Former protege Penry now McInnis’ GOP rival
The two Grand Junction residents, along with Evergreen businessman Don Maes, are vying for the right to meet Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter in next year’s general election. They have history, usually in a good way, but now they’re going head-to-head over a job both desperately want.
Is it weird for the two? McInnis says it isn’t, but Penry disagrees.
Given McInnis’ long desire to serve in the U.S. Senate — something the six-term congressman from the 3rd Congressional District now denies — Penry, 33, said he expected his old boss to run for that seat, particularly after Ritter named a relative unknown and political neophyte, Michael Bennet, to the post.
“It is awkward to be sure,” said Penry, who’s in his third year in the Colorado Senate after spending two years in the House. “Until March when (McInnis) knocked on my door and said he was running for governor, I would have thought it was unthinkable because he’s always talked about running for the U.S. Senate. It is a surprise. It’s awkward, but it’s the reality.”
Soon after Penry graduated from Mesa State College in 1998, he moved to Washington, D.C., to work for McInnis. Starting out as an aide, he eventually became McInnis’ press secretary and later was named staff director for the House Resources Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health, a panel McInnis chaired.
In an interview with the RMI, however, McInnis would barely talk about his former employee other than to say that all of his former staffers were skilled workers who went on to achieve successes of their own.
“Josh was a staffer, and I had a lot of staffers. The one staffer you ought to really focus on is Dana Perino, from Pueblo. Look at what she became. She became the spokesman for President (George W.) Bush. Dana Perino is the star,” McInnis said. “You could look at a David Bernhardt, from Rifle. He became a solicitor general for the Department of Interior. I was very proud of the people who worked for me, and obviously Josh was one of those people.”
But none of those other staffers are running against McInnis, who turned 56 last May.
“My focus is on the guy I’m going to beat, and that’s Ritter,” McInnis said. “Whether it’s Josh or the governor, neither one has ever been out in the private marketplace.”
McInnis criticized Ritter — and Penry — for favoring measures approved by the Colorado legislature and designed to block the U.S. Army from using condemnation to expand Fort Carson‘s 238,000-acre Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site, just north of Trinidad. But McInnis said that was tantamount to opposing the Colorado Springs base itself.
Shortly after a measure reached Ritter’s desk this year to prevent the State Land Board from selling or leasing state-owned property near the site to the federal government, McInnis sent a letter to Ritter calling on him to veto it. Penry, who supported the measure along with a bipartisan group of state lawmakers, did the opposite in a letter of his own.
Ritter ultimately signed the bill. But, with his letter, was McInnis just kowtowing to conservative folks in El Paso County, who fear that the Army might get upset with the state for blocking its expansion plans and close the base?
“Duh,” said Penry, who is the minority leader for the GOP in the state Senate. “In the three years since Bill Ritter has been governor and the Democrats controlled the House and Senate, they have ravaged the oil and gas industry, increased property taxes … and fees this year, pushed through all sorts of ridiculous proposals, and never once has congressman McInnis weighed in even a single time on any of those issues.
“And now, a week or two before announcing that he’s running for governor, he sends a letter to Governor Ritter encouraging him to veto this legislation,” Penry added. “If it was so important, I wonder why didn’t it occur to him to weigh in until a couple of days before he decided to run for governor? It is transparent, even to the folks in El Paso County.”
McInnis said the issue isn’t about property rights, but about supporting the military and about not opposing a large employer in the state.
“The military is a great business partner to have, it is very important for our economy in Colorado,” said McInnis, who spent 10 years in the Colorado House before being elected to Congress in 1992. “Don’t let them divert your attention by telling you this is about property rights. It’s not about condemnation. It doesn’t talk about property rights. It is to oppose expansion of the base. Is that how you improve an economy?”
A matter of age?
The rift between McInnis and Penry centers not so much on policy or politics, but age. McInnis touts his years of experience in public life and the private sector. Penry talks about being the face of a new generation in the party, something he says it badly needs.
Colorado Republican Party Chairman Dick Wadhams isn’t sure which side will win. As a longtime political strategist who was a hair’s breadth away from running a national campaign, Wadhams knows well the problems the party has faced in recent years.
But would Colorado Republicans feel more comfortable putting an old reliable up against an incumbent governor, or a young buck in that position? Even he doesn’t know.
“What I do know is that the very fact that we have a 33-year-old Senate minority leader running for governor of Colorado and a 31-year-old Aurora city councilman as legitimate strong candidates for nominations for major statewide offices, I think shows that there is something going on in our party,” Wadhams said of Penry and Ryan Frazier, who’s seeking the right to challenge Bennet for the U.S. Senate seat.
