How a gay hipster became a right-wing smearmeister
Jonathan Lockwood’s millennial friend describes him as “an alarm clock for our generation.” Liberals dismiss him as a self-hating Koch-brothers’ puppet. The Denver Post described him as “flat-out deranged.” Who is this guy and what impact is he having on Colorado politics?
That’s how The Denver Post’s editorial board described 26-year-old libertarian politico Jonathan Lockwood’s comments last month about Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet’s vote in favor of the Iran deal.
Over the past months, the word deranged has appeared in The Denver Post to describe a select few people: the Aurora theater killer, the school shooter at Arapahoe High School and the white supremacist who massacred nine churchgoers in South Carolina.
Lockwood is the only person the paper has referred to as “deranged” this year who hasn’t killed somebody.
So what warranted the editorial board’s vitriol? Lockwood’s signature public relations style, which both critics and admirers describe as flamboyant, hyperbolic, overblown, melodramatic and, at times, delusional.
When Lockwood shows up to interviews, he looks like a fashion forward party boy. He’s a little too stylish for Denver, where hipsters dress like lumberjacks and even in the gay world masculinity rules.
He wears his jeans as skinny as he is, and his hair rises above his pampered angular face in a coiffed Morrissey poof. He has the air of gay twink — young, hot and he knows it. He’s sometimes sardonic, sometimes melt-your-heart earnest, and he’s willing to be more vulnerable than your run-of-the-mill balding political operative decked in baggy khakis, stained oxfords and a veneer of boozy sweat coating a twitching brow.
In short, Lockwood is refreshing.
His conservative colleagues are divided about the effectiveness of this one-man political messaging machine. Some say his bombast does a fantastic job grabbing media attention for the conservative causes and campaigns that that pay him. Others see him as a “sideshow,” drawing attention to himself rather than the issues he’s hired to spin.
In any case, few conservatives are willing to go on record about Lockwood — he’s either too powerful, or too irrelevant, or too volatile, depending on who’s talking.
Lockwood runs Advancing Colorado, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that can do political lobbying — as long as it’s nonpartisan — without having to disclose its funders.
Progressives say Advancing Colorado is a front for the GOP.
Lockwood counters that, “Just because you’re nonpartisan doesn’t mean you can’t advocate for a perspective.”
On September 22, his organization produced an ad attacking Bennet’s vote to support the Iran deal, accusing the Senator of creating a soon-to-be global nuclear holocaust.
The ad harkens back to Lyndon Johnson’s Daisy Girl attack ad on Barry Goldwater. You know, the ad that suggested a vote for Goldwater was a vote for dead girls.
Lockwood claimed the anti-Bennet ad was a six-figure spot. Democrats point out that the ad cost only $46,000 to place on TV, an assertion Lockwood doesn’t dispute. He says the rest of the money was spent drumming attention to the ad on Facebook, Google, YouTube and other online sites.
Advancing Colorado’s doomsday assault – on Bennet’s policy, not Bennet himself, as Lockwood tells it – managed to snag headlines in The Wall Street Journal, U.S. News and World Report and papers as far away as Israel and New Zealand. All in all, more than 140 articles about the ad appeared worldwide. For a conservative nonprofit that launched in March, that’s not too shabby.
Democratic consultant Laura Chapin dismisses the political impact of the media attention.
“I think the number of people who read The Wall Street Journal in Colorado is like ten, and the number of persuadable voters in that batch is pretty small. I have a feeling that the Fantasy Football ads are moving more votes.”
Advancing Colorado, in its few months of existence, has been accused by progressive heavyweights of having secret funding sources and nefarious ties with the conservative mega-donors the Koch brothers.
“He is so clearly there to launder Koch brothers money, it’s kind of ridiculous,” Chapin told The Colorado Independent.
Lockwood’s skills as a spinmeister shine when he talks about Advancing Colorado’s funders. He politely changes the subject to the issues his organization is focused on. His attitude: Who cares who’s bankrolling him? It’s the fate of Colorado and the country that matters.
When pressed harder about who’s paying his bills, he points out that liberals want to make a big deal about Advancing Colorado’s secrecy – but progressive 501(c)(4)s, like his political nemeses at ProgressNow, also don’t disclose donors.
So, bottom line: Are the Koch brother backing Advancing Colorado like they do so many other grassroots conservative organizations?
Lockwood’s explanation is circuitous: They don’t fund it. But, whether a foundation, organization or business the brothers run or heavily donate to funds it, Lockwood would not say.
What’s perhaps most striking about this 20-something is his prowess at dodging questions and framing the debate. He started honing those skills a decade ago at his Lutheran private high school in Longmont where he’d act as a de-facto communications consultant for his friends battling it out in student-body elections. Even then, he was a staunch conservative, inspired by his father’s rise from working class roots to a job as a superintendent at a construction site to higher ranking positions in the industry. In Lockwood’s spare time, he read Foreign Policy magazine while his peers were watching sitcoms.
