Q&A with Chantell Taylor | Her career has evolved — but not her ‘core values’
Author: Dan Njegomir - August 21, 2018 - Updated: August 31, 2018
In the mid-2000s, mere mention of Chantell Taylor’s name or her organization drew shudders in Colorado Republican circles, particularly at the Capitol.
Taylor, a lawyer who founded nonprofit watchdog group Colorado Ethics Watch in 2006, set out to expose ethical lapses among the state’s political players. She filed complaints and and called pols to account; Republicans at the time denounced her as a liberal activist who was really only out to target them. Her work drew the scrutiny of right-leaning bloggers, too, including one who satirically dubbed his series of blog posts on her, “Chantell Taylor Watch.”
Taylor moved on from Colorado Ethics Watch long ago; it ceased operations under different leadership at the end of last year. And today, she’s an attorney, lobbyist and partner at the Denver office of national law firm Snell & Wilmer.
Just before landing that high-powered gig earlier this month, Taylor had served for three years as the head of government relations in Colorado and Utah for international oil-and-gas behemoth Anadarko Petroleum.
That’s quite a turn from her tenure as a tormentor at large for elected officials a decade ago. So, we had to ask: Has joining the establishment — especially her time in the Republican-leaning oil-and-gas industry — changed her views?
She answers that question — and talks about her brief run for CU regent last spring, her upbringing, and her take on just how clean Colorado politics is today — in today’s Q&A.
Colorado Politics: You have been, at turns, a center-left activist, an ethics watchdog and thorn in the side of the center-right political establishment — and in recent years, an advocate for the oil and gas industry. Throughout, you’ve been a practicing attorney. Have your political views evolved? How would you describe your politics today? On the other hand, has there also been a common thread — an intersection of sets — in your various endeavors?
Chantell Taylor: My career has certainly evolved, but my core values have not. The range of issues I’ve worked on, from energy to higher education to campaign finance, are about people and economics and good government, which should not be partisan issues. I think my continued success practicing in government relations and regulatory law is a testament to my ability to focus on common objectives, collaboration and achieving outcomes. If there is any common thread in my various endeavors, it’s my passion for tackling complex issues that intersect law and politics, government, business and civic engagement, or all of the above.
- Partner, Snell & Wilmer. Advises and advocates for clients in wide-ranging industries as well as nonprofits on governmental matters including constitutional disputes, campaign finance compliance, affordable housing and transportation issues, and cannabis legalization. Also manages regulatory issues arising from traditional and renewable energy development across the state.
- Government relations manager for Colorado and Utah, Anadarko Petroleum Corp., 2015-2018.
- Senior attorney with Hogan Lovells in Denver, 2011-2015.
- General counsel, the Public Interest Network, 2009-2011.
- Founding director, Colorado Ethics Watch, 2006-2009.
- Holds a J.D. from the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law.
CP: Tell us a little about your upbringing — you’ve talked about your parents’ mom-and-pop construction business — and how it may have influenced you and the path you’ve taken.
Taylor: My parents raised four kids on the general contracting business my dad built himself, which taught us the value of hard work and perseverance. With their support, I was the first in my family to graduate from college, the only to earn a professional degree, and have built a family and career that I can be proud of. My grit and tenacity I attribute to growing up with three older brothers! These are life skills I strive to instill in my teenage daughters every day.
CP: Almost anyone who was engaged in Colorado politics in the mid-2000s is likely to recall you as the driving force behind Colorado Ethics Watch, the nonprofit watchdog group that aggressively pursued allegations of campaign-finance violations and other lapses by state politicos. It was an effort that was unprecedented at the time (and recently shut down after a lengthy run). What was the impetus behind it and how did you come to be its point person?
Taylor: Colorado Ethics Watch (CEW) was launched in 2006 as a state-based project of the D.C.-based organization Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW). I was recruited as CEW’s founding director because I had traditional litigation experience, as well as extensive involvement in directing nonprofit political organizations and campaigns.
