The Colorado Independent has spent the past months interviewing each candidate, observing them on the campaign trail, digging into their records, and speaking with folks who know and have worked with them. Below are our profiles of the four Democrats and four Republicans who want to be your next governor, presented in alphabetical order.
MIKE JOHNSTON (D) | A charismatic campaigner trying to build bridges in bridge-burning times.
Johnston says his education reform efforts stem from his belief that education is the “civil rights challenge of our generation.”
The 43-year-old Vail native’s mother, aunt, uncle, grandmother and grandfather were all teachers. Johnston’s education career began after Yale when he went to Greenville, Miss. to teach English for Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits recent college graduates to teach in low-income communities (and a program that also has upset teachers unions). As he says in a book he wrote about the experience, “In The Deep Heart’s Core,” he was placed in an African-American community surrounded by cotton fields. After he returned to Colorado, he became principal at Joan Farley Academy in Denver and the Marvin W. Foote Youth Services Center, a youth detention center in Englewood. He then helped found MESA, a public school in Thornton, where he also worked as a principal.
CARY KENNEDY (D) | The public education candidate has the base. Is that enough to win the primary?
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.
GREG LOPEZ (R) | A ‘taste-test’ candidate counts on the personal touch to prove his skeptics wrong.
Lopez is a pretty solid Republican candidate, the old hands in the political trenches will give him that. Veteran? Check. Small businessman. Check. Experience in office? Check. Hispanic? Bonus.
Those who hear him speak in person say he might even be a great candidate, refreshing, really, in his lack of pretension, an ease that says, “Hey, I’m just like you. Not the smartest man in the room. Not the wealthiest. Not the most educated. I grew up in a beans-and-tortillas family, but my parents taught us respect and work ethic and belief in the Lord.” And when he says his childhood home in Texas was about 900 square feet and he and three siblings shared one bed and a bunk bed because bedrooms were not sanctuaries, not places to watch TV and play video games, they were for sleeping, people of a certain age laugh with him because that’s how they remember it, too. In the flash of nostalgia, they warm to Lopez.
DONNA LYNNE (D) | A healthcare exec. A lieutenant governor. A first-time candidate fights to make her mark.
Lynne, 64, was a Cold War baby, born on a Navy base in Florida to military parents who both served in World War II. She grew up in New Jersey and played field hockey for the University of New Hampshire before quitting the team to wait tables so she could pay tuition. She went on to earn a Master’s in public administration from George Washington University and a doctorate in public health from Columbia University. She spent most of her adult life in New York City where she had three children with a husband who left when they were 4, 6 and 8.
She raised her kids while working 20 years in New York City government. Twelve of those were under Democratic mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins when she managed employee benefits and helped lead labor relations with a workforce of more than 300,000 as the city teetered on insolvency. Later, directing Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s office of operations, she coordinated an emergency management plan that was the blueprint for the city’s response to the 9/11 attacks. Giuliani then made her second in charge of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation – a network of trauma centers, mental health facilities, neighborhood clinics, nursing homes, and home health care services, plus the Medicare payment system that connects them.
VICTOR MITCHELL (R) | A serial entrepreneur who built six companies. With $5 million invested, can he build a successful nomination?
He is energetic and fond of plaid sport jackets with no tie. He wears a sort of fragrance that lingers for a while after you meet him. He is accessible to the press but can be combative if he doesn’t appreciate the coverage or a particular headline. In forums with other candidates, he might dramatically roll his eyes or shake his head at statements he disagrees with, and he won’t hesitate to challenge a rival— on live TV— over a perceived slight. On the stump, he does not dodge questions or equivocate. If a voter asks him something and he doesn’t know the answer he’ll say he doesn’t know the answer.
In this year’s governor’s race, Mitchell was one of the first to take direct shots at his opponents. He said attorneys aren’t qualified for the governorship back when one Republican prosecutor was running and AG Coffman was considering a bid, and he frequently mentions on the campaign trail that he’s running against “George Bush’s cousin” and “Mitt Romney’s nephew,” a jab at the political family connections of Stapleton and Robinson. With a week to go before the primary election, he is paying for negative ads against his chief rival, lobbing a barrage of three different attacks aimed at Stapleton. And he’s dumping boatloads of his own money into the race to do it — he has shelled out nearly $5 million from his pocket for the primary.
JARED POLIS (D) | The Boulder congressman has big plans— and big money to push them.
He was the first openly gay parent in Congress and supported legalized cannabis and marriage equality before both causes were fashionable. He says he went maverick five years ago by rallying against the oil and gas industry with concerns about the environmental and public health threats of fracking.
His is a “refreshing” campaign, Polis said by phone near Vail Pass en route to a campaign stop earlier this month. He describes his opponents in the Democratic gubernatorial primary – former state Sen. Mike Johnston, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne – as “status quo” candidates, boasting that he’s the only one among them who isn’t from Denver.
DOUG ROBINSON (R) | In the shadow of a front-runner, a tall man makes his move.
Doug Robinson is tall and fit at 56. He has a long, oval face and short hair graying at the temples. He possesses the demeanor of a suburban dad leading a Boy Scout troop. When he talks, his cadence sounds very much like that of his uncle, Mitt Romney. When he speaks to crowds, he does so earnestly. In person, he seems genuinely interested in hearing what people have to say. Long before his candidacy, he was known to engage strangers in conversation if he heard something that piqued his interest. If you catch him at a conference the first thing he might ask is if you’re learning anything. For the father of five, the decision to run for governor took a confluence of timely events.
WALKER STAPLETON (R) | A political unknown 8 years ago. Now he’s the establishment GOP’s hope to break a blue wave.
Asked if he moved to Colorado with a plan of one day running for high office, Stapleton said, “I don’t think that I had an exact design on how or when I would be involved.”
He didn’t think the deliberative nature of the legislature would suit his temperament, so he eyed an executive branch role. An interest in tackling state economic policy, including the long-term sustainability of Colorado’s public pension system, PERA, drove him in 2010 to run for state treasurer in his first bid for elected office. The position offered a platform and a bullhorn. It also served as a potential launching pad. Two former governors, Roy Romer and Bill Owens, were both state treasurers.
You can also read our coverage from the campaign trail, dispatches, Trail Marker column, follow-the-money reporting, and weekly rankings at our page dedicated to the 2018 Colorado governor’s race.