Bill Ritter

Former Colordo Gov. Bill Ritter visits with Democrats at the opening of Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet's national presidential campaign office last September. (Ernest Luning/Colorado Politics)

He was Colorado's 41st governor and, before that, served as Denver's longtime D.A. Yet, Bill Ritter may well be most recognizable as the state's unofficial emissary for the New Energy Economy. As governor, he embraced and presided over the evolution toward green energy, and he has advocated for it ever since leaving office in 2011.

We are pleased to have the former governor join us for this week's Q&A, in which he recaps the state's, and nation's, strides toward greater reliance on renewable energy. He also recounts his signature cases as a prosecutor; reflects on his time running a nutrition center in Africa with wife Jeannie Ritter — and rues how American political culture has turned what "at its root should be a moral enterprise, into a blood sport."

Colorado Politics: You were the first Colorado governor to apply the clout of the office to the renewable-energy movement. It’s a priority you’ve helped drive ever since as founder and director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University. Renewables have come a long way in Colorado since you were governor — as a matter of public policy and in the evolution of the energy marketplace. How far do you feel Colorado has yet to go in that regard? How long before we get there, and what role does CNEE play in that trajectory? Also, what first inspired you as governor to launch a renewables agenda?

Bill Ritter: While I was the first Colorado governor to put a stake in the ground for renewable energy, the inspiration came first from the people of Colorado. In 2004, two years before my election, the voters of Colorado handily passed Amendment 37, which required Colorado investor-owned utilities to achieve 10% renewable energy in their portfolio by 2015. We were the first state in the Union to pass a renewable portfolio standard at the ballot box. As I campaigned in 2006 about building a “new energy economy” in Colorado, the reception among Coloradans was, on the whole, positive. After I was elected, Xcel Energy, which had opposed Amendment 37 in 2004, actually supported the 20% RPS I signed into law in 2007, and the 30% RPS I signed into law in 2010. Xcel Energy will be at 55% renewable energy in Colorado by 2025, in large part because of Amendment 37 and the work my administration executed to move them in the right direction. As an added bonus, the price of solar, storage and wind have all come down dramatically in the past 14 years.

How far does Colorado still have to go in that regard? Climate Change is a serious threat to Coloradans, especially to our kids and grandkids. It is also a threat to all Americans, and all citizens of the globe. To combat climate change, every level of government, and every sector of business and industry will have to do their part, including Colorado. The best science says that keeping warming below catastrophic levels requires that we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 80-100% by 2050. We have had big announcements from Xcel and from Tri-State about emissions-reduction targets, with a real likelihood they can achieve their 2030 goals. But we still have much to do in the transportation, industrial and agricultural sectors to reduce GHG emissions. The state legislature passed a measure last year that Gov. Polis signed into law with a target of reducing GHG emissions by 50% by 2030. That was the right thing to do, but it will be difficult to achieve. Emissions from the transportation sector, particularly, are a difficult nut to crack, especially with so much open hostility from the Trump administration. Again, the governor and the state legislature are working hard on this issue, and that is encouraging.

What role does CNEE play in the trajectory? When I left office in 2011, I founded the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University. CNEE is a policy think tank dealing mostly with clean-energy policy making at the state level. That is where most clean energy and climate policies are presently enacted. We work with governors, state legislatures, utilities, utility commissions, etc., to move a clean-energy agenda forward. Last year, for instance, we provided assistance to a variety of states around the country to pass clean-energy legislation. We had involvement of one kind or another in major policy wins in places like Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Washington, Maine and Arkansas. The electricity sector is undergoing a major transition in this country, with many states following the early lead of Colorado and many utilities following the early lead of Xcel Energy. CNEE has been one of many organizations in the academic and nonprofit sectors that have provided assistance to states as they make the transition.

Bill Ritter

  • Governor of Colorado, 2007-2011.
  • Director of the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University, since February 2011.
  • Second Judicial District attorney, 1993-2005.
  • Served earlier in his legal career as a deputy district attorney in Denver and in the U.S. Attorney's Office.
  • Earned a bachelor's degree from Colorado State University and a J.D. from the University of Colorado School of Law.
  • One of eleven children, he grew up on a farm in Aurora.

CP: In a commentary you penned for Colorado Politics at our invitation just before the 2018 election, you offered some memorable advice to the next governor — whoever it turned out to be: “…realize that the campaign is over, and that governing is a totally different animal than being a candidate. To win the election, you needed 50 percent plus one of all the votes … To govern successfully, you need to understand how your agenda intersects with the lives of all Coloradans, no matter their political stripe.” Your observation seems to have been aimed at least partly at the “perpetual campaign” that drives so many elected officials long after they win office, as well as at the shrill partisanship said to turn off so many voters. Did those dynamics influence your decision to move on from elective politics? Does our current political culture thwart office seekers who might prefer to be the kind of public servant you envision — rather than the hardball politician who wins the race?

Ritter: Did the dynamic of hyper-partisanship play a role in my decision to leave office? When I announced that I was not seeking re-election, I stated that I had lost a sense of balance between my work and my family. I believed then, and I still do, that I could continue to serve out my term, and re-focus on my family, but that would not be possible if I also campaigned for re-election. I found great personal fulfillment in serving as governor, and walking away from the job was a difficult thing to do. But, it was right for me and for my family.

Does the current environment of hyper-partisanship keep good people from running for office? Let me go on record saying that there are good people still running for office, and there are good people serving in public office. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that the bitter tone of partisan politics keeps other good people from running for and serving in public office. Former U.S Sen. Mark Udall recently gave a lengthy interview to the Colorado Independent and spoke in a profound way about his life campaigning for the Senate seat in 2014 and his life after public office. One need only read that interview and understand that we have turned politics, which at its root should be a moral enterprise, into a blood sport. And, one need only look at Washington, D.C., to understand where that has gotten us.

