Former Obama Ambassador Sets His Sights on the U.S. Senate

By Julia Caulfield

Dan Baer

Dan Baer

Candidates running for U.S. Senate in 2020 are making their way around the state. There are over a dozen Democrats running in the primary to challenge Sen. Cory Gardner, and one of those is Dan Baer. Born and raised in the Denver area, Baer is a former ambassador in the Obama administration, was a member of Gov. Hickenlooper’s cabinet. Last week, Baer was in Telluride to meet with voters. KOTO’s Julia Caulfield sat down with him to talk about the importance of empathy in politics, and why he’s running for Congress.

Julia Caulfield (JC): I’m going to start off with an easy question. Why are you running for Senate?

Dan Baer (DB): I’m running, I think for the same reason a lot of people around our state are getting involved in different ways than they were two or three years ago, and I actually think it cuts across party lines that there’s a deep sense of anxiety that the foundations of our democracy are under attack, that we’re not living up the values that our country was founded on, and I think a lot of us have been moved in different ways to get involved in different ways. For me, having represented our country overseas in the Obama administration, as an ambassador for President Obama, I was always proud to be an American diplomat and it’s deeply alarming to see the erosions of our democracy here at home, and it felt like the biggest risk that we face is that we give up on the project, that we give up on staying engaged, and fighting for the progress that we know we need.

JC: Much like the Presidential Democratic race, there are a lot of people running in the primary for this Senate seat. What sets you apart from everybody else who is running?

DB: I think what sets me apart from many of the other candidates is that I’m not a career politician – I haven’t held elected office before – but like many of the people who won House seats in 2018, many of the people who were able to flip swing seats, were people like me, who had a record of public service, particularly in foreign policy or national security, but who hadn’t held elected office and weren’t career politicians, and who were able to raise a Progressive coalition, that were focused on making the changes that we need in order to make our democracy sustainable; but were also able to reach out to disaffected, moderate Republicans who were also disgusted by what’s going on, and Independents and win the votes we need to win the seat.

JC: You’ve touched on some of these big ideas that I think a lot of Democrats ran on in 2018 about our democracy in general, but there are also issues that folks are dealing with on a day to day basis. On the Western Slope of Colorado, healthcare is a big one, and not just in affording your insurance, which is obviously a part, but also in having access to services in general, how do you plan to address those if you become a member of the Senate?

DB: I think it’s really important that you highlight the way that distance and time make challenges that people talk about across Colorado and indeed across the country, like healthcare, they manifest themselves differently in a place let Telluride. And I think one of the things I’ve been focused on in this campaign is, as I’ve gone through the first few months, I’ve been trying to spend more time listening than talking, and one of the ways I’ve done that is by shadowing people on the job and hearing about the challenges they face and obviously healthcare is one of the challenges people raise, affordable housing is another one that comes up. Obviously affordable housing is a problem in Telluride, it’s also a problem on the Front Range. The solutions may look different, but it is a theme that I hear over and over again. I think the most important thing for somebody representing us in Washington to do is to be committed to listening over the long run. Because you won’t be able to provide the kind of nuanced representation, and make sure that when the next major piece of healthcare legislation comes in front of Congress that you are ready to negotiate on behalf, not just be there to cast a vote when the legislation is delivered on your desk, but be there to negotiate on behalf of your constituents if you haven’t been listening.

JC:  You’re from Colorado, from Denver. Through your work in both the Obama administration and the Hickenlooper administration, you’ve lived in big cities, had arguably high profile jobs. Given that background, how are you able to represent people from a potentially very different background from your own?

DB: I think that’s a question that anybody who’s seeking to represent a large number of people in Washington has to be able to answer. When I was at the State Department one of the things that I would do when I was traveling the world on behalf of the U.S. Government is, in every place I went, I insisted that the embassy organize a round table discussion as one of my first meetings with local civil society representatives. And what I found was in those meetings I did much more listening than talking, and I think that’s the kind of approach that you need to take if you seek to represent people in Washington. You know ask me often, does it matter that I’m gay? And I say, ‘obviously it matters to me, but it needn’t matter to the average voter, and indeed the qualifications that I’m running on have nothing to do with that fact that I’m gay or not’. But I do think, that I grew up gay in Colorado in a very different time, it wasn’t that long ago, but it was a very different time, and that speaks to the progress that we’ve seen here. I think when you’ve lived on the other side of hate, you’ve lived on the other side of being left out or left behind, that can produce a number of emotions or sensibilities in you. I suppose it could make you angry, and understandably so, but another thing it can do is help you learn empathy. I hope that the experience that I’ve had in my life – the variety of experience that I’ve had in my life – make me a better representative of people because I know what it’s like to be left out and left behind. I understand that it’s not the same to grow up a fifteen-year-old gay kid in Littleton, and to be a single mother in Pueblo working three jobs, or to be a farmer in Yuma trying to figure out how you’re going to make ends meet with the tariffs, or to be somebody who’s watching a coal mine shut down, I get that those are different things. But I think an attention to the experience and the pain points that other people are feeling is valuable when you’re seeking to do this. As well as an understanding that we’re all in this together, and we have to hang together, and we have to have leaders who are committed to seeing the whole and committed to representing every single Coloradan, including those who don’t vote for them, and I’m committed to doing that.

JC: Before we take off, Telluride as a community, we’re a big fan of music. You, on the campaign trail, I assume are jetting around the state. Is there any music that you can’t get out of your head right now?

DB: We’ve been listening to a lot of Lizzo, who I think is wonderful not only for her music, but also for her voice. I think in a time like this, her voice, first of all, she highlights social justice issues often, and she presents a sense of defiant optimism that I think should be our guiding star right now, so I’ve been listening to a lot of Lizzo.