Skyler McKinley

Skyler McKinley, Colorado AAA's public voice.

There’s a lot more to the good ol’ AAA than roadside assistance and highway maps. The venerable American Automobile Association also weighs in on big-picture transportation policy. Issues like texting while driving and its threat to traffic safety, looming capital needs amid ebbing transportation funding, and impending regulations for technological advances like self-driving cars.

As the Colorado AAA’s PR man and government affairs director, Skyler McKinley can offer a lot of insight about those issues and more. His wide-ranging career path to date — among other posts, he at one point was press secretary for the John Hickenlooper administration — has given him plenty of perspective in general.

We dialed him in for this week's Q&A to ask him about that and other experiences, including his time working in the state Office of Marijuana Coordination, his relations with the press, and his tweet last year chastising Colorado’s former governor — the one he had worked for.

Colorado Politics: What is the biggest threat to Colorado traffic safety these days — driving while intoxicated, while high, or while texting? And what more does AAA believe needs to be done by policy makers and law enforcement to curb all three?

Skyler McKinley: I would have to say all of the above. Look, I think it’s easy to point to the rise of the smartphone or the legalization of marijuana and say, “This is why traffic fatalities are on the rise.” But that would be intellectually dishonest.

Col. Matthew Packard of the Colorado State Patrol said it best a few weeks ago: The biggest threat to Colorado traffic safety is “selfish” driving. Under that umbrella you have incredibly dangerous behaviors such as texting while driving, driving drunk, or driving stoned. But you also have less newsworthy or novel behaviors that are often more dangerous – speeding, running red lights, talking on the phone, and driving drowsy, to name just a few.

What I find absolutely devastating is the “Do as I say, not as I do” mentality behind all this. It’s killing people. Something like 96 percent of drivers say that texting or emailing while driving is absolutely inexcusable and that it poses a “serious threat.” In the past 30 days, 44 percent of drivers self-reported doing just that. The actual number is probably much higher.

And this mentality pervades every aspect of driving: 42 percent of drivers admit to running through stoplights even though 93 percent call it unacceptable. 95 percent say that driving after drinking is inexcusable — and yet 14 percent have admitted to doing it in the past year.

Frankly, policymakers need to stop treating selfish driving as a criminal justice problem and instead look at it through a public health lens. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teens in the United States. They’re the third most common cause of death for those 25-34. And, among all age groups, they’re the No. 2 cause of unintentional injury death. If a disease were killing this many people per year, as we’ve seen with the opioid crisis, it would be rightfully described as an epidemic.

Skyler McKinley

• Director of public relations and government affairs for the Colorado AAA, since 2017.

• Previously was press secretary and deputy director of communications for then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, 2015-2016.

• Was deputy director of Colorado’s Office of Marijuana Coordination, 2014-2015.

• Also served as deputy campaign manager on Stan Garnett’s bid for Colorado attorney general in 2010, campaign manager for Jason Bane in his bid for Jefferson County commissioner in 2008, and deputy communications director for former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel’s 2008 presidential campaign.

• Holds bachelor’s degrees in journalism and in law and society from American University in Washington, D.C.

CP: A half-dozen or more years after voters legalized recreational marijuana, it still seems a bit surreal to a lot of older Coloradans that our state has an Office of Marijuana Coordination. You served as its deputy director. How did you wind up in the job, what did you learn from the experience — and how did you explain what you did for a living to your parents?

McKinley: My biggest regret about that job is that, no matter what I do over the course of my life, I will never have a cooler job title than “deputy director of marijuana coordination.” I fell into it completely by accident. 

When I graduated college in Washington, D.C., I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with the one-and-only Ted Koppel on a book he was writing. We were getting ready to start when I got into a motorcycle crash that put everything on hold. I opted to move back to recuperate with my family in Denver. By some miracle, I saw the marijuana job posting, applied for it, got the job, and was sufficiently back to sorts by the time I started that I didn’t totally screw it up. 

When I told my mom I was going to be working on marijuana policy, she loved to tell everybody that I was working for Ted Koppel. She loved it so much that she kept telling people that’s what I was doing long after I joined the marijuana office.

As cool as it was to be working on cannabis policy, that job taught me more about myself than it did about weed. After I had worked on that one issue for a couple of years, I realized that I like wearing a lot of hats. Believe it or not, I got really bored focusing on marijuana for 8-12 hours a day. In my current job, I get to focus on a lot of different stuff – traffic safety, insurance issues, trends in travel, you name it.

CP: Last year, when then-Gov. John Hickenlooper balked at permitting the use of medical marijuana to treat child autism, you tweeted, “…this is deeply disappointing and deeply dispiriting. The sitting governor of Colorado is telling neurodiverse KIDS to ‘bootstrap’ themselves. For a so-called progressive, that’s a decidedly archaic worldview.” You must have felt strongly about the issue to take on your former boss like that. Did you hear from him or others about your criticism?

McKinley: History will show that Gov. Hickenlooper was very good at his job, especially when it came to setting up this now world-renowned system for regulating marijuana. But no governor has the luxury or the burden of perfection in all things.

If memory serves, he vetoed a House bill that would have made autism spectrum disorder a qualifying condition for a patient to receive a medical marijuana “red card.” He said something to the effect of, “Hey, if this becomes law, we’re encouraging young people to see marijuana as an antidote for their problems.” 

A friend of mine wrote this achingly beautiful book about the history of autism that worked its way up the New York Times Best Sellers list. After the governor’s comments, my friend shot me a text asking, basically, “Why did he say that?”