“A few years ago, a 33-year-old state senator and a 31-year-old city councilman wouldn’t have been given the time of day by the party. The fact that Republican activists around the state are taking a hard look at two 30-somethings shows they are looking to a new generation. It means that Congressman McInnis and businessman Dan Maes will have to communicate a message about the future in their campaigns.”
Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer isn’t sure what message that will be. One of the party’s problems in the past has been that GOP candidates haven’t been very clear about what they would do to fix what ails the state and nation.
As a result, he’s not convinced GOP voters want a fresh face, or just want things the way they were.
“Is the young movement in the party for real? I’m not sure,” Straayer said. “I think it may appear to be that way because with guys like Penry and Frazier, those are the ones who are energetic and they’re ambitious. It may very well be that there’s some momentum moving in the direction of the younger crowd, but what I’m less sure of is, if they are successful, whether it’s going to be because of a conscious choice by the activists in the party.”
Conduct during primary will be key
Straayer said Colorado voters might continue to blame Republicans for the ills of the state and nation and won’t necessarily look at the new GOP faces in any more favorable light than the old ones.
Much of that, he said, depends on how the candidates conduct themselves in the primary, particularly in their plans to deal with Colorado’s ongoing fiscal problems.
“You could say Bush was very unpopular, and a Republican Congress became big spenders. If you look at the national scene, there’s something to that, but if you look at the state, where are these newcomers any different from the past in terms of Colorado politics?” he said.
“The big issue that has been boiling for a decade and a half, and anybody who thought a little bit, could see this fiscal mess coming, and here it is. How does this new generation differ? Are they ready to raise taxes? Are they ready to reinstate the tax cuts? Are they ready to cooperate with Democrats to get some kind of fiscal sanity to the state? What’s their new direction? I don’t see it.”
Penry agrees that Republican leaders of the past have messed things up. He’s rather harsh in criticizing members of his own party, which only a few years ago controlled not only the governor’s office and legislature, but held a clear majority in the state’s delegation to Congress.
Now, he said the Democrats are doing some of the same things the GOP did when it was in charge.
“It’s kind of a slow-motion train wreck over a longer period of time,” he said. “I came in as the freefall began. We’re the ones who hear the argument, ‘Yeah, but your governor or your president did it first.’ Well, we didn’t do that. They did it. They were wrong then, and the Democrats are wrong now.
“If Republicans are going to win, we have to acknowledge that we just blew it. We stank. If we can’t acknowledge our failures, the party’s failures, why would people believe we’re going to do things right in the future. A lot of us have been pretty clear that the party lost its way for about five or six years now.”
McInnis agrees, but only to a point. While he acknowledges that mistakes were made by party leaders on the national scene, he’s not critical of past GOP leaders in the state.
“Maybe the (GOP) brand across the country has suffered, and to some extent there’s some understanding of that,” McInnis said. “But the party here in Colorado is vital, the party here is hungry, the party has really come together on this proposed national health care. This Republican Party in Colorado has got a lot of energy.”
In the hot seat
Recent bad press for McInnis in Denver media hasn’t helped improve that brand. The congressman has been criticized over how he’s spent the $1.3 million that was in his campaign account when he left Congress in 2004, and for hiring his wife, Lori, to manage it. At the time, a McInnis staffer said the congressman would distribute some of the money to charities. But according to news reports, he put most of the money into a new political action committee called Western Way Leadership, and has already used some of it to promote the GOP.
A brouhaha occurred over the matter last week when McInnis appeared on KHOW-AM (630) talk radio’s Caplis and Silverman show. There, Dan Caplis, a Republican, asked McInnis about the issue, prompting a heated exchange that had Caplis calling McInnis “silly” and saying his handling of the matter was “beneath the office” he’s hoping to win.
In an interview with the RMI a week earlier, McInnis interrupted a similar query into the matter, saying:
“Let’s stop right there. I’m sensing a little male chauvinism here. If my wife was here, she’d say, ‘Because I’m a woman I shouldn’t be paid for my job?’ My wife was fully employed. It was perfectly legitimate. It was her job. This, again, is our political opponents trying to make hay out of this,” McInnis said.
“Take any of my opponents and ask them what they’ve ever done to help the cause of cancer. Take any of my opponents and ask them what they’ve ever done with Girls on the Run. Take any of my opponents and ask them what they’ve ever done with Catholic Charities. You might as well take that little gotcha thing off the table.”
“Those are things he’s going to have to explain,” he said. “We could spend a lot of time doing the tit-for-tat on those things, but that demeans the importance of this election. I assume the Fourth Estate will ask him those questions.”