Smart? Sure, Ian Silverii is smart. But you pretty much expect that of a hard-charging, relentlessly partisan, take-no-prisoners political playmaker. What you don’t necessarily expect is how personable, funny — and frank — he is. It’s all on display in today’s Q&A, in which the executive director of the state’s all-purpose, left-of-center advocacy group, ProgressNow Colorado, holds forth on Republicans, Democrats and his relationship with his wife, state Rep. Brittany Pettersen. (Their marriage last month was the must-attend social event of the season for plugged-in politicos). For those unfamiliar with Silverii’s rapid rise in progressive political circles: He started out in Colorado politics in 2006, working on wide-ranging political campaigns and as a legislative aide in the state House of Representatives. He was executive director of the Colorado Democratic Party’s House Majority Project and served as chief of staff to former state House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst before taking over at ProgressNow Colorado.
Colorado Politics: What brought you to Colorado in the first place?
Ian Silverii: In 2006 I was on a road trip with my college roommates, and I ran out of money in Idaho. The previous year, I was at a New Year’s Eve party in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and I ran into Sarah McCall, a childhood friend of mine who was on break from CU Boulder. She told me that if I ever found myself in the West, I should look her up so she could show me the wonder that was Colorado. I’m not sure she thought I’d take her up on it. I hitchhiked from Idaho to Salt Lake City and scraped together enough money to take a Greyhound from Utah to Denver. Sarah picked me up at the bus station, and, her roommate in Boulder having gone home for the summer, let me stay in her extra room. I needed to make some money to buy a plane ticket back from LA, which was my original destination, and Sarah introduced me to then State Rep. Judy Solano of Adams County. Judy hired me on her 2006 campaign for some field, data, and web design work, and I got hooked on the campaign. I went to LA, which I hated, and then back to Jersey to finish school. I officially moved here in June of 2007 and got a job managing Gwyn Green’s final state house campaign in what was then House District 23 (one of my best friends, Chris Kennedy, now represents that seat). We won, and I was hooked on Colorado politics.
CP: How do you navigate a day job as an advocate for wide-ranging Democratic causes and a marriage to a top-ranked congressional candidate facing a competitive Democratic primary? Is there push-back from within party ranks?
IS: We haven’t gotten any pushback from the Democratic Party per se, but we do work in politics and folks do try to use my position and ProgressNow’s antics against Brittany on occasion. It’s funny where the lines move when people feel threatened, and some folks might think that the things that they say somehow don’t get back to us. I assure you, it all gets back to us. I guess the worst part of working in the same business with someone who has always been successful and always been in competitive campaigns and tense policy fights in the capitol is that since I’m a man and she’s a woman, people tend to give me credit for things that she does all by herself. It’s pretty freaking annoying, to be honest. Brittany is extremely talented all on her own. In fact, when we worked together in the building, we had a policy where I wouldn’t work on her bills to avoid even the appearance of special treatment. So it worked against her both ways because not only did people assume that her successes were at least in part because of my doing, but she didn’t even get any of my help, and I’m pretty good at this stuff! We don’t always agree on everything, and she’s the one who’s name is on the ballot, not mine. ProgressNow isn’t playing in the primary for the 7th congressional district, but she’s got my vote.
CP: What is the biggest challenge facing Colorado Democrats today? The biggest challenge facing Republicans?
IS: Democrats need to get their act together and tell people what the hell they stand for. It can’t just be “Trump sucks. We’re against Trump, so vote for us,” compelling as that may be. Democrats need to outline a bold vision for the future that puts regular people and families before special interests and campaign donors; before consultants and focus groups and poll-tested messages. Democrats wonder why they have authenticity problems and then go into the field and conduct polls and focus groups on how to manufacture the most authentic candidate. It’s insane. We need to tell people what we stand for: universal health care, world-class public education, women’s health, including the right to have an abortion, social and racial justice, good job training for folks who don’t want to go to college or whose jobs have been replaced by machines or computers, clean air and water, renewable energy, technology, startups and science, affordable child care, transportation, the list goes on. And, if I left your super special pet issue off that list, you need to get over it and still vote for the person with whom you agree about most of the things you care about. People who want to sell you things call that a messaging problem. I call that a big-tent party that has something for everyone.
Republicans, especially those poor schmucks running for governor, have to find a way to throw red meat to their increasingly weird and rabid base and hug Trump during the primary and learn to speak Russian I guess and then then find a way to sprint to the middle for the general election. This will be a problem up and down the ticket for Republicans in 2018; just ask them. The base will not abide any Republican who doesn’t support the president, but Trump has between a 35 and 40 percent approval rating in Colorado right now as Democrats consolidate against him and independents run screaming. Guys like Mike Coffman have it the worst because he’s not going to pull Dems like he used to, and he’s going to lose unaffiliated voters fast and bleed votes from his own party if he keeps trying to have it both ways on issues like the ACA and funding Planned Parenthood. Darryl Glenn was a very good expression of the paradoxes contained within the Colorado GOP, and while he’s not (currently) running for governor, don’t think another weird one can’t find his or her way through to the nomination. Also we’ve got videos of all of them dancing really, really badly. Thanks, Jeff Hunt!
CP: You’re a progressive, sure, but where more specifically do you align within a party that gave us Bernie Sanders as well as Hillary Clinton last year?
IS: I voted for Bernie at caucus because I’m a bald Jewish dude from Brooklyn and we never get to vote for our own. Also, I agree with him on a bunch of stuff. Not everything, but a bunch of stuff (see above). Then, I voted for Hillary in the general and worked my ass off for her in my spare time because she’s an amazingly accomplished person and would have been an excellent president, especially considering what we see happening with Trump in office. To be honest, the Democratic Party is kind of a mess and I’m sure plenty of people are having a hard time seeing themselves in it these days. I mean, the GOP is an absolute disaster, so there’s that. I don’t think we need purity tests for votes or funding or supporting certain candidates in primary races or whatever, but on the other hand I see issues like women’s health and abortion access as fundamental human rights. We wouldn’t support a candidate who opposed interracial marriage or thought we should recriminalize marijuana — so why the hell would we support a candidate who thinks abortion should be illegal?
CP: Is your extended family back home proud you’ve come so far so fast in the cutthroat world of politics — or do they prefer to tell others you’re a ski instructor or a river guide?
IS: Are you kidding? My Jewish mother plays my 9News clips for her dental patients, and she’s a periodontal assistant, so they’re already preparing for some pain. I think my folks know more about Colorado politics than lots of folks in Colorado do. Mom always wanted me to be a lawyer (I don’t like needles, so doctor was out) and finally, after many, many years, decided that I had made enough of a life in this business that I could forego law school and the five zeros worth of student loan debt that would come with it. Also, no one who knows me even a little would ever confuse me with either a ski instructor or a river guide.
CP: Name a Republican — in Colorado or nationally — you truly admire.
IS: State Sen. Don Coram is a very serious badass who gives both parties hugs and both parties the bird and is 100% himself all of the time. He tells amazing, weird jokes and is one of the most genuinely interesting, smart, and funny people I’ve ever met in my life. He always makes you feel special and he always fights for what he thinks is right and for the people in his district. Even if he thinks it might cost him politically, he could give a rip. Sen. Coram had a whole life before politics, and I imagine he’ll have a whole life afterwards. He’s not a partisan; he doesn’t let his party define him, and he has no problem telling folks on either side of the aisle when he thinks they’re screwing up. I wish more Republicans, and more Democrats, frankly, were like Sen. Coram.