My task was to replicate at the state level what the CREW was (and still is) successfully doing at the federal level – bringing greater transparency and accountability to government operations and the political process. CREW identified Colorado as its first state project because, as written, Colorado’s campaign finance laws are enforced by a citizen-driven complaint process which provided CEW with an effective platform to expose campaign finance violations and proactively shape precedent in a way that strengthened and clarified our election laws.
CP: Despite CEW’s nonpartisan status, Republicans contended it almost exclusively targeted their party. In hindsight, was that a fair assessment? If so, was it because the GOP is where the most malfeasance was to be found?
Taylor: CEW was formed as 501(c)(3), tax exempt nonprofit dedicated to ethics and transparency in government. Our tax-exempt status and our entire reputation depended upon our ability to remain nonpartisan. Then and now, I believe we stayed true to that and made important contributions to the evolution of ethics and political law in the state. In terms of malfeasance, speaking from the trusted working relationships I’ve built with Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, I think that runs across the political spectrum, regardless of party affiliation.
CP: You’re a University of Colorado alum. Last spring, you withdrew from the race for the Democratic nomination for at-large CU regent. What led you to launch your candidacy — your first — for political office, and why did you ultimately stand down?
Taylor: I’ve spent my career encouraging women to run for office and helping candidates get elected — as their attorney, a volunteer, fundraiser, voter, but never a candidate. In this cycle when so many women are standing up to run, I felt like it was my turn to make that commitment to public service. And I’m so glad I did. It reaffirmed my commitment to the political process and deepened my appreciation for candidates and elected officials, who sacrifice so much to serve the public.
Unfortunately, my campaign had become more about my employer at the time, and less about why I was the best candidate to represent hard-working students and families hoping to achieve an affordable and relevant education. That’s when I knew it was time to pursue other opportunities to positively impact public policy in our state.
Our tax-exempt status and our entire reputation depended upon our ability to remain nonpartisan. Then and now, I believe we stayed true to that and made important contributions to the evolution of ethics and political law in the state.
CP: As a go-to authority in the legal community for election law, campaign regulations and the intricacies of the citizens-initiative process, give us your take on 2016’s Amendment 71 — the voter-approved amendment to the state constitution that ironically made it harder to amend the constitution. Though one proposed constitutional amendment just made the ballot this month despite Amendment 71’s strictures, has it put a damper on ballot initiatives in general? Was it warranted in your estimation?
Taylor: A state’s constitution is its founding document that unites us as a community around a core set of governing principles and basic rights. Unlike a statutory initiative, once a constitutional amendment is passed by voters it is effectively frozen in time until a subsequent effort is passed to modify, update or undo it.
Over the past decades, well-intentioned constitutional amendments in Colorado have created provisional conflicts and other unforeseen consequences that frustrate the ability of our policymakers to meet the needs of a diverse and ever-evolving community and business climate. It is therefore appropriate, in my opinion, to set a higher standard for amending our state constitution than a state statute and not thwart the ability of citizens to initiate ballot measures.
CP: For all its foibles, is politics in Colorado cleaner than in other states?
Taylor: One of the reasons I love working in Colorado politics is because we are a “purple” state with a voter base that is engaged, fiercely independent, and proud to call this state our home. We might not always agree on how to get there, but we share a common value to make Colorado the best state to live, work and recreate. And as we saw in the 2018 legislative session, when ethical issues arise among our elected ranks, we set partisan politics aside and do the right thing. I’d say that makes Colorado pretty clean.
CP: Unaffiliated voters have become the state’s No. 1 voting bloc by what seems to be a growing margin. However it fares for Democrats in November — they’re of course presumed to be ascendant — do you think people are turning off of political parties and partisan politics in the longer run?
Taylor: I think the rise of unaffiliated voters can be attributed to both a frustration with dysfunctional partisan politics and a growing generation of voters that do not identify with the two-party system. Although unaffiliated voter registrations are out-pacing affiliated voters, as a voting bloc they are still underperforming both parties — only 10 percent of all registered independents voted in the 2018 primaries as compared to roughly 20 percent of voters from each party. And when asked, even unaffiliated voters tend to align with aspects of one party or another. Like it or not, at least for now, party politics is here to stay.