This weekend Colorado’s most prominent multi-issue progressive advocacy organization will celebrate two decades’ worth of delivering digital communications, rallying progressives for real-life events, and generating headlines with memorable political stunts.
Fittingly, the festivities are taking place at the newly remodeled and reimagined Casa Bonita, an aging Colorado kitsch icon that COVID couldn’t kill. From waterfall high dives to pirate-gorilla theater, Colfax’s pink landmark inspired so many laughs and passion that it found a way to survive. Progressive change requires the same driving forces: people have to care enough to get involved and they have to have enough fun to keep going in the face of footnoted reports and the blandest of talking points.
ProgressNow was ahead of its time. Established in the early-ish days of the internet as Colorado’s largest online progressive advocacy organization, PNC leveraged the efficiency of low-cost digital communications to push progressive messages to Coloradans and when it engaged people in real life, it tried to make them laugh.
Most of the 75,000 fans who showed up to watch their Broncos take on the Dolphins in November of 2008 weren’t thinking about the upcoming election, at least until a plane buzzed over Mile High Stadium towing a banner that read “McCain is Raiders Fan.” Some chuckled and some no doubt booed, but perhaps a handful were reminded to go vote, and the same goes for thousands more who saw it in the news the next day.
Founded by attorney Michael Huttner in 2003, the organization has had seven executive directors over its time. It’s currently helmed by Sara Loflin, who came to PNC from a long career in environmental advocacy.
Best known for its frank and humorous skewering of conservatives, PNC specializes in exposing candidates’ weaknesses through research and branding. There’s nothing as devastating in politics as a negative nickname, hence PNC’s affinity for tagging Republican targets with ruthlessly effective alliterations.
Its first truly memorable success came in 2006, when they pummeled then-Congressman Bob Beauprez during his gubernatorial race against Bill Ritter. Armed with a nickname bestowed by Beauprez’s Republican primary opponent, PNC drove home the “Both Ways Bob” brand so effectively it remained stuck to Beauprez eight years later when he again tried for the state’s top office, this time losing to John Hickenlooper. Westword gave their “BWB Flip-flops” its “Best Political Campaign Souvenir” Award.
Beauprez wasn’t the only Bob on an involuntary first-name basis with a PNC brand. 2008 U.S. Senate hopeful Bob Schaffer, who like Beauprez, was a former congressman, became “Big Oil Bob” thanks to a series of PNC press releases and digital media about his post-Congress career, including an online ad featuring then-executive director Bobby Clark.
Ken Buck, who these days has stayed in the headlines by kneecapping his own party’s speaker, is still in the House in part thanks to PNC, which helped keep him out of the Senate in 2010 by highlighting his decision not to prosecute an admitted rape because, he told the victim, jurors might consider it “buyer’s remorse.”
Fast forward to 2012, as President Obama was gearing up for a second term, he faced a stiff challenge from Mitt Romney. The former blue-state governor decided to add another preppy haircut to his ticket choosing feisty Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate. The youthful, attention-loving veep hopeful, who posed for his own tank-top workout photo shoot today might be described as “thirsty.” Ryan made a pair of boasts about his athletic achievements that he lobbed up for Progress Now’s team to dunk right in his face.
Ryan raised eyebrows when he claimed he finished his only marathon in a pro-level three hours. After fact-checkers determined he was off by more than an hour, PNC’s stunt team went to work. A couple weeks later at Denver’s Rock ’n’ Roll marathon, Alan Franklin set up his own “Paul Ryan Finish Line” at 19 miles —where the 4-hour marathoner would have been at the 3-hour mark— earning cheers and inspiring similar signs at other races across the country as the election entered its, ahem, home stretch.
In an even more direct affront to Coloradans, Ryan also claimed to have climbed 40 of the state’s 53 fourteeners (14,000’ peaks). He eventually walked that number back as well, but not before PNC’s team ascended to the top of Pike’s Peak to spoof Ryan with a timely photo riffing off another GOP meme from that cycle, Clint Eastwood’s RNC convention speech to an empty chair.
Before either of his bro-y sports bungles, the PNC crew derailed the Romney-Ryan campaign’s kickoff event, which it dared to set in Lakewood. Focusing on Ryan’s biggest policy weakness- his support of the so-called Personhood amendment, which Colorado voters had already rejected by wide margins twice, PNC volunteers reserved advance tickets for the event under the names Fertilized Egg and Fertzie Eggers. While they waited in line, a plane circled overhead towing banner that read, “Hey girl, choose me, lose choice. – P. Ryan.” The jokes involving Ryan Gosling memes are too old to explain, but were relevant enough at the time to intrigue Rachel Maddow, who devoted a full segment to it.
All of these anecdotes highlight PNC’s ability to call out a politician for dishonesty or hypocrisy or unpopular policy positions- they’re all attacks. And they all garnered statewide or national press that presumably impacted the races. Yet they all pale in comparison to PNC’s biggest media coup, the “Got Insurance” ads they ran in 2013 as part of the #Thanks Obamacare campaign. The brainchild of digital director Jen Caltrider, Thanks Obamacare was launched in 2011 from a simple premise- the law that expanded healthcare is a good idea that most people like.
