Democrat Cary Kennedy talks opportunity as she launches campaign for governor of Colorado
Author: Ernest Luning - April 10, 2017 - Updated: April 11, 2017
For Democrat Cary Kennedy, a former state treasurer and former deputy mayor of Denver, it’s all about opportunity, and that’s what she wanted to talk about as she prepared to make her run for governor of Colorado official.
Kennedy is the fourth Democrat to jump in the primary race for the chance to take over for Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited after next year’s election. Her announcement came a day after U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter kicked off his campaign at a rally at a grocery store in Golden, joining former state Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, who started running in January, and entrepreneur and civic leader Noel Ginsburg, who declared his bid in December.
The field has firmed up since last month when former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced he wasn’t going to run, although more Democrats could get in, including U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, whose spokeswoman told The Colorado Statesman he plans to decide whether to run in the coming months.
On the Republican side, District Attorney George Brauchler, who prosecuted the Aurora theater shooter James Holmes, last week joined a primary field that already included entrepreneur and former state Rep. Victor Mitchell, R-Castle Rock, Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter III and political novice Joanne Silva of Loveland.
Others considering a run in the GOP primary include State Treasurer Walker Stapleton, Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, Davita Healthcare Partners Chairman and CEO Kent Thiry and former Colorado State University athletic director Jack Graham, who ran second in the primary for the U.S. Senate nomination last year.
In an interview with The Colorado Statesman a couple of days before she formally launched her campaign Monday morning in a video carried live on Facebook, Kennedy said she wants to serve as governor to help Colorado residents have the kind of opportunities she’s had, and the kind she saw up close, both raising two children with her husband, Saurabh Mangalik, and growing up in a family where promoting opportunity and serving others have been guiding principles.
Noting that she and her husband both worked full time — he’s been the doctor for the Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Avalanche for the past two decades — while raising their two children, Kennedy said she’s seen plenty of parents just like them as she’s traveled the state in her various roles.
“They’re up before dawn, they’re packing lunches, they’re getting their kids off to school, they’re working long days and often not getting home until it’s dark out,” she said. “And they’re not doing for themselves. They’re doing it for their kids, and they’re doing it to give their kids better opportunities.”
She says she started her career in Colorado working to stop cuts to education funding and increase opportunities the state’s children have in public schools. “And I did it because I see the same motivation for me today in launching this campaign for governor — that we need to make sure we are providing opportunities for everyone who lives in our state, and it starts at the school door. I think Colorado can be doing a much better job.”
Growing up in Evergreen and Denver — she’s a graduate of Manual High School — Kennedy says her family has always been committed to helping others. That included welcoming three brothers and sisters into the family through the foster-care system and a sister who joined the family through a faith-based organization, and Kennedy says that’s made a profound impact on the way she sees the world and what she hopes to accomplish.
“I grew up with brothers and sisters who didn’t have the same opportunities that I had been given,” she said. “And I saw the difference it makes when people are given opportunities in their lives. One of the great gifts of my life was watching my foster siblings go on to lead happy, productive and successful lives, and all it took was giving them opportunities.”
One story she likes to tell encapsulates Kennedy’s approach to public policy and what drives her.
“My sister Karen joined our family when she was 14 years old,” Kennedy said. “She started attending our local public school, and it wasn’t long before the music teacher called my mom. She said Karen has a gift — she has a beautiful voice and she has a natural affinity for music. Karen was able to take instrument lessons and voice lessons at our neighborhood public school. Some of my earliest memories are of Karen practicing the piano so many hours that her fingers would swell up, and my mom would soak her fingers in ice water at night to get the swelling down. So Karen found her passion, right? She found her love in life. She ended up earning a full music scholarship to college and spent a lot of her adult life traveling the country as a pianist and a vocalist.”
It’s the context behind her sister’s success story that underlies Kennedy’s mission.
“When Karen moved in with us when she was 14, she didn’t know how to play an instrument,” she said, shaking her head. “She’d never had music lessons, because her old school in her old neighborhood didn’t have a music program. I look at Colorado and I think, how many kids out there are just like Karen? That drove me to write Amendment 23. I had young kids at the time and I could see just how poorly Colorado was funding its public schools. It is still, to this day, something I care very deeply about.”
Kennedy authored Amendment 23, approved by voters in 2000, to require state spending on K-12 education to grow by a certain formula for 10 years and then to keep pace with inflation after that. Along with the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which sets limits on state revenue, among a multitude of other things, and the Gallagher Amendment, which restricts residential property taxes, Amendment 23 is part of competing provisions in the state constitution Hickenlooper has dubbed the “fiscal thicket,” binding Colorado’s budget in a way that vexes some state officials and delights others.
Kennedy says Amendment 23 ranks among her proudest accomplishments — implementing the Building Excellent Schools Today, known as the BEST program, partnering the state with rural school districts to fund school construction, tops the list, she says.
“Education is the great equalizer,” Kennedy said. “Making sure that every child in Colorado has access and opportunity to a high-quality education will be my top priority as governor. If you look around Colorado today, the education system is underfunded and inequitable.”
From an economic development perspective, she added, Colorado is shortchanging its own future because companies coming to Colorado have to go out of state to fill many of their jobs. “And that’s wrong,” she said. “I want all of our kids here in Colorado who are growing up here to have the educational foundation so they have the skills so they can get those jobs so they can stay here and they can afford to live here and they can enjoy this wonderful opportunity of living in Colorado that we’ve all enjoyed.”
Her other top priorities as governor would be managing the taxpayers’ money responsibly and keeping Colorado the place residents love.
