No wonder Matt Moseley has survived and thrived in the political realm; he’s accustomed to swimming with sharks. In his case, literally. The Denver-based communications and media consultant — a veteran of the Colorado Capitol as well as the campaign trail — is also a record-setting open-water swimmer who most recently crossed a stretch of the Caribbean without the benefit of a shark cage.
In a world of nose-meets-grindstone political hacks who spend their days and most nights poring over voter rolls and survey spreadsheets, he’s a distinct exception. To say the least, Moseley, now a partner and chief strategy officer at Denver communications firm dovetail solutions, has an unconventional resume for someone in the political game. It ranges from welcoming guests as an assistant maître d’ at a celebrity chef’s New Orleans eatery, to serving as a confidant to the late dean of New Journalism and born-again Coloradan Hunter S. Thompson — en route to writing a book about the cause that had drawn him and Thompson together. (Moseley is currently working on a new book about the front lines of communications, titled, “Ignition: Communication and Controlling Your Environment.”) Oh, there also was that time he did research for a famed “futurologist” in Telluride…
And then there’s all that open water. Read on; details and more are in today’s Q&A.
Colorado Politics: You are among the fairly few folks in Colorado’s communications business who can say, “Hey, I wrote the book…” on a topic of keen interest. In your case, it was your well-received work on the national headline-making Lisl Auman case in Denver. But before we get to the book you wrote, let’s talk about the swims you swam — another of your accomplishments that arguably amounts to an even bigger boast. Notably, you are a renowned open-water swimmer. Last summer, you set a record by swimming cage-free (i.e., with the sharks) from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Puerto Rico to raise awareness about the environment. You are in fact a veteran of open-water challenges — you traversed your native Louisiana’s Lake Pontchartrain — and you have been featured in documentaries on the subject. What inspired — possessed? — you to take up the sport? What do you do to train for it — and how do you prepare yourself mentally? Do you feel your swims actually have enhanced eco-awareness?
Matt Moseley: I’ve always been a swimmer, but I got into open water about 1995 on a river trip down the Colorado River. Since then I’ve swam in races and adventures from Greece to Hawaii. I’ve done four swims that have been recognized by the World Open Water Swimming Association who nominated me for Open Water Swimming Performance of the Year in 2015.
In 2013 I swam 25 miles nonstop across Lake Pontchartrain with alligators and bull sharks. In 2014 I swam 47 miles down the Colorado River through Canyonlands National Park in just under fifteen hours. This past summer I did the first swim from the Virgin Islands to Puerto Rico without a shark cage.
Each swim benefits an organization working to protect or bring awareness to water, such as the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation. I work with American Rivers who I teamed up with on the Colorado River because they had just named it the most endangered river in America. I’m also on the board of the Inland Ocean Coalition (saving the oceans from a mile high) who were along for the swim this summer when I swam across the Caribbean. 5 Gyres Insititue was on board the support boat doing the first testing for plastics in the Caribbean while I swam.
Swimming for these organizations makes each adventure something greater than the sum of its parts. We’ve definitely brought attention to water and protecting our planet’s most precious resources. Wayne Ewing made a documentary of the Lake Pontchartrain swim called Dancing in the Water, which is about the recovery of the lake told through the swim. The support boat had jazz legend David Amram and Papa Mali playing music all night while I swam and a giant Merman from a Mardi Gras shot lasers out into the night sky. The swim was quite a spectacle.
Swimming is important to my professional life because I bring the same qualities from swimming to the work of our clients. Perseverance, a clear goal, extensive planning, training, assembling the right team and making it about a greater purpose. I apply these values to the issues we work on.
CP: Now, to your book: Recount for us why you were drawn to the groundbreaking Auman saga and how you connected with the late Hunter Thompson of Woody Creek over Auman’s cause. What was it like working with the godfather of “gonzo” journalism toward the end of his storied career and life?
Moseley: Lisl Auman was serving a life sentence for felony murder. She got into a car with someone she didn’t know. The car was stolen and the driver was a skinhead who killed a cop and then killed himself. Auman went to jail for life having never touched the gun. After five years in prison she wrote a letter to Hunter Thompson saying his books weren’t available in the prison library. He wrote back saying he was horrified by her case and maybe he could help. I read about his interest, and I faxed him a memo about how to change the narrative of the case. He called the same day when I was at the City Grille across from the state capitol and said in the rapid, raspy Gonzo style, “Hot damn son, let’s do a rally.” Then he asked, “You mind if I bring Warren Zevon?” The rally attracted national attention and changed people’s perception. She wasn’t a skinhead who was a mastermind behind a murder plot; she was an innocent young woman in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Over the next few years we worked closely together on the case. When I would go to Owl Farm in Woody Creek, we would write a press release, plan strategy and work the phones with reporters and friends for a while. Afterward Hunter would want to blow something up like a large canister of propane with nitroglycerin wrapped around it. He was very unique, but a lot of fun.
