CU Regents race is only statewide contest this year

Democrat Ludwig faces main challenge from GOP Davidson
The Colorado Statesman

The University of Colorado at-large regent race is the only party-affiliated, statewide race this year, but the two main candidates and two minor party contenders aren’t receiving a whole lot of attention leading up to the Nov. 6 election as they compete with a heated presidential contest that has grabbed the electorate’s attention. In fact, interest in this under-the-radar contest seems to have peaked in early summer, when Republican nominee Brian Davidson easily knocked off opponent Matt Arnold in a bitter and divisive primary.

When the intra-party contest was over and Davidson had piled up a 61-39 percent lopsided victory, he acknowledged that the public scrutiny was pain-ful, but had increased his name identification greatly. Now he faces incumbent Democrat Stephen Ludwig, whom Davidson narrowly lost to in 2006 by four-tenths of one percentage point in an outcome that took three weeks to settle after the general election.

A physician and faculty anesthesiologist at CU’s Anschutz Medical Campus, Davidson believes he is an even better candidate this time around for the nine-member governing body of the CU system. The board sets tuition and the school’s $2.9 billion budget.

His campaign chairman, Hank Brown, a former Republican U.S. senator from Colorado and a former president of CU, has helped with name recognition, campaign strategy and fundraising, says Davidson. He has received $57,047 in campaign contributions through October, according to filings with the secretary of state’s office. In comparison, Ludwig reports $29,833 in total contributions.

“I have had significant political and financial support from major CU and political players, including individuals who are typically not involved in the political process,” Davidson explained of the boost he has gotten from Brown’s involvement.

“Last time I was trying to swim upstream,” added Davidson. “This time I’m in the swimming pool, or even have a little stream behind me.”

He also believes that the political climate has shifted in Colorado, moving away from support for Democrats and President Barack Obama, and towards Republican candidates. Acknowledging that the regent race is “down ballot,” Davidson believes that when people — especially unaffiliated voters — see the “R” behind his name, he is more likely to receive votes over his Democratic opponent.

“The ‘R’ behind my name in 2006 was detrimental to my election…” Davidson explained. “This time… Republicans are very energized, as they should be this year, and I hope that the vast majority of Republicans will vote for me. I think the state party has done a very good job of saying, ‘You have to vote for all races all the way down the ticket.’”

Also, Davidson pointed out, Independents view Republicans more favorably this year. “I think it’s at least neutralized to the point where I can win on my own message, background, experience and virtue,” he ventured.

Ludwig, a marketing and communications manager, acknowledges that he faces a greater challenge this year because of the positioning of his race compared to the highly watched presidential race in the state.

“Historically, Democrats under-vote on regent more than Republicans do, so that’s part of the question as well,” he said.

In order to bolster interest in his reelection, Ludwig embarked on a statewide 10-day, 3,000-mile whistle-stop tour that took him to all 64 Colorado counties in September. He also had a friend compose an official campaign song as part of his get-out-the-vote effort. Included with the song, which can be heard on his campaign website, is a highlight reel of what Ludwig calls great moments from his first six years as Regent.

Ludwig thinks there actually has been increased interest in his race this year, but says that has brought problems, as well. In 2006, he was able to ride the coattails of high-profile statewide candidates, including those for governor, state treasurer, attorney general and secretary of state.

“There were other campaigns going on that we could work with, but that’s absent this year,” lamented Ludwig. He has, however, received the endorsement of Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, which Ludwig says has given him somewhat of a bump.

A greater sense of economic urgency

Ludwig believes voters are paying attention to the race because there is a greater sense of urgency facing higher education this year following the dire economic times that resulted in state funding cuts for the CU system. For the fiscal year that began on July 1, state funding totals only $141 million, down from $209 million in FY 2009. All the while, enrollment continues to spike.

Ludwig believes part of the problem is a “dysfunctional” higher education system where cooperation is discouraged.

“How can we get more bang for our buck by cooperating with each other?” he asks.

But he said the real problem comes from the revenue side, suggesting that until Colorado voters back a tax increase to fund education — including higher education — the problem will only continue to grow.

“We have to go to the voters shortly and either ask for a dedicated revenue stream that already exists, or some other thing that people haven’t come up with yet,” Ludwig noted.

