Meet the Right-to-Work Lightning Rod: Councilman Ryan Frazier

Aurora city councilman Ryan Frazier, who many consider a rising Republican star, will walk into court tomorrow to defend himself against a lawsuit he says was inspired by his support of a measure many consider anti-union.Frazier says he’s merely backing what he believes in.  His opponents say it’s all about currying favor with the party powerful and furthering his ambitions.

“I do it because I believe it’s right,” Frazier said, adding that he’s not interested in controversy for its own sake but he’s also not worried about making people mad.

Frazier, a 30-year-old graduate of Columbia College and the Naval Cryptology School, was a fellow in the state and local government program at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  He has lectured about U.S. local government in China and is a member of Engineers Without Borders, a nonprofit that matches volunteer engineers with developing communities throughout the world.

The North Carolina native is married with three children who attend The Academy at High Point, a charter school he helped establish two years ago.

Frazier was first elected to Aurora’s city council in 2003. He ran his campaign largely through television ads, which was considered innovative in the city at the time, and has built a reputation for being fiscally conservative but willing to work for changes in the city’s approach to problems, such as hiring more minority police officers. 

Last year, Frazier was one of two residents to file ballot language for a controversial “right-to-work” initiative.

The question, which would toughen the rules for establishing unions in the state, will appear on the November ballot. The measure asks voters to prohibit employers from deducting union dues or their equivalent from wages.

Supporters say the change would give workers a much needed choice over whether they pay for union representation, while opponents say the measure is designed to effectively cripple the state’s already weak unions.

Frazier said he doesn’t dislike unions but wants employees to have a choice of whether they pay union dues or their equivalent for union representation – like a form of optional customer service.

“If the unions are providing value – that is they’re getting better working conditions, they’re providing better wages, they’re getting health care for their workers and the workers see that value – the last thing they’re going to want to do is stop paying into that union,” Frazier said.

Some union supporters aren’t buying it.

“You tell me that’s not a backdoor way to drop the union, to silence the voice of the union, to union bust,” said Randy Rester, president of the Aurora Fire Fighters Protective Association.

The fire union considers Frazier to be too friendly with city administration due to his ongoing support of changes that would give the police and fire chiefs more control in the hiring and promotions process.

Last year, the fire union interviewed all the candidates running for Frazier’s seat on council, except Frazier, before endorsing another candidate.

But Frazier said he’s a friend to the rank-and-file in Aurora and points to his successful efforts to increase the police department’s recruiting budget and to increase city contributions to the pension funds of all its public safety officers.

Nonetheless, Frazier thinks pro-union groups are driving efforts to discredit him. He accuses them of distorting a campaign contribution issue, turning it into the opens record complaint that he is scheduled to address tomorrow in Arapahoe County District Court and into a larger smear campaign.

In April 2007, Frazier voted to approve a $9 million contract between the city and Carollo Engineers, an Arizona engineering firm, as part of Aurora’s $750 million Prairie Waters Project.

Earlier that month, a group of public policy and project management firms solicited other businesses, including Carollo, for campaign donations on Frazier’s behalf. Frazier contends that he didn’t know Carollo was among those solicited at the time.

Carollo employees responded by contributing almost $1,500 last year in a series of $99 donations to Frazier’s campaign for a second term on Aurora’s 11-member city council.

Aurora resident Foster Hines submitted an open records request in February to Frazier asking for copies of his correspondence and other dealings with Carollo.

Although Frazier said he’s willing to work with Hines, he said he simply doesn’t have the requested materials because he didn’t correspond with the Carollo employees who donated to his campaign.

And according to City Attorney Charlie Richardson, the city, not Frazier, is the legal custodian of records, so Frazier was not required to respond.

Hines has since filed the request with the city, Richardson said.

Richardson is seeking to dismiss a pending lawsuit filed by Hines over Frazier’s failure to respond to his open records request.

Richardson also said that he’s searched the city’s database and will turn over four documents to the court Thursday, documents he hopes will resolve the matter.

“There’s no smoking gun,” Richardson said.

Any records beyond that are Frazier’s private documents, and the city is defending his right not to turn over private documents on principal, Richardson said.

Frazier says the accusation of effectively selling his vote makes no sense and ticks off reasons:

  • The city council vote to award the contract was unanimous
  • The donated money was not a substantial portion of his $80,000 re-election campaign
  • He reported the campaign donations himself

Frazier and a number of current and former city leaders also argue that Frazier simply didn’t have the pull to deliver the contract because Aurora’s bidding process is controlled largely by staff. Frazier doesn’t even sit on the city’s three-member water policy committee.

“Personally, I don’t believe [Frazier and his fundraisers] were trying to hide a thing, and I don’t believe the contributions could have influenced any decisions related to the Prairie Waters Project,” said Tom Tobiassen, who is the chair of Aurora’s Citizen’s Water Advisory Committee and a Democrat who has known Frazier in both the private and public sector for years.

“My feeling is that the originators of the negative ads are simply trying to discredit Ryan in an effort to derail his ballot effort. I believe it’s dirty politics at its best, which I hate,” Tobiassen added.

Frazier is adamant that pro-union groups are driving a smear campaign against him because he’s supporting “right-to-work.”

Frazier is even the subject of a commercial paid for by Protect Colorado’s Future, a progressive group that opposes the “Right to Work” initiative. The commercial focuses on the donations Frazier accepted last year from Carollo.

But Frazier is confident he hasn’t done anything wrong and says those accusing him of selling his vote are being dishonest.

“It was a total abduction of the truth and re-engineered into a pure smear campaign,” he said.

The accusation led to Colorado Ethics Watch, which bills itself as a nonpartisan government watchdog, naming Frazier to its top ten most-corrupt politicians list.

Despite the public criticism, there’s one thing Frazier’s supporters and detractors agree on: The part-time politician’s future looks bright.

“I think he’s smart and intelligent and family oriented, and I think he’s probably got a lot of motivation politically and will go on to other things beside (city) council,” said former Aurora City Councilwoman Kathy Green, a Republican.

Frazier’s youth, along with his charisma, are also considered valuable assets in his political future.

“Ryan has oratory skills that equal or surpass Barack Obama,” said Bob LeGare, an Aurora Republican who donated to Frazier’s re-election campaign.

“I think Ryan has a lot of potential if he chooses to make politics his priority in life,” added LeGare, also a former city councilman.

Frazier won’t rule out any future possibilities, including making a bid for mayor in three years when term limits will force the city’s current mayor, Ed Tauer, from office. There’s also a chance Frazier will run for congress.

“If I see a chance where I can actually lead, I would,” Frazier said.

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