Photo: Tad Rickman
Gov. Bill Ritter, right, joined by Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, addresses media, fellow lawmakers and others as Ritter announces he will not seek another term.
By Peter Marcus, DENVER DAILY NEWS
As a light snow fell outside the Capitol Wednesday morning on a gloomy Colorado day, Gov. Bill Ritter sent a chill of his own down the spines of his fellow Democrats.
As he entered the west foyer of the Capitol to explosive applause and cheers, the incumbent governor announced that he would not seek re-election this year in order to spend more time with his currently neglected family. He spoke of the toll politics has had on he and his family and said he did not want to put himself or his family through what is sure to be a “bitter” partisan gubernatorial battle.
“It is my family who has sacrificed the most,” said a relaxed Ritter, speaking of his wife Jeannie and four children, two of whom still live at home. “I have not found the proper balance where my family is concerned, and I have not made them the priority they should be.”
The news came as a “shock” to just about the entire Colorado political community. Much of Ritter’s own staff only learned of the decision Tuesday evening when the governor cancelled a fundraiser and reports leaked that he would bow out of the race.
Ritter called a meeting of his cabinet Wednesday morning where he joked, “I think we have a leak,” referring to the widespread reports that surfaced prior to his official announcement.
The governor shrugged off opinions that he is dropping out of the race because he has been trailing in the polls. He said he came to the decision over the holidays while spending time with his family.
“Never give a busy man time off,” he joked.
Ritter said he had carefully calculated his decision and determined that dropping out of the race would not destroy his party’s chances of beating the Republicans this year.
“The Democratic Party has a very deep bench, there are a lot of people who are able to step in and do this job,” said Ritter before being interrupted by thunderous applause and cheers from fellow Democrats. “It’s not like I didn’t make that part of my calculations, but I really do believe that at the end of the day, we have every opportunity to win the election.”
Republicans seize opportunity
The news was initially met with joy by top Republicans, including Ritter’s once opponent, former Congressman Scott McInnis.
A spokesman for McInnis was quick to tell the Denver Daily News Tuesday night that Ritter’s decision was a reflection of “the Democratic ticket falling.”
But McInnis himself issued a much more subdued statement following Ritter’s announcement Wednesday.
“(My wife) and I understand the pressures and sacrifices of public life and the toll that elected office can take on a family,” McInnis said. “We wish the governor, first lady and the entire family all the best in the years ahead.”
“Our message of job creation, economic security and fiscal responsibility, which is clearly resonating throughout Colorado, will remain steady and strong,” continued McInnis. “We will take this message of optimism and a deep belief in Colorado’s future, neighborhood by neighborhood, and won’t take one vote for granted.”
Democrats move forward
Meanwhile, Democrats were turning their attention to a new strategy for the state and the gubernatorial election. A meeting was originally scheduled Wednesday afternoon with Congresswoman Diana DeGette, party Chairwoman Pat Waak and senior Democrat elected officials to discuss “how to go forward as a party.” But the meeting was rescheduled so that all stakeholders could attend.
Top Democratic names are already being mentioned to fill the campaign role abandoned by Ritter, including state Democratic Party darling and former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Congressman Ed Perlmutter. Salazar appears to be the favored choice.
At an afternoon news conference Wednesday, Hickenlooper said he has not made any decisions.
“We don’t know,” Hickenlooper said simply while standing in front of rows of cameras and reporters, flanked by his wife, Helen Thorpe, and son, Teddy.
Hickenlooper was eyed as a candidate for governor in 2006, but chose not to run. He said Wednesday that if Salazar chooses to run for governor, he would be his “first volunteer.”
“I think Ken Salazar has created a lifetime of public service, a career of doing what he thinks is right for the State of Colorado and now for the United States, and he has earned not only my respect and admiration, but also my deference,” said the mayor. “If this is something that he wants to put his heart and soul into, I will do everything I can to get him elected.”
Salazar dodged the question Wednesday when asked by reporters during a conference call to announce further onshore oil and gas leasing reforms. The teleconference occurred prior to Ritter’s official announcement.
“I’m not going to comment on that,” said Salazar. “The governor has not yet made his formal announcement, and there are other conversations that are going on in Colorado.”
Perlmutter issued this statement: “I am honored to have my name mentioned as a potential candidate. I love this state and I want to continue to serve my community and state and make it a great place to live for everybody. It’s a premature decision to make at this time, but one I will carefully consider.”
The congressman went on to say that Ritter’s decision is a “nightmare” for the Republican Party.
“This decision is a game changer, and I believe Colorado Democrats have a deep bench of potential candidates who can win this race,” said Perlmutter.
Romanoff, who is currently challenging U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in a primary election for the Senate seat, issued only this statement: “I have known Bill and Jeannie Ritter more than 16 years, and I appreciate how much they and their children have sacrificed for the sake of our state. I join all Coloradans in thanking the governor and his family for their selfless service — and wishing them the very best in the years ahead.”
Romanoff did not return repeated phone calls by the Denver Daily News seeking comment on whether he is considering running for governor.
Not a sure thing for Republicans
Denver Daily News political columnist Aaron Harber does not necessarily believe that Republicans were handed a victory based on Ritter’s decision.
“It’s completely up in the air and it is anybody’s to win at this point,” he said.
Harber also dismissed rumors that Ritter is really dropping out of the race after pressure from top Democrats because he has been trailing in the polls.
“Anyone who attended (Ritter’s announcement) was present when he spoke and saw how sincere he was, and anyone who knows him personally and knows the importance of his family, you’d have to accept his statement at face value,” said Harber.
Democrats, however, may have trouble with fundraising considering they’re starting months after McInnis began his effort, said Harber. Ritter’s campaign contributions cannot be transferred to another candidate, but it can be donated to the Democratic Party, which can then transfer the money to another candidate, according to a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s office. Ritter’s ending balance as of a Nov. 2, 2009, filing is $609,909. But sources say his fundraising went very well last quarter, perhaps bringing his contributions to anywhere between $800,000 and $1 million.
Republicans not changing strategy
Dick Wadhams, chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, said he does not believe his party needs to change its strategy based on a new candidate. He said any of the mentioned Democratic leaders would be “formidable candidates.” But he believes the Republican message is resonating stronger with voters.
“The issues that will dominate this campaign will be the same whether it’s Bill Ritter, Ken Salazar, or whoever, because there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between Bill Ritter, Ken Salazar, John Hickenlooper or Andrew Romanoff,” said Wadhams. “I personally cannot cite any difference on the issues that those individuals have, and I don’t think there’s anything that Ritter’s done as governor that those individuals have disagreed with — if they did, they didn’t talk about it.”
But House Speaker Terrance Carroll said he believes his party will be able to step in right where Ritter is leaving off.
“I’m not necessarily concerned that this does anything to change the dynamics of the race,” said Carroll. “I always firmly believed that Bill Ritter was going to beat Scott McInnis in November 2010 É we have a lot of strong candidates, and I believe any of those candidates, whoever that candidate may be, is in a good position to beat Scott McInnis.”
Distributed by Colorado Capitol Reporters