COVER STORY | Profile: Walker Stapleton says solutions depend on balanced books
Author: Joey Bunch - September 18, 2018 - Updated: September 30, 2018
Walker Stapleton moves from pantry to kitchen to backyard smoker with the focus and grace of a New York chef.
At his spacious home in Greenwood Village he serves up politics — taxes, balanced budgets and an economic future for his three kids — while he preps lamb chops, wild rice with bits of Alaskan king crab and whole lemon-spiced green beans as tender as his grandmother’s heart.
Democrats have characterized the Colorado state treasurer and Republican gubernatorial nominee as a bumbler who trips over his words, saying things ripe for opposition spin.
The characterization falls apart in his real life, beyond his uneasiness around certain press. Stapleton’s life speaks of family tradition and optimism as well-defined as lines in a ledger.
The lamb was from Colorado, picked up from Oliver’s Meat Market on Denver’s East Sixth Avenue. The culinary interest comes from the candidate’s 99-year-old grandmother, Katie Stapleton, a cookbook author who hosted the two-hour daily “Cooking with Katie” show on KOA radio for 25 years.
“I learned to cook in her kitchen,” the candidate says. “I love the creative aspect of it. I take a recipe and I figure out what works, I improvise and add some things the recipe doesn’t call for. I take out some things. It’s a great trial and error experience, cooking.”
COMING SOON: Colorado Politics profiles Stapleton’s opponent, Jared Polis
The Stapleton name is written large in Colorado history books, too, from the Stapleton neighborhood, once home of the old Stapleton airport, to the parks and culture of Denver, including Red Rocks Amphitheater.
Beyond Colorado, Walker Stapleton’s cousins, both named George Bush, were presidents. Walker Stapleton asked his wife, Jenna, to marry him a short walk from the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine, on Walker’s Point, no less.
His mother, Dorothy Walker Stapleton, is a first cousin to the first President Bush. Walker and Jenna’s first-born child, Craig, who’s 10, is named after Walker’s father, a former ambassador to France and the Czech Republic. Proving the ladle doesn’t fall far from the kettle, Craig Stapleton competed on “The Next Iron Chef” TV show in 2007.
The 44-year-old Walker Stapleton’s kitchen is his sanctuary, it seems, with the warm music of conversation and family. Cabinet doors are covered with colored Post-it notes, handwritten mostly by his wife, with things their precocious young children have said.
“Does your sweet tooth fall out?” declares one note once uttered by Craigie, as they call him.
Oldest daughter CoCo, who’s 7, once said, “If you say the salami is gone, I won’t be in your family anymore.”
Olivia, almost 5, asked, “What’s a Cynthia Coffman?”
“They hear us talking,” Jenna Stapleton explained.
Stapleton, the New Englander
As inextricable as the Stapleton name is to Colorado, the scion seeking the governor’s office grew up in Connecticut.
His great-grandfather was Benjamin Stapleton, who died in 1950, a longtime Denver mayor starting in 1923. In July, the New York Times reported the fact — well known in Colorado — that Ben Stapleton, a Southern-born Democrat, rose to office as a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. He left the organization and later worked against its mission, historians note. In 1925 the Klan voted to banish him as Ben Stapleton declared his independence and fired Denver’s Klan-backed police chief.
As the Klan declined, Ben Stapleton was re-elected four times and served until 1947, picking up the nickname “Ben the Builder.”
While critics have sought to link Walker Stapleton to the Klan, he has denounced racism and said he never knew his ancestor.
Benjamin Stapleton migrated to Colorado from Paintsville, Ky., in his 20s and soon made a name for himself in public life.
Walker Stapleton did the same. He grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, and graduated from good colleges in Massachusetts and London, before getting an MBA from Harvard. In 2003, when he was 29 years old, he moved to Colorado.
For eight of the years he has lived in Colorado, Stapleton has been the state treasurer, effectively the state government’s banker.
Before getting into politics, he worked in business, first in Silicon Valley, then finding and providing commercial real estate for companies that market in such products as goat milk, organic fruits and vegetables, as well as wineries.
His father had been an investor and served on the board of Sonoma West Holdings. When Craig Stapleton left to serve a stint as U.S. ambassador to the Czech Republic for President George W. Bush in 2001, Walker Stapleton got involved in the company. He soon became its president and CEO and moved it from publicly traded to privately held.
In his first try at elected office in 2010, Stapleton upset incumbent Cary Kennedy, a rising-star Democrat, to become state treasurer. In June Kennedy finished second to Jared Polis in her party’s primary, thwarting a rematch.
