File boxes line the walls on the way into Gov. Bill Ritter’s office at the state Capitol. These are the final days of his administration. His team is sorting out what happens to the paperwork and memorabilia he's collected. Just about every month of his four-year term, we’ve sat down with Governor Ritter. Today and tomorrow we'll look back at that term with Ritter and his wife, Jeannie.
Photo: Gov. Bill Ritter and family. In the front row First Lady Jeannie Ritter (l) and Bill Ritter's mother, Ethel (r).
Interview with Governor Bill Ritter and First Lady Jeannie Ritter
December 22, 2010
RYAN WARNER, Host:
This is Colorado Matters from Colorado Public Radio. I’m Ryan Warner.
There are file boxes lining the walls on the way into Gov. Bill Ritter’s office. These are the final days of his administration and his team is doing some sorting. They’re figuring out what paperwork and which objects will be archived with the state, what will be given away and what the governor’s going to take with him.
Just about every month of his four-year term, we’ve sat down with Gov. Ritter and this week we sit down with him one last time at the Capitol, along with the first lady, Jeannie Ritter, for a look back. Thanks to both of you for having us.
JEANNIE RITTER, Colorado First Lady:
Indeed. It’s a pleasure.
BILL RITTER, Colorado Governor:
Good to see you, Ryan.
Warner: When you’re governor, you amass a lot of tokens, awards, photographs, I imagine keys to cities and things and we had you pick from some of the objects that line a shelf in your office one that’s particularly important to you from your administration and you’ve chosen a photo collage. It’s got pictures of you signing bills in the top and the bottom and in the middle is you standing underneath some wind turbines. Why did you pick this?
Bill Ritter: Out of all the things that we did, there’s some subject matter areas where we just moved the ball in a dramatic way — education reform, healthcare funding, transportation funding, but really on energy a lot of people know my administration by the things that we’ve done as it relates to our new energy economy.
And so that photo actually is two different bill signings, when we changed the renewable energy standard, when we passed a bill we call Clean Air-Clean Jobs. Those were two very significant bills out of the 57 bills that I signed that relate to clean energy. And in the middle, standing, like you said, in a wheat field under two wind turbines with my commissioner on agriculture, John Stulp.
So I picked that just because the signatures around the pictures. They’re all people who were supportive of this agenda and what it really, I think, demonstrates is while we had phenomenal success on the clean energy front, it was the result of a lot of people’s effort. And those people are the people who signed that and why I love this series of photographs is because it’s just not about the agenda, it’s about the people we worked with to create it.
Warner: We mentioned the boxes lining the office. Are there similar boxes at the governor’s residence at this point, Jeannie?
Jeannie Ritter: Absolutely, there are. We’re packing up now.
Warner: And going back to your home in--?
Jeannie Ritter: Platt Park.
Warner: In Platt Park.
Jeannie Ritter: Right. We’re going back there, which is a great thing to be able to go back to a familiar space and really as a family this many years later. It’s really a nice opportunity for us.
Warner: Bittersweet, or--?
Jeannie Ritter: Oh, I would say for sure. Every day, bittersweet. Saying farewell to some great folks that we’ve connected with and really formed strong relationships with and then knowing that there were opportunities that were associated with this time in our lives that won’t come again.
Warner: Opportunities? What do you mean?
Jeannie Ritter: Just the places we got to be and the things we got to participate in, as Bill was just saying earlier. The time in history that we got to stand in this place is really remarkable and I think it’ll be a long time for it all to come in, sink in.
Warner: Do you have a favorite memory? That’s a--
Bill Ritter: Yeah, that’s a--
Warner: Like picking a favorite child, but--
Bill Ritter: It’s too hard to do. I really enjoyed being able to speak at Mile High, or Invesco Field. I still call it Mile High. Can I try that over?
Bill Ritter: I really enjoyed being able to speak at Invesco Field on the night of Barack Obama’s acceptance speech. It was certainly about Barack Obama and I was and am a big supporter of his, but it was also about Colorado. That DNC--
Warner: The Democratic National Convention.
Bill Ritter: The Democratic National Convention. Political conventions are hard to pull off and, to a person, the people who said this is different and better than anything we’ve ever been to because of the people of Colorado. And it just is-- in my mind, demonstrates why it’s such a privilege for us to have been able to be the governor and the first lady and the first family in Colorado, because it’s a fantastic place to govern. And just somehow that moment, standing there at Invesco Field as the governor of Colorado when we’re hosting the Democratic National Convention was very, very special.
