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Krieger: Will Colorado Democrats choose another 1 percenter for the Senate?

Please join me in welcoming the billionaire former mayor of New York City, Michael Bloomberg, to our fair state.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that Bloomberg bought a 4,600-acre ranch in northwest Colorado for $44.79 million.

The property includes a helipad, helicopter hangar, tennis court, four-hole golf course, two guest cabins, a carriage house and a main house of about 19,000 square feet, featuring a theater and wine cellar, according to the Journal. 

Dave Krieger. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon.

The seller was Henry Kravis, of the private equity firm KKR & Co., an acronym for Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, famed corporate raiders and founders of the $22 billion investment firm.

Apparently, Bloomberg got a deal on the spread, known as Westlands. The original asking price was $46 million. Colorado’s luxury ranch market has been soft, the Journal explained.

Bloomberg is expected to be a part-time resident. He also owns a mansion on New York City’s Upper East Side, and homes in Bermuda and London. For his sake, we hope this deal works out better than his three-month presidential bid, which cost nearly $1 billion and won him delegates from only American Samoa.

Colorado already led the nation in failed 2020 presidential candidates from the top 1 percent of America’s wealth standings with two — former Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. Bloomberg’s arrival arguably extends our lead in this prestigious category.

Welcome to the plutocracy. Bloomberg should fit right in, with 1 percenters apparently poised to hold down the state’s top three elected offices — governor and both senators.

Counting Bloomberg’s recent conversion, Colorado’s leading plutocrats all identify as Democrats. Once upon a time, the Democratic Party was closely identified with organized labor and the working class. These days, not so much.

As Thomas Frank explained in his 2016 book “Listen Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People,” Democrats triangulated during the Clinton and Obama eras, embracing “meritocracy,” and with it professional and academic elites over traditional advocates for the poor and working class.

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From the book’s website: “A form of corporate and cultural elitism has largely eclipsed the party’s old working-class commitment, (Frank) finds. For certain favored groups, this has meant prosperity. But for the nation as a whole, it is a one-way ticket into the abyss of inequality.”

Gov. Jared Polis is a symbol of this transition. An internet entrepreneur at an early age, Polis was the second-wealthiest member of Congress before deciding to run for governor in 2018. OpenSecrets.org estimated his net worth at more than $300 million in 2017.

Polis naturally acquired the “Boulder liberal” tag that Colorado Republicans had used effectively statewide prior to 2018. But the governor is actually more typical of the elite brand of Democrats that Frank described.

He is liberal on social issues, especially LGBTQ rights, as the first same-sex parent elected to Congress and the first openly gay man elected governor of any state.

On workplace and labor issues, however, Polis is much closer to the employer/entrepreneurial class from which he came, a value system he refers to as his “libertarian” streak.

When I first met him in the fall of 2014, he was a Boulder congressman and I was the new editorial page editor of Boulder’s Daily Camera. During an hour-long, get-acquainted sit-down, Polis’ answers reflected traditional liberalism in many respects, but not in one.

When I asked about the plight of working people, decline of organized labor and widening income and wealth inequality, he told me those were mostly the worn-out talking points of labor unions from the 1980s. We were in a new world, he said, an emerging gig economy, in which workplace regulation generally inhibited innovation.

Two years later, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders would ride waves of working-class dissatisfaction and anti-establishment sentiment to prominence in the 2016 presidential race with right-wing and left-wing versions of populism.

The 2018 race for governor became an interesting case study in how we now regard the influence of money in politics. At the Democratic caucuses in March of that year, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy decisively defeated four other candidates, including Polis, in her bid to become Colorado’s first female governor. She beat Polis even in Boulder County.

Polis’ wealth, pro-business orientation and previous support for charter schools led many Democratic Party activists to conclude that Kennedy was the more progressive candidate. But between the caucuses and the June primary, Polis swamped her with money, outspending her $11 million to $2 million. Including money spent on their behalf by political action committees, Polis’ advantage was $12 million to $4 million. 

