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How one free-swinging group helps Colorado conservatives make a splash in politics

Target practice



If you travel in the conservative circles of Colorado politics, there is nowhere you'd be more comfortable in on this February morning than at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs.

Hundreds of conservative activists and politicians have overrun the swank resort for the annual retreat of Leadership Program of the Rockies. The two days here will be filled with back-to-back lectures, networking sessions, and a screening of the pro-fracking documentary, FrackNation.

The mission: to restore the small-government principles upon which organization leaders believe this country was founded. The strategy: to hone the message.

One of today's speakers, Bill Whittle, has given such messaging a lot of thought, as you might expect from a conservative blogger, author, filmmaker and frequent TV news guest. YouTube video clips of Whittle, typically in a gray suit and speaking before an American flag, can reach into the millions of views.

To this rapt audience, he's explaining that conservatives must "take the moral high ground."

"The left has one strategy and one strategy only," he says. "They appeal to the heart. They appeal to emotion. They tell stories in such a way that people can connect to them.

"People function emotionally. So, what we have to do is take logic and history and facts, and we have to apply them with passion and emotion. And we have to personalize the story — that's the key to victory."

This is the over-arching message at this year's retreat, reinforced by almost every speaker: Conservatives often lose because they are out-gamed by better storytellers.

LPR wants to change that.

It's not exactly accurate to say that LPR is a well-kept secret. Anyone who has seriously played the political game in this state is familiar, to some degree, with the Denver-based nonprofit institute. Its signature program, an exclusive series of classes dedicated to the study of American history, has, over the past 25 years, graduated some of the biggest names in Colorado politics, from former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton to former U.S. Rep. Marilyn Musgrave to someone often talked about as a future congressman, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa.

In a document called "LPR Recruitment Talking Points," the program reports that nearly half of all Republican state senators in 2013, and a third of their GOP counterparts in the House, came through LPR. In November 2012 alone, more than 20 grads won public office in Colorado.

However, largely thanks to LPR's success in branding itself as an educational outlet, it has flown under the media radar.

Which suits LPR's president, Shari Williams, just fine. A public relations professional by day, Williams, 53, says she hasn't seen any possible gain in talking with the media about LPR. In fact, this is one of few interviews she says she's given to discuss her organization.

When it comes down to it, she says, LPR doesn't make the kind of news that grabs headlines, even if its graduates do. The goal has always been to provide an environment where small-government-minded politicos in various stages of their careers could enhance their knowledge, strengthen their political arguments, and bolster their networks.

"This is the big philosophical stuff which is not normally the stuff you put in papers," she says.

And she's right. But, as she says, history has proven that political change doesn't occur overnight, and rarely starts at the ballot box. Real political change, the kind of shift that LPR hopes to create, occurs slowly, in increments at the ground level.

Change the way voters think, the argument goes, and you will eventually change the way they vote.

Power in persuasion

Laura Carno's 501(c)(4), I Am Created Equal, has provided the vast amount of financial support — nearly $57,000 in in-kind donations at last report — for the El Paso Freedom Defense Committee, the issue committee largely responsible for the recall election of Democratic Senate President John Morse.

It was in LPR's advanced program, School of Persuasion, that Carno first brainstormed, formulated and created I Am Created Equal. She came to LPR having run the successful 2010 state Senate race for Republican Steve King of Mesa County, and then the successful mayoral campaign for Steve Bach in Colorado Springs. Wanting to further her career and network, she applied and interviewed for LPR.

"I always thought that I was a student of the Constitution and founding," says Carno. "So part of it was like, 'What am I really going to learn? I'm a pretty smart girl.'

"There's so much I didn't know."

When Carno attended, the first lecture of the series was given by Dr. Thomas Krannawitter, a professor of political science at Colorado Christian University. It was titled, "Is the United States Constitution a Racist Document?"

"We hear this: 'How can you believe in the Constitution when it was written by slave owners?' And I think that's a fair question," says Carno. "Slavery has existed and continues to exists, but our Constitution is the only founding document in the world that got rid of slavery in 100 years ...

"I'm getting chills as I say this. During this first lecture people are wiping away tears, because he goes into what life was like for an African slave."

But overall, says Carno's classmate Al Maurer, the 2011 program was built around the principles of economic liberty — those enshrined in Ayn Rand's classic conservative tome Atlas Shrugged.

Once a month for nine months, Carno and about 65 classmates would meet in rented rooms throughout the Denver area for a full day of lectures and debate. They took tests, made presentations, and were assigned readings.

In LPR, students are encouraged to not only voice their opinions, but to back those opinions with small-government principles. Bob Schaffer, a former U.S. Congressman and LPR's chairman since 2003, likes to treat the students to an exercise he calls "Speak Out." In that, says Maurer, "Bob famously hands people microphones, gives them topics, and throws them curveballs."

