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O’Dea wants to bite the hand that feeds him by slashing government spending

September 29, 2022, 10:55 am
Republican Senate candidate and construction CEO Joe O’Dea looks on at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Colorado River Connectivity Project near Granby on Aug. 23 (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline).

When Colorado’s U.S. Senate candidates hit the campaign trail on the Western Slope last month, their paths briefly crossed atop a dam on the Colorado River in the high country east of Granby. Incumbent Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and Joe O’Dea, his Republican challenger, both attended the groundbreaking for the Colorado River Connectivity Project, a mile-long diversion aimed at restoring a riparian ecosystem damaged by the construction of the Windy Gap Reservoir in the 1980s.

While Bennet’s appearance, after helping to secure federal funding for the project, was natural enough, an environmentalist-backed plan to spend up to $14 million in taxpayer money to protect sensitive aquatic habitats for giant stoneflies and mottled sculpins may have seemed an unlikely candidate for a staunch fiscal conservative’s approval.

O’Dea, however, cheered the project as a “great example of collaboration,” a “win-win” that is “good for the river and the people who recreate there.”

His company, Denver-based Concrete Express Inc., is the restoration project’s general contractor.

As a civil construction company, CEI gets the vast majority of its business from city and county governments, funded overwhelmingly by a mix of local, state and federal dollars. After more than 30 years in business, managing these publicly-funded projects has made O’Dea a wealthy man — and now that wealth is helping propel a Senate campaign whose No. 1 priority, O’Dea says, is slashing government spending.

The dissonance hasn’t gone unnoticed.

“I hear he hates federal spending, except for the $14 million that built this thing,” Bennet said of O’Dea to a reporter following the groundbreaking at Windy Gap.

In an email, O’Dea communications director Kyle Kohli called the project “an ecologically responsible project that will help wildlife and help conserve Colorado water.”

“These kinds of common-sense projects are worthwhile,” Kohli wrote. “By contrast, Michael Bennet and Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion boondoggle fueled the inflationary crisis that’s dragging down the economy. Reckless and wasteful federal spending is the reason working Americans are struggling to afford their grocery and utility bills.”

If elected to the Senate, O’Dea plans to “either divest his assets or place them in a blind trust to ensure there will be no conflicts,” Kohli said.

When asked about CEI’s government contracts in a FOX31 interview earlier this month, the first-time candidate sought to make a distinction between other kinds of federal spending and “dollars that are being invested in assets here in Colorado.”

“Those are the clients that we have,” he said. “We’ve been fair with them all. We’ve done a great job. I have a great company, and I’m not afraid to talk about the money that we’ve gotten from the government.”

$400 million in government contracts

CEI’s work on several segments of the Peaks to Plains Trail, part of a long-term plan for a continuous series of bike paths between Denver and the Continental Divide, is typical of its civil infrastructure work: a project overseen by local governments, supplemented with state and federal funds and occasional private grants.

Since 2013, Jefferson and Clear Creek counties have awarded contracts totaling at least $48 million to CEI for several segments and construction phases, county records show. Significant funding for the Peaks to Plains project has come from Great Outdoors Colorado, a state initiative funded by lottery proceeds, as well as the federal Transportation Alternatives Program. TAP funds are a frequent target of conservative critics of federal spending, with many congressional Republicans favoring eliminating the program entirely.

A Newsline review of publicly available records found more than $400 million in government contracts awarded to CEI by state and local government entities, most of them within the last 15 years. The combined figure likely represents only a portion of the publicly-funded work the company has undertaken since its founding in 1986.

The projects, mostly the result of competitive bidding processes, range in scope from minor sidewalk or drainage improvements to a multi-year, $40 million Colorado Department of Transportation contract to reconstruct a stretch of U.S. 285 in southwest Denver. Sen. Michael Bennet speaks at the Colorado Water Congress in Steamboat Springs on Aug. 23, 2022. (Chase Woodruff/Colorado Newsline)

It’s been a highly lucrative business for CEI’s founder and CEO. In a personal financial disclosure filed earlier this year, O’Dea estimated his net worth at between $17 and $80 million, with CEI stock valued at between $5 million and $25 million, representing his largest single asset.

