Tipping point? Has Ritter pushed Dems too far away?
With the 2010 governor’s race beginning to gear up, the Rocky Mountain Independent is running a two-part analysis exploring Democratic incumbent Bill Ritter’s prospects for a second term. Part one examines how, during his first term, Ritter has stirred discontent within his party.
Anybody but Ritter. That’s what Democrats said in 2006 when ex-Denver District Attorney Bill Ritter, a relative unknown in statewide politics, was running for Colorado governor.
At the time, the Denver media were fixated on Mayor John Hickenlooper as if he were The Chosen One to take the Democratic nomination. Others looked to then-House Speaker Andrew Romanoff or then-Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald to recapture the governor’s mansion for the party.
But one by one, each of the three dismissed the notion that they would run for the seat. And one by one, they looked to the others to take up the mantle and challenge whoever would be the Republican candidate to replace Gov. Bill Owens in the big chair.
Someone else had to, the thinking went. After all, there was no way Ritter could defeat U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, whom the Republicans thought was a shoo-in, or even Marc Holtzman, who ended up dropping out of the race before the GOP primary election.
But all the while, Ritter was thrusting himself before party insiders as if to say, “What am I, chopped liver?” Since the previous summer, he and his entourage had been frantically touring the state in an almost defiant manner, determined to prove they had what it took to win the election.
They did win, of course. But nearly three years later, with the prospect of a second term for the governor nearing, some people in the party are repeating the same mantra: Anybody but Ritter.
While that call has gone out from some members of the Democratic Party — people who declined to be named for this story, by the way — no one has come forward to say he or she will run for the job. Why? Because they fear they will split the party and lose the executive branch to a Republican, political experts say.
Still, many are worried about Ritter’s numbers. A poll released by Public Policy Polling last spring showed Ritter trailing former GOP congressman Scott McInnis 48 percent to 41 percent, but slightly leading Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, 42-40.
Political pollster Floyd Ciruli said that deep down, despite some concerns about Ritter, the Dems can’t afford to run a primary against him because it could lead to his becoming the first Colorado governor since the 1960s to lose re-election.
Vetoes raise labor’s ire
Discontent within the party has come about, in part, because of some of the vetoes Ritter has issued on union matters. That started right away, early in the 2007 legislative session — Ritter’s first as governor. Soon after the session began in January, Democrats pushed a bill to repeal a law requiring employees in an already unionized workplace to vote to ratify an all-union agreement.
Unions really wanted that one, but Ritter quickly vetoed it in early February, saying it was rushed through the legislature without enough thought or debate. Business owners hailed him for nixing it; labor chastised him, saying he made a campaign promise to approve it. The idea did not resurfaced in the legislature during the rest of that session, nor in the two since.
During this year’s session, Ritter vetoed two more union bills. One would have allowed firefighters to unionize, and the other would have allowed striking workers locked out of their jobs to draw unemployment benefits. Upset over the vetoes, some union groups have picketed Ritter at various events, including one that the governor attended last month in Washington, D.C.
While both of this year’s bills were relatively minor in comparison with the 2007 union bill — and to measures Democrats had been trying to get through GOP-controlled legislatures for years, such as benefits for same-sex couples — the vetoes reminded labor unions that Ritter doesn’t always have their backs. As a result, many have vowed not to help him during next year’s re-election.
“He has now sort of reinforced this ambivalence that the party had towards him, labor and the older-time Democrats, the liberal wing of the party. He has reinforced that and undermined the enthusiasm for him,” Ciruli said.
“At the same time, he has picked up some business support, but it is grudging,” he said. “They like him on transportation. They like those vetoes. But they still remember the unionization of state employees. They still remember the gas and oil issues. They still remember having to go through the agony of the right-to-work (ballot issue).
“Hence, while they’re giving him some money, if the Republicans could figure out how to come up with a strong candidate and not have a really destructive primary, a lot of that support could go away.”
Ritter defends his vetoes and is quick to point out things that he and legislative Democrats have pushed that favor labor, such as modernizing unemployment benefits, helping create occupational training programs for various trades and extending access to health care to those who can’t afford it.
The governor said he is disappointed that some union members are looking only at a few things he’s done and not at the whole picture, which Ritter said he must do as governor.
“I’m sideways with a number of them, and that’s an unfortunate thing. It makes me wish that were different, because I do value working people and value their interests,” he said in an interview at his office. “But there were times where labor was not on board with things that we thought were very good for working people.
