Governor’s Final Days at the Capitol

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Gov. Bill Ritter leaves office January 11 ending a term that included deep budget cuts and heated dealings with Republicans. Ritter and his wife Jeannie reflect on his term and their plans for the future.

Hear the first part of our conversation.


Colorado Matters

Interview with Governor Bill Ritter and First Lady Jeannie Ritter, Part Two

December 23, 2010


You’re listening to Colorado Matters from Colorado Public Radio. I’m Ryan Warner.

Gov. Bill Ritter will soon add “former” to his title. His term ends next month and today we wrap up our discussion that started yesterday. The governor sat down with us in his office at the Capitol, along with the first lady, Jeannie Ritter.

Bill Ritter says he was disappointed by what he saw from Republicans in the state legislature.

BILL RITTER, Colorado Governor:

They treated me pretty harshly. I got shot at a lot and, you know, I even had a minority leader in the Senate say to me at the end of a legislative session, when he was term limited, that he was the hit man for me. He was the guy that had to come and, you know, if the media were going to write a story about me or about something we had done, he was the guy that they were to turn to to be a critic.

Warner: Would this be Josh Penry?

Bill Ritter: No, it was Andy McElhaney.

Warner: Oh.

Bill Ritter: And that’s just the nature of this business is that-- and really, the nature of how the business has become, I guess. You know, I feel like we had some pretty harsh critics out there over a four-year period.

That seemed to change when I decided not to run again. It seemed to dissipateand then I felt like we were able to do things in sort of a more bipartisan fashion over that last legislative session in 2010.

Warner: Were you surprised there was someone like that on the Republican side? I mean, it makes sense strategically. You would have that guy.

Bill Ritter: No, I don’t think you would have that guy. I wouldn’t have that guy if I were the head of the Republican Party, but I wasn’t. You know, I don’t think politics should be about that. I just have a different sense about it and maybe one of the reasons, you know, that there-- better people to do this, to survive in a political world, I think politics is a more noble business and should be and that it shouldn’t be about finding ways to play what I call the politics of personal destruction. And so--

Warner: But if that person were responding to a policy issue and why it was bad for the state, that’s not personal destruction, is it?

Bill Ritter: Well, except, Ryan, if every time they respond, they’re responding as a critic, that they find no common ground, that they only can say no or, you know, in fairly harsh ways criticize it. That strikes me as being political and not substantive.

And so 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: What?

Bill Ritter: The FASTER bill, the transportation funding bill for registration. We had a bipartisan--

Warner: This raised vehicle registration fees to raise money for infrastructure that’s in desperate need of repair.

Bill Ritter: In desperate need. Even with FASTER we spend less money right now on transportation than we did in 2007. We have 125 bridges there were in a state of disrepair and we had a bipartisan commission make a series of recommendations about how we might fund infrastructure. There were legislators that served on this commission and registered no protest vote when the recommendations were made to me, but when they voted on it, they voted no. And every Republican voted no. The party didn’t want us to have the victory.

Warner: It might have been that it put them in jeopardy in their home districts.

Bill Ritter: I think you’re giving too much credit, Ryan. These are people who were in safe districts who locked down against me because they didn’t want us to have a victory. And I-- and I’ve used that as an example, but, you know, I can just tell you, my discussions in the worst of budget times with the other side was let’s find ways to work on this and, quite frankly, we did not. The things that we had to do to make cuts, those were our administration’s ideas because we didn’t have input from the other side.

We had input from the Democrats and from the leadership in the party and we tried to work together with them, but we didn’t have as much help. And I think-- you know, I don’t want to make it sound like this is the province of the Republican Party. I think one of the dangers we have as a country is that we’ve gotten to this place.

Warner: Now you have said that when you announced you wouldn’t seek reelection that there was an easing off of that kind of partisanship. What’s an example you can point to from this last session where you think that bore out?

Because I remember that we did this special show the day after you announced you weren’t seeking reelection and that’s what we kept hearing. Officials would say, this could be good. This could, you know, lead to a productive session.

Bill Ritter: So I think the best example is Clean Air-Clean Jobs. It was called House Bill 1365 and we have a problem in the metropolitan area with emissions from coal plants from dirty, old, inefficient coal plants. And I had spoken with Xcel Energy and they were willing to consider a bill that required them to transition to natural gas plants or something that was cleaner burning.

We sought out Republican support and it passed and I think it passed because it was bipartisan. It did help to have natural gas producers on our side and I think that helped bring some of the Republicans along.

Warner: You’re listening to Colorado Matters. I’m Ryan Warner and we’re at the Capitol for what will likely be our last regular conversation with Gov. Bill Ritter. His wife, Jeannie Ritter, is also here.

What’s an area where you would have liked to get more done?

Bill Ritter: I think I’d really look back and say what I wish I had done a better job of managing the relationship between the labor community and the business community, but it was just a complicated relationship. And for me, Ryan, the most important thing is working people. And so as we’re trying to figure out a path forward to ensure that we’re looking at those kinds of issues that labor cares a great deal about and that many people in the business community care a great deal about, we got sidetracked or derailed by other issues that were just about the two communities locking down against each other.

Warner: What’s an example of a policy you would have liked to enact or a change you would have liked to have seen that didn’t get done?

Bill Ritter: Well, I’m pretty pleased with being able to have insured another couple hundred thousand people because of the Healthcare Affordability Act. I would like to see insurance for everybody. And I really do believe-- I do believe we should, as a country, be able to find a way to provide health insurance to Americans.

Warner: The act you’re talking about set a hospital fee that helped draw down federal money to bring more people on a program like Medicaid.

