Sean Paige has dished it out as well as taken it, repeatedly, in a lengthy career at the intersection of the media, politics and policy.
As an editorialist for the working press, he regularly called public officials to account; not long afterward, he sat alongside some of those same officials as a public servant himself. A little later still — and at various turns in his working life — he has been a gatekeeper for media access to candidates and causes. He has questioned and criticized, and been questioned and criticized.
In other words, he’s no idle pundit — no armchair quarterback; he always has been ready to suit up and get in the game.
Throughout it all, the Colorado Springs-based Paige has been a relentless voice for the free market and limited government; a defender of Republican Party principles, and a message man for GOP politicians. He helped run the ground game for the libertarian-esque Americans For Prosperity in Colorado, and he has been a convener at large for center-right advocacy and thought through his years-long leadership of the Peak Freedom Forum.
Now wrapping up a four-year stint as communications chief for the Colorado state Senate Republicans — who lost their majority on Nov. 6 amid a disappointing election for the Grand Old Party in Colorado — Paige shares his take on Colorado’s Capitol press corps in today’s Q&A.
He also talks about partisanship under the Capitol dome — when it kicks in and when it doesn’t seem to hold sway — and offers perspective on what the state’s oil and gas industry will do now that a less-fossil-fuel-friendly party holds all the levers of power. Read on.
Colorado Politics: Give us a frank assessment of how well — or otherwise — Colorado’s news media covered the 2018 races in our state. How has the rapidly changing landscape in the news business affected political coverage over the past several election cycles under the dome at Colorado’s State Capitol?
Sean Paige: Well, there’s a lot to cover in any campaign season, and a lot fewer people covering campaigns now given that the media universe is contracting rather than expanding, so my hat goes off to the reporters and editors who have to endure that meat grinder. Given how thinly stretched media outlets are today, in terms of manpower and resources, and how quickly reporters must work to feed the social media beast and keep pace with a 24-hour news cycle, I think the overall quality of the coverage was surprisingly good.
Like any avid news consumer, I have my personal pet peeves with how some stories are reported, or not reported, including cases when I perceive that a bias or slant has crept in, consciously or unconsciously. I frankly thought the governor-elect needed to be pushed much harder for the devilish details on how he plans to pay for all the costly promises he made during the campaign. But these are long-standing, admittedly subjective critiques, which apply to national political coverage as well.
I personally think there’s far too much focus on polling, for instance, and too little focus on personalities and policy implications. Fundraising stories are unavoidable, since cash drives campaigns, but they also get overdone in my view. I think average readers or viewers care far less about polling stories and campaign-finance stories than most journalists do. Most reporters relish covering the horse race aspect of campaigns. Who’s ahead in the polls and who is raising how much cash, and from whom. And that’s a legitimate focus. But most news consumers, in my opinion, want to know a lot more about the horses that are running, as people, and what it means, practically-speaking, if their horse wins or loses. But as I said, that’s just where my interests lie.
- Principal of public affairs consulting firm Affinity Advocacy, since 2014.
- Communications director, Colorado state Senate GOP, 2015-2018.
- Executive director, Peak Freedom Forum in Colorado Springs, 2008-2014.
- Deputy state director, Americans for Prosperity Colorado, 2011-2014.
- At-large member of the Colorado Springs City Council, 2009-2011.
- Editorial page editor, Colorado Springs Gazette, 2002-2007.
- During his Beltway years, his jobs included staff writer and columnist for the Washington Times’ Insight Magazine, journalism fellow and editorial director at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and communications director for Citizens Against Government Waste.
CP: Almost every Q&A since the election has included a question or two asking the subject to reflect on why Colorado voters went blue and whether it will amount to a long-term trajectory or just another swing of the pendulum. Here’s your chance to deconstruct last Nov. 6.
