In April, Cary Kennedy became the third major candidate— and the first woman— to kick off a campaign for governor in the Democratic primary.
The former state treasurer who in 2016 stepped down as Denver’s chief financial officer and deputy mayor, took the online route for her official kickoff, announcing her candidacy on Facebook live. In her video, she drove 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 had been prepping for her run for governor 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 into the race followed Intertech Plastics CEO Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, and Congressman Ed Perlmutter, who later dropped out after Boulder Congressman Jared Polis got in the race.
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.
She and Polis are the only Democratic candidates for governor who have run and won statewide races 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?
Public education is a major tenet of 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.”
She talks about handling taxpayer money responsibly and leans 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.”
In September, Kennedy rolled out a plan she’d push if elected that would allow anyone in Colorado the ability to buy into the state’s public healthcare plan. In other words, a Medicaid-for-all plan, also known as a public option, which would allow all state residents to buy into the state’s Medicaid plan, which already covers about 1.4 million, and the health plans that are available to state employees.
Along the trail, she has also made infrastructure an issue, pledging to tap around $60 million in leftover money from Colorado’s Unclaimed Property Fund to pay for a funding program dedicated to affordable housing. She says she would try to get a high-speed train along I-25, expand CDOT’s Bustang service, and explore options like the Hyperloop.
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, Polis, and Johnston 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.”
Along the campaign trail, Kennedy has also been forceful about climate change and often slams President Donald Trump harder than her other Democratic rivals.
While she and three of her Democratic opponents have all signed a pledge by the Colorado Democratic Party to run clean campaigns, Kennedy went one step further, asking the others to promise not to spend more than $3 million in the race. “We aren’t looking to handicap ourselves or be outspent 2 or 3 to 1,” a Kennedy spokeswoman said. “We think $3 million is more than enough to qualify for the ballot and communicate with primary voters and believe it would help Democrats be united and strong for the general election. We would love to hear a compelling reason why more money should be spent in the primary.” The move is likely aimed at Boulder Democratic Congressman Jared Polis, who is one of the wealthiest members of Congress and who has voluntarily capped contributions to his campaign at $100, signifying he plans to spend his own money. Polis’s campaign declined to comment on the $3 million challenge.
Kennedy called for candidates to reject and return donations from political action committees (PACs) or corporate lobbyists. But doing so led her to return one donation herself from a lobbyist who represents a corporate client, a spokeswoman says.
Two large teachers unions have endorsed her, the Colorado Education Association and the state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.
Where is she drawing her support?
In July, Kennedy reported raising $340,000, more than any other Democrat for the quarter.
She has been endorsed by EMILY’s List, a national group that supports women in politics and helps them fundraise, despite another Democrat, Donna Lynne, also running in the same primary. (The name EMILY stands for Early Money is Like Yeast.) Her fundraising reporters show Kennedy drew $575 donations from those working in higher education, teachers, government employees, homemakers, lawyers and retirees. An overwhelming majority of her campaign cash came from inside Colorado, and more than half of her donations were less than $100. “I am honored to have the support of so many Coloradans across our state,” Kennedy said in a statement. “Together we will work to make sure every Coloradan benefits from the progress we’ve made.” In October, she raised another $225,000.
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. 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.
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 in which to participate.
“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 who is also running for governor. When mentioning Kennedy on the campaign trail Walker has called her his “former vanquished opponent who I was very proud to have rid Colorado of.”
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.