The highly touted Center for the New Energy Economy at CSU comes with a web of connections between Director Bill Ritter, a key billionaire player in the Colorado political powerhouse “Gang of Four” and CSU System Board of Governors member Joe Zimlich that could pull CSU into the political debate over clean energy policy and create a welcoming environment for Democratic politics.
Billionaire Pat Stryker, so-called “Gang of Four” member, founded the Bohemian Foundation, which is funding a third of the center. Stryker has been a strong Democratic player since 2008 when she and three other prominent individuals helped to turn the political tide in Colorado from the GOP to the Democrats, according to a book written about Colorado politics published in 2010.
Zimlich is the CEO of the Bohemian Foundation and was appointed to the BOG by former Gov. Ritter, a Democrat, in 2008.
But despite the connections and the center’s purpose, advocates for the center say it won’t create a political influx at the university.
A lobbying center?
The Center for the New Energy Economy has been described as a policy center built to “lead and participate in productive public policy discussions and debates related to clean-energy policy,” according to Ritter’s job description.
Ritter opened the center on Feb. 1 by giving a speech at the National State Offices in Washington, D.C.
CSU President Tony Frank said the center is a think tank but not a lobbying organization because it is not registered as one.
Colorado Senator Greg Brophy, a Republican, disagrees.
“It’s a difference without a distinction,” Brophy said. “Whether you’re registered as a lobbyist or not, if you spend the majority of your time trying to affect public policy, you are lobbying.”
Ritter said his vision for the center is to “advocate and implement policy
for clean energy across the country.”
One of the first stops on that mission is a visit to Arkansas.
“(I’ll) go to Arkansas, meet with legislatures and possibly the stakeholders to talk about advocating in Arkansas and developing clean energy,” Ritter said.
The center came out of conversations Zimlich had with Frank, according to Zimlich. Once the idea was established, Frank approached Ritter to direct the center as a “targeted hire,” meaning he was the only person considered for the job.
Frank said he believed Ritter would be the perfect fit for the center because of his experience in the field of clean energy during his tenure as governor.
“We had to convince the Office of Equal Opportunity that there is no one else that would be qualified,” Frank said. “We said we wanted an international leader in policy implementation, and no one else would come close.”
Frank also stated that had Ritter not been governor, he would not have been considered for the position.
“I wouldn’t have looked at him for this position because he wouldn’t have had the experience that will make him so valuable,” Frank said. “The fact that he was a governor does matter to me, and it matters to me a lot.”
Zimlich said he made the commitment to fund the center because its mission is to promote clean energy, not because Ritter would be the director.
Ritter does not have any education in the clean energy field. He was graduated from CSU in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He went on to receive his law degree from CU-Boulder.
He worked in various government attorney roles including as Denver’s district attorney before being elected governor in 2006.
After his first term, Ritter originally decided to run for reelection in 2010 but dropped out of the race in January 2009 to dedicate more time to his family. A July 2008 Rasmussen Poll showed Ritter’s approval rating at 45 percent.
During his one term as governor, Ritter passed 57 clean-energy bills into law, including stricter oil and gas drilling regulations and the Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act in April 2010 –– a measure that required coal-fired power plants deemed inefficient to be converted to natural gas.
Conservationists and environmental groups supported the measures.
Oil and gas companies and many Republicans, however, fought the tightened drilling regulations, arguing they could drive up energy prices and force energy businesses out of Colorado. Coal companies criticized the Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act, saying it would kill jobs.
“Today marks a sad day for the state’s coal miners, railroad and utility workers,” Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, said in a Denver Business Journal article from April 19, 2010 about the act.
Even a prominent Democrat objected. In a March 19, 2010 Denver Post article, now-Gov. Hickenlooper told a business group that Ritter sided with “overboard” environmentalists.
Brophy agrees, though he said he supports clean energy policies.
“At a time when the industry was already under its own economic pressure, he (Ritter) tacked on brand new rules and regulations that created an air of uncertainty,” Brophy said. “I think the environmental community has gained too strong of a toe-hold … so much so that they are stifling economic growth.”
Funding the center
The Bohemian Foundation and the San Francisco-based Energy Foundation are each funding a third of the center’s $550,000 budget, $300,000 of which is going to Ritter’s salary. This ties him with Provost and Executive Vice President Rick Miranda for the third highest-paid administrator at the university behind Frank and football coach Steve Fairchild, according to a document of last year’s salaries.
Ritter’s salary is a $210,000 pay raise from his position as governor.
Frank defended the salary, saying it was necessary to get someone of Ritter’s status. He said that because the budget is privately funded, Ritter’s salary won’t have an impact on the CSU budget.
“I think when universities like ourselves reach out to a very high profile individual, salary that gets paid has to be remotely competitive,” he said.
Ritter has two titles at CSU: director of the Center for the New Energy Economy and senior scholar within the School of Global Environmental Sustainability, which umbrellas the center.
A senior scholar, according to SoGES’s Associate Director of Research and Development Gene Kelly, is “someone who has an enormous amount of experience in an area and fosters the exchange of ideas.”
