Glendale Mayor Mike Dunafon, with wife Debbie Matthews. (Cyrus McCrimmon, Denver Post file)

Gubernatorial candidate Mike Dunafon has no party, little money, but lots of appeal

Mike Dunafon is a political enigma for the Colorado governor’s race: pro-gun, pro-pot, anti-big government and pro-abortion rights. He favors the death penalty and he supports gay marriage.

An unaffiliated candidate, Dunafon has just $30,000 of his own money to take on the millions that will be spent to elect incumbent Democrat John Hickenlooper or GOP nominee Bob Beauprez.

But if the divide between the major parties remains as razor thin as the polls now suggest, the Glendale mayor, former Denver Bronco and husband of the Shotgun Willie’s strip club owner could determine who is Colorado’s next governor simply by draining votes from one candidate or the other.

The question is: which one?

Four of Colorado’s best-known political pundits had a hard time with the question. They agreed his chances of winning are akin to a Willie’s dancer becoming the principal ballerina of the Bolshoi Ballet, but they also agree a candidate with Dunafon’s charisma and broad platform will attract attention and could put a dent in either party’s base.

“It could get interesting to see who he helps and hurts,” said Paul Teske, dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. “But he could make a difference if the polls stay close.”

Denver pollster Floyd Ciruli calls Dunafon the “middle-finger candidate” for voters sending a message about partisan politics.

“Clearly, this is a year where a lot of people are so unhappy with the major parties where an unaffiliated candidate could get a lot of votes,” Ciruli said. “If this remains as close a race as it is now, a candidate like him could make a difference, even if he managed to get just 5 percent.”

Also running are Green Party candidate Harry Hempy and Libertarian Matthew Hess.

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Dunafon says he is in it to win it and rejects the notion of not trying just because the odds are long.

He looks anything but the part of a politician, however.

In a pinstripe suit, he laid out his low-spending, “pro-liberty” platform on the patio outside the strip club, a plump cigar waiting in the middle of the table as the sexy beat of “American Woman” thumped out the patio door from the club’s neon-lit cavern.

He is a rebel with a cause.

“My background is one where you grew up and did what you said you were going to do or you got your ass kicked,” he said.

Dunafon considers himself a conservative — a Tea Party organizer a decade before Tea Partying was cool.

He favors looser immigration policies, as long as immigrants can speak English. Dunafon supports fracking, but he also favors tougher safeguards than currently exist with local control for communities.

“Now you’re going to have a governor sitting up there that’s not going to let either side play party politics,” he said of his unaffiliated status. “And, you say, ‘Well, you’re not going to get anything done.’ Let me suggest to you that everything they’ve done so far is not good.

“Now you’re going to have three or four months of hell and everything getting vetoed until people cross those aisles, start talking to each other and say, ‘How can we move our state forward instead of our party?’ “

Political climate

Hickenlooper and Beauprez each have provided reasons to drive off voters from their respective bases in Dunafon’s direction.

Hickenlooper has irritated members of his liberal base by supporting fracking, bad-mouthing marijuana (though he made much of his personal fortune from booze) and threatening to veto a bill that would abolish the death penalty, which effectively sank the legislation.

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Beauprez is a moderate who has never been embraced by far-right conservatives, a factor which is thought to have contributed to his 17-point loss to Bill Ritter in 2006 and made Tom Tancredo a tough competitor in the June 24 primary.

Younger voters could side with Dunafon, which would be a blow to Hickenlooper’s perceived strength.

Dunafon’s field director, Danielle Wall, graduated from Auburn University in May. She was chairwoman of the school’s College Republicans chapter. (Auburn’s student body was rated the most conservative in the nation last year by the Princeton Review.)

Wall met Dunafon when he was the keynote speaker at the College Republican Federation of Alabama Fall Convention last September.

“A lot of young people’s views don’t fit in just one party,” she said. “They have their own views on all kinds of issues. They shouldn’t have to choose.”

Dunafon was listed in the program as a “refreshing new voice” who would “resonate with millions of Americans fed up with politics as usual. Imagine a world that is libertarian, secular, fiscally conservative, big-family, small-government and decidedly pro-business.”

Unlikely path

Dunafon was a star wide receiver at the University of Northern Colorado, then was on the roster of the Broncos in 1976 and 1977 until injuries ended his NFL career. He played rugby in the British Virgin Islands from 1978 to 1992, before returning to Colorado to get into business.

His family goes back generations in Colorado. His father was a rodeo cowboy prone to wander, said Dunafon, who was born in a home for unwed mothers and drifted between homes of relatives and sometimes an orphanage.

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The fact he’s on the ballot is happenstance.

“I got into politics with a gun to my head,” said Dunafon, who has made his political name on the backs of strippers and rugby scrums. “I had no desire ever to be in politics.”

Dunafon met his future wife, Debbie Matthews, in 1995. Three years later, the city of Glendale sought to put her out of business by banning lap dancers and any nudity after midnight, as well as raising the age to strip from 18 to 21.

He was outraged that government would target legal businesses. so he organized the Glendale Tea Party in 1998.

Shotgun Willie’s hosted a voter registration drive with free beer and 40 strippers and flooded the voter roll in a 369-acre town of 2,500 residents and a few hundred voters.

The city rescinded the ordinance and ousted three council members for Tea Party members. Dunafon ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2000, but then won a council seat in 2004.

For the past couple of years, he and Matthews have been followed around by videographers for either a reality TV show or a documentary about their lives in politics, business and T&A.

Dunafon swears his run for governor is no Balloon Boy-type publicity stunt.

“I think anybody getting into this would get a lot less out of it than they think they’re going to get,” he said.

He got in the race because he lost a bet. Dunafon promised if his Facebook page topped 60,000 “likes” by his 60th birthday on April 6, he would collect the 1,000 petition signatures to get on the ballot. His signatures were certified on July 17.

The thrust of his campaign, so far, is his YouTube channel, a trove of sometimes inspiring, sometimes hilarious political theater, and it’s sometimes difficult to tell what’s serious and what’s satire.

But he also has a strong record to run on.

Dunafon was the driving force behind Glendale’s $22.5 million, 5,000-seat Infinity Park rugby stadium that hosts world-class tournaments and garners Glendale the name Rugby Town USA for the sport Dunafon played, coached and loves.

Last August, Glendale hosted a rally for weapons manufacturer Magpul, after the company said it would leave the state over Colorado’s new gun laws.

“You are in the Vatican of liberty, the Luxembourg of freedom,” Dunafon told the crowd of 5,000 at the rally.

Now, Dunafon just wants a shot.

“They represent the same thing over and over and over again,” he said of Hickenlooper and Beauprez. “And if people are tired of the same old thing, they need to try something different.”

Joey Bunch: 303-954-1174, or

Mike dunafon for governor

Family: Wife, Debbie Matthews

Political experience: organizer of the Glendale Tea party, council member and mayor.

Education: University of Northern Colorado

Strength: Personality.

Weaknesses: No funding, no party, fragmented base.

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