The Cary Kennedy for Governor campaign is headquartered near downtown Denver in a converted classroom of a restored, century-old red brick elementary school. The location is coincidental, but fitting.
All four Democratic primary candidates say they want to put more money into public education. But Kennedy has made the issue the engine of her campaign.
She has aligned herself specifically with the teachers unions and those largely opposed to education reform measures that emphasize standardized testing, the proliferation of charter schools, and the weakening of tenure protections. This position sets Kennedy apart from her primary opponents and at least the last four governors, three of them Democrats.
She is calling for more school funding so that high school counselors don’t have caseloads of 400 kids each and the front office isn’t running out of paper. She’s calling for more support staff from paras to school psychologists. She’s calling, loudly, for higher pay so that teachers aren’t forced to choose between the schools they love, the students they have nurtured, the communities they call home and their own families’ well being. It doesn’t make sense, she says everywhere she goes, that Colorado has the number-one ranked economy in the nation, but that its investment in K-12 and higher education ranks near the bottom.
On the first weekend in June, teachers’ union members and other supporters gathered at Kennedy headquarters for a quick convening before knocking on doors in East Denver. Several South High School teachers showed up wearing red T-shirts, the color adopted from protesting teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma and here in Colorado. On the back of the tee: a raised fist clenching a pencil and, in all caps, the words “Public education is a civil right.” A handmade sign on a wall read “Spoiler Alert: Women Don’t Give Up.”
The excitement in the room was palpable. Kennedy’s campaign had built undeniable momentum, dominating the March caucuses and the state Democratic assembly in April. The base was solid. She’d won the coveted endorsement of Ken Salazar, the Democratic powerhouse who was a former state Attorney General, U.S. senator and Secretary of the Interior. By mid-June, the campaign would raise nearly $2 million. Kennedy had turned a four-person primary into a two-person race, hot on the heels of the Congressman Jared Polis. Sure, a couple days earlier Gov. John Hickenlooper had publicly tsk-tsked an attack ad — or, as Kennedy referred to it, a “contrast ad” — aired on her behalf against Polis and former state Sen. Mike Johnston.
But on this day, in this room, Hickenlooper’s “play nice” admonition largely was dismissed by those mingling as little more than a patriarchal blip. Union reps lauded Kennedy for her record supporting more funding for public education. Should she win the governorship, they declared, Colorado could become a “guiding light” for the rest of the nation.
Hanna Vaandering, a member of the National Education Association’s executive committee and an elementary school PE teacher, fired up the already-enthusiastic crowd by saying she had a few questions, “and I’m not going to use the question I usually use, which is ‘Which is more detrimental to public education: grizzly bears or Betsy Devos?’
“I’m not going to go there,” she said, over laughter. “But do you believe in public education?”
“Yes!” the group shouted.
“Do you believe that educators should be driving education policy?”
“Do you believe in Cary Kennedy? “
“Again, do you really believe in Cary Kennedy?”
“Give it up for the first female governor of Colorado!”
The room erupted.
Riding a wave (or two)
Timing is to politics what location is to real estate. And Kennedy, former state treasurer, former deputy mayor and chief financial officer of Denver, has possessed impeccable timing in this race.
Her campaign has coincided with the wave of frustration expressed this spring by public school teachers protesting on the streets and in the state capitals of several states. And it has coincided with the wave of frustration expressed by women in the aftermath of the President Trump’s election and the rise of the #MeToo movement.
Timing alone is never enough, especially in a tough primary, but it offers wind in the sails. And on the campaign trail, Kennedy is confident, speaking with her characteristic mix of ebullience and earnestness. She does not simply smile, she beams.
“She is the ‘life-is-good,’ candidate in that ‘let’s work together and fix things,’ way. She is an antidote to Trump and his anger,” says Karen Benker, who worked with Kennedy as budget analyst in the Office of Planning and Budgeting during the Romer administration in the ‘90s.
It has been 20 years since a woman was on the ballot for governor in Colorado and now two are in contention – Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne. Women currently hold six of the 50 governorships, and a record number of women are running for statewide or Congressional offices. By the end of March, 40 women had filed to run in 36 gubernatorial races.