“The Health Care Affordability Act … and the things we did around foreclosure. I just have to keep in front of me the vision I have for the kind of Colorado we want to become. Hopefully, the people like labor who represent working unions, people in the business who employ working people … that they, at the end of the day, will be on board.”
Mike Cerbo, Colorado director of the AFL/CIO, said he was greatly disappointed at all of the vetoes and agreed that they haven’t helped the governor stay in the good graces of rank-and-file union members.
Still, he was withholding judgment on whether his union group would endorse Ritter’s re-election and even help him in his campaign.
“The governor’s going to have to sit down with us again if he wants our endorsement and explain why working families should support him,” Cerbo said. “Overall, we’ve had a lot of support from the state House, the state Senate, moving good legislation to the governor’s desk, and some good legislation for the state has been signed. But he’s definitely got to continue to reach out to working families … and we’ll see what the record shows in another year.”
Kudos from the “green” wing
As much as Ritter has upset union folks, he’s pleased the environmental community, particularly over his push for green jobs and tougher regulations on the oil and gas industry. The governor defends those measures as not only necessary to address climate change, but also to the economy, national defense and land-use rights.
Ritter isn’t apologetic when his critics joke that there isn’t a new windmill or solar panel in the state he hasn’t appeared with in a photo op. He’s proud that even then-presidential-candidate Barack Obama last year picked up his “new energy economy” slogan, saying it should be central to Colorado’s future for at least the next half-century.
But Ritter also earned some enemies over the new oil and gas rules, even provoking several industry-sponsored radio and television ads that said those rules would result in job losses and higher heating bills during the worst economic downturn in most people’s lifetimes. Ultimately, the rules were approved, and Republicans are expected to use the issue as a centerpiece in their campaign against him.
In an effort to reach out to the industry, Ritter spoke at the annual Colorado Oil and Gas Association conference last week at the Denver Convention Center.
Clearly standing on hostile ground, Ritter made a point of saying that it was the bad economy — not the new rules — that caused drilling wells to shut down and layoffs to occur. He said that Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah saw similar cutbacks and that those states didn’t approve stricter rules last year.
In perhaps one of his best crafted speeches since becoming governor, Ritter was interrupted by only one burst of applause, when he said that natural gas should be a permanent part of the state’s new energy economy. He even cited efforts that he has pushed to convert more state vehicles to compressed natural gas, and to get utilities to use it in generating widespread power across the state.
“Energy security is so intricately tied to national security,” he told the several hundred oil and gas executives gathered at the conference. “A greater use of natural gas lessens our energy dependence.”
A ‘long-term’ outlook
Earlier this year, Ritter raised some eyebrows when he named Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet to fill the U.S. Senate seat made vacant when Obama appointed Ken Salazar to be his interior secretary.
At the time, the money was on Hickenlooper or Romanoff. Bennet’s name had come to people’s attention statewide only when Obama was said to be considering him as education secretary.
In the end, Ritter said he preferred intelligence over flash, but whether the selection will hurt or help the governor politically will depend on how well Bennet does in Congress and whether he can sell himself to voters on the campaign trail.
“It was probably against my best political interests,” Ritter admitted. “There were other candidates that I might have chosen who might have helped me more politically, but I decided that this was the best choice for Colorado, and did it in the face of some short-term criticism. Long-term, this decision will pay off.”
Only time will tell how all of these factors will play out during next year’s campaigning. Much depends on who the GOP nominee is, how Republican candidates conduct themselves in a primary race, whether the Grand Old Party can appear to be unified, and whether the Democratic Party can continue to convince voters that it has the best vision for the state’s future.
Ciruli said it also depends on whether someone decides to challenge Ritter in a primary and, if not, whether the party can stand firmly behind him.
“The one reason why the Democratic Party has had this revival is nominating people like Ritter, people who at least appear to be centrists,” Ciruli said. “But his problem is not that he’s moderate — it’s that he doesn’t look like he’s in command (of the party). What has served them well is being unified. The question is, will they be?”
Tomorrow: A campaign focused on energy issues and a rift within the rival Republican Party helped Ritter win his first term as governor. Will the stars align again for him in 2010?
RELATED: In part one of a five-part video interview, Ritter talks with the RMI about natural gas, climate change, energy security and Colorado’s new energy economy.