Colorado is more than a presidential swing state this year.
It is home to a statewide election that could swing the University of Colorado’s Board of Regents away from a Republican majority that’s endured for nearly four decades. The race pits Republican businesswoman Heidi Ganahl against Democrat Alice Madden, a former leader in the Legislature. It could have significant effects on an institution that has seen recent fights over state funding levels and is expected to go through leadership turnover as its president and other top administrators age.
The regents race has also dredged up divisive issues beyond those a Board of Regents is typically seen as having power over: research, energy production and climate change. Several sitting regents reported a spike in partisanship as the election nears and the high stakes hit home.
“This is an unusual election because it really is on the line,” said Linda Shoemaker, a Democratic regent who is not up for re-election this year. “I say it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity for the Democrats to take control of the Board of Regents.”
The race is not, however, easy to predict. Candidates have relatively little fund-raising ability, and there is no polling published on regents elections. More challenging, voters often have little sense of what a regent does or why they are voting for one. That leaves Colorado’s statewide regent votes usually following the top of the ticket in presidential election years. But political experts say that’s never a sure thing, and it’s particularly uncertain in this year’s unpredictable political climate.
Colorado is rare in electing regents to oversee its university system, a practice that is more common for community colleges. Just three other states -- Michigan, Nebraska and Nevada -- elect regents to exercise control over at least some of their universities, according to the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. In Colorado, seven regents are elected from congressional districts. Two are elected statewide. Regents’ terms run six years, and elections are staggered.
This year, three regents’ seats are up for election -- Democrat Michael Carrigan is term limited in a heavily blue district and Republican Sue Sharkey is running for re-election in a deep-red district. Republican Steve Bosley, who holds a statewide seat, is term limited and cannot run for re-election. Ganahl and Madden are vying to win Bosley’s seat.
Ganahl currently sits on the University of Colorado Foundation board. In 2000, she started Camp Bow Wow, a nationally franchised day care service for dogs that has since been bought by an animal health care company, and she also operates a charity called Moms Fight Back, which focuses on issues like teen drug use, sexual assault and child abuse.
Madden is the executive director of the Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy and the Environment at the University of Colorado Law School, a position she took in June amid press coverage noting she would govern her own employer if she becomes a regent. She is a former majority leader in the Colorado State House credited with creating a plan that flipped the state’s Legislature Democratic in 2004. On the topic of governing her own employer, she says she would not be the first such employee and that she can recuse herself in case of conflict of interest. She also says it would be wrong to prevent the university’s tens of thousands of employees from running for regent.
The candidates staked out differing positions on several issues, notably on university funding. Ganahl says she isn’t against more state funding for the university but finds funding levels unlikely to increase. Therefore, she thinks the university system should cut costs, focus on fund-raising and find new sources of money. Madden, meanwhile, wants to fight for more state funding.
The issue is particularly pertinent in Colorado, where higher education funding has been squeezed in recent years. State funding totaled $197 million for the 2016 fiscal year, down from $207 million in 2001. Regents have also moved to cap tuition increases, this spring putting tuition increase caps in place and guaranteeing tuition levels over four years for incoming classes at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Some advocates have sought more state funding for the university system, including backing a controversial proposal to reclassify the state’s hospital provider fee. Reclassifying the fee would prevent it from counting toward a state revenue cap. Advocates argued that would make more revenue available for higher education funding.
Madden points to that issue as a reason she thinks the Board of Regents needs a change. The board did not weigh in on the hospital provider fee issue last year, she said.
“Over 300 state organizations -- including almost every college and university in the state -- signed a petition asking the governor to go to a special session to pass this bill,” Madden said. “The board refused to even bring up the resolution to a vote.”
Ganahl retorts that there was no guarantee any extra money would have gone to the university system.
“No one in Colorado has guaranteed any of that money would go to higher ed,” she said. “I’d rather focus on things we can control, like public-private partnerships with our communities and driving private donors and fund-raising.”
