He has been both rising star and odd man out in Colorado Republican ranks — and, arguably, a casualty of the Trump backlash on the 2018 ballot. Cole Wist — the former state lawmaker from Arapahoe County, onetime assistant minority leader in the state House, up-front critic of his own party's president, and most recently, prominent attorney at blue chip law firm Squire Patton Boggs — seems as unapologetically independent-minded as ever in today's Q&A.
He shares with us some of the views that have inspired admiration in some quarters and stirred vexation in some others. After all, marching to his own drummer has at times led him out of step with the GOP.
Colorado Politics: Your Catholic faith is part of your public profile — it’s literally in your Twitter profile — and seems consistent with your stands on some big issues. You’ve spoken up, for example, for the sanctity of life at both ends of the human spectrum, opposing abortion as well as capital punishment. That latter stance puts you at odds with plenty in your party though it’s hardly unprecedented, particularly among Catholic Republicans. What role did your religious faith play in your policy advocacy as an elected official — and what role do you think spiritual beliefs should play for elected officeholders in general?
Cole Wist: I do not shy away from sharing my Catholic faith with others and I strive to do my best to exhibit and work for the core principals of the church in my daily life. These include advocating for the life and dignity of all humans, fighting for the poor and vulnerable among us, practicing compassion and forgiveness, promoting the importance and value of work, protecting the institution of family, and urging care and respect for God’s creation. There are times when my faith places me at odds with my party affiliation, and that’s OK. I don’t believe God is a member of any political party.
Without question, our founders were guided by their faith experience in shaping our government, but they also recognized the risks and dangers of a theocracy. While our leaders should be free to advance public policy consistent with their beliefs and values, they must always be respectful and tolerant of views that may differ from their own. Christ taught that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Imagine how much better our government would function if our elected officials followed this principle while working for the public good.
- Attorney at the Denver law office of global mega-firm Squire Patton Boggs, since 2019. Wist also worked 11 years for the firm earlier in his career.
- Represented suburban Arapahoe County's House District 37 as a Republican in the state House, 2016-2018; was assistant minority leader. Wist was first appointed to the seat to fill a vacancy in early 2016 then was elected to the post in November of that year.
- Has served as a member of the Board of Trustees of Colorado Mesa University; on the Governor’s Task Force on Civil Justice Reform, and on the Dean’s Advisory Board for Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences for the University of Denver.
- Holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Denver and a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.
CP: Speaking of being at odds with some of your party, you have been an unflinching critic of the Trump administration and its congressional supporters amid the impeachment proceedings. Pollsters say Donald Trump is a turnoff for Colorado voters overall and especially for our state’s No. 1 voting bloc, unaffiliateds. Yet, Republicans here for the most part have rallied around the president. What harm is there in that for the GOP? Whether he wins or loses this November, will Trump do your party more harm or good in the long run?
Wist: I guess you could say that my current relationship status with the Republican Party is “complicated.” While I have no intention of leaving the party, there is no secret that I am not happy with the current trajectory of the GOP.
I am a Reagan conservative. I believe in shrinking the size of government, lowering taxes, embracing free markets and upholding the constitution. I also believe that leaders like Ronald Reagan and John McCain showed us how we can differ on policy and yet treat each other with respect. During my time in the legislature, I took great pride in working across the aisle to find workable solutions for our state’s problems. I believe folks are elected to serve the people, not a party.
I don’t consider Donald Trump to be a conservative, and I believe he is damaging the Republican brand. Trump does not care about budget deficits, now in worse shape than under President Obama. Trump is not constrained by the rule of law as evidenced by his obstruction of the Mueller investigation on Russian election interference and his more recent efforts to solicit a foreign country to investigate political opponents. Trump does not believe in the constitutional principle of separation of powers. After ridiculing Obama’s executive orders, Trump has legislated by executive order at a dizzying clip, some 28 in 2019 alone. And Trump believes in broad and unchecked executive power, which is at odds with the intentions of our framers.
Donald Trump has also abandoned enduring American principles which have guided our country since its founding. These include equality, dignity, truth, honesty, integrity, respect, humility and morality. Republicans would have at one time condemned this path that we are on and many did during the 2016 campaign. These timeless principles are still important, and they matter to me.
Trump’s populism and nationalism will not last forever. What remains to be seen is what is left of the Republican Party after the Trump era is over.
CP: Was your loss in the HD 37 race in 2018 the result of a Trump backlash; of a rear-guard action against you by the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners for your support for the “red flag” law; of changing political demographics in suburban Arapahoe County — or all of the above?
