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Q&A with Bob Gardner | Policy maven, military veteran, school-choice champion

Author: Dan Njegomir - June 18, 2018 - Updated: June 21, 2018

State Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, addresses the Senate earlier this year. (Photo courtesy Bob Gardner)

There’s an old wisecrack that members of Colorado’s House of Representatives lob at colleagues who get elected to the state Senate — that the move will raise the average IQ of both chambers.

While senators of course are quick to offer a second opinion on the well-worn quip, one thing they and their House counterparts are likely to agree on is that the intellectual caliber of the entire General Assembly has been enhanced by one lawmaker who eventually made the leap: Bob Gardner.

The Colorado Springs Republican, a veteran of the Capitol’s second floor who has served in the House and now in the Senate, has a long-standing reputation for injecting a heavy dose of substance into policy debates.

An Air Force Academy grad and former officer who served as a lawyer in the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s Corps, Gardner is an attorney in private practice who also has spent a lot of his post-military life deeply engaged in Colorado politics.  And he is a veteran of a lot of its battles, including within his own party as a former helmsman of his county’s GOP.

Conservative — yet, as he points out, not doctrinaire — Gardner is known for reaching across the aisle to get things done at the statehouse and for building coalitions on common ground and a foundation of facts. And when he takes the podium, he can dominate the floor, lawyerly, methodical, yet at times impassioned.

Gardner dials all that in as he offers us his take on the state’s political trajectory; his read of the upcoming gubernatorial primary — and his decades-long passion for education reform — in today’s Q&A.

Colorado Politics: You’re arguably a conservative’s conservative on the issues and would seem to be good fit for overwhelmingly Republican El Paso County. Your voting record in both chambers, including four terms in the House, was pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-school choice, pro-Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights — the list goes on. And you have a lengthy history as a play maker in the state’s largest county Republican Party, having served a couple of terms as its chair back in the 1990s.

Yet, when you ran for the Senate in 2016, you nonetheless faced an opponent from the right, the controversy-courting former state Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt. While he had a reputation in the GOP as an outlier, and you handily defeated him 2-1 in the in 2016 primary, the question arises: Just how conservative does a candidate for state office have to be in the Pikes Peak region? Did Klingenschmitt actually outflank you ideologically on key issues, or was something else in play behind his challenge to you?

Bob Gardner: Given the manner in which the legislative districts are currently drawn — that is, gerrymandered in order to create three Democrat districts in what is still a very Republican El Paso County — the Republican districts are so much so that one must be all of the things you list above to be successful in the primary, and that election effectively decides the race.

One sees the mirror image of this in metro Denver, where state legislative races are decided in Democratic primaries in which candidates try to get to the left of each other.

We will have two referred measures on the ballot this year that would change Colorado’s decennial redistricting and reapportionment process.  If they are successful, we may see a change in the Republican and Democrat safe seats that will change the political equation for both parties.  I emphasize that it may change because the idea that one can remove all partisan considerations from the redistricting process is a bit of a pipe dream.

As for my own primary race, the differences between my opponent and me were stark, but not based on who was most conservative in their beliefs.  The distinction is this — and you see it in the Democratic Party with their own “establishment” vs. Bernie-ites — it is a fight about ideological purity.  This is a false fight, but there is no shortage of demagoguery in politics and there are many who treat politics as religion — that is, they will seek to punish any perceived heresy or worse, try to capitalize on anything that can be characterized as heresy in order to gain power within the hierarchy.

This kind of rhetoric and even psychology plays a large role in primaries in districts where the voting base is overwhelmingly of one party.  I have no idea whether my former primary opponent believes all of his own rhetoric about purity of political thought and so forth.  I know he once had a guest on his religious program who espoused the view that Donald Trump was demon possessed.  Now, my former opponent is a huge supporter of the president. Maybe the demon was exorcised?!? Or maybe the thing that is going on there is religious and political demagoguery pure and simple.  Only trouble is: demagoguery works from time to time.

Bob Gardner

  • Colorado Springs Republican state lawmaker representing District 12 in the Colorado Senate; elected 2016.
  • Member of state House of Representatives from House District 20 and then District 21, 2007-2014.
  • Former chair of the El Paso County Republican Party, 1993-97.
  • Attorney in private practice in Colorado Springs.
  • Former Air Force lieutenant colonel; served as a military lawyer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps.
  • Graduated the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1976; earned J.D. from University of Texas in 1981 and L.L.M. from the George Washington University School of Law in 1986.
  • Helped found and served on the board of the Cheyenne Mountain Charter Academy.

CP: El Paso County and its population center of Colorado Springs now includes three Democrats in its legislative delegation. Is your hometown, long a reputed bastion of Colorado’s political right, more liberal than when you started out in politics? Do you believe Colorado is becoming more solidly purple or even trending blue?