He said that to get voters onboard, there needs to be a diverse, broad coalition of stakeholders who ask them to dig into their wallets to fund education. A ballot question in 2011 to approve a tax increase for education failed largely because there wasn’t a strong coalition supporting it, some surmise. Even Hickenlooper, who is a stalwart supporter of education, stayed away from the fray last year.

Ludwig, however, has other ideas for a more viable funding mechanism, such as increased efforts to solicit private donations, doing a better job at marketing inventions by CU professors that could serve as revenue enhancers, switching to a three-semester school-year to make the best use of the campus year-round, and offering 25 percent more online classes.

Davidson concurs that funding is a primary concern, and shares some of Ludwig’s proposals, such as utilizing the private marketplace, soliciting donations and increasing online courses. But Davidson does not believe that a tax increase is the solution. Instead, he would like to see the CU system first make greater efforts at reining in spending.

“If we are really committed to keeping the cost of education low for students… we need to have some very difficult conversations with faculty and staff and higher education leaders…” he said. “They want to maintain what they know — keep building buildings, we have huge lands — and I like that too, but we’re at the point where we can’t afford it.”

Davidson is also a proponent of reforming the system’s health care system, which he says will shortly comprise approximately 42 percent of the annual budget. Drawing upon his experience in the health care industry, Davidson says fallout from federal health care reform could add to budgetary constraints if grants from the National Institutes of Health are cut.

“We need to keep a close eye on what’s happening and predict through internal risk management what health care reform might do to the health care services sector,” stated Davidson. “We need to make those plans and set up risk management programs to deal with that.”

Immigration and guns come into play

The Republican and Democratic nominees also disagree over other issues associated with the position.

The tuition issue for undocumented students has been playing out at the state legislature, with lawmakers — led by Republicans — repeatedly voting against reduced tuition rates for in-state illegal residents.

Recently, Metropolitan State University of Denver decided to ignore the legislature and establish its own reduced tuition rate for such students. The attorney general’s office said the unilateral move is illegal, and former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Republican who is an immigration activist, plans on filing a lawsuit seeking to overturn Metro’s decision.

Ludwig believes that tuition breaks should be offered to in-state undocumented students, but he does not believe that the CU system should make a decision on its own.

“I appreciate what they’re doing…” he said of Metro’s action, “but I’m not sure that I support CU going on its own.”

Davidson is against it.

“Providing in-state tuition for folks who are undocumented is not fair. It’s not fair to out-of-state students,” he said.

On the issue of gun control, Davidson believes students have a right to carry a handgun on campus if they possess a conceal-carry permit. The Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that students with such a permit are allowed to bring guns into classrooms and labs.

“I spent many hours trying to find some level of evidence that allowing these individuals to exercise their right would impose a safety risk, and I came up with nothing,” said Davidson.

Ludwig, however, does not believe guns belong on campus. He hopes to see state legislation soon that would give school governing boards the decision to ban guns on campus.

Third-party candidates join race

Two third-party candidates are also competing in the race. Libertarian Daniel Ong and American Constitution Party candidate Tyler Belmont say they do not expect to win, but believe they are encouraging the incumbent and his GOP challenger to think outside the box.

Belmont, an 18-year-old high school student, says he entered the race because he wanted to add a new perspective.

“We’ve got all these 30- 40-year-olds running for office and they don’t have the first-hand knowledge of being a teenager, of being a prospect as an undergraduate student and wondering, ‘How am I going to pay for my undergraduate degree?’” explained Belmont.

The Pine Creek High School student from Colorado Springs says colleges and universities are placing too much attention on recruiting the best students, administrators and faculty, which costs too much money.

“It’s ending up with money being spent on things that don’t add value to a student’s education,” he said.

Belmont is a proponent of expanding public-private partnerships, which he believes the candidates are finally talking about after he became involved in the race.

Ong became a candidate to promote the Libertarian Party, but also because he is frustrated with tuition costs for part-time students. He believes that because of the university’s tuition schedule, part-time students end up paying more than full-time students.

“CU-Boulder is still pretty stubborn,” Ong said. “They’ve got the worst discrimination against part-time students.”

Ong added, “I realize that I’m a real long shot to win just because of our two-party system… But I refuse to be part of the establishment parties because they make all kinds of promises… and they end up going against the promises.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com