Wist: In 2018, Republicans lost every contested county-wide race in Arapahoe County for the first time ever. We lost U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, who had previously survived many challenging election cycles despite redistricting and changing demographics. And we lost every statewide race, from governor to treasurer. We had good candidates. The difference was Democrats’ success in nationalizing elections at all levels. I know firsthand from talking to thousands of voters in my district (which voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016) that Donald Trump was front of mind for most and that voters were angry. While Trump’s name wasn’t on the ballot, I believe that many of us with R’s next to our names were punished for our party affiliation. It was an obstacle that ultimately proved too difficult for me to overcome.
CP: Recap what prompted you to speak out last year against the attempt to recall Democratic state Rep. Tom Sullivan — who beat you in the 2018 election. Was it, for you, more about the specific policy issue involving the red flag law — or more about the use and, some would say, abuse of the recall process, once rarely invoked?
Wist: I penned an op-ed last year which laid out the reasons for my opposition to the recall of Rep. Sullivan. I am proud of my position and I stand by it. The conclusion I ultimately reached was this:
"In Colorado, our laws make it fairly easy to recall a sitting legislator. However, just because we can doesn’t mean we should. That’s not to say all recalls are wrong, but this one against Tom Sullivan is wrong on many levels. I disagree with Rep. Sullivan on a number of policies. And, I am opposed to numerous pieces of legislation that he voted for this last session. However, Rep. Sullivan won the election, and I lost. He ran on gun control and then pursued it. Elections have consequences. Absent gross malfeasance or defrauding the voters, Rep. Sullivan deserves to serve out his term. ... At some point, elections have to be over and we must allow our elected officials to work. Recall fever is at odds with governing. It is designed to keep you riled up, to keep the contributions flowing, to feed the beast."
CP: How did you wind up spending your childhood in the relatively remote West Slope community of Paonia, and what was it like growing up there? How did small-town life influence your political life and views later on?
Wist: I loved growing up in Paonia. Thinking back, it all seems pretty idyllic.
I walked or rode my bike to school. (My high school was just 100 steps from my front door.) Many of my 70 classmates that I graduated with in high school were with me in first grade. I played a lot of baseball growing up. A lot. I got my front teeth knocked out on a bad hop at second base, and it all happened the week before my junior prom. Fortunately, my date was a good sport.
Like other small towns, I was involved in just about everything from sports to band to drama to debate to student council. Paonia was a community where the school was the center of activity. Everyone was at football games on Friday nights.
We had one movie theater, one stop light, and our main street was three blocks long. My first car was a Willys jeep. Its top speed was 40 mph. I loved that jeep.
Our schools weren’t fancy. My middle school and my high school were well past their prime. However, I never thought about what I didn’t have. To the contrary, I considered myself lucky. While money is important, an educational system can never truly be outstanding without strong parental and community support and without dedicated teachers. I was fortunate to have all of that. My educational experience had a profound effect on the direction of my life, and to this day I am committed to making sure that all students have opportunities to succeed, regardless of their zip code.
In a small town, everyone knows everything about everyone else. Of course, that can be a bad thing, but it is also where I developed my understanding of what community means. In Paonia, we all looked out for each other. If a family fell on hard times, we came together and rallied to find a way to help. We prayed together, worked together, and laughed and cried together. Community and family were synonymous.
As an elected official, I considered my district to be that kind of community. It was my job to look after their interests and to have their back. It was an honor that I will never forget.
CP: Permit a question that Q&A poses to a lot of Republicans these days: How will your party win back Colorado — which has been leaning ever more leftward in recent elections?
Wist: When Mr. Trump exits, we will have an opportunity to re-define what it means to be a Republican and a conservative. We will be able to attract voters and build a winning coalition if we stick to the following messages:
- Socialism doesn’t work. Many countries have tried it, and they have all failed. Socialism cuts against our basic ideals. Freedom is right and freedom wins.
- Republicans need to stop being anti-government all the time. Some government is necessary and when properly restrained, it can do good things.
- Republicans need to start talking about health care and saying something specific. We must offer market-based solutions to making health care more available and more affordable. Just saying we’re against Obamacare and “Medicare for All” isn’t enough. We have a good health care system, but it is far from perfect.
- Republicans need to stress inclusion and work for immigration reform. Let’s face it. Trump’s xenophobic immigration rhetoric has been harmful and has repelled voters. Republicans have historically worked to make the American dream a reality for immigrants. We need to return to those roots.
- We should continue to support TABOR. It’s popular for a reason. Colorado citizens want to see government live within its means and be required to make the case for tax increases.
- College is way too expensive, but put simply, college is not the only path to success. Republicans should advocate for a broad range of affordable educational options beyond high school that provide students with skills and training to make them employable.
- Republicans should show more compassion when talking about social issues.
- Inequality exists. Republicans need to discuss it and offer policy solutions to address it.
- We need to be more likeable. We need to listen and smile more, and yell less.
CP: Will you ever seek political office again? Why or why not?
Wist: My brand of politics does not appear to fit this angry, partisan political environment. If the tide turns, we’ll see.