Ritter will guest lecture in classes during his time at CSU. He will commute from his home in Denver, though he wouldn’t say in which of his vehicles he would be driving the 60-mile commute.
“I have a couple of cars,” Ritter said. “That decision has not been made.”
Frank created the budget for the center, but Ritter will answer to Diana Wall, the director of SoGES.
Wall called Ritter an “ambassador” for the university and SoGES to lead state, national and international discussions related to energy policy.
“Governor Ritter will identify and pursue opportunities for the center to lead and participate in productive public policy discussions and debates related to clean-energy policy and the growth of the new energy economy,” Wall said in an e-mail.
John Straayer, a professor in the Political Science Department who has taught at CSU for more than 40 years and specializes in local and state government, said as long as there is a clear boundary between the funders and the center, there is no conflict of interest.
“As long as somebody who is funding a research and development operation is comfortable with living with the results, there’s no conflict of interest,” he said. “There’s only a conflict of interest if the person who is funding, or the organization doing the funding, is requiring a predetermined outcome.”
While the center’s operations are supposed to be independent of the donors, Ritter said he still feels he is accountable to the foundations that fund it, helping to seal the ties between him, Stryker and Zimlich.
The Bohemian Foundation and the Energy Foundation are the only two funders currently listed, but CSU spokesman Brad Bohlander said there are others who won’t be publicized until they’re finalized.
Ritter said he needs to ensure that the goals of the center are consistent with those of the funders because the center is being privately funded, instead of by tax dollars.
“It’s important that I’m accountable not only to CSU but to the funders, as well,” Ritter said.
The mission statement of the Energy Foundation, one of those funders, is “advancing new energy technologies that enable economic growth with dramatically less pollution,” showcasing the agenda the foundation pushes.
Jenny Coyle, communications specialist for the foundation, said the organization has worked with Ritter over the years through its grantees –– associations such as Environment Colorado –– that receive money from the Energy Foundation to work on specific issues, including promoting wind and solar power in the West.
“We definitely have a good relationship with him, and our grantees have a good relationship with him,” Coyle said.
Ritter said the Energy Foundation has multiple connections to legislatures and other governors, and he is presenting his plan for the center to the foundation’s Board of Directors –– his way of holding himself accountable to it.
As another funder, the Bohemian Foundation’s mission statement says it “envisions a community that nurtures and inspires all of its members to continually improve their quality of life and pass this legacy on to the generations that follow.”
The foundation supports multiple community and music programs but, according to Zimlich, has also provided grants for energy-related projects through CSU.
The ‘Gang of Four’ and Ritter’s connections
Stryker, who created the Bohemian Foundation, has ties to Ritter dating back to his 2006 campaign for governor when she donated funds to it.
One year later, the Gang of Four –– a group of prominent state community members who support the Democratic Party –– helped turn Colorado’s political tide away from the GOP to favor the Democrats.
The Gang of Four is Stryker; Democratic Party member Rutt Bridges; gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights activist Tim Gill; and now-U.S. Representative Jared Polis, a Democrat from Boulder who took office in 2009.
Stryker inherited her fortune from the Stryker Corporation, a company her grandfather founded in 1941, according to “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado.” The book was written by journalist Adam Schrager and former Republican state House representative Rob Witwer and details how the Gang of Four turned Colorado politics around.
Ritter isn’t Stryker’s first tie to CSU, though.
Al Yates, former CSU President, is her political adviser and worked closely with the Gang of Four in 2008 to create more funding for the Democratic Party and the Roundtable –– a weekly meeting between prominent individuals in politics and business to discuss campaign financing for Democratic races.
The Gang of Four and the Roundtable changed how campaigns are financed by using non-profit organizations instead of relying on smaller funds from donors –– funds which were becoming more limited with new campaign finance laws limiting the donations a candidate could receive.
One of these non-profits was the Bighorn Center for Public Policy, a think tank established by Bridges to work on bi-partisan issues. It remained politically effective, though, with its mission statement: “ … use objective data and research in order to identify, develop and advocate public policies that improve the lives of Coloradans,” according to “The Blueprint.”
Bridges also created a program at CSU in 2001 called the Bighorn Leadership Development Program. It was created as a non-partisan program to offer participants an opportunity to become involved in issues affecting Colorado, according to its website.
The center’s funding future
Although the Bohemian Foundation and the Energy Foundation are the two main funders of the center, Frank said he and Ritter are trying to secure a variety of funding sources to raise an endowment fund.
Funding for the center is guaranteed for the next three years, at which point the endowment fund should be in place. However, should the endowment not be possible at that time, Frank said it is in Ritter’s job description to continue to get funding for the center until it is.
“He’ll continue to raise one-time funders perhaps for another two or three years while we continue to build that endowment,” Frank said.
It is unknown what the center will accomplish, but Kelly thinks the center and Ritter will bring CSU national attention, regardless.
“Without a doubt, I think he (Ritter)’s going to bring a lot of national prominence to SoGES and CSU,” he said.
News Editor Jordyn Dahl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.