In March 2021, Danny Moore was forced to step down from his position as Chairman of Colorado’s Independent Redistricting Commission following news reports that he promoted multiple conspiracies on Facebook.

After learning that he’d claimed the 2020 election was stolen, that COVID isn’t as deadly as health officials claimed, and that a news outlet “staged” a deadly shooting, his fellow board members didn’t remove him completely, but they voted unanimously to replace him as chair. 

However, Colorado’s redistricting commission wasn’t Moore’s only leadership role at the time. He was also a board member of the Leadership Program of the Rockies (LPR), Colorado’s preeminent conservative leadership institute, which he attended two years earlier, serving as president of his 2019 class. Moore remains on LPR’s board, and was featured prominently in a promotional video filmed less than a year later. Last summer, fellow LPR graduate and former board member Heidi Ganahl, her gubernatorial campaign dogged by her refusal to disavow election denialism, selected Moore as her running mate. The duo subsequently lost by nearly twenty points.

In its over three decades, LPR boasts a lengthy alumni roster of elected officials, prominent candidates, and political operatives. Yet in a state where Republicans have suffered defeat after defeat at the hands of an ever-bluer electorate, LPR’s speakers are further right than ever, while its graduates and leadership both include a disturbing number of far-right conspiracists. 

Is this venerable program still an effective leadership pipeline for Colorado conservatives or has LPR jumped the shark?

The Colorado Times Recorder examined the public statements of recent graduates and spoke with over a dozen program alumni and political operatives — both on and off the record — to find out. 

Originally named the Republican Leadership Program, LPR has been charging Colorado conservatives thousands of dollars to teach them to communicate on a pair of largely Libertarian principles, specifically the nation’s founding documents and free market capitalism.

Every year, LPR enrolls about 65 students and promises “to develop, strengthen, train and equip these emerging leaders to reach new heights in public policy and the political process.”

Sample lessons include some standard libertarian interpretations of foundational documents, such as rejecting the premise “everyone has a right to adequate healthcare” in favor of “no one has a right to the fruits of another person’s labor.” Others include the jingoistic “some cultures are hostile to human life and happiness” as well as the eye-popping assertion that democracy is “mob rule.”

A portion of LPR’s lesson handout: “Check Your Premises”

In recent years the already conservative LPR has veered further right, selecting a number of students and featuring speakers whose public positions include not only unwavering support of Donald Trump but openly conspiratorial and bigoted beliefs. 

“At the end of the day, it’s sort of a social club. It’s about organizing with your friends and being part of a group,” said a longtime Colorado conservative consultant. “Frankly, a lot of consultants just go there to find activists who will run to be candidates because it’s a nice pipeline for work.”

That consultant, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, dismissed the idea that LPR’s syllabus is responsible for making its students more extreme.

“I don’t think that LPR is radicalizing folks in part because their curriculum is still really based around Ayn Rand’s older classical liberal radicalism, like radical individualism.” 

LPR Board Chair: LPR Is Not a Candidate Training Course

LPR Board Chair Bob Schaffer, head of Liberty Common School in Fort Collins, told the Colorado Times Recorder that LPR is not a candidate training course and that helping people attain public office is not the interest of LPR, a claim that seems at odds with the LPR’s mission to train its students “to reach new heights in public policy and the political process.” While preparing its students for elected office may not be the organization’s primary goal, the promotional video also features executive director Shari Williams saying that “sometimes people think that we’re just a political program and they think we’re all about getting elected officials in office — and we have lots of people that have gone on to office,” before listing many other leadership roles LPR grads take on, including CEOs, talk show hosts, and teachers.

That said, every year’s class produces a handful of Republican candidates and operatives for conservative firms and groups. The 2022 class included a congressional candidate, three statehouse hopefuls, and some operatives. Currently, approximately one-third of Colorado’s Republican state legislators are LPR graduates: four of the dozen senators, and six of 19 House members.

