University of Colorado President Bruce Benson’s announcement last week that he was retiring in a year brought much deserved accolades about his contributions to education, but the reality is Benson’s investment in Colorado straddles a variety of issues. We are all the better for it.
I covered the legislature in 2005 when deep, deep cuts still hadn’t solved the budget crisis. There were very real behind-the-scene discussions about what was next. Community colleges and state parks were on the list, even though closing them would trigger economic disasters in those regions.
Bruce, an oilman and business executive, and two other high-profile Republicans, Gov. Bill Owens and then CU President Hank Brown, put their reputations on the line to push for the passages of Referendums C and D. The right dissed the tax measures but the trio held firm.
“This isn’t about politics; this is about good fiscally conservative policies,” Benson told the Pueblo Chieftain.
I became aware of Benson after I moved to Colorado in 1993 to cover cops for the Rocky Mountain News.
A political junkie, I read every word as Benson battled Roy Romer, the Democratic incumbent, for governor in 1994.
Benson was born on July 4, and Romer on Oct. 31 and Benson liked to have fun with that. “Do you want a governor who was born on the Fourth of July or a governor born on Halloween?” he would ask.
Candy over firecrackers? Please. Romer handily won a third term.
Benson took over as the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party in 2002 when Bob Beauprez resigned to run for the new 7th Congressional District seat. It turned out to be a banner year for Republicans. Gov. Owens won re-election in a landslide but eventually was mired in a budget crisis.
In an effort to stop the bloodletting, the legislature in 2005 referred Refs C and D to the November ballot. Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald and House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, both Democrats, worked with a coalition that included Benson, Owens and Brown.
Ref C would suspend state spending limits for five years, allowing lawmakers to spend an estimated $3.7 billion they otherwise would have refunded to taxpayers as part of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR. Ref D would allow the state to borrow an additional $2.1 billion, in part to jump-start 55 road projects.
Ref C passed, but Ref D failed. In the end, state parks and community colleges remained open.
Benson later became chairman of the Denver Public Schools Foundation. In the fall of 2007 he worked closely with Denver leaders– including then Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, now the governor, and then DPS superintendent Michael Bennet, now a U.S. senator — on election issues on the November ballot, such as school board races, and $550 million in bond projects. All passed.
Through the years, Benson has graced the newspapers. He and his wife Marcy’s donations to charities often landed them on the society pages. As an oilman and a business executive, he appeared in the business sections. And his political activities often put him on the front page.
In 2012, an exhibit at the Denver Zoo was named after him as Benson had chaired the Denver Zoo board during three of the zoo’s most active years. That included a capital campaign to fund a master plan.
The announcement in 2008 that Benson was the lone finalist for the University of Colorado presidency was big news. It drew criticism from some Democrats and faculty professors upset that Benson only had a geology degree — never mind that it was CU.
But Benson had support from some key Democrats, including then Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb and former school board member and lawmaker Paul Sandoval, the godfather of Colorado politics. In the back of Sandoval’s tamale shop, big wigs in education gathered to strategize on Benson getting the appointment.
Benson got the job. But ….
“Damn near the day I started, the Great Recession started,” Benson told the Boulder Daily Camera when he announced his retirement. “…We had to cut things. We had to clean things out. We had to be more efficient.”
After I went from the Rocky to The Denver Post in 2009 I called Benson about something. We talked briefly before he said he had to take another call. I was about to hang up when I realized that Benson had accidentally left his cell phone on.
A couple of days later I called to tell him he needed to more careful and that I had heard his side of a conversation about university legal matters, including fired professor Ward Churchill. “What are you going to do with that information?” he asked. Nothing, I told him, the call wasn’t for me.
Bruce wasn’t nearly as happy with me when I wrote an article about College Day at the legislature in 2009. Katie Reinisch, the spokeswoman for the House Democrats, bought five CU T-shirts for people to wear on College Day. She insisted Benson put one on, which he did. He left with the shirt, including the $16.99 price tag still hanging from it. I wrote a story about the missing shirt with the headline, “Bruce Benson, please return to the House.”
He thought the article implied he stole the shirt. His lobbyist, Tanya Kelly-Bowry, tried to reassure him. “It’s Lynn Bartels. She’s just having fun with you.” Benson calmed down after that. Reinisch later received a package. She laughed when she opened it and discovered the shirt — still with the price tag — and an apology letter from the prez.
After I went to work for Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams in 2015, I continued to cross paths with Benson. “Who invited you?” he would say with a faux sneer, because the answer was, of course, Benson himself.
Benson’s announcement that he would retire from CU next year after 11 years on the job set off a wave of praise and nostalgia. He is the longest-serving president in 65 years. He has never taken a raise and rarely, if ever, turns in expenses. Marcy Benson works just as hard — and for free — on behalf of the University of Colorado.
Benson acknowledged her in his letter announcing his retirement: “Finally, I would like to thank my wife Marcy for her support. She is a partner in every sense of the word and she has supported me throughout my tenure. I could not do this job without her.”