Lockwood went to Colorado State University to study fashion design. Halfway through the program, a professor told him to quit fashion and study public relations. And so he did. He transferred to Metro State University and created his own minor in “Innovative Communications,” where he studied business, culture and psychology, all of which he uses in his work today.
His first forays into professional communications were in the music industry where he secured internships with AEG Live and Tsunami Publicity.
“I had a ton of fun. I was this little hipster kid,” he said. “But I knew that I needed to find something next. It was a horrible time in the economy. There were no jobs to be seen anywhere. I graduated in December of 2011. It was rough times. And I decided I needed to keep working on these P.R. skills.”
Lockwood made friends with Nissa Szabo, the daughter of Libby Szabo, a former state representative, American Legislative Exchange Council member and arch-conservative. Nissa encouraged him to take a job at the Statehouse – something he says he had no idea how to do but jumped into anyhow.
“I always tell her, if anyone’s going to get blamed for getting me into politics, it’s her,” said Lockwood.
While interning in the press office of the Republican majority during the six heated months of the 2012 session, he says, he “worked, worked, worked like a little work horse” to put together a portfolio. From there he started volunteering on political campaigns such as Republican Boulder businessman Eric Weissmann’s losing primary race against far-right state Sen. Kevin Lundberg in the GOP’s failed attempt to unseat Jared Polis in Congress.
Then Lockwood scored a job working as the area political director in Aurora for Mike Coffman’s winning 2012 campaign against Democrat Joe Miklosi. Lockwood’s job was to connect with voters, organize events and build Coffman’s grassroots base. Lockwood lauds Coffman as a candidate who didn’t just stand around. He earned his re-election through hard work, joining the college kids on his campaign in phoning constituents and knocking on doors.
After Coffman won, Lockwood took a gig as the press secretary for the Colorado House GOP during the 2013 session. The Democrats were the majority in both houses and passed sweeping progressive legislation, including an overhaul to the state’s gun control laws — measures some critics say is the reason they lost the majority.
That session Lockwood raised the ire of Democrats and Republicans alike by tweeting about the anti-gun-control motivated recall of state Sen. Evie Hudak: “@SenHudak deserved what she got. She voted against my right to defend myself from violent assailants. #gunrights are #gayrights #copolitics.”
— Jonathan Lockwood (@JNTHN_LCKWD) December 11, 2013
One Twitter user described the comments as “shrill, hyperbolic nonsense.”
Lockwood, who had an active Twitter profile long before most politicos embraced the medium, believes that his own personality and perspective are key to his effectiveness in politics. But his remarks in 2013, which were unconventional for the typically neutral role of press secretary, worried some party members. By the end of the term, it had become clear he needed to move on.
So he did. He took on leadership roles in Colorado free-market nonprofits. At Compass Colorado, he says he managed to land the executive director and conservative pundit Kelly Maher a spot on The Daily Show. Maher had no comment on Lockwood’s ten months of work with her organization.
In each of these jobs, Lockwood was embraced — at least at first — as a refreshing newcomer in a conservative movement that had a rap of appealing only to old, straight, white men.
In the last decade, homophobia has been falling out of style in the GOP, and Republicans know they needed to attract Millennials to survive. So Lockwood has become Colorado’s new conservative poster boy. He’s edgy, cheeky and smart. Nobody looking at him could think Dick Cheney, Karl Rove or Rush Limbaugh.
Whether it’s about slashing taxes, fighting for a firearm free-for-all or taking aim at Democratic office-holders – even successfully organizing to unseat a few – Lockwood has proven to be a cutthroat operative.
Still, he can be unpredictable — a loose cannon.
In 2013, ColoradoPols dug up a picture of Lockwood reenacting a hoax photo of Paris Hilton in which some jokester Photoshopped a t-shirt on her that read “STOP BEING POOR.”
Only, Lockwood’s shirt wasn’t Photoshopped. After the story surfaced, he not only was ridiculed by the left, but also by some fellow conservatives who were horrified that he had played into the progressive movement’s stereotype of what a free-market pundit stands for.
Lockwood’s resume is speckled with short stints at nonprofits, some of which were campaign driven and inherently brief. Other jobs he left after a few months, after his bombastic social media presence proved he could be more harmful than helpful.
Eventually, in June 2014, he found himself leading Colorado’s chapter of the Koch-brothers-funded organization, Generation Opportunity, a classically libertarian nonprofit with hip branding aimed at Millennials. The group works mainly on criminal justice issues and stopping tax hikes across the nation. He worked at GenOpp an entire year, which marked a record on his staccato resume.
