Q&A w/Andy McElhany: A former legislative leader surveys the landscape
Author: Dan Njegomir - May 18, 2017 - Updated: June 6, 2017
Colorado Springs Republican Andy McElhany spent 14 years in Colorado’s General Assembly, from 1994 to 2008. He served in both chambers and as a member of the minority as well as the majority, ending his tenure in elected office as state Senate minority leader. His lengthy legislative record ranged from a bill repealing the “marriage penalty tax” to legislation enforcing child-support laws. Along the way, he was honored as an outstanding legislator by the Associated Press, the Colorado Union of Taxpayers, the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, and United Veterans of Colorado. He developed a reputation as a budget hawk and advocate of tax limitation. (A more dubious distinction: He also was my boss during my long-ago stint as a legislative staffer.) Although McElhany logged his last sine die nearly a decade ago, the 77-year-old retired real estate broker has hardly retired from politics.
Colorado Politics: You have been engaged in a range of political and public policy endeavors since leaving the legislature; please catch us up on some of the details. Do you find it hard to resist involvement in politics after all of your years in elective office?
Andy McElhany: I cannot imagine a time I would not be interested in public policy and those who are elected to make decisions. The year I left the legislature the enlightened Board of El Paso County Commissioners decided the Great Recession would be a grand time to raise the sales tax. I chaired and managed a campaign against the tax. It was easily defeated. The next year, the (Colorado Springs) City Council decided they liked the idea so much they put a massive property tax on the ballot. I managed a campaign against that tax, and it was easily defeated. I co-chaired a campaign to change the management structure of the city of Colorado Springs from a city manager to an executive mayor, which passed overwhelmingly. Then I co-chaired a campaign to elect Steve Bach the first mayor under the new system. He won with 57 percent of the vote. I worked hard in the effort to get the city to divest itself from Memorial Hospital, which was long term leased to the University of Colorado Hospital system. A couple of years ago I recorded a radio ad for now Rep. Terri Carver to let the voters know her opponent was a past supporter of a tax hike. Last year I recorded a radio ad for Rep. Mark Waller running for county commissioner to let voters know that his opponent was also a supporter of a tax hike. He was easily elected. Other than that, not much!
CP: In your time as a Republican in the legislature, you served in both the majority and the minority, including as Senate minority leader. And since then, the balance of power in both chambers has shifted yet again. Is control of the General Assembly — a lawmaking body once reliably in Republican hands — destined to swing back and forth for the foreseeable future in our purple state?
AM: Yes, you must think the majority will swing back and forth in the very closely held chambers we have now. Much depends on reapportionment, which is totally in the hands of the chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court. Who the chief justice is depends on who the governor picks to sit on the court. Which, again speaks to the importance of who is elected governor.
CP: Why has your party had such a tough time finding a winning gubernatorial candidate in the past several elections? Would you care to name any current GOP prospects you think have a good shot at the job in 2018?
AM: History shows that the party that chews itself up the most in a primary election will lose the general election. That was certainly the case in 2010, when the Republicans swept all the statewide offices on the ballot except the governor’s race and the U.S. Senate race over a badly split GOP. And, even at that, Hick barely got 51 percent of the vote. In 2014 Hick’s incumbency was too strong for a quality candidate, but the primary damaged Bob Beauprez. You will remember that was the year Cory Gardner won, when party leaders were able to clear the field and prevent a primary election. Both parties are looking at a primary in 2018. Maybe the Green Party candidate will win!
CP: Do you believe Gov. John Hickenlooper really will seek the Democratic presidential in 2020?
AM: I cannot imagine the governor will run for president. He certainly does not have a record of leadership on the many Colorado issues he will be leaving to others to solve after he is gone. He does not seem organized enough to take that on, nor does he have national sponsorship. Running for president takes a lot more than jumping out of an airplane. He also suffered a major disappointment in not having a Hillary Clinton cabinet to go to. A major disappointment can take a lot of wind out of your sails.
CP: While the PIkes Peak region continues be dominated by the GOP, Colorado as a whole is growing and undergoing a demographic shift — one that, among other things, appears to be swelling the ranks of unaffiliated voters. How should your party respond to that challenge?
AM: An overwhelming majority of voters, including the unaffiliated, agree with my party on fiscal issues, that the government taxes too much and spends too much and spends on too many of the wrong things. The social issues that have plagued my party are being resolved. The gay marriage issue has been resolved, like it or not, and is not going to be changed. Abortion is not the issue it once was; just ask Mark Udall! If a Republican states in a primary campaign he is opposed to abortion in all circumstances he will never win any statewide election. About the only remaining social issue is some bad gun legislation from the past that needs some adjustment. Now, if only my party’s candidates will learn that if they beat each other up on social issues in primary elections, they are not going to get elected to anything, then we will start to win a lot of elections
CP: Of which of your legislative accomplishments are you most proud? Any regrets from your years in public office — whether it was a vote you cast; a policy you supported or opposed; a big decision you made, etc.?
AM: I feel pretty good about my legislative experience. I passed some meaningful legislation, but in reality it would have occurred anyway. Some of my biggest accomplishments never surfaced publicly — bad things that were killed; problem members of my caucus who were handled quietly, and forcing compromise in legislation that badly needed it. My only regret was not being a better leader for my party. I would have loved to have left office giving my party a majority in the Senate. It didn’t happen.
AM: Have you evolved at all — in your stands on the issues or your view of politics in general?
CP: If anything, I have not evolved but devolved. I feel about my party like Churchill felt about democracy — that it is awful except for the alternatives. Both major parties have a number of big problems and a number of members who are wackos, but overall my party has the best positions on the issues that most concern me. Some of those issues are expanding government and the higher taxes it always requires; the government takeover of health care; illegal immigration, and our failing infrastructure. I look at some of our big cities that have been run by Democrats for over 100 years that have high crime, bad schools, failing infrastructure and at the same time a huge, crushing tax burden, and I know I am right where I should be.
I must add I am disturbed by the current tone of political debate. I understand we as a country and a state are polarized, but I do not understand why political debate has become so nasty. One thing the legislative experience teaches is that it is possible to have intense political discussions without becoming personal or nasty. Unfortunately, it does not look like it will get better anytime soon.