Brian Watson overcame a crowded field of Republican primary candidates to win his party’s nomination for Colorado treasurer.
It’s the 46-year-old businessman’s second real foray into Colorado politics. He lost a bid to become a state lawmaker in 2012.
Watson grew up on the Western Slope, in Olathe, and graduated from the University of Colorado in 1993.
He is vowing not to take a state salary if elected to oversee Colorado’s coffers, though he has said he will stay on as chairman of Northstar Commercial Partners — a Denver real estate company that he founded and which now has more than $1 billion in assets — while handing off many day-to-day duties.
While he doesn’t have a political record to attack, Democrats have hammered Watson for his personal financial history, which includes federal employment tax liens, the bankruptcy of a Boulder County real estate company he ran and the short-sale of a home in Florida during and after the Great Recession. At least one of the limited liability companies he owned still has outstanding liens, but Watson’s campaign says: “He is not the LLC, and the LLC is not him.”
Watson says those experiences make him a better candidate for treasurer because he would know how to handle a financial downturn should one occur.
We spoke with the candidate to get more insight into his background and how he would handle being the state’s top financial officer if elected. It’s a job that entails overseeing and investing Colorado’s billions of dollars in taxpayer funds and managing what could be a precarious future for the Public Employees Retirement Association, or PERA.
Here’s a look at his bio:
Arguably the most important role of Colorado’s treasurer is their seat on the state’s Public Employees Retirement Association board overseeing the state’s public pension plan.
PERA has made a lot of news in recent years about its billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities, and Watson has a plan to try to keep the pension on the right course, following up on legislation passed to shore up the fund earlier this year.
“To me, it’s a people issue and it shouldn’t be a political issue or a partisan issue,” he said.
The first thing Watson says he plans to do with PERA, if elected, is to take every board member out for a cup of coffee and lunch.
“I just want to sit down and meet them and get to know them as people, regardless of political background, affiliation, etc., and figure out how we can come up with some solutions,” Watson said.
He called Senate Bill 200, which cut PERA benefits and raised the retirement age to 64 from age 60 for state workers and 58 for teachers while boosting contributions from employees and taxpayers, “a step in the right direction”
Watson, however, says he wants to do more. Specifically, he wants to look at increasing the retirement age for new people coming into the PERA program to 67 to match the retirement age for Social Security.
For existing PERA recipients, Watson says PERA has an obligation to fulfill in keeping the retirement age where it is.
“I want to work positively and collectively with the PERA and the board members to figure out what is the true extent of the obligation, make sure we have full transparency and we understand all of the numbers,” he said. “Because if you’re solving for a $30 billion problem versus an $80 billion problem, which some legislators believe it may be as high as as, you might have different mechanisms you need to put in place.”
Watson says he is against Amendment 74 on the ballot this November.
The amendment would force the government to reimburse property owners for a loss in market value caused by the passage of a law or regulation. It’s being backed by farmers and the oil and gas industry who see the ballot question as a way to push back against new oil and gas regulations.
But Watson says it goes too far.
“It puts a very large tax burden on the people of Colorado,” he said at a recent debate. “We are all paying a whole lot more money right now for a lot of things. Life’s gotten a lot more expensive.”
When Watson graduated from CU, he intended to join the Peace Corps.
“I was ready to leave. It was always my dream to go,” he said. “I was going to get a position in Africa and everything. Just before I was ready to leave, they found out when I was young I was stung by yellow jackets and had an allergic reaction. I said ‘I’ll sign any disclaimer you want me to. I still want to go serve in Africa.’ They said, ‘No, we don’t know what’s there that could have a similar reaction.’ So I couldn’t go.”
Instead, Watson went on to work for Cushman and Wakefield, the commercial real estate broker and manager, in Denver before breaking off to found his own company.
“I looked out at the landscape and saw some individuals who were already running before we announced, and they looked like the next career politician looking for the next political job,” Watson said. “I said, ‘You know what, we really need people who have experience and understanding and the role that they are trying to go for and to run for and to serve.’ ”
Watson says he wants to bring his knowledge of financial investment to the treasurer’s office.
To land on the general election ballot, Watson overcame five other GOP challengers. His closest competitor was state Rep. Justin Everett, of Littleton, who went down by just a few thousand votes.
Watson is approaching specter of President Donald Trump in the way many Colorado Republicans on the ballot this year are.
“I did vote for President Trump, and I appreciate a lot of the things that he has done,” he said. “At the same time, I don’t agree with everything that he’s done. I’m my own candidate, and I have my own ideas.”
Watson once was Democrat
Watson hasn’t always been a member of the Republican party. It wasn’t until after he graduated from college that he joined the GOP.
“My mom was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., and so when I was young she considered herself a Democrat so I grew up thinking I was a Democrat as well,” he said.
After he graduated from college and got his career going, assessed his own politics.
“I sat down and said, ‘You know what, I’m my own man now and an adult. And where do I stand on the top 10 issues as we see them?’ I looked at it and I said, ‘You know what, I align with the Republican idea of these issues on the majority of them,” he said. “Not all of them, but a majority of them.’ And I changed my affiliation to Republican. I’ve been a Republican ever since.”
More reading on Watson
— Watson wins Republican treasurer primary; Democratic AG race remains undecided — Denver Business Journal, June 27, 2018
— Colorado treasurer candidates have differing views on raising state retirement age — The Denver Post, Oct. 15, 2018
— Colorado Treasurer Race 2018: Brian Watson And Dave Young On The Issues — Colorado Public Radio, Oct. 15, 2018
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