Colorado Concern is one of those star-studded stakeholder groups that wields its clout quietly in the world of politics and policy. Which is probably why Mike Kopp is the group’s point man.
After all, he’s not only a former state Senate minority leader, Republican national committeeman and onetime GOP candidate for governor, but he’s also, by all accounts, one of the all-around nice guys of Colorado politics.
Just about everyone, regardless of political stripe, likes Mike. Yup; the guy manning the machine gun in the photo above. So, all the better to have him in the middle of what otherwise could be bare-knuckled brawls over transportation, energy, education and the like. Kopp won’t back down — the guy was an Army Ranger — but he’s known for standing up to a challenge with a smile, a handshake and a willingness to listen.
Kopp talks about his approach to forging public policy on behalf of the business community; his view of the role of political parties in Colorado politics (hint: It’s about the ideas), and whether he’d ever entertain another run for office. That and more, in today’s Q&A.
Colorado Politics: Colorado Concern is said by some — at times, with a smirk — to be the voice of big business. Others characterize your organization far more glowingly as a behind-the-scenes broker of big, bipartisan policy initiatives that the state really needs — whether or not a lot of politicians in either party care to admit it openly.
Either way, your group’s agenda doesn’t necessarily hold a lot of populist appeal; arguably, it’s more about stirring the economy than stirring passions. How do you get past the morbid suspicion among assorted elements across the political spectrum so that you can build coalitions?
Mike Kopp: Let’s get right to the heart of the matter! We should address the “morbidly suspicious” who are anxiously casting about wondering what Colorado Concern is up to. Yes, I know the type. They imagine clandestine meetings of the powerful plotting the course of humankind.
It makes me think of a C.S. Lewis lecture that has stayed with me for a long time. He delivered the “Inner Ring” discourse at King’s College in 1944. In it, Lewis relates a scene from “War and Peace” to highlight the rather typical human quest to work one’s way to the inner ring; it could be any inner ring in any social context in any place and at any time. What goes on in the inner ring? Well, who knows? Deep secretive things no doubt! Actually, Lewis explains that inside each ring is a more inner ring. And on and on it goes.
That is not to suggest that Colorado Concern is a typical, garden-variety business organization. It is not. What makes it unique is not some magic “Inner Ring” quality, but simply that it is a community of very high functioning executives, senior decision makers from every major economic sector. These people know the heads of industry, they know the political leaders from mayors to presidents. It is a formidable and extraordinary community for the simple reason that it has a strong bias for action.
A good measure of action is in how we spend our time and intellectual, relational and financial capital. Based on these measures we are most interested in sustaining a strong economic growth environment in Colorado. End of story. And it is our unabashed view that that very outcome best creates maximum opportunity for anyone in the state who wants to get ahead. A strong job market in the state means more jobs, where work is rewarded with good pay. We think that matters to everyone.
CP: What are Colorado Concern’s top priorities as we head out of this election season and into the 2019 legislature?
Kopp: We set priorities later in the year and refine them in February. But two projects we have worked on at the legislature recently will continue to present us challenges as a state. First, we do have an eye on transportation with specific (though not exclusive) attention on the poor state of our roads and bridges. We need to add capacity to our highways and put our bridges into shape. Second, we have our eyes on construction litigation policy. We made effort two years ago with the first bill to pass in many years. It was not perfect but it was a start. At a minimum, we will work to keep that law and a recent Supreme Court decision on the topic, in place. Let’s give these policies some time to work. The goal is to increase the supply of for sale homes that can be afforded by more people.
A pair of other concerns certainly could come to the fore as well: Health care and energy development. Finally, … we want to do all that we can do to help the new crop of leaders (elected Nov. 6) be successful in sustaining a strong economic growth environment in Colorado.
CP: You’ve certainly gone the rounds in your own political career — as a Republican state senator and GOP Senate minority leader; as a Republican national committeeman; as a gubernatorial candidate. Are there some takeaways from those experiences that you offer to aspiring and new elected officials? Did your political views evolve over the time you held office?
