Faith, family drive Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter’s GOP gubernatorial bid

Author: Ernest Luning - December 18, 2017 - Updated: December 19, 2017

Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter III announced his bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination on Sunday, March 5, 2017. (Photo via Flickr)Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter III announced his bid for the Republican gubernatorial nomination on in March 2017. (Photo courtesy Gaiter via Flickr)

There are a few things that define Lew Gaiter III, the Larimer County commissioner running in the Republican primary for governor.

He’s a Christian and a cancer survivor. He’s a family man who built a business. After growing up in a family of prominent Colorado Democrats, he’s been a Republican since his college years. Until a couple of weeks ago, he was president of Colorado Counties Inc., and he only recently went off a national board of county commissioners.

He’s a past president and board member of Christian Home Educators of Colorado, and he and his wife have home-schooled every one of their nine children. He was a member of the Loveland Volunteer Ski Patrol for 25 years, and he has Broncos season tickets that have been in the family for 50 years.

OK, maybe more than a few things.

Gaiter, 58, might have politics in his blood. One of his earliest political memories is putting fliers on windshields for a Democratic candidate outside a church in Denver with his family.

“My parents wanted all of their kids to be aware of the political stuff,” he recalls, and there was a lot of it in the family. His father, Lew Gaiter Jr., was active in Democratic politics and had a hand in helping launch the career of Denver’s long-serving congresswoman, Pat Schroeder, while his mother was a senior staffer for Gary Hart during his two terms in the Senate. (Known as “Cool Lew,” Gaiter’s father — a jazz evangelist who owned restaurants that featured live music and had a hand running numerous jazz festivals — died in January after giving his son’s gubernatorial run his blessing.)

“My parents were always open to talking about politics, talking about values,” Gaiter says, and that continued when he switched during the Reagan years to being a Republican.

“For years,” he says, “I was the lone Republican in a very Democratic family. My parents couldn’t have been more supportive. They’ve always been, ‘It’s your life, you need to live it.”

It started his senior year in high school, Gaiter says, when “Christianity became very real to me, and became more and more real every year. It’s a huge piece of who I am. It’s at the core of my being.”

As his faith grew deeper, he said, he felt less at home with the Democratic Party and soon left it.

“I realized it was the changing values and my own commitment to Christianity growing deeper. Seeing the values of both parties, it seemed the Democratic party had shifted from the values I grew up with. At that time, the Republican Party was pretty inclusive and had a little more traditional American values. I think the Democratic Party used to have them, and I think they lost them.”

But changing his affiliation didn’t mean he changed his identity, Gaiter says.

In late 2000, he recalls, he and his mother had long discussions about the Bush-Gore recount and came to the same conclusion, to recount the whole state once, although that isn’t what happened.

“It’s that concept of being rational, being able to have a rational conversation with someone you disagree with politically,” he says. “That doesn’t make you a bad person.”

Gaiter and his wife of 35 years, Jeanette, have raised nine children — seven boys and two girls — and a few years back, he says with a chuckle, it turned out that one of his sons had grown to be a pretty serious Democrat.

“It was when President Obama was running for reelection, the first time he was old enough to vote, and I said, ‘Tell you what, let’s sit down and listen to the debate with Gov. (Mitt) Romney.’ We talked afterwards. He had a very strong preference, and I said, ‘You need to vote for President Obama.’ I couldn’t have been any more proud of him than my die-hard Republican kids. I was proud he took the time to do intelligent research, it wasn’t just pulling the lever.”

While it’s rare, Gaiter concedes he sometimes crosses party lines when he casts his ballot, depending on the candidate.

“The party has your base ideology, and the person might trip you one way or the other over that party boundary. Sometimes good people will trump the ideology. Not always, but sometimes,” he says. “By and large, I’m going to vote Republican, but I always like to see good people in office. In some ways, we’ve gotten too politicized. We need to get back to having animated dinner party conversations and be able to walk away friends when it’s all done.”

That’s true, for instance, of Gaiter’s relationship with Democrat John Kefalas, a state senator from Fort Collins.

“We disagree on some things, we disagree passionately,” Gaiter says. “But 80 to 90 percent of the time when we’re doing our jobs, we shake hands, we smile, we laugh. We don’t waste time trying to convince each other on things we passionately disagree about, but we put our effort into working on things where we agree.”

That’s a reason he says he’s running for governor.

“As governor, you have to have the ability to work with people on both sides of the aisle,” he says. “I’ve talked to legislators in both parties, and a lot of legislators aren’t real excited about a governor who thinks it’s their job to tell them what to do. The job of governor is to make it happen.”

Before he was appointed to fill a vacancy on Larimer County’s board of commissioners in early 2010 — he’s won election to the seat twice since then, in 2010 and 2014 — Gaiter worked in the high-tech industry and eventually started an IT and computer systems business, StarFire Enterprises, that closed its doors in the tech crash of 2002.

“For me, having a high-tech company — that world was ‘innovate or die.’ And that’s what I brought to the county, the idea we can do things differently, the idea of constant improvement,” he says.

Gaiter says he believes his nearly eight years as a county commissioner are the right preparation for governor.

“I’m not running for chief legislator of Colorado — I’m running for chief executive. Keeping streets clean and roads built and department of human services running — I do that already. It’s the same job, only with more scope.”

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning

Ernest Luning is a political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has covered politics and government for newspapers and online news sites in Colorado for more than 25 years, including at the Highlands Ranch Herald, the Jefferson Sentinels chain of community newspapers and the Aurora Sentinel, where he was the city hall and cops reporter. After editing the Aurora Daily Sun, he was a political reporter and blogger for The Colorado Independent site. For nearly a decade, he was a senior political reporter and occasional editor at The Colorado Statesman before the 119-year-old publication merged with Colorado Politics in 2017.