A GOP county commissioner, Lew Gaiter is running a low-key race for Colorado governor
“I would bet I put less time in this campaign than maybe anybody else.”
Republican Larimer County Commissioner Lew Gaiter has a rather unconventional campaign style in his bid for governor. He doesn’t boast of his fundraising prowess or how often he’s out on the trail.
Instead, during one September public appearance in Aspen, he said he might have raised the least amount of money in the race so far. And a month later, in an interview with The Colorado Independent, he said, “I would bet I put less time in this campaign than maybe anybody else.”
But the 57-year-old cowboy-hat-wearing candidate has filed paperwork to run for governor in 2018 instead of re-election as a county commissioner even though he’s confident he would keep his seat. It’s not that big a leap, he maintains. County commissioners in Colorado get executive, legislative and quasi-judicial experience in the job. A bid for governor is something he’s considered for three years as the next step in his political career.
He wants to be governor, he says, because he has seen firsthand the gaps between local and state government. He believes his experiences in the private sector as a businessman, his two terms as a county commissioner, and membership on various boards give him an edge.
“I’ve been very successful with Larimer County [in] bringing private sector initiatives, doing it in the public sector,” he says. “I want to take that into the state level. I want our state government to work with our counties and our cities. A lot of things right now are top down.”
While Gaiter was the only Republican in September to show up to a gubernatorial debate in Aspen about cryptocurrency, asked what his campaign looked like on the ground, he said, “Right now the campaign for me is being a county commissioner.” He added, “I probably won’t ever be on full-time campaign mode.”
What’s Gaiter’s background?
A homeschooling father of nine who is the son of solidly Democratic parents— his mom was a senior staffer for U.S. Sen. Gary Hart— Gaiter has worked in the county GOP infrastructure for years, running precincts and also serving as vice party chair.
He grew up near Littleton, went to Colorado State University, and moved to California to work as a software research and development engineer for computer companies in the early ‘80s. He moved back to Colorado a few years later where he started his own business, Starfire Enterprises, doing computer networking for large companies and governments. In the early 2000s, when the tech bubble burst, Starfire went under. “The only thing that I could think of that would be harder than losing the company you started from nothing is losing a kid,” he says about it now.
After that, Gaiter, who lives in Livermore, about 45 minutes northwest of Fort Collins, got into life coaching where he says he learned to be a good listener. He did OK with it, helping people solve problems in their lives. In 2009 he was diagnosed with blood cancer— “I almost died a few times that year,” he says— but he made it through stem cell transplants and not long after made it onto the Larimer County Commission when a sitting pol bolted mid-term for a university job offer. Gaiter didn’t have to run in a GOP primary. Instead, the local county Republican Party appointed him. It was the first time he served in public office. He was re-elected for a second term.
A ski patroller for 25 years, Gaiter is also the president of Colorado Counties, Inc, a nonprofit association of county commissioners, and serves on the state Board of Health, on the board of the Statewide Internet Portal Authority, and is a former member of the Statewide Emergency Medical and Trauma Services Advisory Council.*
What are some of his campaign themes in the governor’s race?
One theme is improving interactions between state and local government.
“I believe I am capable of doing that and I am passionate about doing that,” he says.
But unlike rivals in both parties, some of whom have promised big initiatives such as pushing Colorado to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, angling for a public-option in Medicaid or fostering a cottage industry of nurse practitioner clinics, Gaiter eschews big public policy proposals.
“I think policy questions in and of themselves can be divisive,” he says. So, he says, he just he won’t get too far into the weeds of them. One thing he’s learned as a county commissioner, he says, is people who work in government learn to wait out elected officials in charge. When a politician comes in saying how he or she will change the world in two years, he says, government workers will “look at you and smile, and they wait you out.”
So instead of proposing major initiatives, Gaiter keeps it close to the vest. He’ll mention problems, like Colorado’s traffic congestion and infrastructure woes, and how they’ll be an issue for the next governor, but when it comes to how to fix it he says he’ll look at what’s being done and could be done better. Once he’s in office, anyway.
“For me to get any more specific than that assumes that I know looking from the outside what the problems are on the inside,” he says. “And I can tell you just from that experience working in local government that’s how you make campaign promises that you later break. Once you get inside and look at it from the inside the picture looks different.”
One area where he sees needed improvement is human services, which, he says, uses a management system that can be challenging for counties to work with. Another challenge, he says, is as the state works to reduce its prison population it puts pressure on counties. If a violent offender’s term is shortened and he or she gets out on early release or parole and commits another crime, he says, that suspect goes back to the local jail until a conviction. “There’s no funds to deal with that,” he says. “You get unfunded mandates down to your local communities.”
