Remember Brad Jones? Not all that long ago, he was the enfant terrible of conservative-libertarian politics in Colorado. You may recall his tenure as the young man behind the upstart blog Face The State, which among other things exposed an email exchange between two Democratic state lawmakers bashing school choice; it led to the virtual public flogging of one of them, then-Rep. Michael Merrifield of Manitou Springs. Think back far enough, and you might recall Jones as the University of Colorado undergrad and College Republicans chair who made waves staging a campus bake sale mocking affirmative action and held a “conservative coming-out day.” While a student, Jones also worked for Republican former Colorado U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate campaign in 2004. He graduated CU in 2005, worked for a time for the tort-reforming Colorado Civil Justice League and then went on to start and run two successive iterations of Face the State. And Jones did stints as a radio host and a fill-in panelist debating politics on public TV. Now only 33, he has in some ways had a more storied political career than many politicos experience in a lifetime. So, where is he now? Still in Denver, but there’s more. Read on.
Colorado Politics: For a number of years, you had a reputation as a no-holds-barred, in-your-face political advocate, blogger and journalist — whether it was staging a campus bake sale spoofing affirmative action or, later on, exposing the emails of anti-school choice lawmakers. Then, you seemed to drop out and move on from Colorado politics. Why the transition — and what are you up to nowadays?
Brad Jones: It wasn’t so much a transition as a crash-landing. Face The State, the investigative-journalism outfit I was running at the time, ran out of money. I learned the hard way how donor pledges don’t always result in cash for payroll. These days I am a contract web developer, part-time paramedic, volunteer firefighter and CEO of a startup seafood sales business.
CP: What sparked your interest in politics in the first place, and why did you choose a rightward path at an age when so many young people veer left?
Jones: I grew up in Arlington, Virginia; you can see the Washington monument in D.C. from the end of my childhood home’s cul-de-sac. My parents weren’t all that political, but I found myself fighting a losing but formative battle against the county’s all-Democrat school board. I was the captain of my high school’s rifle team — three-position, just like in the Olympics — and we actually practiced and competed at a small, four-lane range in the basement of our rival school. Rifle is a really boring sport in many respects. It’s slow-moving and you need what amounts to a telescope to follow the action. It was the school’s oldest sport and the team was actually quite good. Hardly anyone paid attention to us because we paid almost all our own expenses and there are basically no spectators. After the attacks at Columbine, some local activists were shocked — shocked! — to discover students with “guns at school.” Never mind being perfectly legal under Virginia law, the rifle team and our single-shot, bolt-action .22 caliber rifles were a menace to society, and a budget item to convert our range into storage space quietly made its way into the next year’s budget.
The team succeeded in having the fate of the range pulled out as a separate agenda item, but the school board voted swiftly to ban us to a location off campus at significant expense. Fighting for our survival was a crash course in political sausage-making. My experiences with CU-Boulder’s faculty and staff only served to reinforce my then-conservative views.
CP: How would you describe your political views today, and have you evolved?
Jones: I’m libertarian. I was a registered Republican since moving to Colorado, but changed affiliation to the Libertarian Party a few years ago. While I find Trump intellectually bankrupt, he was only the last of a long line of Republicans — including many in Colorado — to sour me on a party I once proudly supported. In college, I thought our young, socially liberal but pragmatic cohort of College Republicans represented a positive change in direction of the overall party. Over time, I learned my optimism on that front was misplaced. The party’s more recent embrace of Trump — whether reluctant or exuberant, doesn’t matter — reflects the broader abandonment of any real limited-government principles. Partisan politics in 2017 is entirely tribal. I used to argue for picking one of the two major parties in elections along the lines third parties spoiled close elections. Today, I find myself unable to morally justify a vote for most Republican candidates.
CP: Face the State in its earliest iteration was sort of the prototype conservative Colorado blog; it was the pioneer. What lessons did you learn from that experience? Any regrets?
