Q&A w/Kristin Strohm | Republican rainmaker and agent of change
Author: Dan Njegomir - June 4, 2018 - Updated: June 7, 2018
So, what is to be done about the unholy alliance between money and politics? Policy wonks and editorialists wring their hands over that perennial talking point, but streetwise insiders say the answer’s simple: Get yourself a good fundraiser. And Colorado’s center-right political realm has found just that in the Starboard Group and its president, Kristin Strohm.
Co-founded a decade ago by Strohm and Katie Behnke (now finance director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee), Starboard has emerged as a go-to consulting firm for the Colorado GOP as well as Republicans who are going places nationally.
It’s the powerhouse that has been in the corner of such luminaries as Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner and 6th Congressional District Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman. Clients also have included the National Republican Campaign Committee, the National Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Republican National Committee.
Alongside her campaign-finance prowess, Strohm has become an agent of change on the state’s political landscape. She helped launch a campaign to nudge some of her political kinsmen toward common ground on same-sex marriage. And she co-founded a pro-business, free-enterprise-friendly think tank with the aim of using hard math to outflank data-driven advocacy groups on the left.
Strohm dishes details on that and more — including how family life fits into the mix — in today’s Q&A.
Colorado Politics: Starboard Group has been called the Colorado GOP’s fundraiser-in-chief. That speaks volumes about your success, but of course it also reminds us how much of politics is propelled by money. While the perennial movement for campaign-finance reform at both state and federal levels has certainly made your work more complicated, has it “cleaned up politics” as promised?
Kristin Strohm: Starboard has become a great company because of all the really talented people who have worked with us over the years. We are relationship driven. We’ve developed systems and strategies and relationships that work, but in the end it’s always the team that has made Starboard the successful company it is.
I understand why the public wants campaign finance reform. Money in politics is one of those things that people understandably and instinctively don’t like. But exactly what have reforms over the last 10 years gotten us? A system that overwhelmingly benefits the extraordinarily rich.
Look at the Democratic primary for governor. The only world where Jared Polis is more qualified to be the governor of this state than Ed Perlmutter is a world where Congressman Perlmutter can only raise money $1,150 at a time and a guy like Jared Polis can write a single check for $6 million. You could not create a system that benefits the super rich self-funder more than the one we have now, especially in Colorado. I’d love to see some change in limits especially in Colorado.
CP: You are also executive director and a co-founder of the Common Sense Policy Roundtable, which some have characterized as an effort to bring more hard numbers and a little less noise to pro-business, right-of-center policy initiatives. Tell us more about its mission and what gap in the political and policy space it is intended to fill. What impact has it had so far?
Strohm: CSPR has become a wonderful asset to policy makers and Colorado citizens. Helping the extraordinary board build it from the bottom up has been very special to me.
You look over the last 15 years and progressive groups have dominated the numbers game in policy debates. We bring a different worldview, but we bring a commitment to the numbers. Before you tell me this is a good policy, what do the facts say? That’s our approach.
We believe in free markets and a dynamic economy. We believe job growth and economic prosperity are good for people, for families and for communities. And we believe policy makers better have a good sense of the second and third multiplier effects of said policies before they become law.
And we are making a difference. In just the last year, we have done major studies on no-growth initiatives, PERA, and education. We have a really smart economist and policy mind on staff, Chris Brown. He is a real up-and-comer rising star in Colorado public policy. So yes, CSPR has a real footprint, and it’s been a pleasure to help build it.
- President and co-founder, the Starboard Group.
- Co-founder, executive director of the Common Sense Policy Roundtable.
- Co-founder, Coloradans for Freedom.
- Board member, Strohm-Link Family Foundation; member, Boy Scouts of America Executive Board of the Denver Area Council; serves on the Board of Trustees at alma mater Coe College.
- Selected for a Denver Business Journal 40 Under 40 Award in 2013 and, in 2018, the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce’s Top 25 Most Powerful Women.
- Married to heavyweight political playmaker and former state Senate GOP leader Josh Penry.
CP: Another endeavor you helped launch, Coloradans for Freedom, took on what arguably was a taller task: Trying to persuade Republican and conservative Coloradans to support civil unions for same-sex couples. That policy prescription was rendered more or less moot by a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling recognizing same-sex marriage as a civil right nationwide. But the underlying premise of your campaign remains — getting more conservatives on board legal recognition for same-sex couples.
How in your view does that synch with conservative principles, and do you feel you’ve helped move the ball in that regard on Colorado’s political right?
Strohm: I’ve always tried to approach these issues with authentic respect towards both sides. There are people of faith and conviction who see the world differently than I do and I respect many people with those views. My other partners in crime: Laurie Leprino, Joe Megysey and Mario Nicolais were in large part the reason why Coloradans for Freedom took off.
