Against a backdrop of military fighter jets in a Denver aerospace museum, State Treasurer Walker Stapleton revealed Republican lawmaker Lang Sias, a former Top Gun instructor, as his running mate in his race for governor.
Standing by Stapleton’s side, the former U.S. Navy pilot and onetime Democrat who represents a suburban district northwest of Denver, pitched himself as a Republican with bipartisan bona fides.
“I spent four years in the Colorado legislature trying to keep Washington out of Colorado, working with Republicans and independents — heck, I used to be a Democrat,” Sias said. “Over 85 percent of my legislation was bipartisan.”
The extent to which Sias is truly a moderate no doubt will be scrutinized in the months until November’s election. In the meantime, his selection as the GOP lieutenant governor pick could be an attempt to telegraph a move toward the middle by Stapleton, who ran as a pro-Trump immigration hardliner, said in TV commercials he planned to beat “the liberals,” and often used the phrase “illegal aliens” in his campaign against three Republicans in the primary. In other words, his lite-gov pick is no Tom Tancredo, the alt-right avatar Stapleton embraced in his successful bid to qualify for the ballot through the GOP’s April grassroots state assembly.
Who is Lang Sias (pronounced sigh-us)?
Langhorne Cowles Sias, 59, is a two-term member of the Colorado House, a lawyer, and current international FedEx pilot who ran unsuccessfully in 2010 for the GOP nomination to the suburban Denver congressional seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter and for State Senate in 2012 and 2014. He was a Navy pilot.
A graduate of Vassar and the University of Michigan, where he earned his law degree, he has lived and worked around the country and on both coasts. He left the military as a flight instructor in 1998.
He and his wife Rene moved to Colorado 18 years ago. In Colorado, he chose to register as an unaffiliated voter, then became a member of the Democratic Party here in 2003. According to election records reported by media in 2010, he “switched back to unaffiliated in 2006, and registered as a Republican in 2007.”
Asked by The Colorado Independent on Wednesday why he switched parties, he explained it in a way previous mainstream Colorado Republican party-switchers, like former GOP candidate for U.S. Senate Jack Graham, also have. “I thought probably foolishly that the Democratic Party had room for people with the views of, say, John Kennedy, which I found out was, frankly, not the case,” he said.
Sias practiced law for half a dozen years and in 2008 joined the presidential campaign of Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain as his national veterans director. But he didn’t vote in that election, nor did he in 2004 and 2006. In previous campaigns, he has had to address his lack of voting participation. “I acknowledge my error, and I offer no excuse,” he once posted on Facebook. “No explanation is sufficient for failing to exercise a sacred privilege that we enjoy in our democracy.”
He currently flies internationally for Federal Express. The Stapleton campaign says Sias would not keep a second job if the Republican ticket wins November’s election.
Like other Colorado politicians who went on to become major statewide political figures — think Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and ex-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mike Johnston — Sias was first appointed to his political seat before he had to run for re-election. In 2015 a vacancy committee selected him to fill his House seat when then-GOP Rep. Libby Szabo left for a county commission seat.
To become Stapleton’s running mate, Sias will not run for re-election in the House— and another vacancy committee will choose his replacement to run in November.
Why is this pick significant?
For one, it could at least bring a veneer of moderation to Stapleton’s general election campaign, tempering the far-right conservative messaging and campaign Stapleton ran in the GOP primary.
Sias represents Jefferson County, one of the swingiest counties in the nation. As Jefferson County goes, they say, so goes Colorado — a state that is nearly equally balanced among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters. In a previous campaign, his more conservative opponent, Laura Woods, painted him as a “liberal Republican” in fliers in part because he once gave money to Democratic Congressman Mark Udall.
Bob Martinez, the former chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, once had this to say in the midst of a contentious 2010 campaign: “I think Lang Sias is a party-switching, carpet-bagging opportunist.”
Sias said he doesn’t expect problems from the party’s more ultra-conservative elements– like the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners– who went after him in the GOP primary race two years ago. He said he has already had conversations with people he characterized as being on the “more right side of the party,” and expects Republicans in Colorado to unify around the Stapleton-Sias ticket.
Stapleton said when he considered potential picks he wasn’t just looking to check boxes. His goal, he said, was finding someone who was the most competent, able and committed running mate he could find. “Lang has impeccable credentials to do that,” he said.
Running statewide also elevates Sias’s status on the Republican bench. In 2012, when he lost his State Senate race to Democratic Rep. Evie Hudak, Democratic consultants in Colorado reportedly “breathed a big sigh of relief.”
From The Denver Post in 2012:
In Sias, they saw a future star for the Republican Party, one who could be dangerous on a GOP bench. Sias is a former Top Gun naval instructor with a sterling military record, a lawyer with a business background, a former Democrat and unaffiliated voter who once donated to Democrat Mark Udall’s congressional campaign. He was certain to garner press in the state Senate. “Lang Sias scares the crap out of out me,” admitted political consultant Steve Welchert.
Democrats in Colorado have been quick to try and punch holes in the Sias-as-a-moderate narrative.
“On Monday, Donald Trump unveiled a Supreme Court pick committed to taking away Americans’ health care and eliminating women’s health care rights. Today, Trump supporter Walker Stapleton followed suit, nominating a Lieutenant Governor candidate committed to taking away Coloradans’ health care and eliminating women’s health care rights,” said the party’s chairwoman Morgan Carroll. “This out-of-touch ticket from Connecticut would be a disaster for Coloradans – especially the 2.3 million Coloradans with pre-existing conditions and women who don’t want to see their rights taken away by anti-choice crusaders.”