LPR Agenda Isn’t “Conservative or Liberal” but “Libertarian Freedom and Capitalism”

Just months after graduation, Steven Monahan ran as the GOP’s Sixth Congressional District nominee against Congressman Jason Crow.

Describing himself as a “Rand Paul Republican,” Monahan says he didn’t attend LPR because he planned to run for office, but enjoyed the class and appreciated the focus on defending one’s beliefs. 

“It was a good program,” Monahan said. “I really enjoyed being in it. It definitely will push you outside of your comfort zone. You have to give memorized speeches in front of lots of people and then someone’s going to challenge you to defend your positions. It helps you cultivate that skill. There’s a lot of good, legitimately good coursework and good lectures about government policy, economics. 

“They do a pretty good job of keeping it nonpartisan,” Monahan continued. “The actual political nature of things is not really touched on very often. I think it would make you a better office holder to go through the class, but as far as preparing you for candidacy? I don’t know if it tremendously helps you become ready to be a political candidate, which is not really what they’re looking for either. They’re looking for people who can make a difference, people who will be able to influence others to try to achieve an agenda, which is pretty much libertarian freedom and capitalism. I wouldn’t say it’s conservative or liberal unless you have a full understanding of classical liberalism.”

Indeed, LPR’s curriculum consists largely of two foundational libertarian texts: Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt. LPR is also an associate member of the State Policy Network, a Koch-funded umbrella organization of conservative and libertarian think tanks and advocacy groups focused on state-level policy. 

Monahan’s 2022 class, as with previous years, also included several members with very public pro-Trump and in some cases conspiratorial views who’ve promoted the 2020 election fraud conspiracy. 

Mesa County’s Corey Anderson led election deniers in a door-to-door canvassing effort in search of “phantom voters.”

Another election denier, Pamela Chapman, leads the Eagle County Grassroots Conservatives, a group founded by “Trumplicans” (Chapman’s term) who found the local county GOP insufficiently pro-Boebert.

Election denial Telegram post by Pamela Chapman, LPR ’22, Aug. 16, 2021

A third student, Keenan Orcutt, who ran unsuccessfully for a statehouse seat vacancy in 2019, pushed the stolen election conspiracy on Twitter multiple times.

Asked about the presence of election deniers, Monahan acknowledged that they were there, saying, “With the recent classes, they might not have been vetting about your beliefs on X or Y or Z.” 

Another graduate had a more pointed perspective on the organization.

LPR Is a “Core Problem” with the Republican Party

“LPR is one of the core problems with the Republican community. It masquerades as a training agency, but all it really does is produce money for the people involved,” said the high-profile Republican alumnus who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It creates a false sense of capability. It’s the worst of everything because they don’t teach you how to do politics and then they turn you loose and you run for county party chair to bring Libertarianism to the Republican Party. The next thing you know, you’re asked to run the caucus and you’re completely unprepared.”

According to LPR’s application form, prospective students can agree to pay the $6500 “full cost,” the standard “subsidized” $2500 tuition, or to request scholarships to lower the amount further.

As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, the organization’s revenue and expense tax filings are public information. In 2020, the most recent year available, LPR reported total revenue of $1.8M, split between approximately $470,000 in grants and $1.33M in “program service revenue,” which includes tuition not only for the Colorado program but also its Connecticut affiliate, the Charter Oak Leadership Program, which launched a few years ago.

LPR executive director Shari Williams is the only one getting paid. Her salary is $140,000, but she also collects more than double that amount in the form of a $291,000 management fee via her consulting firm. LPR also contracts with her brother and husband for another $100,000 or so in fees for producing curriculum. That puts Williams’ family’s total 2020 compensation at just over a half million dollars. For perspective, University of Colorado’s then-president Mark Kennedy, was earning a $650,000 salary. Williams did not return a voicemail request for comment. This article will be updated with any response received.