Colorado has not in its 142 years of statehood elected a woman as its chief executive and that played an undeniable role in this year’s support for both Kennedy’s and Lynne’s candidacies. All of its nearby neighbors, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nebraska, Wyoming, Kansas and Oklahoma have elected women governors.
“Colorado has had a very poor track record as a state bringing women into either [the governor’s office or U.S. Senate],” says Judi Wagner, a retired investment manager who has spent years helping women in Colorado and nationally win elected office.
As she sees it, women generally bring a higher emphasis on collaboration and open-mindedness to the job, and Coloradans of both genders want those qualities in their next governor. “Cary is just qualified, period. The fact that she’s a woman is irrelevant to her ability to do an outstanding job as governor. However, there are characteristics she brings as a woman that will make her even better and I think a high percentage of women – and even men – would be delighted to see her win.
“It’s just time.”
For two decades, Wagner has been teaming up with former Lt. Gov. Gail Schoettler who, like Kennedy, served as state treasurer before running for governor in 1998 – the last time a woman made the gubernatorial ballot. Schoettler was vastly outspent by Bill Owens in that race, losing to the former oil and gas operative and Republican establishment favorite by fewer than 8,000 votes. “We’ve got to get more organized,” Wagner told Schoettler when both committed that year to helping women candidates overcome financial barriers that tend to give business titans and men with lucrative ties to industry more access to campaign funding.
For years now, Wagner said, she and Schoettler, along with enthusiastic, well-organized, state and national networks of women Democrats – both progressive and moderate – have been working to remove such barriers for female candidates and, in more recent years, specifically for Kennedy.
For her part, Kennedy wants voters to support her because they believe she is qualified to lead the state, but says it is a privilege “to inspire young women and young girls to see themselves as leaders, to never be afraid to stand up and share their voices, share their opinions.”
Kennedy was a longtime inhabitant of the public policy and budget world before she turned to public office. Her work as a budget analyst in Roy Romer’s administration in the ‘90s brought her a mastery of the intricacies of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, the 1992 voter-approved constitutional amendment that limits how much revenue the state can collect — and therefore spend. As the economy grew, but spending limits forced cuts to public education, Kennedy began crafting what in 2000 would become the first voter-approved constitutional amendment mandating annual increases to school funding. Amendment 23 was one of her signature achievements — in some eyes one that caused as many problems as it solved — but it helped cement her reputation as someone uniquely qualified to find money for public education in the Gordian Knot of Colorado’s financial constraints.
“For Cary, there was a mismatch between our economy and having to cut schools,” says Lisa Weil, an education advocate and longtime friend of Kennedy’s who also worked on the amendment. “She has a fundamental belief that education is the key to opportunity. It just stuck in her craw and she wanted to make it better.”
Kennedy’s reputation as a public school advocate was enhanced after her election to the state Treasurer’s office in 2006 when she successfully took on the challenge of figuring out how to pay for the repair and rebuilding of the state’s aging schools without raising taxes. It was huge, complex policy, requiring a level of detailed thinking that Kennedy not only excelled at, but reveled in, says Mary Wickersham, who worked as Kennedy’s director of strategic initiatives and who had been working on the problem before she joined the office. The solution, the Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) program, used state land trust money to seed competitive grants that helped fix or build almost 400 schools. Championed by House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, it passed the House with a 64-1 vote.
“If you [now] go into these communities, the school is the heart of the community,” Wickersham says. “It’s where they do all their Elks Club meetings, the Fourth of July picnics and the choir performances. And it’s where all of their kids go to school and many of their adults went to school. Having a new school is just transformative.”
Kennedy’s two kids were in elementary school when she was elected treasurer, and once she took office she told her deputy treasurer Eric Rothaus, that she’d be blocking off time in her schedule for their carpool. “And I was like, ‘What?’” he recounts. “I was like ‘No, state treasurers don’t do that,’ and she said, ‘This one does.’
“That was a non-negotiable because her kids were 6 and 8. She’d say, ‘I’ll come back in afterward’ and she would and she would stay up reading a lot of stuff and come back in the morning with a lot of questions for me about this, that or the other.”
So devoted to the carpool is Kennedy — “you get to hear what’s really going on in your kids’ lives” — that she announced her candidacy last April in a much-mocked and consequently much-watched Facebook Live post shot in her car as she drove home from dropping her daughter off at high school.