Bill Ritter: That’s right. It’s called the Colorado Healthcare Affordability Act. It was a hospital provider fee. I think this year it’s going to draw down about $550 million to $600 million. That’s going to help with a couple hundred thousand people being able to be provided either healthcare or some subsidies toward healthcare. These are people that are currently uninsured. That makes a big difference.

Warner: But, of course, this happens at a time when more people need the service, too.

Bill Ritter: That’s what was so strange about the time that we served in. The safety net became more burdened by volume, just so many more people. We have 59% more people on Medicaid now than when I became governor.

Warner: And there’s still quite a bit of work to do for the next governor on the state level implementation of federal healthcare reform, assuming it moves forward in the state it is today.

Bill Ritter: There’s a prominent national healthcare economist who says Colorado is the best state in the country to usher in national healthcare reform, but there is so much work to be done, still, by governors in this country to figure out how you usher it in. There’s a legal challenge.

You know, healthcare is like everything else. The work is never done. People says, well, what’s your legacy? I look at this as not like there’s one thing we did that we finished and is done and we can put it up on some shelf and call it ours. Everything that we’ve worked on is going to have some-- it’ll have a place in the next administration’s agenda if the work is going to be carried on and there’s very little you do in this business where the next administration won’t inherit it.

Warner: Finally, what’s next for the both of you? Jeannie Ritter?

Jeannie Ritter: Well, as Bill was saying earlier, the work is never done. I’m excited about, along with healthcare reform, what we call integrated healthcare where we really weave mental health care in with primary care and we see that surfacing in really unique ways across our state. We’re leadership, nationally, in terms of the innovative ways that communities have found to pull in the mental health care needs, behavioral health care needs, of folks into primary care settings or vice versa.

Warner: Is there a place you’d cite where you think that’s happening well?

Jeannie Ritter: Oh, gosh, I think it’s evidenced in the southeast of Colorado. We have it on our Front Range. You know-- of course, you know Grand Junction, on the Western Slope, has done a brilliant job. Marillac Clinic has gotten a lot of attention.

But the behavioral health community that I’ve worked through has really taken the initiative on this and I hope what’s next for me is to continue to play a role in advocating on behalf of mental health and what I call increasing mental health literacy across our state and, hopefully, in some national settings, taking the opportunity with the level of awareness around our returning veterans from our war fronts right now and really ratcheting the level of awareness and acceptance around the needs of mental health in our communities. It’s something I hope to continue to do.

Warner: Have you been offered a position in that realm, or several?

Jeannie Ritter: I’m talking to some great folks. I’m talking to some great folks.

Warner: Okay.

Jeannie Ritter: And it’s just-- again, it goes back to the balance and as Bill and I say, we’ve got four kids in college next year, which is a good problem to have, but there’s some--

Warner: But an expensive one.

Jeannie Ritter: Yeah, exactly. So I’m really hoping to find, as Bill keeps saying, my wife is looking for meaningful work. But it’s all been meaningful and I hope I’ve really-- I’ve had a really steep learning curve and I hope to be able to utilize it.

Warner: And how exciting, Bill Ritter has decided to announce on this show today what his next job will be out of office, right?

Jeannie Ritter: I’m on the edge of my seat.

Bill Ritter: Well, no, I’m-- Yeah, I’m in conversations with a variety of people in a variety of different opportunities that look very different and I’ve got to decide among them.

Warner: If one of them is in the new energy realm, are you paying attention to any perceptions that you sort of leave-- you know, that turnstile people talk about. You know, you leave the public sector in which you did a lot in green energy and you sort of join the private sector in that exact realm, that there’s, I don’t know, influence or impropriety of any kind? Do you pay attention to that?

Bill Ritter: Yeah, I haven’t talked to any private companies that are doing business in Colorado or looking at doing business in Colorado while I’ve been the governor and I just think that that’s probably how you have to treat it. So I’ve had a couple of overtures about serving on private boards. I’ve said I couldn’t have conversations with them while I’m governor.

Warner: What’s the last night in the mansion?

Bill Ritter: Well, it’s a gradual process of moving out. You know, if you move across the country you do it all in a truck. If you move across the city, you do it in boxes and if you move next door you do it one lamp at a time. And so we’re in the boxes situation where we’re just kind of moving boxes and I say “we” loosely. Jeannie is moving boxes right now and I’m going to help very soon and we’ll probably be out, you know, more than a week before the inauguration. So to the extent they need the upstairs for anything, they’ll have access to it, probably, by the third or fourth of January.

Warner: You didn’t leave a deposit that you desperately want back?

Jeannie Ritter: No, no one spoke to us about a damage deposit. We checked. Which should have been-- but we’ve had some really great memories there and we’re all back home, our 24-year-old, 22-year-old, our 20-year-old and 17-year-old and it’s a real nice place of closure for us.

Warner: Bill Ritter, Jeannie Ritter, thank you for being with us. Thank you for having these conversations with us each month of your term.

Bill Ritter: Thank you.

Warner: Jeannie, thank you.

Jeannie Ritter: Thank you so much.

Warner: Gov. Bill Ritter’s term ends in a couple of weeks. We’ll talk to the governor-elect, John Hickenlooper, Tuesday.

A quick note from today’s conversation, though. Gov. Ritter quoted one Republican critic, former Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhaney, as saying he’d been appointed his party’s hit man to criticize the governor. We got in touch with McElhaney. He told us he saw it as his job to give the Republican point of view. McElhaney says he doesn’t remember using the words “hit man” with Ritter.