In mid-September, Colorado’s lieutenant governor, Donna Lynne, became the fifth big-name Democrat to join a sprawling race to replace her boss, term-limited Gov. John Hickenlooper.
At a table on a sun-dappled outdoor patio in a downtown Colorado Springs cafe, 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.
For months prior, Democrats had been lining up to run in the first wide-open race for governor in decades, starting in January when businessman Noel Ginsburg and former Sen. Mike Johnston launched their candidacies. In April, former State Treasurer Cary Kennedy got in after Arvada Congressman Ed Perlmutter announced his own run. In June, Boulder Congressman Jared Polis jumped in the race, and then Perlmutter stunned Democrats by dropping out.
Lynne, 63, called Perlmutter’s exit a defining moment.
“I had a conversation with the governor then,” she says, adding that 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,” she recalled Friday. “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.”
A former president of Kaiser Foundation Health Plan of Colorado, Lynne has an extensive background in business and public policy stretching from City Hall in New York City to a chairmanship of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. Her background and initial campaign speeches position her less as an ideological firebrand than a business-minded executive who can get things done.
“She’s practical,” said Marcy Morrison, a former GOP lawmaker-turned-independent who was the mayor of Manitou Springs and served as Colorado’s insurance commissioner. Morrison says she worked with Lynne when Lynne was running Kaiser and described her as never coming in with a lot of “hype” or being surrounded by aides, when Morrison met her. She says Lynne was adroit at navigating the insurance business. “You can get snake-bitten very easily in the insurance industry,” said Morrison who came to see Lynne speak in the Springs. “When I heard she was running I thought, ‘This is interesting.’”
Unlike Polis or Johnston, Lynne doesn’t have a voting record on which to calculate her politics. Unlike Kennedy, she doesn’t have a political base to tap for money or support. Most Democrats in Colorado are likely just getting to know her.
In an interview, she said she could not recall who she voted for 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. She said she opposes the death penalty and would do anything she could as governor to not put someone to death.
Hickenlooper, once a pro-death penalty governor, came out against it after researching it heavily as an execution date neared when he was in office. His 2014 campaign for reelection at times seemed to revolve around the issue. Hickenlooper said he wanted a statewide conversation about the death penalty, which some proponents and opponents of capital punishment in Colorado argue never really fully materialized.
“I think certainly the statewide conversation is a place I’d love to go,” Lynne told The Colorado Independent.
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 of the campaign. 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. 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.
“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.”
Lynne has been an intern at the White House and served under four administrations— including under Mayor Rudy Giuliani— in New York City. She has always been a Democrat, she says. Asked what it means to be a Democrat in Colorado, Lynne said it means social justice and equality for everyone who lives here.
“I think it’s also being sensitive to what is making our economy strong— we have a strong jobs economy— and we’ve got to be sensitive to the needs of the business community as well when it comes to some of the issues that I think are complicated for us like healthcare,” she says.
During a 20-minute speech to about a dozen onlookers at Poor Richard’s cafe in the Springs on Friday, Lynne said she believes healthcare is a right— something everyone should have, like public education. She said Obamacare did wonderful things in Colorado. “Honestly I think I’m the only person who has got … maybe courage and a lot of the experience to be able to tackle healthcare issues,” she said.
In an interview, Lynne 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 Aug. 1, Lynne filed paperwork to run for governor but held off saying she was officially in. At the time, she had to answer questions about reports that Hickenlooper tapped her as his lieutenant governor because she didn’t plan to run to succeed him. A headline in The Denver Post last March read, “Governor’s lieutenant governor nominee won’t seek higher office.”
But things change. There was a presidential election that swept Donald Trump into the White House. Lynne’s tours across the state for more than a year with Hickenlooper inspired her to help keep the state moving in the direction the current governor has steered it.
She is running for governor, she says, because she understands intricate policy issues and how to helm large entities.
“Running large organizations, it’s pretty complex,” she says. “You have to have a governor that understands that. John Hickenlooper does.” And so, she argues, does she.