Paige: The state has been trending blue since I moved here in 2002 for a job at the Colorado Springs Gazette, so I see this as symptomatic of long-term social and demographic trends, not some wide or surprising pendular swing. And I don’t see the trend as inexorable or irreversible, assuming we Republicans correctly analyze what has gone wrong and where we can do better, in terms of fielding winning candidates and making a winning case.
Everyone recognizes that Trump is a uniquely polarizing political presence. And while that has worked for Republicans in some places, it seems to be working against us, for now, in Colorado, which isn’t shocking given that Hillary Clinton carried the state two years ago.
The Democrats will always have a certain advantage, in terms of scaring up votes, because they have a simple, two-word solution to every problem, which is “more government.” The messaging challenge facing Republicans is inherently more complex and challenging, because we don’t offer a simplistic answer to every complex problem. And we must explain to voters why the simplistic solutions offered by the other party aren’t necessarily the better or only way to proceed.
Ours is the more cerebral argument to make, in an era in which raw emotion drives much of the debate. But that’s always been a disadvantage facing Republicans, which we have and can overcome, so I’m confident that we can rebound in Colorado if we work harder and smarter at making our case.
I love this state and just won’t write it off as a lost cause, which is predestined by shifting demographics or social factors to become Eastern California, which is why I’ll continue to stay active on the political front, albeit in other ways.
CP: You’ve been on both sides of news coverage — having worked for years as an editorial page editor in the mainstream media yet also, among other things, serving as a Colorado Springs City Council member and, most recently, as the communications director and media liaison for Colorado’s Senate Republicans. Tell us a little more about your background and what led you into a life in politics and policy.
Paige: I’m from a middle-class family from the Detroit area, which makes me a professional sports masochist. I also did a two-year stint on the assembly line while working my way through college, meaning I also got a little education in the school of hard knocks. But going to college in Arizona really convinced me that the West is where I belong, so I moved to Colorado Springs after a 14-year stay in Washington, D.C.
Washington is where I cut my teeth and learned the ropes. I packed a lot of experience into those years, working in policy, politics, journalism, media relations and the think tank world, but it’s an extremely unhappy place. So when I had the opportunity to move here and work on a newspaper, I didn’t hesitate.
I wish I could tell you that my career was all carefully planned out, but the truth is that I’ve always been a bit of a professional adventurer and risk-taker, pursing interesting opportunities and experiences as they came along. I hadn’t worked at the statehouse level, so when I was invited to do so, I said “yes.”
I only committed to one session, but I enjoyed it so much that I stayed three more, mainly because I really like and respect the leaders and lawmakers I had the chance to work with in the building. But four years is enough. I mean, how much fun is one guy entitled to have, right? It’s been an exciting, productive and rewarding tenure.
I’m grateful to the outstanding leaders, caucus members and professional staff – as well as the many fine journalists – I’ve had the pleasure to work with. But it’s time to return to work in the private sector and I’m welcoming the change.
CP: Democrats now will control both chambers of the legislature as well as the governor’s office following last month’s election. The upside of that for their party is a given, but could there also be a downside? Your philosophical and partisan differences aside, what pitfalls could confront the state – and even the Democrats themselves — under one-party rule?
Paige: Well, the downside for Democrats is if they misread the tea leaves, assume the rest of the state is permanently swinging hard left, and run totally wild, like they did back in 2013, creating a mass case of voters’ remorse. I can see the potential for a further widening of the urban-rural divide in the state, if the perception grows that a relatively small groups of disconnected Front Range liberals is turning the state into a carbon copy of California.
That’s the downside for Democrats, but an opportunity for Republicans, who did seem to benefit from the backlash that occurred during the Democrats’ last reign of error. It’s Coloradans who will suffer most, however, if their current advantage leads Democrats to push extreme proposals too hard.
Colorado’s economy and fiscal situation is relatively healthy now, but everything is also precarious economically and we can’t take those blessings for granted. If Democrats impulsively or recklessly do things that tempt the fates and turn the economy downward, I think we could quickly see the political climate improving for Republicans.