Among LPR’s well-known alums turned political operatives is Jonathan Lockwood, class of 2016. His path was slightly different from most of his classmates as he’d already been working in politics for years prior to LPR. His positions included spokesman for the Colorado House Republican caucus, former staffer for Congressman Mike Coffman’s 2012 reelection campaign, spokesman for Coloradans for Real Education Reform, which defeated Amendment 66, and for Compass Colorado, which was involved in statewide recalls of multiple Democrats. He continued to have prominent political jobs while attending LPR, running a pair of conservative advocacy groups, Advancing Colorado and Generation Opportunity, both of which appeared routinely in statewide and national news coverage.

“LPR meets once a month and then they have speakers like Yaron Brook and others who have accomplished quite a lot,” says Lockwood. “I think a lot of the people in the program were in it to go do things in politics – things that I had already been doing for years. And so it was more philosophical than it was training people to actually go out and do things. It’s more ideological than technical.

“I did a fellowship with ALEC [American Legislative Exchange Council] and two fellowships with the Charles Koch Institute. Those programs actually have you doing projects and policy workshops and they would be so creative — it would be, ‘How can Republicans fight for real reform on these issues and fix them?’ It wasn’t just, ‘Repeal Obamacare!’ It was more like, ‘These are the problems with Obamacare and this is how we can fix them.’”

Lockwood also noted that those fellowships were free for participants, as compared with LPR’s sizable $2,500 tuition, and said he didn’t know anyone who received any of the partial scholarships LPR says are available upon request.

He also noted that even back in 2016, the program leaned solidly conservative on social issues, not just economic principles.

“What’s interesting to me is that while I was there, every week I was doing interviews with Colorado media, tackling Michael Bennet or ColoradoCare,” said Lockwood. “They would never feature anything that I did in any of their email newsletters. But if somebody got a right-wing op-ed placed in a publication that isn’t really read by the general public, they would promote that. The majority of the people in my class, and other alums are very socially conservative.”

“It’s interesting that the LPR crowd has evolved so much into this Trump crowd, because when I was in LPR, you couldn’t even hint that you thought Trump could win or should win or maybe just liked one of his speeches,” he said. “Some of the really vocal Trump supporters I was friends with in LPR got treated terribly.”

The Pitfalls of Seeking Applicants Who Already Have a “Constituency”

As a visible political spokesman, Lockwood represents the success of LPR’s recruitment system, which the group calls its Proximity Impact Model.

We employ a deployment system we call the Proximity Impact Model and it is unique in the world of leadership development. We recruit prospective influencers to whom we can teach the critical elements of freedom. … Then, the alumni, with their new skills and network of highly motivated citizens, are able to educate and activate others within their individual spheres of influence,” states the LPR website.

As Schaffer explains in an LPR promotional video, “We screen applicants. Do you have a constituency already? Have you established some profile of leadership already?”

With its focus on messaging and persuasion, LPR sees its mission as building a network of conservative advocates for constitutional principles — and for the organization itself. 

Traditionally that constituency or leadership “profile” may be a business executive, or a political operative like Lockwood, but in recent years, prospective students’ constituencies include their friends and followers on social media.

“We get a couple hundred applicants per year and we interview them and select 65 to 70 per year,” said Schaffer, who also notes that “most applicants are recruited by alumni.” 

Presumably the larger their platform, the more appealing they are as LPR recruits.

Unfortunately, as has become depressingly obvious over the past several years, the fastest way to grow social media followers is to engage with the most popular outrageous content, which data show is often right-wing conspiracy theories.

Monahan agrees that social media platforms don’t necessarily bring out the best of political discourse. 

“As an elder Millennial, I kind of hate social media, so I try not to spend a lot of time on it,” says Monahan. “It can set individuals on that downward spiral, the lowest common denominator of just whatever is salacious. It’s just ugly. And what they don’t get is that there’s a whole group of people that want you to do that. … They’re going to take advantage of the fact that you’re going to take other people down with you. 

