It may be the most important Colorado election battle you’ve never heard of.
This November, as voters pick a president and decide who should represent them in Congress and in the state legislature, they will also determine who controls the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents. The nine-person board oversees the management of the entire CU system, which serves more than 61,000 students across four campuses. The CU Board of Regents also controls a $3.5 billion budget. For perspective, that’s almost double the budget of the City of Denver.
Today, Republicans hold a 5-4 majority, but there’s an open statewide seat on the board this year. It’s a competitive race, and if Democrats win, they would take control of the board. But more than that, a new majority would also represent a huge victory for environmental activist groups and environmental mega-donors like California billionaire Tom Steyer.
The CU Board of Regents has been targeted by activists who want the university to divest – or sell off – stocks, bonds and other securities tied to fossil fuels. The divestment campaign tries to build political support for new laws against the production and consumption of coal, oil and natural gas by demonizing energy companies and their workers. “It’s about building a movement to undermine the political power of the fossil fuel industry through stigmatization,” according to 350.org, the leading activist group behind the college divestment campaign. Another senior organizer, who has compared energy companies to the tobacco industry and apartheid South Africa, says divestment is about “targeting the fossil fuel industry [and] taking away its social license to operate.”
By opposing fossil fuels – and nuclear too – 350.org and other pro-divestment campaigners are trying to eliminate 90 percent of the energy that powers the U.S. economy and makes our way of life possible. They would force the nation to rely instead on wind turbines, solar panels and other renewables, which can barely meet 10 percent of energy demand, and are much more expensive than the sources we have today. Rather than wait for renewable energy to get better and cheaper, the activists want drastic and costly action now, but the American public does not agree with their alarmist views.
Last year, the CU Board of Regents rejected a divestment proposal from Fossil Free, a group created by 350.org. In a 7-2 vote, the board sided with Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and many other colleges that have rejected fossil-fuel divestment as a costly political stunt with no real environmental benefit. But the divestment campaign never went away. The activists believe a new Democratic majority on the CU Board of Regents will carry out their demands, and to win the election, they are bringing out the big guns.
For example, in early March, Fossil Free CU organized a speech from left-wing author and environmentalist Naomi Klein on the Boulder campus. Klein was paid $20,000 by the student-funded Cultural Events Board, according to a CU spokesman. She filled the Glenn Miller Ballroom and urged the audience to support divestment, according to The Colorado Independent. At the same event, an organizer with Fossil Free CU told the crowd: “Let’s make sure our Democrat regents are elected this fall across the state, so that we not only divest, but we address all the issues on our campus of justice and sustainability!”
For divestment campaigners, however, the Democrat running for the board’s open statewide seat is probably the biggest gun of all. Alice Madden – a CU graduate – is an extremely well-connected political operative and former lawmaker who played a central role in “The Blueprint,” an effort launched more than a decade ago to put Democrats in control of the Colorado General Assembly. As the top Democrat in the state house, Madden reportedly oversaw millions of dollars in outside spending to build her party’s majority during the mid-2000s.
In a 2013 speech, Madden recalled: “I accidentally learned that I was really good at campaigns [and] led a shift in the power structure in Colorado. For the first time in 60 years both chambers flipped to my party, and I became majority leader.”
As one of Colorado’s top Democrats, Madden took a strong interest in energy and environmental policy. After leaving the state legislature, she became a senior climate fellow with the Center for American Progress – which counts Steyer as a major donor and board member – and a climate adviser to Gov. Bill Ritter (D). Later, she served as the Tim Wirth Chair in Sustainable Development at CU’s School of Public Affairs and was a political appointee in President Obama’s Energy Department, focused on state and local policy.
More recently, Madden joined the rest of the state’s environmental community to honor Steyer at June 2015 awards dinner in downtown Denver. Steyer spent $8.5 million in a failed effort to save former U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D) in 2014, and has invested heavily in research and polling to support his political operation in Colorado this year. Steyer is also a major supporter of the college divestment movement. He’s contributed to 350.org and worked closely with the group’s co-founder Bill McKibben.
Not surprisingly, environmentalism has emerged as a key theme in Madden’s campaign for CU Regent. The official launch, scheduled for April, will take place at the headquarters of the Alliance for a Sustainable Colorado, a Denver office building that houses several major activist groups, including Conservation Colorado, the Center for Biological Diversity, Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians and the Natural Resource Defense Council. In a fundraising appeal on Facebook, Madden asks: “Do you think that all nine of the elected CU Regents should believe in man-made climate change?” In another appeal, Madden exclaims: “[W]e can get a Democratic majority on the Board of Regents for the first time since 1979!”
Should any potential supporters doubt Madden’s commitment, they need only look back to her views on CU President Bruce Benson, a Republican who earned his geology degree from CU, made his fortune in the energy business, and then led a $1 billion fundraising campaign for his alma mater. In 2008, when Benson was nominated, Madden called the move “a really bad joke” and claimed he would be “the least educated president ever considered in modern history.” Madden, an attorney, also added at the time: “Now I’m wishing I’d applied. At least I have a juris doctorate.”
A few weeks after Madden’s comments, the Board of Regents formally named Benson CU president on a party line vote. The Republican majority supported him, while Democrats voted no. Needless to say, with a new Democratic majority on the board, Madden and her supporters would have the chance to undermine Benson and push for a new CU president.
Against Madden, the accomplished political insider, Republicans have fielded a very different candidate – entrepreneur Heidi Ganahl. Also a CU alum, Ganahl built a successful chain of day-care centers for dogs. According to Fortune magazine, the small business she started – Camp Bow Wow – is now “the nation’s largest pet-care franchiser,” reporting revenues of $85 million in 2014. Ganahl also serves on the board of the University of Colorado Foundation, which raises funds from the private sector to support CU’s mission, and runs a non-profit called Moms Fight Back, which advocates for “safer, healthier families and communities.”
According to conventional wisdom, 2016 is the year of the political outsider – and Ganahl is certainly that. Her experience as a successful small business owner may appeal to voters, but Madden’s political experience and political connections are huge advantages, not to be discounted. If Ganahl and her supporters underestimate their opponent in this relatively obscure election contest – or if they underestimate what’s at stake – they’ll be sure to regret it.
Simon Lomax is an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute and a consultant who advises pro-business groups. From 2004 to 2012, he was a news reporter covering energy and environmental policy in Washington, D.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.