The party points to his sponsorship of legislation like the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, which would have defined an “individual” or “person” as “every infant human being who is born alive at any stage of development,” and for his reliable Republican “no” votes on bills like prohibiting healthcare providers from engaging in conversion therapy with minors or a proposed law to create a family and medical leave insurance program.
Longmont Democratic Rep. Jonathan Singer, one of the more progressive members of the Colorado House, describes Sias as a mainstream conservative. “The Republican Party has moved so far to the right in the last couple of years with the election of Trump that he sounds like a moderate Republican,” Singer says. “If you look at his voting record … when he puts his nose to the grindstone on the other side and you look at whether it’s pro-choice issues around women’s healthcare or even some of the stuff we tried to do around mental health on suicide prevention, he’s voted lockstep with mainstream conservatives on those issues.”
That said, Singer recalls times he and Sias worked together in his few years in the House, like on a bill to bring accountability to freestanding emergency departments by requiring them to inform someone seeking medical treatment about available health care options.
“He came from the far right sort of free-market approach and I came from the lefty consumer safeguard approach and we ended up right in the middle on something like that,” Singer says.
Jared Polis, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee who faces Stapleton in November, chose a running mate from Broomfield in his pick of the Komen Colorado cancer foundation executive and former lawmaker Dianne Primavera. Stapleton, too, stuck to the Front Range with Sias, who lives in Arvada.
On Wednesday during a news conference at Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum, a frequent backdrop for Republican politicians, a reporter asked Stapleton how those outside the Front Range should view this year’s Republican gubernatorial ticket. Stapleton said both he and Sias would have “a holistic view” of Colorado and they both are committed to representing the state from the Western Slope to the Eastern Plains. Sias said he would draw on his relationships with lawmakers from different parts of the state as resources.
The day of the announcement, the group Colorado Hispanic Republicans posted that it had “mixed emotions” about Stapleton’s choice in Sias and is “concerned about the minority votes.”
What would he take on in the Lite Guv role should he get it?
When Joe Garcia served as Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s lieutenant governor he made higher education a key policy tenet of the office. Donna Lynne, who is serving as Hick’s subsequent second in command made herself the Chief Operating Officer, which means she works with the cabinet to “drive better performance, accountability and transparency throughout state government operations.” As a former healthcare executive, she also has made healthcare policy a priority and pushed legislation at the statehouse.
Other than saying that as lieutenant governor he would help a governor Stapleton on Stapleton’s pet issue of reforming the state’s public pension system, Sias didn’t mention a specific role he envisioned for himself in the office.
“I’m willing to take on whatever role [Stapleton] would like me to play,” he said. “I do believe having had served for four years in the legislature and done it in a bipartisan fashion I believe there is probably a role for me to be played there in terms of working with legislators from both parties in both chambers on legislation that Governor Stapleton would be interested in.”
Sias is remarkably similar to Walker Stapleton on some fronts
Sias and Stapleton are both from Connecticut. Their dads both have Colorado and East Coast connections. Stapleton’s dad grew up in Colorado and moved East. Sias’s dad grew up in the East and moved to Colorado. They both attended northeastern liberal arts colleges — and also both attended The London School of Economics. Stapleton and Sias both worked in California before moving to Colorado at around the same time. They both have three school-aged children.
“We grew up in a different time and different places,” Sias said about the Connecticut connection. “I’ve lived in a lot of places around the country and in Colorado now for 18 years. We didn’t know each other previously.” (The Stapleton campaign says they met in 2010.)
What was the controversy over the timing of this pick?
Attention to Stapleton’s announcement Wednesday of Sias as his choice for a running-mate was heightened following a week of drama.
Colorado law says nominees for governor have to “select” a potential running mate within seven days of the primary election. This year that election was June 26, so the deadline would have been July 3.
Stapleton, however, broke with tradition by revealing his choice eight days beyond the deadline, and his campaign said he didn’t have to make it public for 30 days if he wanted.
The move led to quick criticism, especially after Polis had already nominated Primavera before the deadline.
On Facebook on July 6, Democratic Party Chairwoman Carroll wrote: “Walker Stapleton missed his statutory deadline to pick his Lt. Gov running mate. When asked, he said he’s picked – he’s just keeping it secret for awhile…????”
But the Colorado Secretary of State’s office maintains Stapleton did nothing wrong. “Most people, including myself, only read the first part of the law,” says the office’s spokesman Lynn Bartels. “Walker Stapleton read the entire section and realized he didn’t have to announce his choice right away.”
The editorial board of The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, which endorsed Stapleton in the primary, opined that “nominate” is “most certainly a public act and the law seems designed to get candidates on the record with their chosen running mates so the public can see if they accept within 30 days. Why Stapleton would buck convention — every other gubernatorial candidate has announced their picks within the seven-day timeframe since the law went into effect — is a mystery and leaves his campaign wide open to speculation.”
ProgressNow, the state’s largest progressive group, has called on Stapleton to offer proof that he actually selected Sias prior to July 3.
On Wednesday, Stapleton addressed the controversy by calling it a “contrived political narrative.” He said he and Sias had an ongoing conversation for “a number of weeks” and they wanted to wait until Coloradans were back from the July 4 holiday before they made their announcement.
Asked if Sias was his only choice for a running mate, Stapleton quickly said “absolutely”— then he added that he’d interviewed a wide field of potential candidates. “Lang was my choice,” he said. “And I was overjoyed that he accepted.”