“I’ve been responsible for managing the taxpayers’ money here in Colorado for the last 10 years. I have kept our budgets balanced, I have put our state on sounder financial footing,” she said. “If you look at the work I did in Denver when I was (chief financial officer), Denver was ranked as one of the best financially run cities in the country, and Forbes, for the first time, ranked Denver as the No. 1 city in the country to do business. I did a lot of work with the mayor to make sure we had strong economic development, we did some work streamlining taxes so our businesses could work and succeed and grow.”
She points to eliminating convenience fees and other financial strategies that wound up saving Denver taxpayers almost $10 million annually, along with making city government more efficient — she cut the wait time at the motor vehicles department in half when she oversaw the department — were all part of an approach she adopted. “That simple step, saying, ‘We’re going to make it easier for you, we’re going to think of taxpayers as customers,’” she said.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock named Kennedy as his chief financial officer soon after winning election to his first term in 2011 and named her deputy mayor a few months later. She stepped down from the position about a year ago to form a consulting firm.
“A lot of the success that I have seen here in Colorado is where we get outside of government and we build partnerships and collaborative efforts with business, with nonprofits, with foundations, with universities,” she said. “It’s when we come together to find innovative ways to address challenges and solve problems, that’s what makes Colorado unique and it makes our state so innovative, so successful and so forward-looking. It’s one of the reasons our economy in Colorado is one of the strongest economies in the country.”
The other hallmark of her campaign, Kennedy says, will be keeping Colorado the state “we love.”
“We need thoughtful, innovative, forward-looking solutions to make sure that we can protect everything we love about this state in the face of growth,” she said. “That includes modernizing our infrastructure — our streets are crowded, our highways are crowded, our schools are crowded. It turns out everybody else likes Colorado as much as we do, so they’re moving here. We want to be thoughtful about being sure we can keep and protect everything we love about Colorado, and that includes our environment — open space, water, free-flowing river — and it’s modernizing infrastructure, so it’s not just highway and roads but transit as well, water infrastructure, broadband, so we can continue building economic activities in rural Colorado; it’s transmission, so we can continue the progress that we’re making in transitioning to a clean, renewable economy. If you look at Colorado, we’re a model of what works — we show the world what it is to transition to a clean, renewable economy.”
That will take standing up to Washington and the new Trump administration, Kennedy said, chuckling as she announced that her new favorite phrase is, “What happens in Washington, stays in Washington.” Shaking her head, she added, “We are not going to let Donald Trump and the regressive policies he is advocating take Colorado backwards.”
“We lost our partner in Washington with this election,” she said. “We now have a president who is advocating policies that would take our country and Colorado backwards 50 years in the work that we’ve done cleaning our air, protecting our rivers, preserving open space — and that’s just on the environment. We’re not going to let Washington take Colorado backwards.”
One thing she says is essential to accomplish that is winning voter approval for what she terms “a new balanced-budget amendment,” recalling her work helping develop the bipartisan Referendum C ballot measure passed a dozen years ago.
“There is clearly a need for a new balanced-budget agreement,” she said, and then outlined the key principles and objectives that would come with that kind of measure.
“One, keep the right to vote on taxes so that citizens always have that say,” Kennedy said. “Two, keep Colorado’s taxes among the lowest in the country, which they are today. As I’ve managed the finances in the state and the city, we have among the lowest overall tax burdens in the country. That is good, it’s good for businesses, it helps keep our businesses competitive. It’s good for families, it helps keep Colorado affordable. The third one is we need to make sure we can provide the services that citizens deserve and expect from a modern, forward-looking state. That includes adequately funded schools and modern infrastructure so that we can keep Colorado the place that we love, even as we grow.”
Kennedy pointed to bipartisan legislation moving at the Capitol this session, including a possible referendum to fund transportation improvements and bills to fund rural schools, hospitals and roadways.
“That dialogue is happening,” she said. “It’s great to see Republicans and Democrats coming together, recognizing the need.”
Her track record, Kennedy said, “is one of finding innovative solutions to challenges.”
“We need every child in Colorado to be able to attend pre-school and full-day K. We need to pay our teachers more and give them better and more robust training — the type of residency programs that are so successful in other states,” she said. “Colorado ranks 47th in the country in terms of teacher pay. We need a talent pipeline in our schools. Anybody who runs a business knows the talent pipeline is the most important thing to drive success in their business. I look at teachers the exact same way. We need to recognize them as professionals, provide professional training and professional pay so that we have a talent pipeline to really make sure the kids here in Colorado are getting a world-class education.”
Kennedy sounds matter-of-fact about her prescience as state treasurer discussing how she pulled state funds out of a securities investment that later went sour ahead of the market crash and banking catastrophes that tumbled the country’s economy into the Great Recession nearly a decade ago.
When she came into office at the beginning of 2007, she said, she found money invested in a securities fund that gave her qualms.
“I took a look at that. I was not comfortable with what I saw happening. I was not comfortable putting the taxpayers’ money at risk on Wall Street. In December of 2007 I terminated that program. I brought all the money back into the treasury. Within moments, we saw the banking crisis. Other states lost hundreds of millions of dollars in security-lending deals, and we did not here in Colorado,” she said with a smile. “We maintained positive earnings on the taxpayers’ dollars while I was treasurer.”
And over the next year — 18 months if she wins the Democratic primary — Kennedy said she hopes to persuade Coloradans that she’s the best person to entrust with the state’s future, the same way voters statewide entrusted her to handle the state’s funds as treasurer and Denver’s mayor did the same with the city’s finances.
Kennedy says she intends to run a vigorous campaign — and points out that she’s the only candidate so far in the race who has won election statewide — and brings the same matter-of-fact confidence to the race ahead.
“We’re going to continue to lead,” she said. “We’re going to continue to be the forward-looking, modern, innovative state that the nation and the world can look to as the place that’s doing it right.”