The case gained national exposure and went to the Colorado Supreme Court for two oral arguments. They remanded the case back to the Denver District Court where the sentence was reduced to time served with probation. Lisl Auman walked out of prison a free woman after 10 years in prison. I wrote a book about the campaign called “Dear Dr. Thompson: Felony Murder, Hunter S. Thompson and the Last Gonzo Campagn.”
CP: And how did you get hired — by actor Johnny Depp, no less — as spokesman for Thompson’s unconventional memorial service when he died in 2005? What was it like to work with Depp — as offbeat a persona in his own way as Thompson was in his?
Moseley: While the Auman case was at the Supreme Court, Hunter killed himself. He had left behind little known footage from the BBC in the early ‘70s where he described in great detail how he wanted to die. Hunter wanted his ashes shot out of a 157 foot tall Gonzo Fist with a big raging party afterwards. Johnny Depp obliged himself to build it. Because of my work with Hunter and the family on the Lisl Auman case, I was brought on as the communications director and family spokesperson for the giant Ash Blast.
It was the most insane experience because of the intense interest from the media and the public. Jimmy Ibbotson from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band [fired a shot near] a journalist. I had to issue a helicopter warning to keep away the paparazzi, which itself became a news story. I actually cleared the air space over Owl Farm and made it a no-fly zone. My quote to the BBC the night of the funeral was, “With a full moon rising over Woody Creek, there was no finer place to be on the entire planet when Hunter’s ashes were shot out into the ether.”
…Hunter once asked me ‘What is the meaning of politics?’ I wasn’t sure how to answer. … ‘Voting, governance, elections, policy making?’ They were all wrong. Hunter told me, ‘Son, politics is the art of controlling your environment.’
CP: Workaday Colorado politics and public policy might seem mundane by comparison — and by now represent only one facet of your skill set compared with when you ran the state Senate Democratic press shop in the mid-2000s — but politics still is represented in your client base at dovetail.
Moseley: Late one night in his kitchen, Hunter once asked me “What is the meaning of politics?” I wasn’t sure how to answer. Here I had worked on several U.S. Senate races, with the White House Communications Office and had been the national field director at Rock the Vote in Los Angeles, but I had a hard time answering this simple question. “Voting, governance, elections, policy making?” They were all wrong. Hunter told me, “Son, politics is the art of controlling your environment.”
I’ll never forget the conversation because it meant being proactive and defining the message. This is the central principle we bring to our work. Define yourself. Don’t sit back and let others do it for you. The person with the best story wins.
At dovetail solutions, we operate in the sweet spot where public policy, government and business/nonprofit intersect. What keeps it exciting is every client has their own unique challenges and opportunities. … We still get involved in ballot measures and my business partner, Andy Boian, is co-chair of Gavin Newsom’s gubernatorial race in California, but we’ve moved away from day-to-day involvement in candidate campaigns.
In my career I’ve used the same lessons I learned on the campaign trail for clients and organizations. Every organization needs communication, messaging, identifying the right audiences, coalition building and the tactical execution that comes with moving a big issue from point A to point B. We bring the same sense of urgency from campaigns into our work for clients.
CP: You’ve been involved with plenty of candidates and causes over the years, so let’s get your take on the 2018 governor’s race. Who will win the nomination for each party at this point? Regardless of the nominees, what’s the biggest challenge facing each party going into November?
Moseley: The contest to watch now is between Jared Polis and Cary Kennedy. Both candidates have opportunities and challenges. Kennedy is surging right now with a great statewide ground game and a strong showing in the caucus process among the party faithful. Polis has the money, so it will be interesting to watch who Democrats nominate. I worked for state Senator Joan Fitz-Gerald when she ran in the primary against Polis in 2008. I know firsthand that Polis is not to be underestimated. Kennedy has the momentum right now, but Polis is a fighter with a top-notch staff (especially with Phil Hayes on board). Stapleton has the Republican nomination locked up. The big question is how will the Trump Factor play in the general election and how will Stapleton deal with that dynamic. Will he run with Trump or disavow him?
CP: Why are so many more Colorado voters registered unaffiliated than Republican or Democrat? What are both major parties missing?
Moseley: I don’t know if the parties are missing as much as voters today don’t seem to respond to parties as the mechanism to get involved. It used to be that the parties were the only way to be a part of the process. Today is a different game with social media and interest-based politics. It is the same reason there is more talk now of doing away with the antiquated caucus system. Moreover, the biggest reason parties are becoming more irrelevant is because campaign finance laws have given rise to the Super PACs and independent expenditure committees. Now, anyone with a little resources, some time, social media know-how and creative messaging can elevate an issue. They don’t have to go through the party to do it.
CP: What brought you to Colorado, and what has kept you here?
Moseley: In the early ’90s, I was working as the assistant maître d’ in New Orleans at the restaurant Commander’s Palace, where Emeril Lagasse was the chef and it was named restaurant of the year. I moved to Telluride and worked for the author John Naisbitt, who wrote “Megatrends.” I met my wife Kristin in Telluride, and she went to law school at CU Boulder for water law, and I went to graduate school in public policy. We’ve been in Boulder ever since and live happily with our children Charlie and Amelia.