Democrat Cary Kennedy is running for governor of Colorado. Here’s what that means.

Democrat Cary Kennedy is running for governor of Colorado. Here’s what that means.

This week, Cary Kennedy became the third big name to kick off a campaign for governor on the Democratic side.

The former state treasurer who last year stepped down as Denver’s chief financial officer and deputy mayor, went the online route for her official kickoff, announcing her candidacy this morning on Facebook live. In her video, she drives around in a car talking to a camera as she’s filmed by someone in the passenger seat. 

Since leaving the office last January she has been prepping for her run and doing financial consulting work for the City of Denver and USAFacts, a nonprofit institute in Seattle developing an annual report for government that mirrors corporate financial statements. Her entrance follows that of Intertech Plastics CEO Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, and Congressman Ed Perlmutter. The race is shaping up to be an energetic Democratic primary — something Colorado has not seen in many years.

What’s her background?

Kennedy, 48, began her career working for Democratic Gov. Roy Romer and with work on children’s healthcare initiatives in the 1990s. She has run for, won, and served in statewide office before, holding the office of state treasurer from 2007 to 2011. She then became deputy mayor and CFO for the City of Denver under Mayor Michael Hancock.

In 2000, she wrote Amendment 23 and led the successful statewide campaign for an effort aimed at reducing years of budget cuts to public education by requiring the state legislature to increase funding. She also helped develop the successful 2005 Referendum C statewide ballot measure that gave Colorado a five-year time out from spending limits set by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. The money helped fund public education, healthcare, and transportation.

What she’s most proud of as state treasurer, she says, is the 2008 Building Excellent Schools Today — or BEST— program, which funded through competitive grants the ability to build new schools and renovate aging ones across the state. As of September 2015 the program had received $500 million. BEST also started receiving money from marijuana taxes after voters passed legalized pot in 2012.

So far, she is the only Democratic candidate for governor who has run and won a statewide race in Colorado.

Kennedy, who grew up in Evergreen and has two children, lives in Denver with her husband — a doctor of internal medicine in private practice who counts players on the Avalanche and Nuggets teams among his patients. 

What are some of her campaign themes?

Expect public education to be a top priority in the Kennedy campaign.

She is concerned the state focuses too much on testing and narrowing curriculums. “We’re blaming teachers and we need to be expanding learning opportunities,” she says. She says she believes in measuring student progress but wants to make sure students can be creative problem solvers, “not just good test takers.”

Kennedy wants higher pay and better training for teachers in Colorado, and wants to offer more technical and vocational programs in high schools. “We can ensure that all kids can attend early education, preschool and kindergarten,” she says. “Right now less than half are getting early education. We need to raise teacher pay. We rank 47th in the country in teacher pay. We need a talent pipeline in our schools.”

Also, expect to hear her talk about handling taxpayer money responsibly, leaning on her previous work as state treasurer and Denver CFO, with refrains like, “I’ve been managing Colorado taxpayer’s money for the last decade,” “I kept our budgets balanced,” and “I have put our state on stronger financial footing.”

Here’s a line she often repeats: “We are an innovative and modern and forward-looking state.”

Expect her to hit on that plenty throughout her campaign and to explain her own role in the state’s progress over the past decade.

Where does she fit along the spectrum of the Democratic Party in Colorado?

As a former statewide officeholder, and given her association with the Amendment 23 and Ref C ballot measures, Kennedy will likely benefit from decent name recognition among Democratic voters.

Last March, Colorado’s Democratic base turned out heavily for Bernie Sanders, and the Vermont democratic socialist crushed Hillary Clinton in the Colorado caucuses, beating her by about 20 points. The state’s political elite was firmly behind Clinton while the activist base clearly was not. Clinton supporters dismissed the caucus loss by saying caucus-goers make up a slim margin of Democrats statewide; Clinton rallied the base and beat Donald Trump in November in Colorado.

Kennedy, Johnston and Perlmutter each supported Clinton during the caucuses. Ginsburg donated to Clinton in 2015, according to records.  

In an interview in the living room of her home in the Crestmoor neighborhood of Denver on the weekend before her announcement, Kennedy talked more like a general election candidate than someone running in a Democratic primary. She pitches herself as someone who can come up with innovative ways to fund programs “that don’t necessarily need additional taxes,” and who will “keep and protect the right to vote on taxes.”