Warner: Jeannie Ritter, do you have a favorite moment for these four years?
Jeannie Ritter: For me personally there’s a night that’s very clear to me. Leaving an event for Bill and I was too late, actually, for the open house that was at CHARG, a group here, Capitol Hill area resource, for, you know, folks here on Capitol Hill that struggle with persistent mental illness.
And so I got there too late, but the guy who was sweeping up let me in the door and it just really marked a time for me of connecting with a fellow. He knew me. “I know who you are,” he said. “You’re Jeannie.” And we just had a really nice exchange about his struggle and he was really open with me and it reinforced the work that I took on in this role and it was really a great memory for me.
Warner: Had he been a client of their services?
Jeannie Ritter: For sure, absolutely. Yeah.
Warner: I see. And was he the only one left?
Jeannie Ritter: Only one left there that evening.
Warner: And so you stuck around and just had a chat with him.
Jeannie Ritter: Yeah, just-- it was just a really intimate moment that will remain with me. And, again, Bill and I have had these really great opportunities to meet famous people and not just famous, but really remarkable people and this guy had that in his own story, that I-- through how the behavioral health community brought me along, I was able to see his story in a different light that night.
Warner: Because mental health is an issue that you agreed to take on, pretty early on.
Jeannie Ritter: Um-hmm (affirmative).
Warner: How about least favorite moments?
Bill Ritter: I would say least favorite moments-- I’d say probably my least favorite moments have been in this office where we sit today making decisions about cutting the budget. Not the most difficult moments. The most difficult moments would be sitting at soldiers’ funerals, by far.
Warner: I want to ask you about both of those. To the soldiers’ funerals, you attended quite a few of those.
Bill Ritter: I tried to go to all of them. I know I didn’t go to all of them, but over-- well over a dozen that I went to in a four-year period. The governor of Wyoming, Dave Freudenthal, suggested that I think about doing that when I became governor. And I’d been the DA of Denver. I had attended a lot of different funerals, law enforcement, first responders, and that just seemed to me like a good idea.
But as the governor you’re in a position where you’re representing 5 million people and I think it is important to understand your role there. I never spoke. But for the soldiers I was just there to mourn and I think you wind up mourning for all 5 million Coloradans who, I believe, are very saddened by this, you know, by this turn, by the soldier or the airman or the sailor who’s been taken from us in the line of duty.
And that’s just a heavy and weighty thing to do. Important, important, but you don’t come away from those without having paid a bit of a price for being there.
Warner: And then on the question of a cut, is there one you can point us to where maybe you put up a fight, maybe you said, is there any other way, and then came to realize was, in your mind, inevitable?
Bill Ritter: Well, the last cut we made for this present fiscal year, we cut K through 12 $260 million. Now, you know, Jeannie’s a school teacher but you don’t have to be married to a school teacher to understand that cut’s going to have an impact. We already have places in the state where classes are overcrowded, where teachers are paid too little for the work that they do.
And it just struck me as the complete opposite of the things that I wanted to do when I became governor where K through 12 was concerned and the kinds of things that I thought would be helpful to teachers, some of those had to do with pay and some of them had to do with size of classrooms, the length of the school year, those kinds of things. And, instead, we were doing the opposite.
Warner: Jeannie Ritter, it strikes me that the budget situation forced cuts, as we’ve just heard in education, but also in the realm of mental health. And did Gov. Ritter come home to a Jeannie Ritter who was peeved, right, that these areas that were of such importance to you were going to suffer cuts?
Jeannie Ritter: You know, actually, I think--
Warner: Not that they’re not important to the governor. I want to make that clear.
Jeannie Ritter: Right. I think, actually, we as a community, the behavioral health community, we can see places where we’re grateful that it wasn’t just Bill Ritter, that a large number in his administration really understood the impacts in other areas if behavioral health was cut, you know, too drastically. So they did what they could to protect it.
And I had-- while I do have my focus, right, I have my orientation around mental health, I also had the opportunity to watch him do this night after night, this excruciating page after page in this budget. It was like nothing else I witnessed before.
I-- when you hear Bill refer to the budget as a moral document, I got to see the impact of that statement when it came to this fine, fine scalpel edge that had to be used. I mean, I’ll tell you, a lot of it was going on actually during the inauguration of President Obama and I really thought I was a doll, right, every evening where there was a gown and we were headed off somewhere, he had this huge three-ring binder in his lap and he was on the phone with folks back here and he would say, well, what does this mean? How many jobs? Okay, hold off on that. Let’s go back and look at this one.