‘We can’t afford it’
Stapleton will tell you he’s a numbers guy. It’s one of the reasons he migrated away from the make-believe dollars inside the tech bubble in Silicon Valley to real estate, because it’s an asset versus an assumption. His views on governing track the same way away from promises and toward financial realities.
As treasurer, he was years ahead of others in state government in sounding the warning and demanding a fix for the state public employees’ pension. Too much was being paid out to retirees when not enough was being paid in by public employees, he argued early in his tenure.
Last spring lawmakers reached a bipartisan deal to fill in what was otherwise expected to be a $32 billion shortfall in the Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association, or PERA. The state’s credit rating was riding on the fix Stapleton had demanded for years.
Two years ago, he and Gov. Bill Ritter led a bipartisan fight against Amendment 69, the ColoradoCare single-payer health care proposal that was voted down by nearly 4 out of 5 Colorado voters because of the tax hike it would demand.
Stapleton said he opposes Polis’ “Medicare for All” universal health care plan for the same reason. “We can’t afford it,” he said, adding that the state can’t provide everyone with health care without raising taxes or cutting services to a bare minimum. His plan would use federal block grants and working with private companies and non-profits to provide communities with a network of care.
“You can promise anything,” he said of Medicare for All as he finished up dinner on the patio. “But it has to make sense. Look, I know what our state budget is, and I can tell you, we can’t afford Jared Polis’ plan. You can’t just invent money and make promises.”
He also can’t fathom how Polis can extend free all-day kindergarten, as he has proposed, without identifying a way to pay for it, when schools already don’t have enough money. Stapleton’s plan is to cut administrative costs and steer more money into classrooms, not more vice principals and accountants.
You also can’t support the state’s existing $29 billion budget without the jobs and taxes provided by the state oil and gas industry, he argues.
On energy, Stapleton has been a supporter of the fossil-fuel industry, saying he supports a more gradual evolution into renewable energy than Polis, who vows to move the state toward getting all its electric power from green sources by 2040.
The Republican says energy and the environment have co-existed well in Colorado, and they can continue to do that under his watch using existing regulations.
“I will absolutely continue the effort to protect Colorado’s lands, both federal lands and (state) lands,” he told the Club 20 political gathering in Grand Junction on Sept. 8. “They are absolutely critically important to the outdoor recreation industry and to a well-regulated energy industry for the economic future all us collectively want.”
His administration will work on a “sensible plan” for endangered species that “doesn’t take away economic opportunities for rural communities,” Stapleton said.
Stapleton opposes Proposition 110, the ballot measure to raise the state sales tax by 0.62 cents for transportation, because too much of the money goes to unspecified projects for local communities and transit.
Coloradans already pay enough in taxes to fund transportation, Stapleton said, but Democrats redirect the money generated by economic growth to projects that don’t support the needs of infrastructure to support and continue that growth, he said.
“All of us as Coloradans are investors in our infrastructure,” Stapleton said. “Finally, we need to find dedicated sources of revenue, and I believe we can in our General Fund.”
He said bettors should pay once sports gambling comes to Colorado, now that the Supreme Court has said it’s legal.
“I believe if we’re going to have brick-and-mortar gambling Colorado, somebody should pay a quarter or 50 cents when they place a bet on the Nuggets or the Rockies or the Broncos to go to our infrastructure to invest in the long-term (growth) of Colorado,” Stapleton said.
‘Why not respond?’
Stapleton and his campaign don’t abide liberal critics to any degree, which raises the question of whether he could govern a legislature where the House, the Senate or both are run by Democrats.
He returns to the numbers. If they make sense, a deal will make sense and both sides will work something out, Stapleton said.
But when it comes to critics deemed left-leaning that also have a press badge, Team Stapleton hasn’t entertained diplomacy.
When Corey Hutchins of the Colorado Independent news outlet showed up at a private residenced holding what was billed as a “community” event with Stapleton and polarizing supporter Tom Tancredo in Parker on Sept. 4, he was soon shown the door. Hutchins could hear the speeches from down the street, as both men praised President Donald Trump and mocked the press deemed slanted against them.
“If you all see a drone up there, it’s probably owned by (Denver alternative weekly) Westword or Colorado Independent or one of those phony news organizations,” Hutchins reported Stapleton saying.
As for Westword, longtime editor Patricia Calhoun tried to speak to Stapleton when the Denver Rustlers civic posse was preparing to go to the state fair, but he brushed her aside and said he didn’t do off-the-cuff interviews, she said.
