Coal, balance, public lands and putting the miles on the car
by Mark Reaman
Crested Butte’s Gail Schwartz is the Democratic Party’s nominee for Colorado’s Third Congressional District. Challenging Republican incumbent Scott Tipton, Schwartz said she feels she has the passion and experience to effectively represent the sprawling district that includes places as diverse as Crested Butte, Pueblo, Grand Junction and Cortez.
Schwartz and her husband moved to Crested Butte two years ago. Prior to that they lived in Snowmass and Aspen. In 2006 and 2010, she was elected to the Colorado State Senate. She has also been elected to the Colorado Board of Regents from the Third Congressional District.
We sat down with Schwartz between campaign stops, and she made it clear that while she and Scott Tipton have a cordial personal relationship, there are stark differences when it comes to issues such as water, jobs, climate and public lands. Aware of the recent affordable housing kerfuffle, she also touched on her time as a planner for ski areas and the need for affordable housing in towns such as Crested Butte and Aspen.
Here are some excerpts from a conversation held on Elk Avenue.
News: Was affordable housing something people thought about in the 1980s when you were helping to plan ski villages and living over in Aspen?
GS: The market in ski towns exploded in the 1980s and that’s when locals couldn’t really buy property in ski towns, so it was an important time to look at how to stabilize communities. And not just for our [service] workforce, but for our seniors and our people working in places like the school districts and the hospital. We put language in the land use code that was used to get the marketplace to step up with the housing.
News: How did you end up getting to a position to run for Congress?
GS: I bring a lot of community grassroots work to the position. I was asked by Governor Roy Romer to serve on the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and I thought, “I love this policy stuff.” So I ran for the Board of Regents against an incumbent when nobody knew me. I realized that if you wanted to attract resources for higher education you did it through the legislative process. So then I ran and won against a 22-year incumbent from the San Luis Valley for state senator. So I’ve run and won three times in this district and this will be number four.
News: What was the motivation to run?
GS: I sat in on a meeting with Scott Tipton at the invitation of the Citizens Climate Lobby group about two months ago. We talked with ski area reps about the issues impacting the ski industry and the fact that the Colorado ski industry is a $5 billion industry with 44,000 employees. The comment from the industry executives was that “March is the new May” and we have to address climate issues. Plus we aren’t seeing federal dollars from the industry come back to Colorado in terms of concession fees. The industry puts in $22 million but only $1 million comes back.
We need to reinvest the dollars the ski industry is putting into our federal lands. And the comment was that Scott Tipton doesn’t believe in climate change and he is more interested in the coal jobs. I am sympathetic to the coal jobs as well. Any job loss in rural Colorado is important and should be addressed. But that conversation made me think that this person is not representing the jobs, the industries, the issues that are so critical to Western Colorado. My thinking was, “Somebody needs to run against him.” But it wasn’t going to be me. But now it is.
News: Do you guys get along?
GS: He and I have a very nice rapport and I have always enjoyed talking to him. But at that point I saw that while we agreed on issues around things like hydro-generation, I just thought it important to protect the recreation industry—protecting public lands and not selling and leasing our country’s public lands. There are clear differences between us when it comes to a changing climate and being able to mitigate the impacts of that. There are differences when it comes to our water, and when it comes to our jobs, and the issue of public lands and providing enough resources to the federal agencies to maintain our public lands and making sure the leasing of our public lands is done in an appropriate way. I do think we need to protect this resource since our economies all hinge on the protection of the resource, not selling it off or leasing it off. Thompson Divide is the perfect example.
I think we have to adapt to a changing climate. We will have 20 percent to 30 percent less water here in the future. We have to be able to mitigate impacts and support the opportunities to diversify our economies. That’s where we need responsiveness.
My position has always been to represent the communities and the people who I was elected by. It doesn’t matter what party but it’s important to represent the interests of these comm unities and work with them to identify resources and solutions to the issues.
News: It’s early in the campaign, but do you feel like you are getting traction out there in such a big district?
GS: As I’ve said, I’ve won three times in this district. I have a commitment to the water community and the agricultural community. I’ve worked with these issues in the state senate and worked with people throughout the district.
News: It seems your legislative background was focused on education.
GS: My legislative background was really on renewable energy and energy in general. Along with agricultural and water, I’ve done quite a bit on education. Those are three legs of the stool. I’m proud of what we accomplished in eight years with renewable energy and the issues around agricultural and natural resources.
With education, I ran bills for funding needs for higher education. It provided about a billion dollars in capital that went into higher education. I sponsored the “Building Excellent Schools Today” legislation that has built $1.2 billion in rural schools in five years through a funding source with the state lands board. So we blended that with local bonding capacity to build schools. I am very proud of that. Rural communities were caught in a predicament and we figured out a solution to make education opportunities fair and uniform.
News: Does the size of the district intimidate you?
GS: I represented 13 counties that covered about 20,000 square miles in the senate. I drove 350,000 miles while I was in the state senate. I show up. I’m in communities. I’m present to issues. And that is a real priority for me. There is a pattern of my being present in a community and talking to people about issues. This is very second-nature to me.
News: What about Tipton’s charges that you are responsible for losing coal jobs on the Western Slope?
GS: There was a comment that I led the war on coal. The free market led the war on coal. I have actually worked quite hard and stood up against my caucus on issues to protect the coal jobs and the coal industry in my district. That includes the roadless rule and making sure the venting opportunities were there. I’ve stood up against the environmental community to address the coal jobs issue. I really care for generations of coal miners and their families and work very hard for identifying state resources.
I have also worked hard on broadband in rural areas. How can we have 21st century jobs when we can’t connect our communities to the global marketplace? So broadband has been a big push for me. That being said, I am equally concerned about the coal jobs.
News: Are you prepared for the meanness of a national political campaign?
GS: I’ve always run on my own merit. It’s not about Scott Tipton. It’s about what I can offer. I always run on my own record. I plan to keep it on that level. I’m not afraid to point out very clearly what our differences are and let people have a choice and have a broader conversation. He’s served for six years. My eight-year record in the state senate produced so much in terms of policy and opportunity. I feel I can do the same thing in Congress.
News: Why run now and what will you bring if things change in Washington?
GS: When I had that conversation a couple months ago I saw very clearly what is not being represented by our current congressman. Secondly, for the last six years I was asked weekly if I would run for this office. Given the national conversation I think this is the year to do it. I still have a lot of passion and experience to bring and I felt it was the time to step up.
The question is, how do we bring a balance? You have people now going to Washington to shut it down. I want to be one of those that go to Washington to seek solutions. My opponent voted repeatedly to shut down the government. That’s not me. Ninety-five percent of my bills were bipartisan. I am used to collaboration, reaching across the aisle and finding solutions.
News: Anything else?
GS: I think the race is competitive and people are receptive to my candidacy. So I’m very optimistic that this is the year and we can have the conversation and bring some things into balance. I’m not afraid of the work it will take. And I’ve developed a thicker skin the last 15 years so I can deal with the expected aggressiveness. Listening and hearing the issues that are unique to each community is an important part of the job.