Colorado’s lieutenant governor, Donna Lynne, officially launched a bid to replace her term-limited boss, Gov. John Hickenlooper, in mid-September after a soft-launch kind-of campaign a month prior.
She filed the necessary paperwork in August and told the state’s largest newspaper about her intentions to run. She held a brief morning news conference in a park across the street from her office at the state Capitol. After testing the water for a month, the former healthcare executive rolled out a campaign, hiring the consulting firm responsible for Hickenlooper’s previous bids.
So who is Donna Lynne?
Lynne, 63, is a top businesswoman in Denver with a background in healthcare who served as the executive vice president of the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan. There, she oversaw an $8 billion budget before Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed her as his lite guv last spring. She met him when he was mayor of Denver and served on his transition team when he became governor.
It was the Kaiser job that brought Lynne to Colorado in 2005. A graduate of The Wharton School, Columbia University and George Washington University (degrees in political science and economics), she has been an intern at the White House and served in the mayor’s office in New York City— under four administrations, both Democratic and Republican.
She has said she always knew she wanted to work in government. About growing up in the 1960s, she said, “I was less of a protester than I was, ‘How about changing it?’ … And going into the public sector is one way to change the status quo.”
Her Colorado board positions have included the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, which she once chaired, Teach for America-Colorado, and the Denver Public Schools Foundation. She is a member of Colorado Concern, a high-profile state business group of corporate heavy hitters with a political arm that supports business-minded politicians of both political stripes.
A skier, mountain climber, and cyclist, Lynne has three children and two stepchildren. Since becoming lieutenant governor last year she has visited each of Colorado’s 64 counties, laying down a nice runway to a gubernatorial campaign.
Didn’t she say she wouldn’t run for governor?
Close followers of Colorado politics might have thought that.
A March 23, 2016 story in The Denver Post was headlined, “Governor’s lieutenant governor nominee won’t seek higher office.” This was the openeing paragraph:
Donna Lynne, a Kaiser Permanente executive tapped by Gov. John Hickenlooper Wednesday to be his next lieutenant governor, said she has no plans to run for the top job in two years, but that she is doggedly committed to public service.
Once she decided to run for governor, she handled the inevitable question about her prior remarks like this: “For the last 15 months, I’ve been privileged to work with and help people in every Colorado county and have come to realize there is much more we can and must do to keep the state moving in the right direction.”
She went a little further in an interview with The Denver Post, saying she asked Hickenlooper if he felt he had asked her not to run, to which she says he replied, “I never asked you not to run. What I did was express a preference for A) somebody from the private sector and B) somebody who didn’t have political aspiration.”
Following her Aug. 1 news conference, she also told a reporter the presidential election made keeping a Democrat in the Colorado governor’s office a priority for her and it impacted her decision making.
Lynne’s entrance into the race also came just weeks after the surprising exit of Arvada Democratic Congressman Ed Perlmutter.
“I’ve spent my career helping people and leading big organizations — both in government and in the private sector,” Lynne said in a statement. “I believe that’s the kind of experience we need right now.”
Where does Lynne fit along the Democratic Party spectrum in Colorado?
That’s hard to say because she’s kind of a political blank slate.
Her private sector background and affiliations with buttoned-up business groups mean she is not this race’s Bernie Sanders bomb thrower.
In an interview with The Colorado Independent, she said she could not recall who she supported in the 2004 presidential primary, but thinks it was probably John Edwards. She said she couldn’t recall whether she voted for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primary. Asked if she has strong ideological views, she cited equity and social justice.
“I think the main message is the Democratic Party has got to figure out how it elects somebody that is electable in a state that is one third, one third, one third and has traditional Democratic values,” she says of Colorado’s near-balanced registered voting population of Democrats, Republicans and those who are unaffiliated. “I worked for 16 years for Democratic mayors in New York. I negotiated with labor unions. I have labor unions who are my friends. I have business people who are my friends. You need a track record of doing those kinds of things, not talking about them.”
She said she opposes the death penalty and would do anything she could as governor to not put someone to death. She said she did not support a public option during the federal debate over the Affordable Care Act. Asked if she supports universal healthcare, she said “absolutely,” with a caveat.
“There’s universal coverage and then there’s a single-payer system,” she said. “They are different. If you look around the world, all of Europe has universal coverage but they don’t all have a single-payer system, and you don’t need a single-payer system to achieve universal coverage.”