Jason Salzman, the left-leaning media critic and journalist, caught an error in Stapleton’s financial disclosure involving his wife’s pay as head of the family charitable foundation. The campaign corrected the error, but never returned Salzman’s calls.
“I understand why I’d be a low priority for Stapleton’s campaign, and not just because only three people read my blog,” Salzman joked. “But when I email a simple question seeking facts or clarification, why not respond? I’ve seen Stapleton stand at a meet-and-greet and take questions from anyone who happens to be there. Why not take legit questions from me? Can we all agree that the more questions politicians are asked, the better for everybody?”
In 1999, in San Francisco, Stapleton was at the wheel when his Jeep Cherokee was struck by a taxi. He pulled down the block to get out of traffic, he said.
And the way he tells it, when the cops asked if he had been drinking, he admitted he had.
Initially he was charged with driving under the influence and hit-and-run. He later pleaded guilty only to drunken driving, for which he was sentenced to community service. The hit-and-run charge was dropped.
In 2010, after he won the election, Stapleton released the vague police report on the incident to The Denver Post’s Tim Hoover.
“We gave everything we could get to Tim. I had to physically go to California and sign for it,” Stapleton said.
“Twenty years ago I made a mistake, and I learned from it and moved on,” he said on his back deck with his children playing nearby. “I deeply regret it, but I was 24 and I used bad judgment. I don’t know else I’m supposed to say.”
Democrats hope to turn off moderates by keeping a spotlight on Stapleton’s Republican bedfellows.
First, there’s Tom Tancredo.
The three-time candidate for governor dropped out of this year’s race, then nominated Stapleton at the state GOP assembly, a move that Stapleton’s campaign argues was intended to unify the party. Stapleton got 43 percent of the delegates’ votes, then went on to beat three challengers for the nomination in the June primary.
Always Colorado’s loudest voice on immigration reform, Tancredo got in the governor’s race after a group he’s affiliated with — with white supremacists ties — lost its venue for an event in Colorado Springs after the deadly Charlottesville, Virginia, protests last year.
Tancredo otherwise hasn’t been on the campaign trail for Stapleton, and both sides deny the former congressman will join a Stapleton administration.
During the primary, Stapleton and other GOP gubernatorial candidates adopted Tancredo’s tough rhetoric on sanctuary cities that are hospitable to undocumented immigrants. The Republicans also embraced Trump; to do otherwise would have been a deal breaker with the GOP base.
Several of Stapleton’s Bush relatives, however, have a very cold relationship with Trump over a litany of insults the current president has issued against Jeb Bush. Nevertheless, Stapleton said during the primary that he would stump with Trump, if the opportunity arose.
So far, that opportunity to campaign with the president hasn’t presented itself, and Trump hasn’t offered the Bushes’ Colorado cousin an endorsement.
“Those issues are in Washington,” Stapleton said about Trump. “I’m going to try to focus on issues in Colorado that unite people around solutions for here.
He added: “Look, there are going to be times I agree with the president, especially on the economy. And there are times that I don’t.”
Nonetheless, Trump isn’t popular in Colorado, a state he lost to Hillary Clinton two years ago.
“Stapleton gets more Trump-like every day,” said Eric Walker, spokesperson for the Colorado Democratic Party. “Just like Trump, Stapleton is constantly lying, cozying up to white nationalists, attacking the press, trying to take health care away from families, and failing in the basic duties of his office. The last thing Coloradans need is a Trump clone in the governor’s mansion.”
For certain, Stapleton has kept company his entire life with great people, and dogs. His family could be described as the Republican Kennedys, with a great tradition, great wealth, great power. The son of an ambassador and a close cousin to two presidents, he’s met kings and statesmen and enjoyed a front row seat to American history.
But as the night fell on the summer evening in his backyard, he said the family’s defining characteristic, and perhaps what binds them together, aren’t the things most people value as much. It’s public service, a concern for others outside yourself, he said.
Stapleton was in the entourage in 1992 when President George H.W. Bush was on his way to the Houston Dome in Texas to give his acceptance speech for re-election. The president was nearly late while he consoled a staff member he discovered had recently lost a spouse.
“That’s a valuable perspective that I’m afraid we’re getting away from in this country, to treat everybody with respect and dignity,” Stapleton said. “To understand things that are important to others should be important to you.”
At home in Greenwood Village, Stapleton seemed his own man — a dad, a cook, a political pragmatist — in a maze of family and political influences.
“As long as I’m just Walker, I’ll be fine,” he said, turning back and he escorted company part way to his front door.