It was unbelievable to watch how intense that was, even remote, where we should have been really entrenched in that experience and it was-- it was this-- it just took up all the oxygen in the room, that budget document.
Warner: You’re listening to Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner and our guests are Gov. Bill Ritter and his wife, Jeannie. Ritter’s term as governor ends next month and the Ritters are packing up to move back to their family home in Denver. We’ll be right back with more on the reasons why Ritter decided not to seek another term. He says he couldn’t properly balance family and work. This is Colorado Public Radio.
Warner: You’re back with Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner.
We’re in Gov. Bill Ritter’s office today at the State Capitol, talking with him and his wife, Jeannie, about their time in office.
Let’s go back, Governor, to last January, when you announced that you wouldn’t run for reelection. Here’s what you said.
Bill Ritter: It is my family who has sacrificed the most, my wife, Jeannie, my kids, three of whom are here today. I would say-- I would say it this way. I haven’t found the proper balance where my family is concerned. I’ve not made them the priority that they should be. So tonight-- today I’m announcing the ending of one of my roles. I’m no longer going to be a candidate for reelection in 2010.
Warner: Can you give us an example of what you felt this was doing to your family?
Bill Ritter: I just think, again, you have to put it in the context of what happens when you’re governing, governing in a downturn, when you’re raising money and traveling to raise money.
Warner: For the campaign?
Bill Ritter: Well, for the campaign, yeah. In order to raise the kind of money that you do for a governor’s race, you know, $5 million, you have to move around the country. And my family was not being attended to at all.
And so I think it’d be fair to say, you know, September, October, November, December, there was sort of those four months prior to my announcement, I’d spent very, very little time with my children, you know, with us as a family and that most nights I was gone until 10 o’clock or 10:30 at night and those were the nights where I was in Colorado. There were a lot of nights where I was traveling.
My daughter is actually-- she’s very intuitive about things and watches things and, you know, she had said to me six months earlier, this isn’t working for our family. And I said, well, I-- I’ll work on that. And, you know--
Warner: She said this to you?
Bill Ritter: Yeah, absolutely she did. And so six months later it was clear to me, without talking to her again, that I hadn’t been able really to do this differently and that an election year was only going to be worse than it already was. And, you know, I made a decision that what was best for us as a family was for me not to run.
And, you know, one of the things that Jeannie and I talk about, I’m part of that family, right? So it wasn’t just-- when I say this is for my family, it wasn’t a totally selfless decision. This was also about me, because I wasn’t participating in our family like I wanted to. I wasn’t-- you know, it was really a very, very difficult situation to be fund raising, to be campaigning, to be governing in this downturn, to be doing all these things that we were doing with respect to the budget and at the same time, to have any balance at home. And I didn’t have it.
Warner: Was there an event you remember him missing because he was away, Jeannie?
Jeannie Ritter: You know, Bill’s one of our favorite people. And so it’s not even fair to say, well, this was a really-- you know, this confirmation or this kind of more formal event that you would want to-- No, really just his company, just to have him around in the way that you want to have the people you love around you.
It was an exacting thing. I think we came on that word very early. You know — important work, rewarding work, but all-consuming. So it wasn’t necessarily, gosh, you’ve missed these three big events and that’s not acceptable.
Warner: It was like the down time you-- you--
Jeannie Ritter: Exactly. It’s the every day--
Warner: I just want to hang with you.
Jeannie Ritter: Yeah and have something to offer. That’s what was so-- Bill set this great temperament, I think, for the state and really ran this office and shifted the tone, I think, but there was not much left, you know, when he would come home at night. And finding ways to support him in that, it became more difficult.
You know, I want to make sure we express, this isn’t that it can’t be done, right? There are lots of young families that can take on these leadership roles.
Warner: There’s one that’s about to.
Jeannie Ritter: Exactly and it can be done and it can be done well. I just don’t think we really found the combination for that. I think we missed opportunities to set strategic things in place, early on, and never really caught up with creating the balance that Bill referred to.
Warner: We’ll say that John Hickenlooper has a young son and wife. Any advice on that front you’d impart? I mean--
Bill Ritter: Yeah, I’d-- somebody asked me. I don’t advise John Hickenlooper much publicly. I save that for our private conversations. But somebody said, well, should he move into the mansion? Should that-- I said John Hickenlooper should do the one thing or two things that he needs to do to protect and promote his family, you know, above all else, actually.
