Q&A with Kelly Brough | Denver chamber’s chief weighs in on Olympics, #MeToo and more
Author: Dan Njegomir - April 6, 2018 - Updated: April 6, 2018
Among the heavier hitters in the Denver metro business community — and in Colorado politics — is Kelly Brough.
As president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, she wields the kind of clout in the political forum that you’d expect of someone who serves as a voice for some 3,000 Denver-area businesses and their 300,000 employees.
And, befitting a metropolitan area of Denver’s size and trajectory, her agenda extends way beyond the old-time, Main Street business boosterism the was once the primary focus of chambers of commerce.
In today’s Q&A she holds forth on the chamber’s role in trying to temper constitutional change; the way to balance opposing views on growth, and how to approach seemingly intractable issues like growth: “… we often spend more time talking about our positions than about our interests.” She covers a lot more territory, too; read on.
Colorado Politics: The chamber was a prime mover behind Amendment 71, the 2016 statewide ballot measure that raised the bar for amending Colorado’s constitution. The successful effort was a response to concerns in the business community and elsewhere that Colorado’s founding document had become riddled with ill-advised amendments that were wreaking havoc with Colorado’s economy, so the amendment process warranted a higher standard. However, a Denver District Court recently called back a key provision of the new policy. Why does the chamber support the measure, and what’s at risk if it is mooted by the courts?
Kelly Brough: We continue to strongly support having a higher standard for issues that aim to amend our state’s Constitution. In some states, amending the Constitution isn’t even an option, so it’s reasonable to establish a higher standard that still allows access to the Constitution but recognizes that it is different than passing a law. Further, Coloradans can still pass statutes under the current standard for the state – Amendment 71 only impacts the Constitution. Finally, the judge raised a concern that by requiring a percentage of the signatures to be collected in each of Colorado’s senate districts and recognizing that the population of those districts grows at different rates doesn’t honor “one person, one vote.” But, that rationale actually argues why the policy voters approved should stay in place – Amendment 71 ensures people in every district of Colorado have a voice, and that voice is diminished without this policy. As a matter of fact, we’d be right back to where we started, and it would be easy to collect signatures from only one area and not reflect the views of a broader base of Coloradans. It’s also important to note that the second standard established by voters through Amendment 71, which requires 55 percent voter approval to amend the Constitution, was upheld by the judge.
We support any efforts the state undertakes to appeal this decision given past rulings in federal courts across the country. And, even with Amendment 71 in place, many states have tougher rules for initiatives and signature gathering than Colorado, which remains one of the most accessible states in the country in terms of qualifying constitutional amendments for the ballot.
CP: A strange-bedfellows assortment of political activists from the left and right converged to oppose Amendment 71 — reflecting perennial, populist misgivings about business and government cooperation. This has come up again and again over the years, locally and statewide — on transportation, on urban renewal, on growth; the list goes on. How does a leading business group like the chamber — often caught between the two political poles — deal with this dynamic when helping shape, and advocate for, public policy?
Brough: The Chamber represents 3,000 businesses and their 300,000 employees. As you can imagine, that means we represent people across the spectrum of political viewpoints, every industry in the state, every size of business and who are geographically dispersed – diverse in every way you can imagine. But, as is often the case, we are almost always capable of finding a solution that works for all of us. We have spent 150 years bringing people with differing views together to find common ground for a solution. And, frankly, it’s that process that gives us confidence that we are heading in the right direction because so many people have weighed in and helped shape the solution. Amendment 71 was just that. Ultimately it was up to Colorado voters whether this was good policy. They clearly agreed.
- President and CEO of Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce
- Former chief of staff to then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. Also served as the mayor’s deputy chief of staff; as the director of the Denver office of accountability and reform, and the director of human resources for the city.
- Named one of Colorado’s 10 most influential women by The Denver Post and one of Denver’s most influential people by 5280 Magazine.
- Holds a master’s of business administration degree from the University of Colorado at Denver and a bachelor’s degree in sociology and criminal justice from Montana State University.
