Josh Penry is relative to Colorado politics the same way peaches are to Palisade.
The former state House and Senate member, the Republican leader in the upper chamber, in fact, remains the unseen force behind many of the state's most dynamic issue campaigns and candidates. He's a project manager, not the name on a bumper sticker anymore.
Completing one of the state's most recognizable power couples, his wife, Kristin Strohm, is the president and CEO of the business-focused Common Sense Institute in Denver, herself a longtime strategist and community do-gooder.
In 2009, and age 33, he ran for governor, but dropped out. Penry would have been the state's first Western Slope governor since John Vanderhoof from Glenwood Springs was elected in 1973.
At the time, The Denver Post reported it was too early to tell if Penry had other political aspirations.
And before he was famous for passing laws, he was famous for passing the pigskin. Penry was a quarterback at Mesa University, then Mesa State, 22 years ago, where he was the National Scholar Athlete of the Year, a year after another well-heeled quarterback, Peyton Manning, won it. Besides playing for the Mavericks, he was the college's student body president.
He isn't going anywhere, but his 20-year-old consulting business, EIS Solutions, is expanding and rebranding to become 76 Group. The change takes effect this week.
Like Penry, who used to have a handsome head of hair, EIS has evolved over the year, founded to navigate clients through permit reviews on public lands — environmental impact studies, hence the name EIS Solutions. The firm outgrew its name. Today it staffs offices in Grand Junction and Denver. A new Washington, D.C., office is led by principal Liesl Hickey and vice president Zack Roday, while the new California office is captained by principal Blain Rethmeier. The new name comes from 1776, the year of the nation's birth, but also 1876, when Colorado became a state.
The firm has two sister companies — Blitz Canvassing and Ascent Media — that can help guide a project the length of the political process of a project to take on and win what the firm expects will be tough fights.
Penry filled in Colorado Politics on what it takes to be Penry.
• Where did you grow up?
Grand Junction, Colorado, USA. No better place to grow up.
• What was your first job?
A little sports memorabilia and card store in the Mesa Mall called Primetime Sports, right before I went off to college.
• What was your nickname in school?
A few of my buddies at Grand Junction High School called me “leche” – as in, Spanish for milk – because I drank a lot of milk ... Not the greatest nickname for sure.
• Is being a good quarterback more about throwing or leading?
The locker room is about as close to a true meritocracy as it gets — if you aren’t any good, no one really cares much about your leadership-style.
• Any tattoos?
A firebird on my chest. Just kidding, a lightning bolt on the back of my shoulder.
• Best Colorado politician you ever met?
No. 1 is Bill Owens. It’s so rare when the principal is also the operative. That’s Bill. I learned a lot from him. 1A is a tie between Hank Brown, Roy Romer and Bill Ritter.
• Best Colorado politician you never met?
I carried a bill back in the day with (House Speaker) Terrance Carroll that authorized and funded the Ralph Carr Judicial Building. So, Ralph Carr is definitely the one I’d love to go back in time and meet.
You're rebranding a pretty well-known business. How come?
When I first came to EIS, our core competence and business niche was working administrative processes for big projects on federal lands – known in regulatory parlance as Environmental Impact Statements or EIS. Thus the firm’s name, EIS. Over the last 10 years, we have become a full-service public and government affairs shop. And so the name EIS became this sort of glaring anachronism. As we have expanded into California and D.C., I know our new partners got tired of answering, “What in the world is an EIS?” It’s funny, a couple years ago we won a big national award for best branding for a political campaign (Raise the Bar!), so we figured no time like the present to brush up our brand too.
In some ways the rebrand isn’t the headline. To me our new partners and the new reach that gives us is what’s exciting. Liesl Hickey is one of the smartest operatives and strategists in America. Liesl is brilliant, hugely experienced and such a decent and kind person. She also recruited on Zack Roday to the team, who was the communications director at the House Energy and Commerce Committee and is one of the top press guys on the Republican side in the country. My old buddy Blain Rethmeier is also coming on board to build our book in California. Blain was a spokesperson in W’s White House working under Dana Perino and has worked at some of the biggest public relations companies on the planet. We’re excited about where our company is heading.