In the primary, he ran nearly 20 percentage points ahead of Kennedy and two other candidates, winning the Democratic nomination with a plurality of 44% of the vote. He spent another $12 million in the general election campaign against Walker Stapleton and won going away, by more than 10 points.

Although the unprecedented level of spending was dutifully reported by Colorado news outlets, it never became the sort of issue that an undisguised attempt to buy the governor’s office might have in another era. In part, this was because the first openly gay man elected governor  was a bigger story than yet another rich guy winning elected office.

But it was also a result of the weird advantage rich Democrats have in such circumstances. Progressives, who generally oppose big money in politics, remain largely silent because they want the Democrat to win.

Conservatives may grumble, as columnist Vincent Carroll did at the time — “Polis may prove Colorado is for sale, after all” — but because they are ideologically disposed to defend big money in politics, that’s about all they can do.

By comparison to Polis, the tag team of Democratic Party centrists who once worked together in the Denver mayor’s office and now seem poised to occupy both of Colorado’s U.S. Senate seats — Bennet and Hickenlooper — are relative pikers. 

Still, they’re both members of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans that Sanders — who won Colorado’s Democratic Party caucuses in 2016 and presidential primary this year — rails against. According to Forbes, membership in that club required net assets worth $10.2 million or more as of last fall.

OpenSecrets.org listed Bennet as the 11th wealthiest member of the Senate in 2017 with an estimated net worth of nearly $32 million. Forbes estimated Bennet’s wealth at closer to $15 million last year, explaining he made most of it as a managing director of Anschutz Corp., the firm founded by conservative billionaire Philip Anschutz.

Hickenlooper’s wealth falls in a similar range. He and three partners opened the Wynkoop Brewing Co. — then called Wynkoop Billiards — in 1988. Twenty years later, his trust sold interests in seven restaurants for $5.8 million and reinvested the proceeds in the markets.

Hickenlooper requested three extensions last year to file a personal finance report required first as a presidential candidate and then as a Senate candidate. When he did finally file in December, he reported net assets between $7.8 million and $23.6 million, and joint assets with his wife between $9.4 million and $27.3 million.

The range is so wide because the value of each asset is reported within predetermined ranges, and then all the minimums and maximums are added up to produce the final tally. In the absence of a more specific disclosure, it seems fair to go with the midpoints ($15.7 million individually; $18.3 million jointly), which put him in the 1 percent alongside Bennet and Polis.

Hickenlooper faces the same task this year that Polis faced in 2018. Former Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff defeated the former governor by 25 percentage points in the Democratic Party caucuses in March. (Disclosure: I did three weeks of volunteer work for Romanoff’s policy shop during the winter of 2018-19 when I was out of journalism.)

Romanoff reported a net worth between $141,000 and $540,000. Opensecrets.org estimated Republican incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner’s net worth at $594,000 in 2017.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Once again this year, the winner of the Democratic caucuses was the more progressive candidate. Romanoff supports the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Hickenlooper supports neither. Romanoff dominated the caucus vote in the state’s big, liberal counties (Denver, Boulder) and in counties that tried to resist state-backed fracking when Hickenlooper was governor (Boulder, Broomfield, Larimer).

Once again, the second-place finisher in the caucuses is in a position to massively outspend the winner down the stretch to the primary, although not to the extent Polis did. Hickenlooper, supported by the national Democratic Party establishment, raised $4.1 million in the first quarter of this year compared to $422,000 for Romanoff.

If Democratic voters do what they’re expected to do in June, rewarding the better-financed, better-known centrist, Hickenlooper will rebound from his defeat in the caucuses to win the nomination in the primary, just as Polis did two years ago.

And if Colorado voters do what the latest poll suggests they’re likely to do in November, the state’s top three elected offices will all be held by members of the 1 percent. This in a state where Bernie Sanders was the presidential choice of Democratic Party voters in each of the last two election cycles.

When Mike Bloomberg next touches down on his personal helipad, he should feel right at home.


Dave Krieger has been a Colorado journalist since 1981. @davekrieger


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