While there, Lockwood took two courses at the Charles Koch Institute, an educational and professional training organization for folks with, as the center puts it, a “passion for liberty.” In one, Liberty@Work, he boned up on his management skills. In the other, he won himself a spot in the Koch Fellow Program for Communications Professionals. The Koch brothers and their growing political empire has become a livelihood for Lockwood after three years bouncing around between political jobs.
This March, the three person board of directors of Advancing Colorado recruited Lockwood to make something out of the organization that has been around, at least on paper, since 2014. He is currently its only staff member. Although the website describes the group as a coalition of Coloradans, citizens, community leaders and other stakeholders, Lockwood seems to be running a more-or-less solo operation.
His targets have been varied. Since taking over in March, Lockwood has swung at the Environmental Protection Agency, attacking the Clean Power Plan and that agency’s role in the Gold King Mine spill. He has slammed the environmental group WildEarth Guardians for its climate change-related lawsuit filed against the Department of the Interior. He has attacked Gov. John Hickenlooper’s support of red-light cameras. He has praised the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. And he has promoted Douglas County’s voucher system, condemned Obamacare and vilified the Department of Veterans Affairs.
All told, the mission of Lockwood’s purportedly nonpartisan “social welfare” group mirrors the agenda of Republicans in Colorado’s congressional delegation.
Lockwood’s press releases on these issues are sensational, direct, occasionally witty and often indignant.
Alan Franklin of the liberal group ProgressNow — himself a master of heated rhetoric — wrote in an email to The Colorado Independent that, “Lockwood is a clueless peddler of barely-coherent fringe nonsense. Rumor has it that he was fired from jobs at other conservative advocacy groups like Revealing Politics because of his over-the-top word-salad rhetoric and chronic inability to fact-check anything he says.”
“Without the prodigious funding he receives from right-wing donors like the Koch brothers, he’d be marching up and down Colfax with a sandwich board. His role in Colorado politics is an ongoing insult not just to the left, but intelligent conservatives as well,” Franklin continued.
Lockwood is the “Stewie Griffin of Colorado politics,” Franklin wrote.
Stewie Griffin is the violence-obsessed, flaming, sophomoric, pontificating son of Peter and Lois Griffin on the satirical cartoon show Family Guy — a deranged, but brilliant baby.
Lockwood counters that his brand of rhetoric cuts through ambiguity and gets to the point.
Take, for example, his reaction to WildEarth Guardians’ climate-change motivated lawsuit against the Department of the Interior in September.“WildEarth Guardians locked-and-loaded aiming to kill again,” he wrote.
What his critics see as hyperbole, Lockwood says, is a justified tactic against what he believes is a cold-blooded, extremist environmental organization threatening to destroy the lives of miners. From his perspective, dramatic, populist rhetoric is a winning formula for today’s politics, which is why he believes Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are galvanizing voters this year.
Given Lockwood’s bombast, it’s no surprise that he has been the target of a number of personal attacks — not all of them from Alan Franklin.
Chapin refers to Lockwood as a “joke.” Others have punched much harder, using the fact that he’s gay to deride him and call him a hypocrite for working as a conservative pol.
Some call him a “self-hater,” citing a photo of him gleefully buying Chik-Fil-A for his staff. At the time, LGBT organizations were boycotting the fast food chain.
Lockwood says he was called a “Republican faggot” by one of the Governor’s staffers, though he claims, either diplomatically or tactically, to no longer remember that person’s name. Some critics have accused him of trolling on Grindr, a cruising app for gay men, looking for hookups with other men — not exactly scandalous in 2015, but, hey, operatives on the left, much like Lockwood and his peers on the right, love to hit hard.
There’s a sense when speaking with Lockwood that he draws on stories about homophobic snipes against him to gain sympathy before he starts swinging — this time, in this particular conversation, at Bennet’s Iran vote.
Bennet is an incumbent Democrat who, despite his fat campaign coffers, faces the challenge of winning re-election in a purple state. For months, Republicans have speculated about who would be their party’s challenger. First, it was Mike Coffman, who disappointed many by sticking to his current congressional seat. Then it was Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, who tripped up her career in a seeming blackmail scandal against Steve House, the head of the state GOP. Then it was George Brauchler, the district attorney who prosecuted James Holmes, flirted with running for Senate, but then abruptly bowed out. That leaves two GOP candidates certain to run — far right state Sen. Tim Neville and Robert Blaha, a wealthy Colorado Springs businessman with money to bankroll his own campaign.
Without a more moderate, widely known candidate, Republicans had hesitated to hit Bennet on TV. That is, until Advancing Colorado on September 22 put out the ad on the Iran vote – a sure kickoff to months of political hits on the Senator leading up to the 2016 election.
