Politics

The Price of Moderate Politics

Bill Ritter became Colorado's governor in 2007, promising to be a pragmatic, pro-business Democrat. That political niche seemed like a good fit for a moderate state....
by | March 1, 2010

Bill Ritter became Colorado's governor in 2007, promising to be a pragmatic, pro-business Democrat. That political niche seemed like a good fit for a moderate state. Good fit or not, though, it hasn't been easy to govern from the center.

Ritter's tenure has been punctuated by a series of confrontations between business and labor, where he's stuck in the middle. The trouble began in the first weeks of his governorship when he vetoed a bill that would have made it easier to require nonunion workers to pay union fees. Labor activists who'd helped elect Ritter felt betrayed.

Later in the year, he gave state workers more power to negotiate with management, though he stopped short of giving them full collective bargaining rights. This olive branch to labor was seen as betrayal by some business backers. The editorial board of The Denver Post's editorial board, which had endorsed Ritter the preceding year, compared him to Teamsters union President Jimmy Hoffa.

And all of that was just the start. He pushed a tax increase on the oil and gas industries that angered business. He spent most of 2008 trying to persuade both business and labor groups to abandon a series of ballot measures the other side despised, succeeding in the final weeks of the campaign. He vetoed two more union bills last year, which, for a time, looked like the last straw between Ritter and labor.

Ultimately Ritter mostly has maintained both sides' respect. But he hasn't earned a lot of devoted followers. Facing shaky approval numbers, Ritter announced that he wasn't running for re-election this year, citing a desire to spend more time with his family.

Ritter's story isn't unique. Many moderate governors have had a tough time, especially lately as politics has become more polarized. For example, while Republicans have disavowed California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for supporting tax increases, he hasn't won Democratic allies. "To be the middle person," says Tom Clark, executive vice president of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., "requires a hell of a lot of diplomatic skill and a hell of a lot of salesmanship."

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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