He might have them weigh in on a zoning debate in Boulder, or a piece of legislation pending in the Senate. They have 30 seconds to figure out what principles are involved in the issue, then use those to back up their opinion. If they fail to support their opinion sufficiently, says Williams, they might get booed.

"We train people," she explains, "with interactive exercises and speakers. And we challenge them to think. And if they think harder, they'll understand more of what they believe. And then they'll actually be able to go out and persuade more people, because they won't sound like they are just ranting and raving."

Stewing ideas

If the program is intensive, it's also rather exclusive. "We turn down hundreds of people who want to get in," Williams says.

Applicants generally find out about the program via word of mouth. The enrollment application runs four pages long, with the usual experience and education questions supplemented with others like, "What do you hope to achieve in the future in terms of public policy?" Letters of recommendation are required, and ones from former grads carry more weight.

Interviews are always done by a panel of three, with one seat reserved for Williams.

"Shari calls it 'putting together the stew,'" says Carno, who, as an advisory board member, now helps conduct some interviews. "She doesn't want all the same types of people in a class."

While the program unabashedly promotes a specific philosophy, and therefore expects attendees to adhere to similar thinking, they aren't just looking for good conservatives, according to Williams. Most important in choosing applicants: Are they, or can they be, "influencers"?

"The people who get in, it's not judged on party lines," Williams says, adding that in addition to Republicans and libertarians, independents and Democrats have completed LPR. (Asked for an example of the latter, assistant director Crystal Bouziden replies via email, "We don't qualify people based on political party registration and therefore it would be inappropriate to give you any names.")

LPR's roots, however, are undeniably partisan. The idea for it sprang in the mid-'80s from the minds of two Republican businessmen who were coming off political campaigns. Colorado Springs developer Steve Schuck had just finished an unsuccessful gubernatorial run, and real estate magnate Terry Considine had just secured his first term in the state Senate.

"Both of us came from a nonpolitical experience," says Schuck today. "We were active in business and active in civic affairs. We both shared a great frustration with the lack of focus by the general public, by the community leadership and by elected officials on the big picture, strategic perspectives on the major challenges facing the state."

When LPR enrolled its first class in 1989, it was called the Republican Leadership Program. Schuck says he and Considine "were interested in trying to attract quality people to run for public office. And we felt that there were two challenges that needed to be addressed. One was recruitment, and the other was educating those recruits."

Former state Sen. Ed Jones attended in 1992. For a self-identified "political hack," he says, it was a fascinating educational experience. He recalls that Alan Keyes, the three-time presidential candidate, spoke to his class, which also included Colorado Springs political operative Sarah Jack, current state Rep. Bob Gardner, and at least seven others who have served in the state Legislature.

A number of other local Republican politicians on today's landscape attended the program when it was still called RLP, including state Sen. Bill Cadman; Rep. Kent Lambert; and from El Paso County, Sheriff Maketa, Clerk and Recorder Wayne Williams, and Commissioners Dennis Hisey, Amy Lathen and Peggy Littleton.

Shari Williams was there all along, after starting as a staff assistant in the late '80s. In 2004, she took over a re-envisioned LPR, one that would break from its formal relationship with the Republican Party. She says the change of philosophy occurred because RLP "wasn't meeting a market need."

"We decided to make it nonpartisan," she says, "because we realized that the ideas that we are teaching weren't political party ideas, but fundamental truths about the American founding."

While that's a somewhat oblique way to explain such an elemental shift, one thing is clear: Today, the social issues that so often divide American culture aren't part of the curriculum. At the LPR retreat, no speaker talked about gay marriage and abortion. The closest that any speaker came to a "wedge issue" was when judge Janice Rogers Brown of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit made offhand criticism of multiculturalism.

Williams says this aspect of politics is left out "partially because there's controversy, but partially because we think that freedom is what we should be doing nationally, and those 'virtue' things really don't have a place in government."

They don't care, she says, about where a student stands on a social issue. They are concerned with how the student "justifies that position within the context of individual rights."

A winning effect

Individual rights, of course, have been at the heart of battles over the recent gun law legislation. As a number of gun restrictions weaved their way through the state Legislature this past session, the Republicans, who held the minority in both chambers, faced the uphill battle of killing bills carried by the Democrats.

While the Republicans would eventually fail to stop the state from adopting three pieces of gun-restriction laws — including an extension of background checks and a limit of magazine size — they did claim victory with the failure of other pieces of legislation. Those included a proposed ban on concealed-carry weapons on state university campuses and a bill that would have held certain gun manufacturers liable for damages from the use of their weapons.