In 2013 Caltrider’s edgy digital ads took the internet, mainstream media, and eventually the United States Congress, by storm. Dozens of images featuring young Americans celebrating their access to healthcare, including for risqué reasons like keg stands (more money for beer!) and one-night stands (free birth control!) dominated news shows and digital media to the tune of tens of millions of views, eventually leading to a pearl-clutching Cory Gardner displaying posters of the ads to a House committee and (via C-SPAN) the nation, to express his outrage at such naughty subjects.
In February of 2014, Obama, who had previously been reluctant to embrace the term, was asked by Charles Barkley about the term on national TV. His answer? “I like it. I don’t mind.”
2014 wasn’t all roses and glory, however. Republican Cory Gardner edged out Mark Udall in Colorado’s U.S. Senate race. Once in office, however, Gardner became very hard to find, at least for his constituents and the press. Working with Front Range activists who organized in the wake of Trump’s election, PNC helped launch “Cardboard Cory,” a campaign using a literal cardboard cut-out to call out the senator’s absence from public events. His avoidance of cameras may have had something to do with an experience he had a couple years earlier. As a freshman congressman he did appear on air, albeit unwittingly, after CBS learned of a fundraising junket at a swanky resort in the Florida Keys and caught Gardner hobnobbing with lobbyists on a boat called “Good Life.” PNC promptly memorialized that incident by hauling an actual boat to the state capitol for a press conference.
Once Trump took office Cardboard Cory became a staple of Gardner’s term. Cutouts would do stand-in duty at myriad accountability rallies and events, giving participants a two-dimensional version of their senator at which to direct their questions.
PNC wasn’t just focused on statewide figures. In a contest that proved prescient in light of today’s wave of religious right groups attacking public schools over LGBT issues, PNC helped recall the conservative evangelical majority on the Jefferson County School Board, which after their election in 2013, tried to replace AP U.S. History curriculum with a more “patriotic” version that didn’t include lessons they considered to be “America-bashing.” To highlight the whitewashing, PNC’s digital team helped the online #JeffcoSchoolBoardHistory campaign go viral, eventually getting covered by the New York Times.
PNC also helped snuff out the campaign of another potential Republican senator, state Rep. Jon Keyser. The group’s researchers discovered forged signatures among those his campaign submitted to get on the ballot. As so often happens when politician’s egos are involved, an incident that could have been managed with an apology and dismissing a consultant or two instead snowballed when the campaign refused to answer reporters’ questions and even implicitly threatened 9News’ Marshall Zelinger with his dog. Keyser eventually lost the 2016 GOP primary to far-right habitual candidate Darryl Glenn, who lost to Bennet in an otherwise rough year for Democrats.
Leveraging pop culture for political protest has always been a PNC specialty, and it again used the technique when then-Vice President Pence visited Colorado Springs to speak at Focus on the Family. The location, Pence’s policy positions, and the date all led to a successful protest featuring women in the red shawls of the Handmaid’s Tale, which had concluded its first season two weeks earlier. PNC didn’t come up with the concept (which began in Texas), but its targeting of Pence seemed to stick, as his public appearances were often bird-dogged by red-cloaked protesters for the rest of his term.
As the Trump years wore on, PNC helped lighten the mood in the summer of 2018, by smuggling a portrait of Vladimir Putin into the state Capitol gallery and briefly installing it in the empty space reserved for the 45th president’s painting. National and international new coverage followed.
As November 2020 loomed, and with Trump’s loss in Colorado a foregone conclusion, PNC focused its efforts on Gardner. The Cardboard Cory campaign added a bus and launched a statewide tour, bringing his quarter-inch thick commentary on his 3-D version’s failing to every corner of Colorado. The Colorado Sun described it as “one of the most iconic advocacy campaigns in recent memory.”
Is filming people asking a piece of cardboard stern questions about healthcare policy or gun violence silly? Yes. Of course. But it also spoke to people’s real concerns and gave them a way to have fun, and take action, even if it was just sharing a short video message with friends online.
Last year’s election saw more of PNC’s research and media work that has kept it a force in Colorado politics these past two decades. This time the battleground was state’s new Eighth Congressional District, where the PNC team generated headlines calling out GOP candidate Barbara Kirkmeyer’s blatantly false ads. As a state senator, Kirkmeyer knew full-well that her legislative colleague, Democrat Yadeira Caraveo, didn’t “legalize fentanyl,” but that’s what the attack ads claimed. Ultimately, Caraveo eked out a narrow win in the district’s first-ever contest.
Next year there will be another set of elections, and PNC will again deliver facts, figures, and framing, along with a nickname or two. The goal as always, help progressives across the finish line by getting Coloradans to care about politics and hopefully have some fun along the way.