Why did you step back from being a candidate to work behind the scenes?
When I was done with the legislature, the move to EIS was really a landing spot. It was a good place to kind of set up shop, work on projects I cared about, and plan next steps. But somewhere along the way I started really, really enjoying this work. Obviously building a successful company in EIS (cough, cough now 76 Group) was a growth experience and rewarding. Over the years we’ve started two sister companies too – Ascent Media and Blitz Canvassing. Ascent has become what I really believe is a world class advertising agency. Liesl Hickey and I had worked on a couple campaigns over the years. We wrote and produced lots of political and corporate ads over the course of a year or two. We did all of Mike Coffman’s, for example, and we’d have these advertising professionals say, "Your ads are really good, you should formalize it and start your own agency." And so we joined up with another really smart guy who has done a lot of work in Chicago, DC and Nashville – James Slepian – and we did just that. That’s growing like gangbusters.
Obviously, we feel like we do really good work on the ballot initiatives – raise the bar, redistricting, the Gallagher-fight. We feel like we are very, very good at running and winning big ballot campaigns.
Among political types, we are known as a political firm, but politics and campaigns are only a small piece of what we do. Building our business into these larger corporate, non-profit and public spaces has been challenging and fun.
And so all of those things have been really rewarding professionally which has made the transition to “behind the scenes” surprisingly meaningful. I like what I do a lot.
What got you into politics in the first place?
Our dinner table was always very politically active. Actually, it still is. I don’t argue with my Dad about much – he’s a Vietnam vet and even at 75 I wouldn’t want to take a disagreement too far – but we do find ourselves arguing a lot about Trump. He loves Trump, and I don’t love Trump. So, it gets raucous. But that was my dinner table growing up. We talked about what was happening in the country and in the world. This idea that we live in a special place – that we are blessed to live in this place at this time – was very much drilled into our head as youngsters. And that really opened my eyes to the importance of country and community and these issues that define the kind of country and community we have.
Is that why you're a Republican?
I’m a Republican, in part of course, because of how I was raised by my two amazing parents. But the older I get, the less doctrinaire about it all I become. I have a hard time with people who think their party is always right. I’m not always right. I look back on some votes I cast in the legislature and wince. But you grow, you learn, you adapt to your experiences. That’s why I have a hard time choking down these people who see Republicans and Democrats as being good and evil or evil and good.
I’m definitely one of those people who think our politics is broken and needs balance. There are important fights and arguments to have, but there are also important agreements and compromises to be won. Some days you fight, some days you compromise, and in all that give-and-take you get to balance and progress.
And so like a lot other people, I’m really disenchanted with both parties. Now more than ever, we need people who want balance, who want concession and compromise in our politics to shout it from the mountain tops. Not only are the voices of reason not winning the argument, most days it doesn’t even feel like we are in it.
Do we politicos deserve our reputation?
There are some really good political operatives, and there are some really bad political operatives. It’s about the same as hardware stores and hamburger stands. I won’t say names, but there are political operatives, elected officials and even a reporter or two I would trust with my children with, and there’s some who I’d call the cops on if they showed up on my door-step. Politics is governed by the human condition. You take the bad with the good.
Crazy amounts of money were spent on campaigns this year. Is that good or bad?
It isn’t ideal but in a free society it’s tough to air quotes “fix.”
There's your party and there's your constituents, where does a politician draw the line?
It’s complicated, for sure. But in general, when I get calls from legislators or members of congress on tough issues or wondering how to think about a tough vote the punchline for me always is be thorough in your analysis, and do what you think is right. Sometimes that means leading the charge of the outraged masses, and some days that means standing up to the mob and saying – no, that’s wrong, we need to go this direction and here is the reason why. Balancing constituencies and conscience is more art than science for sure. But the good ones find a way to get to that balance. Look at Susan Collins nationally and (state Sen.) Kevin Priola locally: sweeping election victories on a great Democratic night because they are effective at managing these tough issues, and finding that balance.