Heated political partisanship in Colorado is reaching into the race for the at-large seat on the University of Colorado Board of Regents, changing a usually tame contest into one attracting big money and loud rhetoric.
The statewide election could change the face of the nine-member board, putting it in the hands of a Democratic majority for the first time in nearly 40 years. Republican Heidi Ganahl and her allies say if the Democrats take over, it could mean the end of the tenure of Bruce Benson, a Republican who became CU president in 2008.
All that has made a historically staid run for a Board of Regent seat suddenly a hot commodity, said John Straayer, a Colorado State University political science professor and longtime political observer of Colorado elections.
“Maybe it’s because it’s a statewide race and maybe people are so sick and tired of putting their money in other bigger races,” Straayer said. “Or maybe it’s because we’ve come to a point where it’s one tribe against another, Democrat against Republican, and we are going after each other.”
Ganahl has raised more than $171,000 to win a seat being vacated by term-limited Republican Steve Bosley. Supporters say Ganahl has the business savvy to best oversee CU’s $3.5 billion budget and attract new donors in an era of tight fiscal constraints at the state legislature.
If elected, Ganahl — who founded the dog day-care franchise Camp Bow-Wow — will help maintain a Republican majority on the board and secure the employment of Benson, her supporters say. Benson is supposedly being targeted by Ganahl’s Democratic opponent, Alice Madden, although Madden denies the claim.
Others see her as an immediate threat to Benson. “Alice Madden aggressively condemned him as the least qualified CU president,” said Bosley, adding that Benson has helped CU set fundraising records and boost enrollment since he took over as president.
“She has had plenty of time to apologize to him, and she never has,” Bosley said.
Bosley adds that the same business sense that made Benson so successful is shared by Ganahl and is needed on the board. “She started with nothing and built a $100 million business,” he said. “She’s not afraid of managing a big budget.”
Madden has brought in more than $55,000 in her campaign. She is a former majority leader in the Colorado statehouse and is now the executive director of the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at CU’s Law School.
Madden says she is not legally barred from governing her own boss, saying she would recuse herself in situations that indicated a conflict of interest.
Madden says Benson’s job is not on the line should she be elected and the Democrats take over the board, but in 2008 she said: “Aside from the blatant politics involved in this, he has a bachelor’s degree in geology. He’s going to be the boss of world-renowned researchers? Now I wish I had applied. At least I have a juris doctorate.”
Madden said this week that Benson has done a good job for CU and that speculation she would move against him is “stuff that is just made up during the political silly season.”
“I am not running to oust Bruce Benson,” Madden said. “But this is a six-year term on the board and this board will choose a successor to Bruce Benson.”
Ganahl, meanwhile, says Benson should stay as president for as long as he wants. “Honestly, he is the sharpest 78-year-old I’ve ever met,” she said.
Regent Linda Shoemaker, a Democrat not running for re-election, said Madden’s leadership and knowledge of state government will be a huge asset for the board.
It’s also about time for the regents, who head up the state’s largest university, to be led by a Democratic-progressive majority, Shoemaker said.
“Colorado has become more progressive over the past 40 years … and voters have passed more progressive ballot issues,” Shoemaker said. “But it is notable that the two entities that oversee our education policies have not followed that lead. … The State Board of Education and the CU Board of Regents are still under the control of Republicans.”
Ganahl and Madden point out that the Board of Regents agree on most issues and they don’t see that ending should either get elected Nov. 8. The regents, they say, should not involved themselves in the day-to-day governing of the university.
But recent issues about academic freedom and climate change, as well as securing funding for CU, show a contrast between the two.
Three professors at CU-Colorado Springs told students at the start of the semester that the course they were teaching would only accept scientists’ consensus that anthropogenic climate change — the notion that humans are driving climate change — is occurring and that other sides of the issue would not be taught.
That led Benson to say in an e-mail that even though the “issue falls squarely in the realm of academic freedom, it also seems that a little more balance would have helped.”
CU Regent John Carson also told The Washington Times that students attend the university “to be educated, not indoctrinated.”
Madden said Carson was playing up the controversy to raise money for conservative causes. “It’s a good example of how conservative this board has become,” she said. “Regents should stay out of science,” she said.
Ganahl said regents should prioritize where research dollars should go, picking the areas that would be the most effective in protecting the environment. “We have to support all research and not just climate change,” she said.
Madden also says the board should have joined 300 state organizations, including colleges and universities, in supporting a proposal to reclassify the state’s hospital provider fee. The move would prevent the fee from counting toward a state revenue cap and potentially would have made as much as $200 million available for roads, schools and other programs.
“The CU Regents were so tied to ideology, it was just a conservative knee-jerk reaction,” she said.
Ganahl said there would have been no guarantee CU would have received any money.
She says CU needs instead to reach out to businesses and communities to bring in new funding sources. She cites her experience in business and her time on the University of Colorado Foundation board as ideal proving grounds for bringing people together for CU.
“Of course, I’ll lobby to get more money out of the state, but I will also try and solve funding problems in other ways,” she said.
Madden said she’s not against forming more public-private partnerships to benefit CU. “Of course, state funding is no magic bullet, but it’s part of a multipronged approach we have to fight for,” she said.
Both candidates agree that CU’s constantly escalating tuition rates and student debt load are hurting its recruitment of lower- to middle-class students, as well as minorities.
“Once you are on the Boulder campus, you realize it is really white,” Madden said. She said the university should build more relationships with high schools and communities to attract kids who would otherwise attend a local community college.
“We need to work with minority businesses and churches to promote CU,” Ganahl said. “We want them to want to go to CU.”