He’s invested a total of more than $1.6 million of that fortune in his Senate campaign, according to Federal Election Commission disclosures. O’Dea’s early self-funding was key to his strategy in securing the GOP nomination, allowing him to qualify for the June primary ballot via an expensive signature-gathering effort rather than a state party assembly dominated by far-right conspiracy theorists.

Though CEI’s record isn’t spotless — it’s faced penalties for safety violations, including for a 2007 roof collapse in Greenwood Village that injured 13 workers — its government clients have generally been satisfied with its work. The company’s performance was deemed “standard” or “above standard” on four CDOT-managed projects for which it’s received a rating.

In an uphill battle to unseat Bennet in an increasingly Democratic-leaning state, O’Dea has pitched himself as a moderate, endorsing limited abortion rights early in pregnancy and a bipartisan $550 billion package of infrastructure spending passed by Congress last year.

But he has been a relentless critic of what he calls “reckless” federal spending under President Joe Biden, including the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion stimulus bill passed in March 2021, and the Inflation Reduction Act, a package of health care and clean energy measures enacted this year. O’Dea said of the latter bill that he “didn’t see anything in there that I like.”

“They’ve got to quit spending,” he told an interviewer earlier this month. “We’ve got to stifle the spending. We’ve got to slow that down.”

“Priority one,” O’Dea’s website says, is to “reduce Biden-era spending to reduce inflation and the deficit.” Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Joe O’Dea speaks Sept. 10, 2022, during the Club 20 Western Colorado Candidate Debates at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. (William Woody for Colorado Newsline)

‘I got asked to go to some lunches’

O’Dea’s work lobbying for government contracts brought him into close contact with elected officials, Republican and Democrat alike — including Bennet, to whom O’Dea made a $500 campaign contribution in 2010.

At an event hosted by a Denver Republican group ahead of the June primary, O’Dea explained that he had made the donation while serving as president of the Colorado Contractors Association, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of the civil construction industry.

“I got asked to go to some lunches, (and) made some contributions,” O’Dea said.

His contribution to Bennet’s first reelection campaign was among the more than $36,000 in donations O’Dea and his wife have made to political candidates in Colorado since 2005, according to data from the FEC and the Colorado secretary of state’s office. His primary rival, far-right state Rep. Ron Hanks, dubbed his opponent “Pay-to-Play O’Dea.”

Infrastructure funding, particularly for projects centered on road and highway expansions, has long been a cause championed by Republicans at the Colorado statehouse. Under O’Dea’s leadership, the CCA lobbied in support of a 2009 bill, the Funding Advancements for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery — or FASTER — Act, which increased vehicle registration and rental fees to generate an additional $200 million annually for transportation projects.

In a state with strict fiscal constraints like the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, budgetary battles have often pitted infrastructure investments against spending on social programs. In 2018, when conservative groups backed $3.5 billion in debt-financed transportation spending via the unsuccessful “Fix Our Damn Roads” ballot measure, progressive groups slammed the initiative as a plan to “put up our schools and hospitals and childcare as collateral.”

O’Dea, too, has continued to endorse substantial infrastructure investments while drawing a hard line against social spending like health care subsidies and Biden’s plan for student debt relief, arguing that such measures are fueling inflation and amount to an “embrace of socialism by the political elites in Washington.” He has faulted pandemic-era relief measures for “making it too easy not to work,” stressing the need to “get (workers) off the couch,” and has also suggested cuts to longstanding entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

“In order to manage the debt, you’re going to have to grab everything,” he told Denver radio host Ross Kaminsky in June. “We need to make (government) small and efficient so that it can do the things that we need it to do, like fund our police, fund our military, fund our infrastructure.”

As O’Dea pitches his small-government message to Colorado voters, his ads and campaign materials have put little emphasis on the specific nature of CEI’s business, while his supporters praise him as a “self-made” entrepreneur. And in another radio interview earlier this year, the candidate who reaped the benefits of hundreds of millions in government funding offered a different interpretation of his success as he promised to “start hacking back this government.”

“We don’t need all that help,” said O’Dea. “My business ran the best when we had the least amount of help from our government.”

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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