Gardner:  There are three Democrats from El Paso County in the legislature due to gerrymandering by a Democrat-controlled reapportionment commission.  Absent that, we might have a wholly Republican delegation because the county is still predominantly Republican and unaffiliated voters who lean Republican.

Of course, to draw districts in a more neutral way would lead to more competitive districts all over the county and the state — a changed political landscape.  I mentioned that there are ballot measures this year that would change the way we draw our legislative districts.  I think redrawing districts would highlight that Colorado at the moment is split somewhat evenly in three ways among the two major parties and unaffiliated voters.

As for El Paso County itself, there is a lot of talk that it is becoming more liberal, but I don’t see that at the moment.  One proof of that is that Republicans still control all of the county offices.  And while the City Council has more liberal representation, that has been the case for as long as one can remember and is due to the nonpartisan nature of the election — which is an example of how political structure or system can change the outcome of elections even when the overall makeup of the electorate is the same.

I believe Colorado is purple at the moment and in a state of flux — but it is hard to tell where it actually leads over a decade or two.  One thing many politicians delude themselves about is that they have control over these shifts in political thinking.  Politicians and political parties can try to harness them, shape them, adapt to them, ride them out or be swept away by them, but they cannot create political shifts or control them.

Political shifts are the result of thousands of things having to do more with demography, economy, technology, world events— and all sorts of sociological things, most of which are only clear in hindsight.  Whether Colorado and the United States will be more red or blue or purple in 10 years is really anyone’s guess. In fact, we may have to think of another color to describe the politics of the mid-21stcentury.

CP: You have been a champion of school-choice policies for decades and have been a prime mover in the education-reform movement both through legislation at the Capitol as well as through your involvement in local school districts and school board races. For years, it had seemed as though this was one policy area where you and your fellow Republicans were bringing Democrats on board.

So, what do you make of the recent retrenchment on education reform and the backlash against charter schools by a vocal faction of the state’s Democratic Party? It has become a big bone of contention in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.

Gardner: If you had told me 20 years ago, when I helped found one of the state’s most successful charter schools, that there would be a day when over 12 per cent of Colorado’s schoolchildren would attend a charter school, I would have been skeptical.  Today, we have over 115,000 students in Colorado’s 238 charter schools. Not only are public charter schools not going away, they are growing.  Most have waiting lists.

What do I make of the vocal faction of the Democratic Party that opposes charter schools and education reform generally?  Charter schools and school choice are an existential threat to the entrenched system of education unions who serve education bureaucrats rather than children, parents, or even classroom teachers. Initially, the education establishment fought charter schools tooth and nail and then, while their opposition continued, they accepted that there would be this “thorn in the side” movement that they perhaps thought would be self-limiting.

The only trouble was, two or three decades later and charter schools continue to grow and evolve to meet specific needs of children and parents — and overwhelmingly, their teachers don’t take the day off and close down the school to go to Denver to demonstrate — and significant charter school legislation to equalize mill levy funding passes.

I believe the CEA realized that charter schools really have become an existential threat — and what’s worse, some of the proponents of charter schools and education reform are in the Democrat Party tent.  That would make for a backlash — and what I hope are the death throes of opposition to serious education reform.  Our children and their parents deserve better and I will continue to fight to make that possible

CP: Handicap the governor’s race for us. Who is most likely to win each party’s nomination, and what strengths and vulnerabilities do they bring to the general election?

Gardner: At this writing (two weeks before the primary voting deadline of June 26), polling and conventional wisdom is that our Republican nominee will be Walker Stapleton. Walker has won and served successfully in statewide office, is a staunch conservative and has a well-funded and well-run campaign.

It would appear that the Democrat primary is more up in the air.  Some polling showed Cary Kennedy with an edge and then, more recently Jared Polis with an edge — and the wild card is that there is a large group of undecided voters in the Democratic primary and it is unclear how they will break. Polis can and will self-fund into the millions, and from appearances, Kennedy has a grass-roots organization that is formidable.

One could go on and on as to the obvious strengths and weaknesses of each candidate, but what is more interesting to me is the stark difference between the entire group of each party’s primary candidates and those of the other party.  I recently attended the gubernatorial debates of the major party candidates in Colorado Springs.  In the Republican debate, one could hardly find daylight between any of the Republican candidates on any issue at all.  And in the Democratic debate, the differences were about charter schools, as you allude to in your previous question, and about who was more solid on controlling guns.

Even then, the differences were not enough to distinguish one candidate over the other for swing voters.  But, the differences between the two groups was a chasm a mile wide and a mile deep. No one in either group made any pretense of appealing to the center.

While that is reflective of the current political landscape, it has no appeal for Colorado’s swing voters — who have the power to decide the race if they show up.  If they don’t show up because neither side appeals to them, then the gubernatorial race becomes a question of party turnout and reaching unaffiliated voters who really vote consistently for one party or the other.