I wasn’t and am not an expert or activist on this issue. The governor’s remarks just seemed tone deaf, and the folks who I knew to be experts on the issue were saying they were way off base. So, I fired off a tweet. And nobody from the administration reached out or attacked me or black-listed me or anything.

Governors have to make a lot of tough choices that are easily criticized from the outside looking in, but to become governor you can’t be so thin-skinned that you get frustrated when someone is critical of a choice you made. I also think that John Hickenlooper means it when he says, “There is no margin in making enemies.”

CP: You moved up in the governor’s office after your stint as deputy pot regulator, serving as administration’s press secretary and deputy communications chief. What were some of your more memorable takeaways from that post? Did it change the way you viewed the press?

McKinley: Don’t listen to anybody who tells you that, “Politics is a young man’s game.” When you’re a young person, and you get a prestigious-sounding job, you think you’re on top of the world. But the single most important thing you should ask to yourself is, “What can I learn from the professionals in the room?” That’s the only way to grow. I had a lot to learn when I got that promotion. 

In both the marijuana and the press shops, I was lucky to get to work with Kathy Green, the governor’s communications director at the time. Kathy is the best communications professional, in any discipline, in Colorado. And what I learned from her is that you should never, ever view the press in an adversarial way. Your job, as a communications professional, is to tell stories. That’s what reporters do every, single day. At the end of the day, journalists and PR flacks have the same goal.

The press isn't, and never will be or can be, the enemy. You can’t hold grudges. You can’t block information, even when it isn’t favorable to you. A reporter’s job is to hold you, and the people you work for, accountable. Isn’t accountability something we should all aspire to?

CP: You’ve been around the block more than a time or two in Colorado politics and have been active for years in Democratic Party circles. You’ve worked on campaigns ranging from local, like Jason Bane’s run for Jeffco commissioner, to the national — former Alaska U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel’s 2008 presidential bid. How did you get started in politics? What inspired you in the first place and what shaped your political views?

McKinley: I started out in politics when I was very young. Exceptionally young. Too young, in many ways. I was 14 or 15 when I managed communications for Sen. Gravel, which is probably part of the reason our commercials were called “surreal” by AdWeek. Politico was kind in calling our approach “unconventional.”

I wanted to go work for Mike because I liked his bombastic approach to otherwise mind-numbingly boring political debates and, because I was part of generation that was starting to come of age during the Bush years, I liked Mike’s anti-war record. But the truth is I thought the guy was interesting. Here was the United States senator who read the Pentagon Papers into the public record, running for president 35 years later – and excoriating then-Sens. Obama, Biden, and Clinton about their records.

I worked for Mike because I liked who he was as a person. I liked that Sen. Gravel really loves westerns, and I liked that he dragged all the campaign staff to a movie theater to see the mediocre remake of “3:10 to Yuma.” I liked that Jason Bane was a young father who wanted to run for office because he wanted his children to live in a better world. I liked Andy Kerr, with whom I have worked for more than 12 years, because he was a social studies teacher – and I had always been a decent social studies student.

I can’t say I made a deliberate choice to be a Democrat, but I did like the everyday values expressed in both the actions and words of the Democrats I worked for. I had a journalism professor, former White House correspondent Richard Benedetto, who loved the catechism, “Politicians are people, too.” All of the politicians I have worked with have been very good people. I am proud of that and so, so grateful for their mentorship over the years.

CP: Tell us a little about your background and your time at American University in Washington, D.C.

McKinley: I started working on campaigns in high school and, to be frank, skipped out on a lot of homework because I was so convinced that my political engagement was more important. I am lucky that American University took more than just my middling-GPA into account during the admissions process.

Despite, or probably because of, my tendency to take political activities over academics, I got into a politically supercharged university in the political center of the world. And, as my peers were landing Congressional internships or their first jobs at CNN or the State Department or the World Bank or the White House or what have you, something funny happened: I was more into my homework than I was into anything going on politically.

I think I missed out on so much in high school while I was working in politics and government that I got to college and suddenly realized the whole world was out there. I don’t think I did a single internship – which is unheard of for AU. Instead I focused on my studies and grew as a person in ways I’m grateful for.

As cool as Washington was for the wonk in me, I gained a lot of clarity about the path I was on when the city’s glamor started to wear thin. I did politics in Colorado because I loved Colorado, not because I loved politics.

CP: Career and politics aside, what keeps you in Colorado? And would you ever run for office here?

McKinley: The green chili. In all seriousness, my great-grandmother was born in Pueblo in 1896. My late father, who died before I got to know him, was appointed to the Mesa County Court by Gov. Lamm. My mother made history outside of Mancos as one of the first female Forest Service smokejumpers in the country. I value history, and I’m fascinated by it, and I’m really proud that my family’s history is intertwined with the history of this state.

I don’t really ski, or snowboard. I don’t hike that often. I don’t drink craft beer, and I don’t consume cannabis. None of that clichéd “Colorado stuff” matters to me, and I don’t think it will matter to history. What I have here, I couldn’t have in any other city or any other state. I wish I could put it more elegantly than simply saying, “This is home.” But it’s true. I love everything about this place. I love its old West heritage. I also love what it is becoming, and what it will be.

Do I want to help shape that future in public office? That’s not on my radar and won’t be anytime soon. I am heartened by the influx of new, young voices in the public policy process. I think young people should run for office. I think they should serve in public office. Their perspective is critical. As for me, though, I don’t think I have enough perspective, yet. I want to do a lot of different things with my life; I want to learn a lot.

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