You just get into this job and you’re really awash in very difficult and challenging things. It’s exciting. Then you get into the worst, you know, recession since the Great Depression. And so now you’re doing exciting things, but also some very, very difficult decision making and then you have the Democratic National Convention is coming and you have to raise, you know, $50 million for that and there’s just never an end to the sorts of things-- There wasn’t, at least, in our four years.
Like Jeannie said, I think there are families that can do it and I really hope that John and Helen and Teddy all figure this out, how to do this and do it with some balance. It’s really important to make a priority and then to stick to that as a priority.
Warner: Almost like creating a ritual. I mean, I remember, I think it was former Gov. Dick Lamm who said, it was my intention, as much as I could, to have dinner with the family.
Bill Ritter: And I like to think that that was something I wanted to do, as well. I would say, it’s probably changed a little bit since Dick Lamm. I think he left office in ‘87, in January of ‘87, and so, you know, we came in 20 years later. There are just more expectations around public officials and where you’ll be and when you’ll speak, or at least, there seemed to be for me.
I think it’s true of people serving in Congress, as well, that they’re expected to be home on weekends. They’re expected to be, you know, around their district. And so there’s very little down time.
Warner: I mean, I also think about the news cycle has changed so much since then.
Bill Ritter: The news cycle — there’s so many people covering news. I spoke sometimes three times a night--
Warner: BlackBerrys, Jeannie just said.
Jeannie Ritter: Exactly. You’re in touch with people all the time.
Bill Ritter: But I’d speak to three different groups. So there’s no going home and eating with your family when you speak before dinner to one group, you speak during dinner to one group and you speak after dinner to a third group in one night.
Jeannie Ritter: Someone did point out that we might be seeing a change, actually, away from these two terms, that we might be seeing kind of more one-term runs, when folks come in and commit and do what they can and then have to find that balance that way.
Warner: You spoke recently at Colorado Christian University and a student asked you what experience you’d had before you became governor that was most valuable when you took office. And you talked about an expedience you had in your 20s when you and Jeannie were working for the Catholic Church in Zambia.
Bill Ritter: Yeah, that was only a joke, right? Colorado Christian University — I want to tell Jeannie this story so she understands. They asked me, what prepared me to be governor? I said, well, I was shot at once. And I said, no, I really was.
So, here’s the deal. We were-- we were leaving Mongu and I had not done much trekking from the capital city out to where we lived in the time we’d been there. We’d been there a few months. We were in a pickup leaving. We had people on the back and there was one cone sitting in the middle of the road. Like it just was sitting there. And I had no idea that was a police stop.
The police were up in this thatched hut drinking tea and they see us go through their stop because I go past the cone and they fired a shot over the top of the pickup. And Kenneth Gardner (ph) — for some of the nuns who are friends of ours — he starts pounding on the top of the truck saying, “They’re shooting at us.” So I pulled over. The police came up. They searched the pickup, found out that we were not up to-- you know, we were up to all good and let us go, but it was just kind of in jest that I said being shot at was the thing that prepared me best for being governor.
Warner: Now while that might have been a joke, Bill Ritter did take plenty of political shots while he was governor. It’s part of the job, of course, but he says his critics in the legislature sometimes went too far.
Bill Ritter: What they were doing, it felt to me, like they were doing all they could to undermine me politically and it wasn’t about what was good for the State of Colorado. I’ve got examples of things I know Republicans voted against where they believed in it, but voted against it because the party locked down so that I wouldn’t have a victory.
Warner: We’ll hear some examples tomorrow when we wrap up our conversation with Gov. Bill Ritter and with the first lady, Jeannie Ritter. She says she’ll continue to work on the issue of better mental health care.
Jeannie Ritter: The work is never done. I’m excited about what we call integrated healthcare where we really weave mental health care in with primary care.
Warner: That’s tomorrow. And one more program note that next week we’ll be talking with Governor-elect John Hickenlooper.
Michelle P. Fulcher produced today’s conversation. Sadie Babits edited it. David Fender is our audio engineer. The staff also includes Andrea Dukakis and Zachary Barr. The Colorado Matters theme comes from Kip Kuepper at Coupe Studios in Boulder.
I’m Ryan Warner. You’re listening to Colorado Matters from Colorado Public Radio.