Also boiling to the top recently are issues of climate change and academic freedom. A trio of professors at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs drew the attention of conservative media at the start of this semester by sending out an email to members of a Medical Humanities in the Digital Age online course they are teaching. The email said that the course accepts scientists’ consensus that anthropogenic climate change is occurring and that other sides of the issue -- like the argument that anthropogenic climate change is not happening -- would not be taught or discussed. The email went on to ask students not to take the course if those ground rules were a problem and asked all outside sources used for the course to be peer reviewed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The incident prompted some controversial responses from University of Colorado Regents and its president, Bruce Benson. Benson sent an email to regents saying he had talked about the issue with Colorado Springs’ chancellor.
“I am not happy about it, and I shared that,” said the email, according to The Colorado Independent. “While 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 told The Washington Times students attend the university “to be educated, not indoctrinated.”
The incident was particularly pertinent to the race between Ganahl and Madden because climate change had already surfaced as a major issue. And Colorado Regents have been at the center of ideological questions before. In 2013 the American Association of University Professors raised concerns after regents moved to conduct a survey of the political climate at the university's Boulder campus because of concerns over liberal bias. Even Benson's 2008 selection as university system president had the American Federation of Teachers objecting because he was viewed as the architect of tenure changes the union believe to be a threat to academic freedom.
Madden argues the current Republican-controlled Board of Regents isn’t supportive of climate change research and has avoided discussing the topic in the past. Democratic leadership would be more supportive of researchers, she said.
“It’s definitely an atmosphere,” Madden said. “The chancellors will take the regents to their campuses, introduce them to their professors, show of all the amazing things we do, but they’re never going to take them to meet climate scientists.”
Ganahl said it’s not regents’ role to wade into specific research issues.
“The Regents Board is supposed to be a governing board, not a managing board,” she said. “Our job is to hire the president of the university.”
Regents’ energy and climate change debates predate the recent flare-up at the start of the semester, though. University of Colorado regents voted 7 to 2 in 2015 against having the university divest from fossil fuels. But some Republicans have worried a Democratic board would seek divestment again.
Ganahl addressed climate change and divestment in a video posted in August.
“This election for CU regent shouldn’t be about climate change -- we can leave that topic to the scientists,” she said in the video. “What we do know is that we promise to encourage feisty debates on tough issues, and this is one of those tough issues. But our focus at CU is on the students, and not on taking sides in partisan debates.”
Ganahl went on to say in the video that divestment would not be an effective way to protect the environment. Not including energy in university investments would be harmful, she said.
The climate change debate is also of interest because the university system’s president, Benson, founded an oil and gas company in 1965. Benson also ran for governor as a Republican in 1994 and has chaired the Colorado Republican party.
Regents approved Benson as president in 2008 on a party-line vote. Madden, who was still State House majority leader when Benson was being selected, had attacked his credentials.
“Aside from the blatant politics involved in this, he has a bachelor’s degree in geology,” she said at the time, according to The Denver Post. “He’s going to be the boss of world-renowned researchers? Now I’m wishing I’d applied. At least I have a juris doctorate.”
Today, Republicans worry the election could turn into a referendum of sorts on Benson, with Democrats ousting the longtime president if he wins.
But Madden said she was concerned at the time because of Benson’s background. She thinks he has done a good job of leading the university.
“He had a super-partisan background, but you know, he’s done a heck of a job,” she said. “He’s given his heart and soul to the job. He returns his salary to the university.”
Madden says she has no plans to run Benson out of his job, and the president hasn’t indicated interest in leaving. Still, Madden points out that the president is 78 and has been in office for the better part of a decade.
“This is a six-year term, so at some point we would be looking for a new president,” she said.
Asked about the president, Ganahl said she supports him staying as long as he wants.
“President Benson is one of the brightest, sharpest people I’ve ever met in my life, and he’s an incredible fund-raiser,” she said. “I don’t think he’s ready to step down, and I certainly don’t want him to.”
Several regents rejected the idea that the elected Board of Regents is an inherently political body. But the race is still viewed as having higher-than-usual stakes.