Getting more Coloradans covered, she said, could be done through outreach to the 100,000 residents eligible for Medicaid. “Being aggressive about making sure that we go out and get them signed up and we keep them in the system is really important,” she says. “That doesn’t even require a change in legislation.”
On fracking, she said the state has done a lot to regulate the industry and she understands people are concerned about it. She said she did not think it would the biggest issue in the Democratic primary for governor. While she admitted she has some things to learn about the industry, she called herself an “evidence-based person” who would rely on the state health agency for intel. As for optics, days after her campaign announcement, she was scheduled to issue remarks at the Anadarko Women in Philanthropy Breakfast at the headquarters of the state’s largest oil-and-gas producer. By March, she had taken more money from people associated with the oil-and-gas industry than any of the other Democratic candidates for governor.
Speaking on a public affairs TV show, Democratic consultant Steve Welchert said of Lynne, “I think that this is the kind of Chamber of Commerce, 17th Street candidate.”
One thing we know for sure is that Gov. John Hickenlooper clearly thinks Lynne can govern the state of Colorado. He chose her as his second-in-command and someone who can stand in for him when he is out of state, or if he becomes incapacitated. It’s also worth noting how hard he tried to get on Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential shortlist, which, had she won and he made it, immediately would have put Lynne in the governor’s mansion.
Here’s something else: Assisting her campaign is OnSight Public Affairs, the consulting firm that handled Hickenlooper’s operations.
And on Aug. 2, a day after Lynne made her announcement, Hickenlooper gushed about her to reporters, saying she would be a “would be a great governor.” Lynne, he said, is “like a Hoover vacuum cleaner of problems. They just disappear, and everyone’s happy.”
She also said this, according to The Denver Post:
“I do think she is a remarkably talented person, and if she were to run and to win she would be a great governor. The last thing she needs is for everyone to say, ‘The governor is trying to get her elected’ or ‘pushing her out there to do this.’ ”
She has said that in her travels across the state as lieutenant governor, she heard two themes: People want cheaper health insurance, and they need better Internet access to promote local growth.
In an Aug. 1 email announcing her plans to supporters, Lynne talked about a need to “keep our economy growing while we strengthen the Colorado middle class,” a need for better roads and rural broadband, and increased protection for the air and water. “And,” she said, “we must do everything we can to stop Donald Trump from taking away healthcare from hundreds of thousands of Coloradans.”
Is her campaign Hick 2.0?
In an email to supporters on the morning of her announcement, the Donna Lynne for Governor campaign included a quote from Hickenlooper in which he called her “one of the most talented people I have ever worked with.” Her long record of “exemplary success, both in business and in public service, more than earns her the right to run for Governor. Colorado is fortunate to have someone with Donna’s dedication and tenacity who wants to lead our state,” the governor continued.
At a table on a sun-dappled outdoor patio in a downtown Colorado Springs cafe during her first week on the campaign trail, Lynne said she could not think of a single issue on which she and Hickenlooper disagreed since the governor tapped her as the state’s second-in-command last March.
When Democratic Congressman Ed Perlmutter decided to drop out of the race in July, Lynne called the move a defining moment in her decision to run. She says she asked Hickenlooper if he believed she could campaign for his job and serve as the state’s chief operating officer and all it entails. “He said you absolutely can do it,” Lynne said. “Here’s his quote: ‘You work 60 hours a week now, what’s another 30?’”
This is Lynne’s first run for public office, and assisting her campaign is OnSight Public Affairs, the consulting firm that handled Hickenlooper’s operations. In an interview, Lynne pushed back gently against her candidacy as Hick 2.0, a third-term extension of the current governor’s two-term reign, but she wasn’t defensive about it.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity he gave me, but I do think there’s some issues that we have got to tackle and that are going to get harder and harder as we go through the next couple of years,” she said.
When asked if the two ever diverged on policy, she said, “I can’t think of an issue that we’ve differed on, honestly.”
How might Colorado’s new primary system affect a Lynne candidacy?
No one knows yet, but it could benefit a more moderate candidate like Lynne as opposed to someone from the far left.
Because voters approved ballot measure Prop 108 on Nov. 8, Colorado’s next governor’s race will be the first year unaffiliated voters will 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 will 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.