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Politics and Government

Meet Gregg Smith, the Blackwater-connected Democrat new to Colorado and running to unseat Lauren Boebert

Smith says he was moved to run for Congress by the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. He faces an uphill battle in a congressional district that values known quantities

Gregg Smith. (Handout)
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He served as a Marine. He worked as a high-powered consultant and commercial banker. He was an adviser and business partner to Erik Prince, the controversial former owner of the now-defunct international security firm Blackwater. 

One thing Gregg Smith has never done until now is run for office.

But the well-connected, 58-year-old Democrat who moved to Colorado less than a year ago thinks he is the guy to dislodge Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert from her 3rd Congressional District seat next year.

“I have 40 years in the military and in business,” Smith told The Colorado Sun in an interview this week. “When I walk into Washington, D.C., to represent District 3, I’ll have a powerful voice. I’m pretty well known in that city already because of all the things I’ve done in my life.” 

As well known as Smith is in Washington, he’s mostly unknown in Colorado. Smith picked up tens of thousands of new Twitter followers after he announced his campaign in a viral tweet on Monday. 

Colorado Democrats were left scratching their heads about his background and his intentions, with some in the party openly wondering if Smith is a real person or just a Twitter bot. 

Smith confirms that he is, indeed, flesh and blood. 

“I’m not an unknown person,” he said, citing his public criticism of Prince. “There’s been a great deal written about me over the years. For people to suggest I’m not a real person is quite amusing, actually.” 

Smith is grabbing attention as a number of established Democrats — including state Sen. Kerry Donovan, who on Wednesday filed to run for the seat — have circulated their names for the seat. The effort to unseat Boebert is expected to be among the most high-profile races in Colorado next year. 

Smith raised his family in the Philadelphia suburbs and has since bounced between homes in Colorado and Arizona. He first bought land in Colorado in 2008, but didn’t move here full time until the coronavirus hit. 

A campaign photo for Gregg Smith, a Democratic candidate for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District. (Handout)

Now he lives on a ranch in Westcliffe, a small, conservative town west of Pueblo. Records show a company with his Arizona address bought the property, which includes two houses with a total of 10 bedrooms and 10 baths, in July for $1.5 million.

Smith registered in Custer County as an unaffiliated voter in March 2019, only switching to the Democratic Party on Friday, according to records from the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. 

Running for office was “the furthest thing from my mind,” Smith said, until the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. 

“It was really Jan. 6 when I sat here at my ranch and I watched what happened. It was one of the most appalling moments, to me, in American history,” he said. “I thought about ‘what can I do?’”

A 9News story on Gregg Smith. (Via YouTube)

He’s confident he can beat Boebert in the Republican-leaning, Donald-Trump-supporting district because of his background in the military and business. But he is also likely to face big questions about his past.

After serving in the Marines, Smith says he worked as a partner at the consulting firm Deloitte in New York City. Around that time, he met Erik Prince, the former Navy Seal who founded the private security firm Blackwater, and said they became friends. 

Blackwater drew intense, international criticism after four of its contractors killed 17 civilians in Iraq in 2007. The four were later convicted on federal charges, but were pardoned by President Trump earlier this year. 

“I provided him business advice over the years, including the sale of Blackwater,” Smith said of Prince. “In 2010, I advised him on that sale.”

Smith and Prince reconnected in 2013 to start a business, Frontier Services Group, with Smith as CEO and Prince as chairman.

“It was a business that was strictly focused on pan-African logistics, moving people and goods from point A to point B,” Smith said. “We owned a very well-known medevac operation in Nairobi.”

The relationship soured in 2015, Smith says, when he found out that “Erik was using that business to cover for some of his mercenary aspirations and he was actually arming some of our surveillance aircraft with munitions.”

Smith says he resigned from Frontier Services Group when he found out that the company was going to start training Chinese military and security personnel. According to the company’s annual report, he served as a consultant through the end of 2016. 

