Local businessman rides into treasurer’s race

Greenwood Village businessman Brian Watson is undeterred by the competition as he emerges as the latest hopeful to seek the Republican nomination for Colorado treasurer.

“I didn’t see anybody running who truly understands financial matters and has truly learned from others over many, many, many years,” he said. “In essence, the people of Colorado are investors in the State of Colorado and I saw these individuals who seemed to be running for their next political job. I wish them the best, but when you’re looking at a $6.5 billion budget, we need people who really understand these matters.”

The commercial real estate investor and organizer of statewide business networking hopes to replace term-limited Colorado Treasurer Walker Stapleton, a Cherry Hills Villager who is now seeking the Republican nomination for governor.

Watson, 46, is the only treasurer candidate on the Republican side who has never held public office, though he unsuccessfully ran for statehouse in 2012. He joins state Rep. Polly Lawrence of Douglas County, state Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud, state Rep. Justin Everett of Jefferson County, prosecutor Brett Barkey and Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn.

In the Democratic primary, state Rep. Steve Lebsock of Thornton and Denver businessman Bernard Douthit are the two announced candidates so far.

A self-described would-be “public servant,” Watson, CEO of Denver’s Northstar Commercial Partners and founder of the nonprofit Opportunity Coalition, says his greatest asset as the state’s chief financial officer would be his financial acumen and boots-on-the-ground business experience, traits he says are lacking in the other choices primary voters will consider.

“When you have somebody who understands internal rates of return and complex financial matters and how to go in and restructure debt and can save millions and millions of dollars for the people of Colorado—this is what I do every single day,” he said.

Other than investment responsibilities, the treasurer’s other high-profile duties include returning unclaimed property to Colorado residents and sitting on the board of directors for the often-beleaguered $44 billion Public Employees Retirement Association, which has faced financial-insolvency issues and reform efforts for years. 

Watson calls PERA in its current state a ticking time bomb that requires no-nonsense, politics-free solutions.

“We would bring an open mind to the conversation and focus on building healthy relationships where we can work together to come up with creative solutions,” he said. “We don’t need somebody who’s just going to slam their fist on the table as a partisan issue.”

The candidate says his own ideas would include raising the retirement age for the state government’s younger employees and perhaps allowing workers more control over their retireWment investments.

As part of Watson’s professed commitment to public service and financial prudence, he says he would decline a salary if elected.

“My personal income will always come from the private sector,” he said. “That’s where the majority of people of Colorado make their money and that’s where I want to make my money.”

The CEO says, as treasurer, he would continue to serve as Northstar’s chairman, but would not have a day-to-day role in the company.

Born and raised in Olathe on a small ranch on the Western Slope, Watson is proud of his Colorado roots, which have taken him from family ranch hand to urban entrepreneur.

“My mom still lives in that house we built 35 years ago,” he said. “When I say we built it, we literally built it ourselves. We hung drywall and nailed boards together and stuffed insulation and laid brick together. I was about 10 years old. That’s how I learned real estate.”

Watson attended the University of Colorado at Boulder before landing a job as a real estate broker and founding Northstar in 2000.

After unsuccessfully challenging Democratic incumbent state Rep. Daniel Kagan, he founded the Opportunity Coalition, a nonpartisan statewide networking organization that has featured guest speakers from all walks of Colorado industry and led to Mountains of Opportunity, a short-form business-themed television interview show hosted by Watson.

“The focus of the entity is to help build bridges and tear down barriers among people to help to help promote entrepreneurship and capitalism,” he said.

Watson’s run for state representative saw some controversy when it was revealed that $280,000 in liens had been placed on one of his business interests after a manager failed to pay all of the business’s payroll taxes.

“He was terminated and we immediately addressed the issue,” Watson said. “We worked with the IRS to pay in full what we were obligated to pay. The other amount we were not obligated to pay as a member of an LLC. Even that being said, I decided to subsequently pay them in full.”

It remains unclear how a taxpayer-supported paycheck to Watson as treasurer would be directed, as an elected official declining to accept a public salary.

“I don’t know if the state government has had many people that say, don’t pay me. It may be an interesting conversation,” he said. “If it’s something that’s required, we’re going to have a stack of checks we don’t cash, or maybe we look at donating it away to a good cause that helps the people of Colorado.”