“People need to take a lot longer to decide whether or not they believe in something. I used to have this conversation all the time running for Congress, as you might imagine, with some of these issues. I would tell them, I see people trying to sell you something — on both sides. Just remember, the most powerful forces on the planet are trying to get you to buy one way or the other. I’d like you to think long and hard before you buy what they’re selling.” 

LPR Accepted Well-Known Conspiracists

The list of LPR grads in the past few years who’ve publicly promoted dangerous conspiracy theories goes well beyond last year’s class.

Newly elected State Rep. Ty Winter (R-Trinidad) is one of several conspiratorial members of the LPR class of 2020.

election fraud conspiracy Facebook post from State Rep. Ty Winter, LPR ’20

Winter’s influencer credentials prior to attending LPR include working as a host of the alt-right “Major League Liberty” Facebook podcast, along with the then-president of the Colorado Proud Boys. In the weeks following the 2020 election, Winter, by then an LPR alumnus, posted multiple stolen election conspiracies to his Facebook page.

At least two of Winters’ classmates, Cindy Ficklin and Kristi Burton Brown, also promoted conspiracy theories at the time. Ficklin briefly ran for a Mesa County statehouse seat, but dropped out after the Colorado Times Recorder reported on her numerous Facebook posts invoking a myriad of debunked conspiracy theories.

Reached for comment, Ficklin expressed regret for her earlier Facebook posts, particularly the antisemitic tropes, saying she wasn’t aware of their origins and implications at the time. She made clear that she didn’t encounter any far right ideology during the LPR, noting that her exposure to those beliefs began instead with local conservative activists in Mesa County.

Ficklin praised LPR for its ability to bring so many people together for discussion and debate based on America’s founding documents. She highlighted the “Speak Out” sessions, in which students give speeches and then defend their positions during an interrogative exchange with their classmates.

“These folks are just truly some of the most remarkable people I’ve ever met,” said Ficklin. “So just being around them and listening to them and their experiences and their insights and and being able to to have this exchange of ideas, it’s what I would assume Harvard must be like for people, because you just have people at that at that caliber of of intellect and accomplishment.

Ficklin acknowledged that her large personal and professional networks likely made her an appealing applicant for LPR.

“I think one of the reasons I was selected the first time is because I had a huge network in both education and in business and on social media. I had all three.”

Asked if she was drawn to LPR because of her desire to run for office, Ficklin agreed that it did, while acknowledging that she was aware it wasn’t a candidate training program per se.

I was very cognizant of the fact that I didn’t know how to run for office, but I knew I wanted to one day and I knew a lot of successful candidates had gone through LPR, so therefore I felt like that was a place I should start. I knew it wasn’t a candidate training program, but there’s a lot of networking that helps you to learn who can help you know how to run a campaign. Obviously, I should have done more in that regard before I ran, but I think that we see it as a place to get started. People who might want to run for office but don’t know how do I get started see it a place to engage with others that have been successful in running for office and being elected.” 

Burton Brown, the outgoing chair of the Colorado Republicans, is also a member of the 2020 LPR class. In addition to serving as president of FEC United, an extreme conspiracist group with its own militia, she repeatedly cast doubt on the validity of the 2020 election during her successful campaign to lead the state GOP. She has since announced that she will not seek reelection. 

The Colorado Times Recorder reported on the awful racist posts of another 2020 graduate, Raymond Garcia, years before he was accepted into LPR. Apparently calling Michelle Obama a “dancing monkey” did not prevent him from making the cut, nor did his well-documented criminal record which includes domestic violence and a federal felony gun conviction. 

The 2021 class included Schumé Navarro, who had been promoting QAnon for years before joining LPR. On Jan. 6 she participated in the insurrection at our nation’s Capitol.

Comments on Navarro’s Facebook post sharing her video from the Jan. 6 insurrection

Two days later, Navarro was back in Colorado attending LPR’s monthly class.