Faculty members are watching the race closely, said Joanne Addison, an associate professor of English who is vice chair of the University of Colorado Faculty Council and chair of the faculty assembly at the University of Colorado at Denver. She declined to discuss the race further, saying she was hosting candidates at an upcoming Faculty Assembly meeting and needed to be nonpartisan.
The regents election seems to have settled down somewhat after divisive issues swirled earlier, said Glen Gallegos, a Republican regent.
“Early on, I think we were hearing that it could lead to a different president, a different vote on investments,” said Gallegos. “But it just feels like it’s really calmed down.”
Gallegos was elected vice chair of the board in September after regents spent the summer unable to elect new board leaders. Regents elected a Democrat, Irene Griego, as chair, even though the GOP still has a 5 to 4 board majority.
“I have not seen this board as a real partisan board,” Gallegos said. “I personally would hate to lose that 5 to 4 vote, but I don’t think it’s the end of the world, either.”
Democratic Regent Shoemaker said she has been surprised by how much the outside world of politics has impacted the board this election season, though.
“Five people are out there working hard to elect Heidi,” Shoemaker said. “And four of us are working in our own ways to elect Alice and Hillary -- and Trump on the other side. It creates some real tensions when you’re trying to work closely and collaboratively with people.”
Bosley, the statewide regent Madden and Ganahl are running to replace, said many issues would come up with or without regent elections.
“The fact we’re elected and we’re elected by party injects some things that make it political,” he said. “Once elected, I would say 95 percent of the things we talk about we agree on and are not partisan in nature. The other 5 percent are philosophical things that would come up whether you’re an elected or appointed board.”
Being appointed by a governor is very different from being elected. Appointed trustees or regents answer to a constituency of one -- the governor. Elected officials have larger, more amorphous constituencies. Some states also have regents selected by legislatures.
“When there’s an election of trustees, people who have aspirations for a political career will often use running for one of those offices as kind of an entry to public visibility and a political career,” said Paul Lingenfelter, former president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers. “I think that does change the dynamics.”
From a strategic standpoint, winning a statewide regent election is difficult, Bosley said. Many voters don’t know what regents do, and fund-raising limits are very low. Bosley remembers driving 30,000 miles around the state as he campaigned for his election.
Some regents say this year’s statewide race is getting more press than it would have in the past.
“It seems like the regents race this year is really getting a lot of attention, and I think higher education has gotten more attention in the last few years,” said Sharkey, the Republican regent running for re-election in a heavily Republican district. “It’s an issue that even the presidential candidates talk about. It’s my perception from when I ran the first time six years ago that there’s a lot more public attention, public spotlight, being put on higher ed.”
Yet most experts agree the regents race is not taking top billing within the state, especially with the presidential election gobbling up attention. That would seem to indicate the race will go the way of the presidential election as voters cast their ballots based on political preference at the top of the ticket.
That’s often been the case in the past, said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University.
“The general picture I have is that … if there’s a CU regent race up in a presidential year with decent turnout, the odds tilt in the Democrats’ direction,” he said. “In down-ticket races they haven’t done well unless it happens to hit a presidential year.”
Yet it isn’t so simple. Many voters will cast their ballots in the presidential race but not bother to check off a regent candidate’s name.
Down-ballot regents underperform top-of-the-ticket candidates, said Stephen Ludwig, an at-large Democrat. When he ran in 2012, the number of votes cast for Barack Obama was 20.5 percent higher than the number cast for Ludwig. The number of votes for Mitt Romney was 15.5 percent higher than the number cast for Ludwig’s Republican opponent at the time.
It’s hard to generate interest in the campaign with current fund-raising limits in place, Ludwig said in an email.
“It is cost prohibitive to do a statewide campaign that would highlight the issues that could move the needle for people one way or another,” he said.
Businesses, federal political action committees, individuals and political committees are all limited to contributions of $200 per primary and $200 per general election for regents races. Political parties can donate nearly $16,000, and small donor committees can donate $4,850 over the course of the election cycle.
Madden had spent just $2,915 on the race and had cash on hand of $19,823 heading into the fall, the Coloradoan reported Sept. 7. Ganahl had spent $22,082.32 and had $12,144.42 on hand.
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