WASHINGTON — An upcoming Telluride fundraiser for Democrat Mike Johnston is attracting attention from Colorado politicos — and not because of the tony location.
The Jan. 4 get-together for Johnston, a former state senator now running for governor, is co-sponsored by billionaire John Arnold, a hedge-fund whiz who has given money to other prominent Colorado Democrats.
But Arnold has also attracted opposition from unions and government employees for his national activism on pension reform. And with Colorado again struggling with how to deal with its pension system, known as the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA, Johnston’s ties to Arnold are raising eyebrows with a previous ally.
“Sen. Johnston has been a supporter of public employee pensions in the past, and I would think that if he would associate with (Arnold) — such an obvious opponent who has spent millions of dollars nationwide to get rid of pensions — then we would expect he would make some sort of statement to reaffirm his support of pensions,” said Lynea Hansen, the executive director of Secure PERA.
Asked about the fundraiser, Johnston said he has known Arnold for years but that the first time they’ve talked about PERA was a brief conversation this week when news of the Telluride fundraiser became public on Twitter.
“We have not had a long discussion before about PERA,” Johnston said.
SCOOP: Colorado Dem gubernatorial candidate Mike Johnston is having a big fundraiser with Silicon Valley GOP mogul Meg Whitman & fossil fuel billionaire John Arnold, who has financed the national campaign to slash teachers, cops & firefighters retirement benefits #copolitics pic.twitter.com/AIWwJXo18p
— David Sirota (@davidsirota) December 12, 2017
The big issue for PERA is how to keep it financially solvent for the long term.
Gov. John Hickenlooper recently pitched the idea of increasing the contributions of state employees while cutting the cost-of-living raises for retirees — but not increasing the government’s share.
That’s in contrast to PERA’s own plan, which advocated a “shared sacrifice” approach from all three. When comparing the competing proposals, Johnston said he’s not 100 percent sold on Hickenlooper’s idea.
“I’m not going to rule out employer contributions,” he said.
Arnold, who has also donated to U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and Gov. John Hickenlooper, is organizing the Telluride event with another billionaire with a history of political involvement, Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman.
She ran unsuccessfully for governor of California in 2010 as a Republican and supported Mitt Romney for president, but she backed Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016.
Johnston has had success this year with his fundraising, including a major haul to begin his campaign, but the crowded 2018 fight is likely to be the most expensive in state history.
On the Democratic side, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Boulder has the option of pouring millions of dollars from his own fortune into the race, and Republican state treasurer Walker Stapleton will benefit from a well-funded, super-PAC-styled group.