Surrounding the debates on these gun bills was an intense level of public engagement. Democrats argued that their measures would help prevent mass shootings. Conservatives, to much success, seized upon gaffes made by Democrats such as Rep. Joe Salazar's comments about rape on college campuses, to paint the lawmakers as insensitive to their constituents' need to protect themselves. Basically, they tried to seize that "moral high ground."

As the legislative session has given way to the Morse recall effort, two LPR grads have stepped to the fore. Sheriff Maketa early on seized the mantle of the outraged right, publicly accusing Morse of underhanded tactics during the Democrats' passage of the bills.

Since then, he's taken every opportunity, from appearances on the Glenn Beck Program to town hall lectures, to stoke that outrage. His rhetoric has boiled down to a two-pronged argument — that the laws will do little for public safety, and that they infringe upon gun owners' constitutional rights — that meshes nicely with the LPR narrative of individual versus "big government."

Carno has been somewhat less visible, but no less effective. Under the banner of I Am Created Equal, she's launched ads and YouTube videos chastising the Democrats for trying to remove her ability to defend herself. Her videos have been viewed tens of thousands of times, making her a minor celebrity among the state's Second Amendment supporters and landing her on NRA Radio.

Campaigns require all sorts of behind-the-scenes staff, from people to handle the finances to people who handle the volunteers. Carno points out that a fellow graduate is assisting her with her filings with the Federal Election Commission.

"If you go through LPR and then run for office, there are about 60 people in a class, so there are people from your class who are going to help run your campaign, or be your treasurer," she says. "There's this connection. We all know that there are troubles in our government at all levels, and we want to figure out how we can plug in and make it better."

Some project their influence outside the campaigns themselves. As the "Recruitment Talking Points" document puts it, "LPR alumni create an echo chamber within traditional and new media as journalists for national publications, bloggers, news commentators and opinion leaders." One is Carno's classmate, Maurer, who's been tracking the Morse recall for the Washington Times neighborhood blog.

"If we are going to win, and if the Republican Party is going to be the one that advances what I would call American principles again, then they've got to be grounded in those principles first," says the trained political scientist. "And the winning is the outgrowth of that — it's not the goal itself, it's the effect."

The Buckley effect

When you look at electoral success on a state-level or national level, it's a complex equation. According to Joshua Dunn, associate professor of political science at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, the mechanics involved in running a campaign, such as a get-out-the-vote effort, are huge factors. In the last national campaign, he says, "It's clear that the Republicans got beaten senseless. The Obama campaign just had a better operation.

"Political scientists tend to believe that the underlying factors are much more powerful than people tend to give them credit for. Messaging isn't as important as the economy, for instance."

However, Dunn says that he thinks there is something to LPR's long-term messaging strategy.

"I think that you see that with the conservative movement, starting in the 1950s," he says. One of the most well-known conservatives of this era was William F. Buckley Jr., the author and founder of the National Review.

"They knew that they were facing long odds, at least for the immediate future. And their goal was to try and bring about a change over time, a change that would have been secured in a change of ideas."

It's fair, notes Dunn, to say that what Buckley did in the '50s helped set the stage for Ronald Reagan in the '80s. "Their argument was that you need to keep making these [conservative] arguments, and over time you will get more adherents."

And LPR sounds like it's in for the long haul. It's fairly lean, with a part-time staff of three working with Williams. Though classes cost $5,700 per person, Bouziden says attendees actually pay roughly $1,800, thanks to support from donors, with partial scholarships available on top of that.

In 2011, LPR made $276,000. The program raised $286,000 in grants and contributions. Revenues came in at $612,000, with costs amounting to $622,000. And while other organizations are struggling to get by, Williams says she and her cohorts are trying to figure out how to package their program to extend it nationwide.

"We're kind of unique," says Williams. There are think-tanks and candidate training schools, "but we think we're the perfect intersection between teaching the proper role of government and how to be a citizen that is activated for change."

Williams has done political work for Republicans like former Congressmen Bill Armstrong and Bob Beauprez. And although she will admit that LPR is dominated by Republicans, she argues that focusing on parties misses the point.

When it comes down to it, many people feel that both parties are failing the country, anyway.

"Anymore, we are a culture that is clashing, because we have two different philosophies," she says, adding that the individual-rights-versus-the-collective is the "fundamental clash going on in the country."

"What we are trying to do is make cultural change. Politics is a part of that, but it's only a part of it. We are trying to remind people that it's not about party alliance, it's about fundamental ideas. We are trying to change the culture. We are trying to get to influencers in our culture. Whether it's the PTA or whether it's a homeowners association or city council, these ideas are important.

"If you look to the party for the answer, you aren't going to find it. You have to look within yourself."

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