Working moms juggle, Kennedy says, laughing at the memory of arriving at the Capitol after taking her kids to school one morning only to discover her daughter’s shoes on the top of the car.
Have and have-nots
Education is number one of three priorities Kennedy hammers on the campaign trail. The other two are making health care more accessible and affordable and managing Colorado’s growth.
On the health care front, she wants to allow Coloradans to purchase either Medicaid or the state employees’ plan. On growth, she advocates for greater use of transit, including light-rail and buses, and an expansion of electric-vehicle charging stations. She also wants to create a state affordable housing fund and would push the legislature to offer more protections for renters.
On other hot issues, she supports the banning of assault-style weapons and the implementation of red-flag laws, which allow law enforcement to temporarily confiscate weapons from someone who shows signs of violence. She supports giving communities more local control over fracking and says the state’s regulatory body should prioritize “environmental safety and public welfare protections” when considering oil and gas development.
Kennedy, a Manual High School graduate, speaks often of her family, of her husband, Saurabh Mangalik, a physician, and of their two children Kyra, who just graduated from George Washington High School, and Kadin, a junior at Colorado College.
She speaks of the three siblings who joined her family through the foster care system and the fourth who joined through the church. She also has a biological sister, three step-siblings and a half brother. They are 10 in all. Her mother is a social worker, her father worked as an investment banker. They divorced when she was a child and Kennedy says her mom raised her kids to believe that if their home had an empty bedroom, it was their obligation to fill it with a child who needed one.
Kennedy regularly tells family stories on the campaign trail. She tells of how her son had asthma as a child but went on to become a competitive college runner because they had access to the medical care he needed. She says her daughter overcame difficulties with math because she had access to tutors and parents who could help her. She points out that her husband is an immigrant whose family came in search of opportunity and found it.
She is practiced on the stump – too practiced for some observers. Public relations consultant and political pundit Eric Sondermann, a regular guest on CPT12’s Colorado Inside Out, commented on the show after one debate that she was coming across as too tightly scripted. Her stories, as campaign stories do, serve a purpose. That purpose in Kennedy’s case is almost always to show she is keenly aware of her privilege.
“Because I know,” she says in an interview, “that my success has only come from the opportunities that were given to me.”
And so at a meet-and-greet in Montbello, she tells the story of her sibling Karen, who joined the family at 14 through their church and who for the first time was able to take music and vocal classes at school. Karen went on to win a full music scholarship to college and then became a performer.
“She had never played an instrument,” Kennedy told the room. “Never had a music lesson. As I travel the state of Colorado, I ask myself how many kids are just like Karen.”
Kennedy and her husband sent her own kids to private school through 8th grade, which makes it both ironic and understandable that she has focused much of her career on increasing funding for public education. From the vantage point of plenty — of schools with manageable class sizes, lab equipment, field trips, support staff, working furnaces and gyms with gleaming hardwood floors — the deprivation in public schools, particularly in rural communities and communities of color, is stunning.
One million kids go to public schools in Colorado, and for a vast majority of them, Kennedy says, the quality of education they receive in those schools is the only shot they will get at a life of opportunity. To fail them, she says, is not an option.
Into the thicket
Amendment 23 plays a key role in Kennedy’s campaign, in part because today’s conditions are nearly a replica of those in the ‘90s. The state’s economy is booming but its schools are still struggling, still being forced to cut staffing and programs, to move to four-day weeks.
For all its promise, Amendment 23 set up competing mandates in the state Constitution, with TABOR requiring less spending and Amendment 23 requiring more – a conflict that would become a crisis after the 2001-2003 recession. TABOR’s spending limits ratchet down when revenues drop and they stay down even when revenues pick up. To avoid draconian cuts, Kennedy helped draft a temporary budget fix, Referendum C, which had bipartisan support and the backing of Republican Gov. Bill Owens. Passed by voters in 2005, it put a five-year moratorium on the spending limits.
“Amendment 23, which [Kennedy] wrote, created all kinds of financial issues,” said Tom Clark, the longtime and now-retired CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. “We could have gone for a longer-term strategy. It wasn’t good public policy.”