Kopp: Three quick thoughts:
On parties: your political party is not an end in itself, the advancement of ideas is the goal. The party just provides the vehicle to move your ideas forward. Parties by definition create lines of demarcation; Republicans over here, Democrats over there. Notably, and for the sake of convenience no doubt, parties even sit in separate sides of the aisle in our capitols. But ideas can transcend traditional party lines. Anytime someone is said to have achieved a bipartisan success, they transcended party lines and developed an idea that could win support from people of more than one party.
It is intellectually honest to a) hold and proudly fight for your party’s views while, b) acknowledging that Colorado is a purple — not red or blue — state. It really is not intellectually honest to think that your party will get everything it wants in such a circumstance.
On leadership: look at your ideas, and your party’s ideas — and the ideas of others — through the lens of a leader rather than through the lens of a politician or partisan. It makes all the difference in the world. If you disagree with an idea, mobilize to change it or defeat it. If you agree, or can modify it enough to agree, then mobilize to see it succeed. To me this represents a principled approach to take: It’s honest and connected to who you are.
A third thought: give a significant portion of your time to improving your practice of the art of statecraft. A simple exercise would be to ponder what you could do for your district or state today that would provide a useful solution to a problem but wouldn’t necessarily benefit you.
CP: Do you have a favorite politician in recent Colorado history?
Kopp: My favorite politician in recent Colorado history was Bill Armstrong. Bill was a man of tremendous vision and humanity. He was very sick (he had earlier fainted), when he left his wheelchair to walk on stage at the Republican state convention where he gave a booming nomination speech that was so generous it embarrassed its subject (me). When he finished, he walked back to his wheelchair and sat down. I am still trying to learn to extend myself to people and causes that I care about the way Bill Armstrong did. I miss him greatly.
CP: Permit a sort of softball of question — in a backhanded way. The consensus on you for years now seems to have been that you’re a happy warrior of Colorado politics. Win or lose, you take your lumps with a smile and always have maintained an upbeat, respectful and genial approach on the battlefield. But are guys like you too nice for hardball politics? Or, is your style a recipe for success if only more politicians would emulate it? Is politics getting too nasty, and is there a path to a better way?
Kopp: I am a very lucky guy. I have very kind parents and siblings, and in-laws. I am fortunate to have been raised in a home where we were taught to be nice to one another. The thing is, I have never held that being nice or being mean are the appropriate categories of thought when it comes to political success; I think it is, rather, leadership. Being nice to people is a medium; and here my lapses are numerous. Still, I do think most people would rather work with nice people, and constructively working together, with your team, the other team, or both, is the essence of political success.
I have always loved a mental image I have of Ronald Reagan, a man known for his personal warmth, pushing away from negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik. In the judgment of many, the nice guy won by refusing to let go of his Strategic Defense Initiative. The apparent failure of the summit set the stage for the signing of the landmark INF Treaty a little over a year later.
I do think the nastiness of our politics deserves a thorough examination. But on this front, I believe that politics is downstream from culture and is in many ways a reflection of all of us. Is there a better way? Yes, I think so. But we can’t fix it at the level of technique, it’s deeper than that. But we could ask our leaders to start here: find five ways in your political role to exercise restraint — or what the Greeks called temperance. Temperance is not about your views, it is how you express your views. It is fully honoring of the First Amendment. What if we supported them by trying it ourselves?
CP: You are a noted family man in the political world; your children have often been mentioned as a central feature of your life. You also experienced the loss of your spouse, to cancer, in 2011 and resigned the Senate in its aftermath. What have you learned about the perpetual struggle to balance family life and political life? Any advice you’d care to pass on to others along those lines?
Kopp: The best I have to offer is this: bring your family into what you do in your world as an elected official and do this as often as you can; and resolutely save enough emotional energy and time to give to them so that they can bring you into their world.
CP: Will you ever run for office again?
Kopp: Bill Buckley once quipped, after running for mayor of New York and losing, that had he won, he would have demanded a recount! He understood the sacrifices. To me serving in office really does require you to set your career aside and to some extent, time with your family, too. In my heart, I am not willing to do that right now. Maybe down the road I will feel differently.