CP: What was your most memorable case in all your years as a prosecutor? What was your most problematic case — whether legally, politically, emotionally or otherwise?

Ritter: My most memorable case as a prosecutor was People v. Ronald Garner. Mr. Garner murdered his wife in the early 1970s and was sent to prison for manslaughter. In 1982, after he was released from prison, he killed a second woman, but Jefferson County prosecutors did not feel they had sufficient evidence to try him and convict him. Then, in 1984, Mr. Garner murdered a third woman in Denver. The only way to convict Mr. Garner of the second two murders was to admit evidence of all three murders, due to great similarities among the three. I tried Mr. Garner as a special prosecutor in Jefferson County, and convicted him of that murder. The case went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction, and in the process, clarified the law on the use of “similar transactions” in Colorado.

My most problematic case was People v. Lisl Auman. Ms. Auman was with a young man, Matthaeus Jaehnig ,when they broke into her former boyfriend’s apartment in Pine to recover some of her things. They and three other accomplices also stole some of the boyfriend’s property, which turned the case into a burglary. As Ms. Auman and Mr. Jaehnig were fleeing the scene, they were followed by a Jefferson County sheriff. While Ms. Auman steered the car, Mr. Jaehnig fired an assault rifle at the sheriff. The chase went from the foothills in Jefferson County into south Denver. Eventually, the couple was cornered in an outdoor alcove of an apartment building. Ms. Auman surrendered to the police. Shortly after her surrender, Mr. Jaehnig killed a Denver police officer, Bruce VanderJagt. That turned the burglary case into a felony murder. Mr. Jaehnig committed suicide after he killed Officer VanderJagt. Because of felony murder and complicity laws in Colorado, Ms. Auman could be prosecuted for felony murder even though she was in custody when Officer VanderJagt was killed. Ms. Auman was charged with felony murder.  Ms. Auman and her defense team refused to accept a plea bargain that was offered and instead insisted that my office agree to probation. I felt her conduct was much too serious to warrant an agreement to probation.  Ms. Auman went to trial and was convicted by a Denver jury. The case drew a great deal of attention from activists and journalists, most of whom criticized the police and my office for prosecuting Ms. Auman for murder. Hunter S. Thompson held a rally on the steps of the State Capitol and wrote a blistering article in Vanity Fair about the case. The case went to the Colorado Supreme Court, where the court overturned the entire verdict because of a faulty instruction given to the jury regarding the burglary charge. Ms. Auman pled guilty to a lesser offense and was sentenced to time served.

CP: How did you and your wife arrive at the decision to serve as missionaries in Africa — hardly something you will find in the resume of most U.S. governors? How did that experience influence your later years in public life?

Ritter: Jeannie and I got married in 1983. Just before we married, Jeannie served in the Peace Corps in Tunisia. Her experience was such a positive and uplifting one that we talked about doing some overseas voluntary service as a couple. In 1986, we were asked by a Catholic priest who had taught me in high school if we would consider going to Zambia as Catholic lay missionaries to run a nutrition center. We spent several months discerning if that was the right thing to do for us and for our son, August, who was not yet a year old. After that discernment, and some added investigation on our part about the work we would do, we made a decision to go. Some people would call it a “calling” but it is not unlike a lot of other decisions that people make in life that are a combination of discernment, intuition and investigation. It was a pretty difficult, but amazing experience. My big takeaway is that so much of the time, in situations where people volunteer to serve or teach, the volunteers are the ones who are served the most and who are taught the most. The situation was bleak for so many Zambians, and yet they were people of such hope and grace. Those takeaways still inform me every day.

CP: What in hindsight would you have done differently as governor? Perhaps a policy initiative you’d now approach differently, or maybe not all? A policy you wish you’d taken up, but didn’t?

Ritter: I was fortunate, as governor, to be surrounded by a very talented team of people. Even though I served in The Great Recession, we got a lot done — in education, health care, higher education and of course on energy policy. Is there anything I would do differently? Yes, I would try to do a better job managing the relationship with labor. My father belonged to a union, as did I. In fact, I worked my way through college and law school as a card-carrying member of Local 720. For a variety of reasons, my relationship with labor was rocky the entire time I was governor. Part of it was my fault because I had not been careful enough in what I committed to as a candidate, and part of it was labor’s fault in moving too fast, on big policy issues, without any real process in place. I vetoed several labor bills and earned the scorn of many of the lobbyists who worked for labor under the dome. In light of my background, and my sympathies for so many of the issues that affect working people, I wish that relationship could have been different.

CP: Many elected officials have spoken of the strain public office has put on their families. How did it affect your family life?

Ritter: There is no other way to say it: Public life is a strain on a family, on a nuclear family, on an extended family, you name it. And, if a person’s children are of school age, especially the high school ages, it can carry an added difficulty. So, yes, it was a strain on my family.

CP: When you announced you would not seek a second term in the Governor’s Mansion, then-President Obama lauded you with these words: “He leaves behind an extraordinary record of accomplishments — establishing himself as a national education reform leader, building a new energy economy, expanding health care to those in need, and rebuilding Colorado’s infrastructure. We are all grateful for his service and wish him the best in the years to come.” That’s quite an accolade. Do you ever regret not running for a second term?

Ritter: There have been occasions when I wished I had run for a second term, but mostly I believe I made the right decision.

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