Log In

Reset Password
Regional News

Kent Thiry’s next political focus: Big changes to Colorado’s primary election process

The deep-pocketed former DaVita CEO has already spent millions on democracy-related initiatives in Colorado in recent years
Kent Thiry, former CEO of the dialysis giant DaVita, has given at least $5.9 million to Colorado ballot measures since 2011, according to a Kaiser Health News review of Colorado campaign finance data. (Rachel Woolf for KHN)

Kent Thiry, who has poured millions of dollars into democracy-related initiatives in Colorado intended to boost the power of moderate voters and make political contests more competitive, is advocating for major changes to the state’s primary election process to address what he calls gaps and inequities.

The former CEO of the dialysis giant DaVita’s next political act is backing an effort to do away with Colorado’s caucus and assembly process through which candidates can make the primary ballot. He also wants the legislature to find a way to prevent Coloradans from throwing away their votes by casting primary ballots for presidential candidates who later drop out of the race.

If successful, the changes could be Thiry’s most transformative work yet.

“I’m passionate about democracy,” he told The Colorado Sun in a recent interview. “And it takes work to keep a democracy working.”

Thiry, who is registered as an unaffiliated voter, was acquitted in April of federal criminal charges alleging that he worked with business competitors to prevent the hiring of each other’s employees. He is pushing the legislature to alter Colorado’s primary processes, but indicated he’s willing to pursue ballot measures if the General Assembly doesn’t act.

“We look every cycle at where we can add the most value,” he said.

In recent years, Thiry has personally bankrolled efforts to let unaffiliated voters participate in Colorado’s primaries and re-imagine the state’s once-in-a-decade redistricting process. Kaiser Health News reported that Thiry has given at least $5.9 million to Colorado ballot measures since 2011, and all of the initiatives he has supported have passed.

Right now, Thiry is “extremely supportive” of Senate Bill 101, which would end Colorado’s caucus and assembly process of selecting primary candidates and make signature gathering the only way to make the ballot. The legislation would also let unaffiliated voters sign partisan candidate petitions.

Thiry called the caucus-assembly nominating system “blatantly unfair and blatantly inequitable.”

“It’s unfair because a small group of party insiders control all the management around it, and it’s inequitable because there’s lots of voters who can’t, on a weeknight or a weekend, leave work or leave their kids or leave their military base to go participate,” he said.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Brighton, and Rep. Mary Bradfield, R-Colorado Springs, is up for its first hearing Thursday in the Senate State, Military and Veterans Committee. And it’s likely to be quickly rejected despite recent polling commissioned by a group associated with Thiry showing that the proposed changes are popular with Coloradans.

Opponents of the measure argue it would make it hard for anyone but those who can afford to collect signatures to run for office.

Candidates for U.S. Senate and governor in Colorado must collect 1,500 voter signatures in each of the state’s eight congressional districts. They can’t reasonably collect all of those on their own, so campaigns pay firms tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars to collect signatures on their behalf.

Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat who sits on the Senate State, Military and Veterans Committee, said she will vote “no” on the measure.

“Both of these processes reward the people who do the work,” Gonzales said, noting that she went through both the caucus and assembly as well as the signature gathering process to make the ballot in her first legislative election.

Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, said Senate Bill 101 would mean “you have to pay to get on the ballot.”

“I’m not comfortable with a process that says the way to get on the ballot essentially is by paying to get there,” he said. “Caucus has its flaws, for sure. But I think it’s an important option to have. I don’t know why we would remove options. Instead, we should talk about expanding options for voters and candidates.”

Delegates yell toward the stage during the GOP Assembly at the World Arena on Saturday, April 9, 2022, in Colorado Springs. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado Democratic Party and America Votes, a liberal national nonprofit, both oppose the bill. Grassroots Republicans and the Colorado Libertarian Party are also encouraging supporters to voice opposition to the legislation.

Voters First Colorado, part of the national, nonpartisan group Unite America, supports Senate Bill 101. Unite America was a proponent of Alaska’s switch to an open primary where both Democratic and Republican candidates are on the same ballot and voters’ top four choices advance to the general election. Voters then use ranked choice voting – in which they order their preferred candidates – to select the winner. Nevada voters approved a similar system last year.

Kirkmeyer said she’s open to amending her bill to lower the signature requirements for candidates to make the ballot, but she thinks her bill is a reasonable way to make ballot access more equitable.

Right now, she argues, it’s too easy for third-party candidates to get on the ballot. Kirkmeyer lost a 2022 congressional bid by less than 1 percentage point in a race where the Libertarian candidate picked up 4% of the vote. And she said it’s unfair that unaffiliated voters, who make up the largest voting bloc in Colorado, aren’t allowed to sign partisan candidates’ ballot-access petitions.

“For those people who say, ‘now you’re making people pay-to-play,’ my response to that is if a 63-year-old woman can get volunteers and go get her signatures – me – without having to pay for them, I think anyone can do it,” she said.

Kirkmeyer had to collect 1,500 signatures to make the ballot in the 8th Congressional District last year.

State Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Republican running to represent the 8th Congressional District, speaks to a voter at an event Saturday at her campaign’s headquarters in Thornton. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Kirkmeyer’s position is notable because some in the Colorado GOP want to ban candidates from gathering petition signatures to make the primary ballot. A right-wing contingent in the party is pushing for a rules change because they view candidates who make the ballot by gathering signatures as less ideologically pure than those who go through the caucus and assembly process.

Thiry is also pushing for alterations to Colorado’s presidential primary elections after votes cast for Democratic candidates such as Pete Buttigieg and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who dropped out of the contest between when ballots were mailed to voters and Election Day, ended up being meaningless.

“The Secretary of State and the legislature should fix this problem, and we think there are a number of ways to do that,” Thiry told The Sun. “We’re very much hoping that they will pick one.”

Thiry declined to endorse a specific solution.

“If we suddenly started advocating for one, that would distract attention from the fact that what needs to be solved is the problem,” he said.

There’s interest in, at a minimum, requiring the disclosure of how many votes are cast in presidential primary elections for candidates who are no longer in the race. That information wasn’t shared in 2020. Another idea that has been discussed among lawmakers is moving Colorado toward Alaska’s election model.

Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, is leading the push on the presidential primary front.

“I’m working on a way to make sure that Coloradans’ voices are heard in the presidential primary,” he said. “Last election, more than 150,000 votes were just thrown away. That’s unacceptable and we’ve got to fix it.” He said specific policy proposals were still in the works.

State Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, speaks at the Colorado Capitol on March 5, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Finally, Thiry is interested in campaign finance changes.

“I think Colorado’s contribution limits are too low and actually hurt our democracy,” he said.

Candidates for four state-level, statewide offices in 2022 could raise up to $1,250 from individual donors and state lawmakers were allowed to collect up to $400. Those limits are set to rise for the next two election cycles to reflect inflation.

Thiry said he’s also concerned about undisclosed political spending by political nonprofits, which don’t have to disclose their donors. The Sun refers to those organizations as dark-money groups.

“I think anybody who’s spending money on a campaign ought to have to disclose what they’re doing with their money,” Thiry said.

The legislative session runs through early May. The earliest a measure changing Colorado’s primary process could go before voters is November 2024.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.