Kennedy deflects a question about whether she would go back and change the amendment if she could, saying that its passage demonstrated a critical point: Voters were fed up with school budget cuts.
She is intent upon using the bully pulpit of the governor’s office to build a bipartisan coalition similar to the one around Ref. C, and then, one way or another and with voter approval, crack TABOR’s spending limits. One option, she says, is to come up with a ballot question to ask voters to either completely do away with the cap on revenues the state collects (permanent de-Brucing) or to keep the cap, but raise it to allow the state to keep more revenue.
“This isn’t a tax increase,” she says. “This is an agreement that as our economy grows, the natural growth of our economy should be invested back into the state.”
She sees much of that revenue going to expand access to early childhood education and full-day kindergarten and to school districts so they can bring up teacher pay from the current state average of about $51,000 to the national average of $59,000. She also wants to bring a pipeline of new teachers to hard-to-serve schools by creating a state scholarship fund that would be matched by foundations and business.
TABOR, Amendment 23, and the property-tax focused Gallagher Amendment come together to create what Gov. John Hickenlooper calls “the fiscal thicket.” Alan Salazar, who worked with Kennedy in the Romer administration, notes that she has been involved in the fight against TABOR for at least 20 years.
If she is elected governor, he expects her to head straight into the thicket.
Union with the unions
Teachers unions have long advocated for greater support for traditional neighborhood public schools. Protests this spring were about more than higher salaries. They were a demand that the public acknowledge, with dollars, what teachers believe to be obvious: Without support staff, without librarians, school guidance counselors, nurses, paraprofessionals, without adequate mentoring and competent leadership, public school teachers are being set up as the fall guys. And more to the point, their students, many of them struggling with poverty, are denied the equitable education to which they are entitled. In their view, Kennedy understands the stakes better than anyone else running for governor.
With the support of teachers comes money. Unions have contributed slightly more than half of the nearly $2 million raised by the super PAC Teachers for Kennedy.
With that support also come ground troops. At the teacher canvassing in early June was a teacher from South High named Sean Davis, who comes from a family of teachers. He supports Kennedy because of her past record on public education and because she has promised that teachers will never be sidelined in policy discussions that involve their profession. As far as he’s concerned, the only teacher in the race, Mike Johnston, took his relatively short time in the classroom and turned it into a state law that punishes teachers. Senate Bill 191, which Johnston championed as a lawmaker, tied teacher evaluations to student performance on state standardized tests. It weakened tenure protections. Kennedy says student progress should be measured on multiple fronts, and teachers need to be involved in developing the accountability standards, “just like in any profession.”
“As a special ed teacher, I know the most important thing for my kids is that when they graduate, they have a solid transition plan, the resources they need, job coaching, people to help them enroll in vocational ed,” Davis said. “But the [learning plans] I write to help them with these transitions, the internships I help them get, none of that is included in the teacher evaluation. That evaluation has nothing to do with how well they’ve been prepared to succeed after high school. Do they have a job? Do they know how to open a bank account? Do they know how to sign a lease? All of that is way more important than the definition of a word they are never going to read again.”
Johnston’s SB 191 passed in 2010, further pitting unions against reformers. It created a divide so lasting and bitter that Democratic delegates at this year’s state convention demanded that Democrats for Education Reform remove the word “Democrats” from its name.
Kennedy publicly has lamented the division, but the Teachers for Kennedy ad poked the wound. It was the first to strike a negative tone in the primary race, and with its unflattering black-and-white photos, ominous music and accusatory narrator it depicted Johnston as a backer of a conservative education agenda and Polis as a voucher supporter. Fact checks dinged the ad for mischaracterizing both of their records.
Though the ad was from a super PAC backing Kennedy, not the campaign itself, it bothered some who appreciate Kennedy’s upbeat demeanor and her pledge, with others, to keep the campaign clean.
Kennedy’s immediate reaction to criticism was to focus mostly on the fact that campaign finance law does not allow campaigns to coordinate with independent expenditure committees, a position Johnston challenged, saying nothing prevented her from publicly condemning it. In the coming days, she defended the teachers’ right to speak and asked Johnston and Polis why they were trying to silence teachers. The ad, no longer on the air, gave Polis the opportunity to launch a counterattack featuring a host of disappointed looking teachers (presumably not union members) saying, “[Kennedy] broke her word. What else will she break?”