Gaiter also says he would want to examine Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights Constitutional amendment known as TABOR, which requires voter approval to raise taxes and limits spending but also complicates Colorado’s budget and impacts local governments.
“Let’s have a review of TABOR and look at those things that are the law of unintended consequences and let’s propose a solution and see if the citizens of Colorado are open to fixing it,” he says.
One of those unintended consequences, he says, is how TABOR intersects with another constitutional amendment called Gallagher. Passed in 1982, Gallagher caps assessment values on residential property taxes to no more than 45 percent of Colorado’s overall assessed value. When Gallagher was passed TABOR didn’t exist, he says, and the idea was local counties could adjust the mill levies— tax rates applied to assessed home values— to fix the imbalances. “TABOR comes in and now your local communities can’t raise the mil levy without going to a full vote of the people,” Gaiter says, adding that Gallagher sets the tax rate statewide. “But we don’t have a statewide economy, we have a lot of local economies. What makes sense in Douglas County, Colorado makes absolutely no sense in Conejos County.”
More than anything, though, Gaiter talks up how he would be a governor who would bridge political divides because his experience in the private sector and in local government would enable him to foster collaboration among political interests to get things done.
Where does Gaiter fit along the Republican Party spectrum in Colorado?
He’s a Christian conservative.
“I have a relationship with Jesus Christ and I have since I was 17,” Gaiter says. “That’s the single most important thing to me in my life is that relationship with Christ. So my values come from that.”
He will not say whether or not he voted for Donald Trump for president. His answer is similar to his response to questions about specific policy proposals.
“I do not answer that question because I believe it’s divisive and my goal is to unite,” he says. “Why do I want to answer a question that just increases the divide? It’s against what I’m trying to do.”
But he does support the president, he says, because he was brought up to respect the office and support whoever occupies it.
He was opposed to the statewide ballot measure legalizing the sale of recreational marijuana in Colorado, but he helped green-light two pot businesses as a county commissioner once it passed.
Gaiter will try to appeal to the party’s grassroots base by going through the caucus-assembly process instead of trying to gather enough petitions to get directly on the primary ballot.
Candidates choosing the caucus route campaign and then give a speech at the April state assembly where thousands of delegates will hold a vote. A maximum of three candidates can emerge from the assembly because a candidate needs 30 percent to make the primary ballot. Last year, in the closely-watched GOP primary for U.S. Senate, a then little-known county commissioner named Daryl Glenn stunned observers by winning enough votes at the state assembly to knock everyone else out.
The process means a candidate like Gaiter who doesn’t have big bucks can run a shoestring campaign and hope to catch fire at the assembly next year.
When Gaiter was elected in 2010 as the first black county commissioner in Larimer County, he says race never came up in the campaign or in his 2014 re-election bid. “As far as I’m concerned my ethnic background has nothing to do with whether I’d be a good governor,” he says. “I think it would be so cool if we elected Colorado’s first black governor based on the content of their character, and my skin color was something they figured out when they saw my picture.”
Where might he draw his support?
While other candidates in the GOP primary come with big money, higher name recognition, or bigwig political family ties like State Treasurer Walker Stapleton and his links to the Bushes or Doug Robinson’s ties to Mitt Romney, Gaiter lacks such a network outside his political base in Larimer County.
But, “I’m hoping to raise money from a large group of people,” he says. “My choice is to try to work with people … who want to vote for someone who has experience in the private sector but also has experience in government, who knows how to run a business and knows how to run a public-sector entity.”
He says he plans to reach out to those who can give $10, $30, $100, or even $1,000. In his July fundraising report, Gaiter posted having received donations from 15 people totaling about $3,000. He gave himself another $7,000.
“Absolutely grassroots,” he says about his campaign.
How might the new primary system voters just passed affect a Gaiter candidacy?
No one knows yet, but it could benefit a candidate who does not come from the far right 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 Republican Party nominates for governor. Republicans 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.
One aim of Prop 108 was to water down the voting power of the activist base in each party by broadening the electorate. Proponents of the measure saw it as a way to reduce the chances of Colorado nominating extreme candidates on either side.
Gaiter is not a big fan of Prop 108. Before the law, he says, if unaffiliated voters wanted to participate in a primary they could temporarily register with a party and then go back to being unaffiliated.
“I didn’t think that that law was necessary to allow unaffiliated voters to participate,” he says.
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