Smith says he has spent the last several years trying to blow the whistle on Prince, who is the brother of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos. He’s been featured in The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Intercept and Rolling Stone magazine discussing his work and disagreements with his former business partner. 

Frontier Services Group, in a 2018 statement to The Washington Post, said: “Erik Prince is a proud American who would never seek to undermine the national interest. FSG is an international company with operations in China and is listed in Hong Kong. It aims to support infrastructure projects internationally to serve its clients’ needs in the interest of shareholders and does not support a political agenda.”

The company, where Prince serves as executive director and deputy chairman, did not immediately respond to a Colorado Sun request for comment.

“It’s impossible to detach me from Erik Prince,” Smith said. “When I decided I was going to announce that I’m going to run for this congressional seat, I recognized that I was going to have to confront the 20-year business relationship I had with Erik Prince.”

Smith spent 30 years as a “back-bench conservative Republican,” but says he is now a “firm” Democrat. He made a number of small donations to Democratic U.S. Senate candidates in 2020, including John Hickenlooper, Steve Bullock in Montana and Cal Cunningham in North Carolina, according to data from the Federal Election Commission

“I voted for Hillary (Clinton) in 2016. I voted for Joe (Biden) in 2020,” Smith said. “I firmly believe in the Democratic platform.”

Smith’s one point of contention with the Democratic policy agenda is on guns. He said he’s a strong believer in the Second Amendment and probably would not want to go as far with gun regulations as others. 

Finally, Smith is already facing questions about his recent full-time move to Colorado and into the 3rd District, which wraps across the Western Slope into Pueblo.  

Lauren Boebert, Republican candidate for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, speaks during a get-out-the-vote-rally at the Grand Junction Motor Speedway in Grand Junction, Colo., on Nov. 2, 2020. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

His viral tweet announcing his candidacy raised eyebrows in Colorado political circles. “I’ve got to tell you, I was shocked, too,” he said of his Twitter boom. Smith chalks it up to well-known reporters he used to chat with amplifying his message. 

“I guess it COULD just be me, but I think the Democratic nominee for CD3 should (be): 1) from here 2) familiar with the campaign and legislative processes and 3) not a party newcomer,” former state Rep. Bri Buentello, a Pueblo Democrat, said on Twitter this week.

Smith’s entry to the contest brings to mind wealthy Democratic businessman James Iacino, who moved from Denver to Montrose in October 2019 to run for the 3rd District seat. He poured nearly $300,000 of his own money into his campaign but lost in the primary to former state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush after facing accusations that he was a carpetbagger.

Smith is likely to face a crowded primary field as Democrats take aim at Boebert’s seat. 

Donovan, a Vail Democrat, filed paperwork Wednesday to launch her campaign. Colin Wilhelm, a Glenwood Springs lawyer and Democrat, has already formally announced a bid to unseat Boebert. 

State Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat, is also exploring whether to launch a campaign. 

MORE: Democrat Kerry Donovan launches campaign to unseat Lauren Boebert

Smith is brushing off any criticism about his being a newcomer to Colorado.

“I’ve been an owner of property since 2008,” he said. “I sat on the board of our ranch. It’s a big ranch — it’s got a lot of the same issues that a lot of ranchers do. We had cattle, we had hay, we had horses. I’m not unfamiliar with the issues. I’ve been here now only seven months, but I’m not unfamiliar with the issues from Pueblo to Grand Junction. I understand them.”

Colorado’s 3rd District will likely look a lot different in 2022 after an independent commission redraws the state’s congressional districts and potentially adds an eighth one. Members of Congress are not required to live in the district they represent, but Smith says he’d rethink his decision to run if Westcliffe is drawn out of the 3rd district. 

“I think you ought to be living in the district you’re running in,” he said. “Frankly, I’d be offended if someone else from outside of our district was trying to (run).”

Colorado Sun correspondent Sandra Fish contributed to this report.