Kennedy says she is not running against any of the other contenders in the race, but rather, “I’m running to get some things done that I think need to get done here in Colorado.” And then, again, she added her signature line: “We want to keep Colorado the innovative, modern, forward-looking state.”

Asked what she thought about the state of the Democratic Party in Colorado following the presidential primary and its reorganization of leadership, Kennedy offered a scripted-sounding response: “The Democratic Party is strong and motivated to protect Colorado in the face of some real concerns they see coming out of Washington.”

Where might she draw her support?

Michael Johnston was the first Democrat out of the gate with a big campaign kickoff in January. Since then he has raised $625,000 from 2,500 donors. His campaign called it a record — but it has not scared off challengers like Kennedy or Perlmutter. In a nod to Sanders, Johnston said he would not take money from political action committees, or PACs.

Kennedy, who announced today, will start raising money now. Asked if she would take money from PACs, she said, “I don’t know yet, I’m going to take a hard look at that.”

She noted that when she first ran for state treasurer in 2007 she raised more money than any other down-ballot candidate had in the past — then doubled it when she ran for reelection.

“I cannot self-fund my campaign as I know other candidates may be able to do,” she said.

Meanwhile, Colorado, a state that led the effort for the right of women to vote, has yet to have a female governor or U.S. Senator. As the only woman in the race so far on the Democratic side, Kennedy is likely to stand out in that regard. In the wake of Republican Donald Trump’s election as president, Colorado and the nation saw massive women’s marches in response.

Jenny Willford, who runs Emerge Colorado, an organization that encourages and trains women to run for political office in Colorado, noted that a woman has not run for governor here since Gail Schoettler in 1994. Women, she says, tend to be more collaborative and bipartisan in office and look at issues affecting the economy and working families differently.

Emerge Colorado does not endorse, support, or oppose candidates, but speaking for herself, Willford said, “I’m hopeful that Cary Kennedy will be able to break the highest glass ceiling in this state, especially given that nobody has done this before, and we’re excited that she’s running.”

How might the new primary system voters just passed affect a Kennedy candidacy?

No one knows yet but it could benefit a candidate who does not come from the far left wing of the party more than one who does.

Because voters approved ballot measure Prop 108 on Nov. 8, Colorado’s next governor’s race will be the first year unaffiliated voters will be allowed to have a say in whom the Democratic Party nominates for governor. Democrats will still caucus for their candidates at precincts around the state — and unaffiliated voters cannot participate in those — but once candidates land on the primary ballot, either by coming out of caucuses or petitioning on, unaffiliated voters could be allowed to vote, unless a lawsuit derails the law. 

If the law stands, it would mean that in the 2018 governor’s race, mailed ballots will be sent to unaffiliated voters with the names of Democratic and Republican primary candidates. Voters can choose one party or the other to participate in.

“I like the opportunity for unaffiliated voters to have a voice in these elections,” Kennedy says about the new system.

One aim of Prop 108 was to water down the voting power of the activist base in each party by broadening the electorate to include more voters in party primaries. Proponents of the measure saw it as a way to lessen the chances of Colorado nominating extreme candidates on either side.

Any potential buzzsaws for Kennedy?


She served one term as state treasurer and lost her re-election to current Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton. Stapleton is likely to run for governor this year as well, so an easy knock on her from other Democrats might be to point to his potential nomination and how he has beaten her in a statewide race before.

That year, in 2010, Perlmutter was also up for re-election and beat his Republican rival, Ryan Frazier, 53 to 42 percent in a year that was good for the GOP.

Also worth noting: Kennedy’s decision to announce her candidacy on Facebook live while driving drew immediate response since it could fit the textbook definition of distracted driving, something state highway officials are constantly warning against in Colorado. Republicans were quick to jump on it. “Safety is always a priority and that’s why Cary was about 300 yards from her house,” a campaign consultant told 9NEWS in Denver. “We had several people on the street monitoring traffic and she was driving slowly.”

It’s early in the governor’s race, and, especially with a crowded Democratic primary, the sawteeth are likely to sharpen.

Photo by Corey Hutchins

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About the Author

Corey Hutchins

is a journalist in Colorado, and Columbia Journalism Review's Rocky Mountain correspondent for the United States Project. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyHutchins and email him at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.

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