To me, it is a matter of personal choice and freedom — it goes to the right of free people to chart their own existence. I’ve just never been comfortable with the idea of government telling people who they can love and who they can spend their life with. To me it would be just as wrong for government to tell a person they can’t defend their home. Or can’t worship God whenever and wherever they want. Who we love, how and where we pray and worship — these are the things that are sacred in life. It is none of the government’s business.
And so I’ve done my best to build bridges, in part just kind of speaking my mind and looking for ways to work with people who share these beliefs. The people at One Colorado have been really effective at promoting this dialogue. Guys like my good friends Ted Trimpa, Brad Clark and Daniel Ramos — some of the most important voices in the LGBTQ community — also come to mind.
Rather than just waging a permanent political war on Republicans — which would be easy to do because let’s be serious, probably 90 percent of gay-rights activists are Democrats — these leaders have committed themselves to building true relationships and real dialogue with Republicans. And in this polarized world, I admire them all so much for it.
We need more of that in our state and in our nation right now. People willing to sit at a table together and listen. Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
I wish more Republican elected officials would sit down and just listen to this community and their stories.
CP: At times, it must seem your life is wall-to-wall politics. How do you juggle that with family life, including the non-stop needs of young children at home?
Strohm: This may or may not surprise you — but we (my husband Josh Penry and I) aren’t wall-to-wall politics in our house. It is a big part of what we both do professionally, but it isn’t who we are.
We are pretty good about turning off the switch. Our kids make that easy to do. Chase is an elite athlete at Cherry Creek High School, and we are counting down days until football season. Emme is a brilliant writer, actress and swimmer who is always on the go. And then our 2-year-old twins — Sophie and Caroline — who are just the most amazing gifts. They bring so much love and laughter to our home. Our life is rich and full — potty training twins is no easy feat.
Who we love, how and where we pray and worship — these are the things that are sacred in life. It is none of the government’s business.
CP: Which candidate do you view as your biggest fundraising success thus far — not just in terms of dollars raised but also when accounting for other challenges that may have been involved?
Strohm: Mike Coffman is an absolute machine. As Chase and Emme would say, he’s the GOAT. He was our very first Starboard client and has been with us since day #1.
His work ethic just never ceases to amaze me. He approaches fundraising like a Marine. I kid you not. It’s militaristic. Which is why he isn’t always a walk in the park to sit down with; he expects you to match his effort and intensity. And my team and I do that.
We have a brilliant young fundraiser working the race with me this cycle, Katlynn Crine, and we like to think we match his intensity every day. Which is what it takes because the Democratic advantage in systematizing their giving — essentially turning on donors all over the country to Andrew Romanoff, Morgan Carroll, or a Jason Crow — is just something Republicans don’t have. So we have to scratch and claw to keep up. And we are very proud of the fact that we do, cycle after cycle, year after year.
Everyone on Team Coffman is passionate about winning for Mike. He is doing something more profound than just winning elections. He is moving the party forward to a new place. If any one of these Republican candidates for governor wants to find the recipe to win in this state, follow Mike’s lead. Listen to people, work hard, focus on solving problems and be your own person.
CP: Starboard has to make some tough calls as to which prospects to turn down for fundraising — and you get to deliver the bad news. Talk about the kinds of criteria you look at in a candidacy.
Strohm: Yeah, part of it is just kind of a gut call. Who do we jibe with? Who is committed to doing what it takes to win? Honestly, who can we serve in an effective way? We aren’t a huge shop at all, by choice, so at some point you just have to pick who you want to work with. And so that’s kind of how we approach. We don’t always get that part right. There are candidates and races I look back on that I feel like we could’ve made a difference. But you live and you learn. That’s part of the growth process.
CP: Did you see yourself becoming a master fundraiser when you were in college?
Strohm: I see myself as a businessperson and entrepreneur first, and a fundraiser second. When we started Starboard, my former business partner and co-founder, Katie Behnke, was a great fundraiser — and still is the best in the country. And I’ve built that skill, too. But I brought an MBA and business mind to this.
In the past fundraisers would be hired on directly by a candidate and immediately after the election would be out of job for months, sometimes years, and the entire party would suffer. We’d lose talent, lose historical knowledge, and lose elections.
Katie and I thought there had to be a better way, so we merged nonprofit and political consulting into one shop. I’m proud that we are a well-run company — this is our 10-year anniversary — and have cultivated a lot of talent in Colorado and across the country. And that’s probably what I’m most proud of. My mom and dad are both very successful entrepreneurs, so I think it is probably hard-wired into me.