CP: What is the biggest challenge facing Colorado Republicans right now, and how can your party overcome it?

Gardner: The biggest challenge facing Republicans here in Colorado and nationally is the generational and demographic shift in our population.  Everyone talks about the impact of millennials, and they have had a big impact when they show up to the polls.  Still, for most elections, the fact is that older citizens make up the largest group of  voters.  This will inevitably change — if for no other reason than older voters will die and younger voters will age and at least from past behavior, we know that as people get older, they are more likely to vote.

We can only guess what the major political issues will be in 10 years and what the Republican response or answer might or should be. One could write a book on what the Trump presidency means for the Republican platform and coalition — and even on the question of whether Donald Trump represents an election of a single individual whose philosophy and world view really cannot be replicated by others.  For now, if one wrote that book, it would be all speculative.

So, the simple answer is: We can overcome the challenge by reaching younger and minority voters with our message.  The harder question is: Does it or will it resonate at all with those voters?  Can we present the Republican message in a way that does resonate or must we change our platform in ways that allow us to be successful?  And if we do so, is that new platform something that I or other Republicans could support in order to win elections?

The Democratic Party went through this in the post-Vietnam era and for Republicans, it was largely what the candidacy of Barry Goldwater and the election of Ronald Reagan were all about — that is, building and keeping a winning coalition.  In the process of meeting the challenge, we will gain some voters and lose others. After all, Ronald Reagan said that he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, it left him. The trick is to build a new coalition that gains more than it loses.

CP: What was your favorite bill you’ve carried so far after 10 seasons in the General Assembly?

The biggest challenge facing Republicans here in Colorado and nationally is the generational and demographic shift in our population.

Gardner: One of my favorite bills is one that didn’t get past the first committee.  In my first session, I carried a bill to create authority for charter schools to get tax-exempt public financing for capital equipment, like buses. The agency that does charter school construction financing said they could not do the same for capital equipment financing — just wasn’t feasible.  I introduced a bill to give the authority to another state agency that didn’t really want it either.  But, because I introduced the bill, the public financing agency realized I wasn’t going away and figured out how to do tax-exempt financing for capital equipment.

Suddenly, my bill wasn’t needed, but it had served its purpose by breaking the bureaucratic logjam — all because a freshman legislator in the minority had pushed the issue.  I tell that story from time to time to remind my colleagues that a single legislator can make a difference if they do the hard work.

My other favorite bill is one from my second session that provided substantial additional funding for services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).  Frankly, this had not been my issue, but I was appointed by my leadership to serve on an interim committee to deal with a long wait list for people with IDD.  The politics of the interim committee were very tricky and some very astute members of the IDD services community enlisted me, again as a freshman in the minority, to carry the bill for additional funding.

The whole experience was a case study in legislative policy and politics, but again, with the help of others, I was able to make a huge difference in the lives of our citizens with developmental disabilities and their families.  After that, I became an acknowledged champion for people with IDD. I tell that story also from time to time to as an example of how a single legislator who is open to opportunities, can make big differences for our citizens.

CP: You have been an Air Force officer, an attorney and of course a politician. Any regrets about any of those career choices? If you hadn’t set out on any of those three career paths, what else might you have done in your productive life?

Gardner: All of those choices have been about who I am and what I wanted to do with my professional and work life at the time.  I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to do the things I wanted to do and grow and learn through all of them.  So, asking me if I have regrets about those choices is like asking me whether I regret who I am.

I did want to be a fighter pilot, but while I was at the Air Force Academy, my eyesight became bad and I couldn’t go to pilot training.  But by that time, I was deeply involved in the study of international affairs and national security policy, as well as law, which are all still passions of mine. I was able to go to law school while in the Air Force and was a JAG and have enjoyed traveling and working internationally both in the Air Force and even more since.

More than anything else professionally, I think of myself first and foremost as an attorney.  One of the great things about being an attorney is that one can actually use the knowledge and skill set in many different ways. I have worked as an international election observer and election law expert on short term missions in several countries. I’ve taught law at the undergraduate level.  I was a criminal prosecutor and defense attorney while in the Air Force and my current law practice, which I have had for 25 years now, is primarily a practice in federal government contracting. But I have and continue to do legal work on charter school and education choice issues, campaign and election law, and First Amendment and religious liberties matters — all of which are interests and even passions of mine.

At the moment, I happen to be an attorney who serves as a state senator and still maintain my law practice and will practice law for the rest of my working life. When people ask what I do, my first and instinctive response is, “I’m a lawyer.”

But OK, what would I have been if not that?  A Foreign Service officer or a CIA case officer. I still hope to have the time and inclination to write a mystery novel based in the political world and see if it gets any traction.

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.