Gov. Dick Lamm, a Democrat with a conservative streak and a supporter of Mike Johnston, said he wished Kennedy had come straight out and disavowed it. “Listen, I’ve played this game. I know you have options,” he said.
“I’ve known Cary since she was in high school. She was a friend of my son’s. She’s exceptional. She’s smart as hell … [and] I’ve always had the support of labor, of teachers unions. I am certainly not anti-union. But the teachers union in my experience all over the country has generally fought the kind of educational reform I think is necessary. You gotta be able to fire incompetent teachers without taking four years and $200,000. You gotta be able to hold teachers accountable.”
Kennedy says she’s proud to have support from the unions and adds that she’d never argue that incompetent teachers should stay in the classroom. She disagrees with the implication that skepticism of ed reform equates to stagnant thinking about education, and points to her support of various innovative programs, including making sure that students have opportunities to learn trades and services in high school along with a pre-collegiate curriculum.
But scrutiny of Kennedy’s union backing dovetails with other concerns about how much support she would win from the business community. Clark, the Amendment 23 critic, is a Republican who is backing Donna Lynne largely for her experience in the business world. “I think it’s important we have a female governor for all kinds of reasons. What I want is a middle-of-the road governor because the country is so polarized.”
On one hand, he says he views Kennedy as “quick to tax.” On the other, he says, Kennedy is “one of the smartest fiscal people” he knows.
Salazar sums up the challenge this way: “To be governor is to be father or mother of the state. You have to operate like a parent does, from the center out … You can only govern if you govern from the center. What you bring to the office is not always what you keep with you.”
Those who have worked with Kennedy say concerns that she is somehow ideologically blinded ignore her long record of coalition building. Her greatest gift, Rothaus says, is precisely the ability to listen and incorporate multiple perspectives. “…The thing that really drove me crazy when I worked with her, she really doesn’t care who gets the credit. I remember this many times, her saying, ‘It’s not important that I get the credit. What’s important is that this gets done.’”
Kennedy says she would be a governor much like Romer – one who would bring people with various perspectives into the room, “lock the door and order pizza and say no one is leaving until we have a path forward.”
Never let them see you sweat
That early June gathering at the Kennedy headquarters and others like it after she crushed the state assembly marked a high point in her campaign.
The back-and-forth over the Teachers for Kennedy ad in the days that followed proved a distraction, putting Kennedy, who’d been playing strong offense, on the defensive. More difficult to overcome has been the seemingly bottomless pockets of her opponents.
Earlier in the election cycle, Kennedy backers bristled when Donna Lynne announced her candidacy. Their fear was that the lieutenant governor, a well-respected business leader who in many ways rivals Kennedy in the policy-wonk department, would dilute the women’s vote and draw big money from allies of her boss, Gov. John Hickenlooper, and from deep-pocketed health care executives and Chamber of Commerce types who seemed, at least early in the election cycle, to support her.
But Lynne’s friends turned out to pose far less of a threat than out-of-state, education-reform minded allies of Mike Johnston such as billionaire Michael Bloomberg and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman who’ve funneled millions into Frontier Fairness, the super PAC backing Johnston. The nearly $4 million in combined contributions that went to Kennedy’s campaign and to the Teachers of Kennedy super PAC has been dwarfed by Johnston’s $8 million combined total and the $11.5 million Polis has spent on his own campaign.
Recent infusions of campaign cash are enabling Johnston and Polis to vastly outspend Kennedy with a barrage of mailers, TV and radio ads in these days leading up to Tuesday’s primary election.
The most recent polling, taken at the end of May, when momentum was noticeably in her favor, put her well behind Polis and well ahead of Johnston.
If she’s feeling the pressure, she isn’t showing it. She remains the unflappable boss Mary Wickersham describes, the woman whom staff from the state housing finance agency went for guidance in 2008 after the collapse of Lehman Brothers bank where the agency had investments.
The agency is not under Treasury control, but never missing a beat, Kennedy started asking questions: What are the numbers, what’s your thinking, what have we done on this front, who have we talked to? With no hand-wringing, no finger-pointing, Wickersham recalled, “she said, ‘OK, let’s figure this out.’”