Cody Wertz has spent plenty of his productive life working in the winner-take-all, zero-sum game of horse-race, partisan politics. Yet, the onetime messaging man for Democratic candidates and causes now finds his stride beyond the perennial partisan grudge match.
As a co-founder of Denver public affairs firm Freestone Strategies, he advocates for a range of clients and causes including Colorado’s great outdoors and its natural wonders. That endeavor, he makes clear, requires bringing stakeholders together from across the political spectrum.
It’s not about beating the partisan war drum; it’s about compromise and cooperation in Colorado’s vast, politically purple zone. It’s the most effective way to take on a wide range of issues, he says, including climate change: “There are ways we can do it if we stop retreating to our political corners and focus on tackling these challenges in ways that involve water users, energy companies and community leaders.”
Wertz elaborates on Colorado’s independent-minded electorate — as well as his own future and whether he harbors any ambitions for elective office — in today’s Q&A.
Colorado Politics: You started out your career in the world of partisan politics and the perpetual campaign. Nowadays, you handle a wide range of policy issues in which the stakeholders are more likely to be governmental, corporate and nonprofit entities operating mostly above the fray of political parties and ideology. It is in fact a common career arc for public affairs professionals. Why is that? Is it burnout with hardball politics? A shift in political views? A turn toward pragmatism — i.e., it’s time to do business and make a real living? Any/all of the above?
Cody Wertz: In my case it is a combination – first I have to go way, way back to late 2000 when I applied for and was hired at the legislature to work for Dan Grossman, then the House minority leader, to be the policy person. I was excited to dive into policy that could make positive change for Coloradans. Then, the rug was proverbially pulled from under me — the day I started the job I was told, surprisingly, that I was to be the press secretary— having never spoken to a reporter. I was shocked but decided to give it a go as my career to that point had been a process and this would just be a continuation of it. I guess it went OK and I have been fortunate to be a press secretary, spokesperson or communications director for some great candidates and elected officials.
Some of that success pulled me into campaigns, which are extremely fun, challenging and rewarding – usually whether you win or lose – and I learned a lifetime of lessons during each one I worked on. Still, you pay a toll working campaigns or in elected offices – a lot of hours, at a high pace, sacrificing some of your personal life. There simply came a time for me when I didn’t want to make that choice anymore. Also, I always thought of myself – per the job I applied for in 2000 – as an issues or policy person. Being a spokesperson or press secretary is a great job but full of ups and downs, the whims of reporters and their editors and answering calls at all hours (read Lynn Bartels).
I came to a point in my career when I could make a transition and wanted to learn a bit more about what I was talking about, dive into policies and have a command of an issue or two. I was lucky to get that chance at a local strategy firm and sink my teeth into issues I had been interested in for years – energy, natural resources and water. Now, I mix policy and communications; they are linked – you can’t accomplish policy without being able to tell the story about why it’s important.
CP: Democrats were in the minority at the beginning of the 2000s, when you worked in the state House of Representatives as their communications director. There was a Republican governor. Today, Democrats hold the governor’s office and the House, and Republicans are fighting to hold onto the state Senate in what is widely predicted to be a blue-tide election. Looking back and comparing your fortunes then to today, do you have a sense of, “mission accomplished” — or do you ever see yourself wanting to dig back into the political street fight?
Wertz: I like to think that I — with a lot of the smart people I worked for and with — helped move Colorado to being a perpetual purple state by focusing on how Democratic policies could make positive differences in the lives of Coloradans. I think when either party focuses on the people, rather than the power, we are better off. It’s almost always a mistake to think “mission accomplished” – there’s always more to do, and you have to constantly defend your successes.
Despite that lofty “West Wing” (the television show) ideology there is always the pull to be back in politics. As they say, everything else is just a game. That said, I prefer to stay behind the scenes these days; make sure the message is factual and accurate; give my clients the credit they deserve and answer fewer inquiries late at night. Unless a client calls, of course.
CP: Would you ever run for office?
CP: One area your work has taken you into often in recent years is Colorado’s natural resources and public lands. Several years back, you were deeply involved in the ultimately successful effort to protect one of the state’s largest ranches from development. What in your view should the state be doing as a matter of public policy to protect public lands and the resources on them — and under them? And do you believe there is merit to the very vocal anti-fracking campaign — despite our own Democratic governor having imbibed frack fluid to prove it’s harmless?
Wertz: Our public lands, and for that matter our working private lands, are treasures in need of protection. It is well documented that outdoor recreation, much of which is done on public lands, contributes $28 billion in economic spending,— 229,000 jobs – to our state that cannot be ignored. I think the challenge is enacting policies that protect those lands and promote access while allowing responsible renewable and traditional energy development. There are myriad examples of communities in Colorado and the West that are finding a balance between the two and increasing their economic resiliency while doing it. I think Colorado can find a way as well if both sides can take a step back and come to the table ready to roll up their sleeves and work at it. Still, that takes leadership from both sides.
The interesting thing, as most of us in the biz know, is that for the past 30 or so years Colorado, in a way, has been a three-party state. So, anyone who wants to win statewide has to appeal to more than just their political base.
CP: Is perennially purple Colorado going to stay pretty much that way, or are you among those who perceive a new, leftward-bound trajectory with staying power even beyond the Trump phenomenon? What do you make of the growing unaffiliated voting bloc?
Wertz: I don’t have a crystal ball and politics is shifting at an ever-increasing pace these days; regardless, Colorado has an inherent independent streak that helps it buck some of the national trends that impact many other states. I do hope we stay purple – I think it keeps more people involved in the political process and actually creates better candidates and leaders on both sides of the aisle. As a person who started out as an unaffiliated voter, I think it is great. The interesting thing, as most of us in the biz know, is that for the past 30 or so years Colorado, in a way, has been a three-party state. So, anyone who wants to win statewide has to appeal to more than just their political base. This adds to our purple state status and with unaffiliateds now being involved in primaries – I hope this bolsters that trend.
CP: What’s the biggest challenge facing the state?
Wertz: Climate change. Regardless why it is happening, I think we are in trouble if we don’t start working together to build resiliency into our water, energy and transportation systems. If we have two or three more low snowpack years in a row like 2018, or continue to experience catastrophic floods like in 2013, besides the increase in higher temperature and longer burning forest fires, our state’s economy will take a major hit. I am hopeful though and think there are ways we can do it if we stop retreating to our political corners and focus on tackling these challenges in ways that involve water users, energy companies and community leaders.
CP: What do you hope to be doing 20 years from now?
Wertz: Yelling at kids to get off my lawn while I tie some flies to use on the Poudre River. But I have a feeling I might also still have a career in process – trying in some way to contribute to making Colorado better.