She briefly served as Arapahoe County GOP secretary and also ran unsuccessfully for Cherry Creek School Board.

Navarro wasn’t the only QAnon promoter in her class, however. Parker Mayor Jeff Toborg made national news for sharing multiple QAnon posts, including the WWG1WGA hashtag and a conspiracy video that falsely claimed the Jan. 6 insurrection was a “false flag” operation. He subsequently apologized for doing so. But he made the apology while also working with FEC United, serving as the liaison for Republican candidates who wanted to sign the group’s pledge.

Going back even further, one of the state’s most notorious election deniers, former Mesa County Clerk Tina Peters, graduated LPR in 2018. Her class also featured a former Pueblo GOP chair, Marla Reichert, whom the Colorado Times Recorder profiled as a purveyor of fake news a year earlier. Another 2018 classmate, Vanessa DeMott, has also shared conspiracy theories, but not until years after attending LPR, when she ran unsuccessfully for statehouse.

Upcoming LPR Retreat Features Conspiracist Speakers

The conspiracy theme doesn’t appear to be fading. LPR just announced its speakers for next month’s annual retreat, the organization’s biggest event of the year. Wall Street Journal columnist and editorial board member Kim Strassel is the headliner. Strassel has promoted her share of conspiracy theories, including one which was debunked by her own outlet’s reporters just hours after she published it, but her position on the WSJ editorial board nevertheless gives her some level of mainstream credibility. 

The same cannot be said for the other announced speakers: husband and wife podcasters Patrick Courrielche and Adryana Cortez, hosts of “Red Pilled America”, which calls itself “a weekly dose of the truth.” The show uses an antisemitic dog whistle in its tagline, promising to “tell the tales Hollywood and the Globalists don’t want you to hear.” Episodes soft pedal conspiracy theories including election denialism and anti-vaccine propaganda, while others offer fawning profiles of alt-right personalities including Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Jack Posibiec and pedophilia apologist Milo Yiannopoulos.

“It’s embarrassing to alumni to see these types of speakers,” says Lockwood. “Not only do you want to put stuff on your resume that you did, but LPR has a responsibility to its alumni to uphold and maintain an ethical framework of whom they’re promoting.”

In a follow-up to the interview, Lockwood added: 

“Republicans in Colorado have gone from soundly defeating statewide ballot proposals, recalling lawmakers, flipping seats, controlling chambers of the Legislature, and having measured impact on lives and livelihoods, to clustering in chaotic, rigged county and state party committees, debasing themselves and losing everything, holding accountable no one and guzzling orange Kool-Aid for their golden calf. It’s disturbing and the rational Republicans who refuse to speak out and execute thoughtful strategies are complicit in the demise of the party. Hopefully cocktails at the Broadmoor and vanity campaigns are worth it.”

Defenders of LPR insist that the vast majority of its graduates are not extremists, but, if even that’s true, they will be leaving this year’s program with seeds of conspiracies planted in their syllabuses. There’s a good chance they will have rubbed elbows with election deniers — some of whom will go on to infect the media, think tanks, political campaigns, advocacy groups, and beyond.

Why LPR does not take steps to stop this — by excluding extremist elements in the program — is not known. At least one member of LPR’s current class served as a local leader with FEC United. Stacy Adair (LPR ’23) was FEC United’s Education Pillar Chair for El Paso County in 2020 and 2021. She also spoke at election conspiracist Mike Lindell’s “Election Truth Rally” last April.

LPR Chair Schaffer says the organization “screens applicants” and only accept about third of them every year. Yet his explanation of the screening involved ensuring class members simply have a constituency, not why that constituency exists. At a time when the conservative movement in Colorado has collapsed under a blue avalanche, it seems like a good question to start asking.

Colorado Times Recorder reporter Heidi Beedle contributed to this report.

This is part one of a multi-part series on the Leadership Program of the Rockies. Read Part Two here. Read Part Three here.