Chapin speculates the ad was an attempt to flush out a serious candidate, secure Brauchler or convince Mike Coffman to reconsider a run.
Lockwood says the ad has nothing to do with the race and that his goal was to educate the public about Bennet’s vote.
His so-called nonpartisan, “educational message,” the one The Denver Post described as “deranged,” goes like this: “Bennet will go down in history as sacrificing Americans in the name of Obama to give terrorists nuclear weapons, training, arms, cash and ICBMs. He chose global chaos and terror over world peace, America and Israel’s safety and security, and ignored the outcry from his outraged constituents who begged him to oppose the deal.
“Bennet is a dangerous puppet, and we will never forget he voted to hold the American people hostage and sided with terrorists and madmen to silence the innocent people he represents here in Colorado. The deadly consequences of this foolish deal will be on his hands.”
Colorado Democratic spokesman Andrew Zucker sees Lockwood’s message as an act of desperation.
“With Washington Republicans lacking an opponent in the Colorado Senate race, it comes as no surprise that a secretly funded group with ties to the billionaire Koch brothers is out with a deeply offensive, fear mongering attack against Sen. Bennet.
“The truth is Michael Bennet passed tough sanctions against Iran, has worked to prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon and is authoring legislation to make the Iran deal even stronger. He has consistently fought to make us safer and more secure and this group’s smear attack has no place in Colorado politics.”
Iran isn’t the only issue Advancing Colorado plans to blast Bennet for, and Lockwood’s revival Daisy Girl spot isn’t the only ad the group plans to produce on the issue. Lockwood has no plans to tone down his rhetoric, insisting he’s not attacking Bennet, just Bennet’s policies.
On October 8, Advancing Colorado launched yet another attack ad on Bennet’s vote — this one in The Colorado Statesman: “Some people are going nuclear over Senator Bennet’s support of Obama’s deal with Iran,” the full-page ad states. “Most probably the Ayatollah.“
The most recent Lockwood blast against Bennet came this week concerning a letter Bennet and other senators sent to Secretary of State John Kerry: “We are writing to express our profound concern about Iran’s October 11 ballistic missile test…We urge you to consider unilateral and multilateral responses to this ballistic missile test. We believe calibrated pressure on Iran is appropriate due to its clear non-compliance with UNSCR 1929 and to deter future violations.”
Lockwood’s statement: “Bennet’s delayed concern is phony and disingenuous at best because he ignored all the signs and the writings on the wall on this issue. Coloradans are furious with outrage he supported our lawless president’s nuclear deal with a terroristic, theocratic thug. Calculated letters won’t protect Americans from the Ayatollah and terrorists, so it is worthless. This latest act shows how ridiculous supporters of the deal are, playing politics with real American lives and safety. Instead of writing letters and sponsoring show-bills Bennet should have stood up for his constituents and fought against equipping Iran with nuclear weapons.”
Signature Lockwood: amped-up, fear-mongering and spiteful.
As he tells it, his brand of bombast will serve him well if, some day, he chooses to enter politics as a candidate. He knows that his digital shenanigans, flippant Twitter remarks and faux-Paris Hilton-poor-bashing photo scandal will make it easy for Democratic trackers to dig up dirt on him. But, as he knows better than anybody, dirt comes with the job.
In a climate in which any media mention, even scathing critiques, can be considered good publicity, Lockwood thrives. He turns scandal into celebrity — perhaps unwanted by the buttoned up Republican establishment, but attention grabbing nonetheless.
Conservatives say they have yet to figure out how to handle this maverick — either by silencing him because he’s reckless or helping him out because he’s savvy.
Lockwood cites a string of friends — fellow up-and-coming conservatives — who can speak to his strengths. One leads the Libre Initiative, a Koch-funded grassroots organization mobilizing Latinos for the free market cause. Another friend leads Concerned Veterans for America, a Koch-funded grassroots organization mobilizing veterans for the free market cause. Neither returned The Independent’s messages.
Only one friend, Charity Corker, a former colleague at Generation Opportunity, answered The Colorado Independent’s requests for comment on the record. In an email, she praised Lockwood as “an alarm clock for our generation.”
“He gets people to wake up and think,” she wrote.
Lockwood has no definitive plans, but his future, as he tells it, will likely be as unconventional as his past.
If he ever runs for office, he doubts he’ll take the predictable journey from city council to the Statehouse to Congress.
He hints that he’s hoping be tapped by the GOP to run for the seat held by beloved Democratic state Sen. Pat Steadman.
But, in the same conversation, the frenetic Lockwood also hints that he has aimed his personal sites on bigger things — like the nation’s Capitol. Having stuck with the same job all of eight months, he seems restless. He’s itching, he says, for the next big thing.
Top photo courtesy of Jonathan Lockwood
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