A Q-and-A with new Gunnison County commissioner Liz Smith

Bringing a different perspective, while emphasizing unity

By Mark Reaman

When John Messner retired from his District 1 county commissioner seat on July 1 to take a position with the state, the Gunnison County Democrats had 10 days to appoint his replacement to fill out his term for the year. They met last week and chose Liz Smith, the political party’s co-chair. She will also run for the seat this November and while many of these questions will come up during the campaign we felt it fair to get some of her perspective as a sitting commissioner.

Why did you throw your hat (or mask) in the ring to replace John Messner?

In recent years, I have been deeply troubled by the divisiveness in our national and local politics. In my tenure as co-chair for the Gunnison County Democratic Party, I have consistently promoted unity as our most important core value, arguing that we need to find hidden virtues in positions we disagree with to leverage the common ground we share with members in our community. For me, the message of unity is not simply a dinner theme or campaign slogan. It represents a core value I strive to live by in my teaching, relationships, community activism and day-to-day life. This is a value I think our entire community could benefit from right now.

What is your professional background?

In a word? Varied. I completed my Ph.D. in English and Cultural Studies from the University of Oklahoma in December 2016 and have more than 10 years of teaching experience. While completing my doctoral degree, I also developed a profitable technical writing and editing business working on short- and long-term projects, including grants for institutions like the National Weather Service, technology proposals for the military, medical and psychiatric reports for workman’s compensation litigation, land impact studies and appraisals related to large-scale eminent domain projects. Additionally, in my experience coordinating two programs at Western Colorado University and spending five seasons directing the aquatics program at Boulder Country Club, I have developed and overseen budgets up to $55,000, managed staffs as large as 30 and cultivated a strong set of interpersonal skills to successfully collaborate with numerous programs and stakeholders.

What is your political experience background?

I became politically active in Gunnison County almost as soon as we moved here. Bill (my husband) and I brought our son, Jacob, to the 2016 caucus when he was just 1½, and I signed up to be a Precinct Committee Person (PCP) on the spot. Within a few months, Jeremy Rubingh asked me to co-chair the Gunnison County Democratic Party with him. In this role, I’ve been responsible for facilitating many essential processes for a functioning democracy, such as the Democratic Party precinct caucuses and county assemblies. I’ve helped audit our local elections and have hauled my son to Democratic State Assemblies so I could represent the viewpoints of our county. I’ve canvassed and phone banked to get out the vote and increase participation in our local elections. In these capacities, I’ve also developed close working relationships with our local, multi-county and statewide elected officials.

If elected in November, do you plan to keep your current job?

I consider the county commissioner position a full-time job, and my work at Western would be scaled accordingly if I’m elected in November. Fortunately, before COVID-19, I had already made the decision to work part-time this school year to figure out how to make a career pivot towards public service. Since being appointed to the county commissioner vacancy, I have reduced my responsibilities this fall even further. Assuming I am elected, if I retain any responsibilities at Western beyond this school year, they will be very minimal.

How long have you lived in District 1?

We closed on our house in June 2015. Bill and I have been in and out of this valley since 2000, though; he used to work maintenance at Western cleaning dorms just so he could spend the summers out here running with the Western cross country team. His best friend from high school ran at Western under Duane Vandenbusche, and we used to come out and visit for weeks at a time. It’s funny because Bill loves it so much out here we almost didn’t meet: in 2001, he wanted to transfer to Western, but with a brother and sister in line behind him for college, he couldn’t come up with the out-of-state tuition. In August 2001, he drove straight from Gunnison to Kansas City, Missouri, stepped out of the car to attend a team barbecue at his apartment and we met. He introduced me to Gunnison in the summer of 2002, and the rest is history.

What are your favorite things to do recreationally in the area?

Bill and I are both avid runners; it’s how we met in college. Since he started helping out with the Mountain Sports Trail Running team in 2018, I’ve embraced the transition to trail running as well. I finished the Grand Traverse in 2018 and 2019, and there are few things I enjoy more than pounding out miles on trails all over this county. This year, our son has enjoyed getting out on the SUP with me at Blue Mesa and other local lakes. When winter hits, we regularly hit the slopes at Crested Butte Mountain Resort or pull out the snowshoes/XC ski gear.

What do you see as the biggest issues facing the county right now?

COVID-19 has magnified many longstanding issues in our county, like the high prices of health care and housing as well as increasing food instability. These are issues many people in our county are experiencing for the first time, and they are ones I know personally. I was six when my parents divorced and vividly remember the shame we felt when my mom took us to food banks or paid for our groceries with food stamps. We lived in an abandoned house on her brother’s farm that should have been condemned; my brother and I weren’t allowed in the kitchen because the floor was falling in, and only my mom knew how to walk the floor joists. Looking back, I realize how difficult it was for her to make the decisions she did, and the economic downturn from COVID-19 has left people in this valley confronting similar ones. To ensure the financial stability of our workforce and business owners during this pandemic, it’s essential for us to take care of each other so we can keep our economy open. As a mother of a school-aged child and faculty member at Western, I’m also concerned about how we will safely open our schools this fall. And as if a pandemic weren’t enough, we continue to face incredible challenges to combat climate change and protect our watershed and public lands.

Can you represent a different perspective than the one of John, Jonathan and Roland? What would that be?

Having had a glimpse behind the curtain every now and again, I’m not sure anyone can say our county commissioners have “one” unified perspective; there’s a lot of disagreement that goes on behind the scenes. That said, as a woman, I bring a very different set of experiences than Jonathan and Roland that informs my collaborative and inclusive style of leadership. We know that governance is most effective when leadership reflects the people it represents, and I am amazed that my appointment makes me just the third woman to ever hold a county commissioner seat. I’d like to see how we can improve our efforts toward diversity, equity and inclusion, which are not formalized in our county strategic plan.

The hot political topic appears to be the county reaction to the coronavirus crisis. Do you think the county has handled it well?

Well first, my hat (or mask) goes off to Joni Reynolds for the work she has done to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. There’s no playbook or modern analogue to manage the public health emergency Gunnison County (and the world, for that matter) has endured, and I don’t find it productive to offer armchair critiques with the benefit of hindsight. I do want to hear people’s thoughts and experiences as we continue to navigate this pandemic. It’s important for us to keep open lines of communication with our community and visitors and to implement best health practices to keep each other safe and our economy open.

What do you see as the role of the commissioners in such an unusual situation?

Although the novel coronavirus presents unusual challenges, the role of commissioners remains to establish priorities and policies that ensure the general well-being of our community, especially when it comes to public health and the local economy. We have an obligation to listen to experts and stay abreast of new information about the virus, how it spreads and testing in this continuously evolving situation. Because our hospital doesn’t have an ICU, it’s even more essential for us to keep infection numbers down and to stop the spread. We also have to keep our lines of communication open to people in our community through events like virtual Town Halls, which have been taking place every Monday at 2:30 p.m.

How do you view the north end of the valley? Is it different from the south end?

There are important differences—too many to enumerate here—which is one reason the Gunnison County Democratic Party has adopted a co-chair model in recent years to better represent both ends of the valley. The change in ecosystems is evident in the short 30-minute drive, and while tourism and recreation are important countywide, they follow different calendars and draw different demographics. The south end of the valley relies more on the vitality of Western Colorado University.

Anything else?

I don’t know many people who haven’t been affected by COVID-19 in Gunnison County. My husband just lost his brother on Saturday, and we consider it a COVID-19 casualty: he did not contract the virus, but he struggled during the shutdown and his demise was directly correlated to it. Mental health is part of this pandemic too.

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