Colorado state senator Kevin Priola (Acct, Fin’96) joined the Republican party at age 17. He was active in College Republicans during his time on campus and was elected to the Colorado state house from the 30th district in the 2008 election. In 2016, he was elected to the state senate, 25th district.
In August of 2022, Priola made a decision that sent shock waves through his party: He switched parties, registering as a Democrat. Here, Priola talks about his journey through politics, his experience at CU Boulder and how he changed parties amid a highly politicized point in U.S. history.
What influenced you to join the Republican Party as a teenager?
My family was from a small business background, and I really admired Ronald Reagan. In my opinion, he was a calming presence for the country. I knew back then that not everybody loved him, but in general, I felt like he brought the best out of people in the country and made us proud to be Americans.
How did your time at CU shape the way you moved through your career?
Being a Ralphie Handler probably had more of an influence on me than anything. It gave me experience with the press and being in the spotlight. It gave me a quiet sense of confidence. There’s nothing like handling a 1,300-pound animal in front of 85,000 people.
Is there an ethos that grounds your decision-making in your career?
I try to honestly put myself in the shoes of the average Colorado voter. I try to remember tens of thousands of conversations I’ve had knocking on doors and talking to people through the summers. What do they think is fair? What do they think is right?
What is different about today’s parties compared to when you entered politics?
The extremes of both parties are a little more extreme than they were 20 years ago. The reasonable voices are often shouted down and pushed out. I understand enough about politics to know that this happens through time: Parties move, and the political pendulum swings back and forth. I never thought I would see a political realignment in my lifetime, but I honestly think we’re going through one right now.
You switched to the Democratic Party in 2022. Can you talk about what shaped that decision and what the process was like?
It was years in the making. I just kept seeing the Republican party become more and more extreme. They were embracing things and talking about things that I didn’t recognize anymore. I felt like I was tacitly approving of it by being associated with it.
Do you have an answer for how citizens can effectively participate in democracy?
There are thousands of ways to participate — vote, help candidates raise money, participate in town halls, write letters, lobby your city council. I think democratic institutions are like muscles: They need to be used, or they atrophy and get weak. My hope is that people start voting and engaging more in the process.
Do you have anything to say to the people who voted for you in 2020?
I think they voted for me for my values and my perspective, not necessarily because there was an R or a D behind my name. And I’m going to stay true to those values.