Jones: I’m proud of the full arc of work at Face The State. While our reboot was less “blog,” the focus was always investigative journalism. When we launched, Denver was a two-newspaper town, podcasts were novel and not yet understood, and the Blackberry was king among politicos. That doesn’t sound at all like the landscape today, does it? The positive way to spin FTS’s fall is that we were ahead of our time.
I’ve had a lot of time to perform a post-mortem on Face The State. That we were just a little ahead of our time could be a component but ignores the important choices we made. FTS was an unprofitable but willingly-subsidized venture in its first form, and an explicitly non-profit, donor-funded enterprise in the second. In both cases, though, the money came from politically-motivated people who wanted to create political change in a conservative/free-market direction. I think there were two main mistakes.
First, donors have trouble with political investments that do not have measurable results in the near-term. Campaigns are measured in vote counts, but the battle of ideas never ends. Even think tanks like the Independence Institute, which I personally support, can point to legislation passed or defeated or referenda at the ballot box.
Our goal with Face The State was, all along, to show via powerful reporting the limits of big government and stifling regulation. Donors liked stories that resulted in public disgrace or resignation — think Mike Merrifield, Michael Garcia — but had trouble understanding why we’d write about mismanagement at CHFA or a Highlands home crumbling amid Historic District abuse. Even more frustrating was the mainstream media’s blatant gatekeeping of our stories. Today it’s common for the largest, most respected newspapers to credit online outlets for breaking news. Our donors would read our story in the Denver Post and ask, where’s Face The State’s name? They went out of their way to ignore us.
The second error is all me. I should have early on recruited an advisory board who could help provide top-cover with our donors and others. I was under 30, had little business experience, and was simply outgunned by professional political handlers. We were forming a board when we closed shop, and it was a painful lesson to learn.
CP: Why do you think so many college students become liberals/progressives, at least, for a time? Describe what it was like being identifiably on the right at CU in Boulder — of all places.
Jones: The first question is easier to answer; college is no longer, and probably has not been for some time, primarily a vehicle for higher education. Cheap, no-questions-asked federal student aid has made schools, and especially the University of Colorado, black holes for these publicly-subsidized tuition dollars. Much of this increase in spending goes to administration and “student services,” not classrooms. Evidence the “Center for Community” on CU-Boulder’s campus, a towering monument to diversity consultants and self-segregating student groups. Students who spend 12-plus years in public schools learning from predominantly liberal teachers are primed to fit right in to a campus culture that actively encourages you to find your inner victim.
As for my personal experience, I learned a lot about myself and the way the world “really” worked while at CU. One example: Our “affirmative action bake sale” was an idea blatantly ripped-off from other campuses but nonetheless a powerful demonstration of how racial preferences are, themselves, tragically racist. After the university tried to unconstitutionally bar us from even holding the event, we were quite literally overrun by student protesters who would defend the university. Looking on were then vice-chancellor of student affairs, Ron Stump, and the chief of the CU police department. I doubt that’s the kind of “safe space” they would tolerate for any liberal event on campus. I imagine the situation is much worse today.
CP: What’s the greatest challenge facing those on the political right today?
Jones: The Republican Party is totally bereft of any intellectual integrity. If I were a GOP voter in the last few election cycles, I would have every right to feel cheated and betrayed by a Congress that promised Obamacare repeal and instead delivers a budget-busting, populist tragedy that simply changes the law’s name.
That’s not to say there aren’t elected Republicans with integrity, but the national trend is such that there really is no recognizable Republican brand for limited government.
CP: Who is your favorite Democrat on today’s political scene — in Colorado or beyond — and why?
Jones: I’ve always respected Jared Polis. I disagree with much of his politics, of course, but he is willing to take the occasional unpopular stand and has generally engaged his critics with respect. He’s also willing to lead on issues like banking for marijuana businesses, which is a critical safety and business issue for Colorado. My congresswoman, Diana DeGette, seems to understand she basically has job security for life, but is about as politically consequential as a House freshman.