CP: Your chamber bio touts you as its first female CEO and notes you also were the first female director of human resources for the City and County of Denver — and the first female on-call snow plow driver at the old Stapleton International Airport. Give us your top takeaways from the #MeToo debate. What do you think are the prospects for real reform? How badly are reforms needed especially in public-sector employment in Colorado, from your perspective as a onetime human resources chief?
Brough: The #MeToo movement has brought this conversation to all of our workplaces, and I think it’s important and valuable that men and women engage in those discussions. We see many organizations examining their training and workplace policies, not only talking about harassment but also looking more deeply at how they ensure women are being considered for leadership opportunities.
Nationally, women only represent about 20 percent of c-suite positions, and only 3 percent of those are women of color. While we are proud that Denver ranks fourth in the nation among the best cities for working women, we also strive to do even better. Finally, I would add that ensuring we are inclusive, open and respectful is important beyond only a gender perspective.
CP: The chamber is part of the exploratory committee considering a Colorado bid for the Winter Olympics. Already — perhaps, inevitably — an upstart movement has launched to oppose any such bid. The “NOlympic” committee argues that hosting the Olympics in 2030 would, among other things, divert resources from basic human services; tap tax dollars to cover cost overruns, and add, if only temporarily, to traffic congestion in an already-gridlocked metro area. This isn’t the first time there’s been push-back to an Olympics bid, and in a lot of ways, such concerns also mirror the debate over whether Denver or Colorado should be vying for Amazon’s HQ2. On that one, even the governor — fairly or unfairly — was accused of equivocating. Where does the chamber stand on such bids in general? Is it a matter of take all comers, or is Denver in a fortunate enough position to be choosy and look at such opportunities case by case?
Brough: Colorado should always be thoughtful about our future and what we want to attract or bid on. The process we are engaged in to explore hosting the Winter Olympics strikes me as a good way to do it: Invite everybody to share their views, identify what concerns there are and determine if people share a vision about what is possible – and the benefits that it could create. If in those conversations people agree that the concerns can’t be addressed, then maybe the answer is to hold off. If people agree that any challenges or concerns can be addressed and that there is an upside to pursing the opportunity, then the answer may be to go for it. The fact that some people may have their minds made up ahead of time, such as the “NOlympic” group you mention or a group who might already decide to fully endorse a bid, doesn’t change that the right approach is a broader conversation.
CP: A growth moratorium almost landed on the Lakewood ballot, and a similar initiative is being circulated statewide — almost a ritual endeavor in Colorado. Will there ever be a lasting compromise between those who want to cap growth and those who want to plan for it?
Brough: When there’s disagreement, I think we often spend more time talking about our positions than about our interests. This is one of those issues. We all share the desire to maintain a great quality of life, deliver a good education to our children, protect our environment and ensure good jobs are available to families throughout the state. These are things we agree on — these are our interests.
If we start there, I think we could engage in a more meaningful discussion about how to achieve all those things, given our growth. And, there is a range of solutions in how we manage growth that would ensure all those interests are met without negatively impacting or prioritizing one of those interests over another.
CP: What are the top issues you want Colorado’s next governor to address?
Brough: I can think of four issues immediately that have long-term implications for our state, and we need our legislature and governor, and those who follow them, to address them:
- Our educational pipeline, from preschool to post-secondary, which is not delivering the results we need to meet our workforce and economic needs and requires systemic change;
- Our water plan, which has decades of projects that we must start implementing;
- Colorado PERA, which has a $32 billion unfunded liability;
- And our transportation system, which has gone underfunded for decades and is in need of serious investment.
CP: What brought you from Montana to Colorado, and what keeps you here (aside from a really cool job)?
Brough: I came for my first job. I was a counselor for delinquent girls; I was paid $12,000 a year and worked a night shift. Nothing about it would likely be considered cool or amazing, but that first job was just that. It turned out to be a wonderful experience that opened me to the world – and the world to me.
I’ve now been in Colorado for more than 30 years. Like so many others, I’ve fallen in love with the beauty of the state and everybody in it. I’ve found like-minded, work-hard-play-hard people who want to do business from a chair lift or over a bike ride, and that connection to the people and this place we love has kept me here. And, Colorado has helped me raise two beautiful young women as well.