CP: During your tenure, it seemed at times the Republican Senate majority was the only government entity consistently standing up for the state’s oil and gas industry. Will the industry now wind up making new friends among Democrats out of necessity at the Capitol — or is oil and gas in for some tough times?
Paige: No major industry can afford to have powerful political enemies, so all of them pursue the prudent course of playing to the middle and working with both parties as much as possible. Energy is no different, from my experience. And I think that bipartisan outreach by oil and gas will continue to be the case in Colorado.
Colorado is too important to energy, and energy is too important to Coloradans, for there not to be some détente eventually, so I expect that there will be one after the dust from his election settles and the full weight of their new responsibilities are felt by Democrats.
Winning campaigns is intoxicating, but the responsibly that comes with actually governing is sobering. Much depends going forward on whether Democrats become drunk on power or sober up. So we’ll see.
Reasonable people in both parties recognize how important energy providers are to this state’s fiscal and economic wellbeing, not to mention energy consumers themselves. And that’s who oil and gas will be working with going forward, to ensure that Colorado continues to tread a sensible middle path on this issue. The generally bipartisan opposition we saw to Proposition 112 shows that the keep-it-in-the-ground mindset isn’t universally shared among Democrats.
We just have to hope that cooler heads in the party prevail, now that they hold all the cards, because Colorado could be in a world of hurt, economically and fiscally, if the left’s war on coal morphs into a similar war on oil and gas.
CP: On what policy areas was there the most common ground between the two parties during your years at the Capitol?
Paige: The thing that most surprised me about working at the Colorado State Capitol, as a former Washingtonian, was how truly bipartisan much of the work is, or was, at least in the time that I spent there. Of course, we had a split legislature during those four years, which undoubtedly accounted for a lot of that. Bipartisanship was just a necessity if you wanted to get anything constructive done in the relatively short time the legislature meets every year.
We got a lot of good things done despite the partisan divide, and I think average Coloradans were much better off as a result. … less flashy but quietly important bills that eventually won bipartisan approval, sometimes on issues that were considered untouchable in a split legislature, like PERA reform, road funding, school funding, school safety and reinvention of the Colorado Energy Office, just to name a few highlights.
CP: What advice would you give the next majority communications director — regardless of the fact he/she will be working for the other party?
Paige: Many communications people have former experience as working journalists, as I do, which really helps in terms of understanding what makes the media machine tick and how you can professionally serve your clients, meaning lawmakers in this case, while also helping journalists do their work.
I’ve been on both sides of that table, as a former member of the working press who also has been a press secretary, so I think I’m better equipped to balance and negotiate the needs of both sides in a helpful way.
So, I guess the most basic piece of advice I would offer is to be as helpful as you can, by understanding and appreciating how the news business works.
One of many cool things about doing communications work at the Capitol is getting the opportunity to work with Colorado’s best reporters. And we’re blessed with some really, really good ones. Was it always a love fest? Not always. I’ve had my go-rounds with certain reporters, and vice versa. But I love journalism and deeply respect the work media people do, or I wouldn’t be in this line of work. And I think that came through, despite the inevitable friction that can result in a business as competitive and contentious as this one is.
Any critiques of coverage I had, or have, I delivered personally. And I found that the best reporters and editors and producers in the business don’t get overly defensive about it. Most, in fact, take such feedback constructively. Many actually are grateful when you help correct a factual error or highlight some glaring imbalance in a headline or a story.
Senate Republicans put a real emphasis on access and openness and availability during my time there, by offering a weekly Monday morning press meeting, for instance, and in-depth mini-briefings on specific bills, and I think they appreciated that.
The hammering media people have taken at the hands of the current president, often unfairly, has made reporters more defensive and self-protective than they used to be, so a little more finesse and diplomacy is needed in how Republicans offer our media critiques. But overall, I don’t think that level of contentiousness has trickled-down very far into Colorado’s media market.