corporate executive turned powerful politician, then you’ve never had lunch with Donna Lynne.
Born to service
She always wanted to work in public service.
Both her parents served in World War II, and after her father’s 20-year military career, he continued to work for the Navy as a civilian in Philadelphia. Her mom was among the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, or WAVES, during the war.
“First and foremost, service was part of the family culture,” she said of her upbringing in the Philly suburbs in Stratford, N.J.
On Nov. 22, 1963, John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas. They announced it on the loud speaker at Lynne’s school.
“We walked home, little kids, 10 years old, absolutely sobbing,” she said. “That had a big impact on me, because of the constant news coverage and the reflection about all the things Kennedy had worked on — getting us to the moon, the great society coming together, civil rights, women’s rights, yes, the war.
“As a young person, you were so aware of the government. I said, ‘I want to work for the government.’”
Big Apple to the Gold Dome
In 1976, she answered a “help wanted female” ad in the New York Times for a budget analyst in the mayor’s office. It was the last time she ever had to submit a resume.
In early 2005, when a recruiter called to ask her to interview for the Kaiser job in Colorado, she was sharing an apartment with two of three grown children on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. When she looked out her window, and all she saw was another building.
Lynne had never been to Denver.
She arrived with two suitcases to live alone in a furnished rental apartment in a high rise next to the Home Depot in Glendale.
She learned quickly that Coloradans can be genuine and welcoming. She made a list of 100 people she should meet, and started checking off the names of the governor, the mayor, members of the press, leaders of the chamber.
“In New York, if I called up and said, ‘Hi, I’d like to have lunch with you,’ they’d go through this mental map of, ‘Well, is she important enough? What can she do for me?’”
New Yorkers see their world differently than Coloradans do, she said.
“I think space is a huge determinant of behavior,” Lynne said. “In New York everything’s vertical. You walk down the streets, and the streets are really crowded, and I think people develop their own walls around themselves.”
Soon after she moved to Colorado, Lynne enrolled in a chamber of commerce program for newcomers.
“I remember a lady on the trip said, ‘Would you like to go to a movie sometime?’ My mind went to ‘she wants something from me,’” Lynne recalled. “To this day, she hasn’t wanted anything other than friendship.”
Lynne served on 20 different community boards over the 11 years before become lieutenant governor. Sometime later on another chamber trip a woman said, “Wow, you’re from New York. That’s a great city.”
Lynne replied, “Yes, but Denver’s a great community.”
Working with Hick
On that list of 100 people was John Hickenlooper, then Denver’s mayor.
“I was intrigued that a brew pub owner, an entrepreneur, was the mayor,” she recalled. “It makes more sense (now), because I understand Colorado a little bit.”
Political machines don’t run Colorado the way they sometimes did in New York, she said.
“I think that’s a great thing, because it gives a chance to someone with fresh ideas, someone who doesn’t come through a traditional political path,” Lynne said. “That’s who we embraced as a mayor of Denver and a governor, John Hickenlooper.”
She thinks of herself a traditional Democrat.
“I’m a firm believer in equality and social justice for all people,” Lynne said, taking a bite of her sandwich. “Growing up in the middle class, or even a step below the middle class, and the influences I had in sort of my formative years, being a teenager during women’s rights and civil rights, really influenced me.”
And she still loves government.
“When John asked me, he must have known something in the back of my head, in my heart, was still there,” she said. “I didn’t hesitate.”