‘I’ve been battle-tested’: Republican Brian Watson jumps in crowded primary for Colorado state treasurer

Declaring he’s the only candidate with the right business and financial experience to serve as Colorado state treasurer  — including bouncing back after losing almost everything when the economy crashed — Republican Brian Watson on Friday jumped into a GOP primary that already includes three state lawmakers, a county treasurer and a prosecutor.

“I’ve managed large budgets, I’ve restructured complex debt, I’ve signed the front of checks and employed people throughout our great state,” Watson told Colorado Politics.

Watson, a one-time legislative candidate and the founder and CEO of a commercial real estate firm with properties in 15 states, is pledging he won’t take a salary as treasurer.

“We believe in more citizen leaders,” he said in an interview. “I have my real estate investments, which will still be out there. We want to make our money as the vast majority of the populace makes their money — from the private sector.”

After growing up in the Western Slope town of Olathe — famous for its sweet corn — Watson, 44, got a degree in real estate at the University of Colorado Boulder. Since 2000, he’s run Northstar Commercial partners, a company that redevelops vacant and distressed properties, and in 2012 launched the Opportunity Coalition, a monthly gathering of business and civic leaders that features a range of speakers.

“I came from very humble means, and all of my time has been in Colorado,” he said. “I really understand a lot of aspects of the state. We’ve kept our company going over 17 years, in good economies and in the worst economy since the Great Depression. As a business owner and entrepreneur, we’re constantly building bridges and tearing down barriers between people. All of that wealth of knowledge can be brought to the office of state treasurer.”

The state treasurer manages roughly $6.5 billion in more than 750 state funds and sits on the Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association board. The office also runs the state’s Unclaimed Property Division, which reunites people and businesses with unclaimed property and cash through the Great Colorado Payback.

“It’s not about being partisan and grinding one’s heels in on one side of the aisle — it’s about reaching across the aisle and casting a vision,” Watson said.

Watson called PERA — Colorado’s $44 billion pension fund for more than 560,000 current and former government employees — a “ticking time bomb” but declined to offer a specific prescription for what critics say are massive unfunded liabilities, instead saying he’ll examine the situation before deciding.

“I plan on going in there and truly looking at it from square one,” Watson said. “I don’t come in there with pre-assumptions. For me, it’s going in there and understanding it, figuring out short-term, mid-term and long-term solutions. All options need to be on the table and, collectively, we need to figure out the best way to address it.”

Watson joins five other candidates in the GOP state treasurer primary: state Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud and state Reps. Justin Everett of Littleton and Polly Lawrence of Roxborough Park, as well as Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn and Brett Barkey, the district attorney for Grand, Moffat and Routt counties. Two Democrats are in the race — state Rep. Steve Lebsock of Thornton and Bernard Douthit of Denver.

The incumbent, Republican Walker Stapleton, faces term limits and is running for governor in next year’s election.

While he said he considers his primary rivals friends, Watson dismissed their qualifications for the job they’re all seeking.

“All of them are existing politicians who don’t have an understanding of financial matter, of restructuring debt,” he said. “This office needs some strong leadership and positive energy that can be brought to the job.”

In a campaign video introducing himself to voters, Watson makes a similar case and throws in a veiled jab at Everett, who takes pride in casting the most “no” votes in the Legislature in recent sessions.

“Determination and discipline: that’s what good leadership requires,” Watson says. “And it’s more than just saying no or applying for the next political job. I’m not here to play politics.”

When he ran unsuccessfully five years ago against then-state Rep. Daniel Kagan, a Cherry Hills Village Democrat, Watson came under fire for a series of liens filed against some of his properties for unpaid taxes. Watson said this week he expects his political opponents to resurface the attacks, though this time he’s billing the experience as an asset.

“There are the politicians of the world that are going to be negative or going to be cutting,” he told Colorado Politics. “They can do what they need to do, and that’s fine. Experiences like that make us better to serve at the end of the day. Politics is a full-contact, blood sport in that arena. We’re going to run a positive campaign full of energy, full of community-building and people-focused.”

As for the nearly $280,000 in liens for unpaid taxes — long ago taken care of, Watson stressed — they resulted from investments he made in a couple of Garfield County companies and the actions of an “unscrupulous individual” who managed the businesses but didn’t pay federal withholding taxes for the employees, Watson said.

“As soon as I found out about it, I got to the bottom of it and fired that individual and addressed it,” he said. “Over the years, we pay millions of dollars in taxes on our real estate — and we’re always current.” Watson maintained in an interview this week that he eventually paid the tax bills in full, even though he hadn’t been required to after negotiating with the IRS, “because we want to focus on these issues and focus on the office.”

Watson also points to his real estate firm’s financial difficulties in the wake of the Great Recession — when some real estate markets lost 80 percent of their value — as evidence he’s best-suited to the job of state treasurer, referring to what he calls the “hard, painful life stories that will shape my grit and integrity as treasurer.”

“I’ve been battle-tested,” he told Colorado Politics. “Do you want someone serving in office who has always had it easy, who doesn’t understand sitting at the dining room table having the tough discussions?”