For the past eight years, Sen. Gail Schwartz has represented one of the most diverse districts in the country, one with very wealthy and very poor communities, in the state Legislature. When the Snowmass Village Democrat first began campaigning for office eight years ago, a retired state patroller asked her, “How does a lady from Aspen know what our problems are down here in Saguache?”
So, Schwartz said she set out to find the issues everyone can agree on — such as protecting natural resources, education and jobs.
“Being responsive to my communities has been my priority,” Schwartz said.
On May 7, Schwartz wrapped up her final legislative session as a Colorado senator. She is term-limited and will be replaced in January.
Much of her focus during her tenure has been on water. Serving on the Senate Agricultural, Natural Resources and Energy Committee throughout her two terms, first as vice chair and for the past six years as chairwoman, she’s helped in the development of a statewide water plan and advocated other bills regarding irrigation and fixture efficiencies.
“When it comes to the Eastern Slope, … how much water can we plan to additionally divert from the Western Slope? And our attitude is: You need to be assured that you are using that water most efficiently,” Schwartz said.
Her focus on the issue started at the grassroots level. She said when she told her friend Greg Rulon, of Snowmass Village, that she was running for the state Senate, he told her the most important thing she could do was learn about water. She also promised a rancher in Gunnison County she would go out for the committee.
“It just was a really steep learning curve,” Schwartz said. “And I still am learning.”
During the 2014 session, Schwartz sponsored a bill to help bring Internet access to rural regions, such as the Crystal River area between Marble and Redstone, which she calls a “poster child” for the need.
“When you have a school in Marble and you have people and businesses and telecommuting, that’s why we need to invest in infrastructure,” she said.
In the past, service providers said it wasn’t cost-effective to build infrastructure in that area and others like it. The bill, signed into law earlier this month, creates a matching system with state and local dollars and tax incentives for companies that develop infrastructure.
“And there was an important deregulation piece, and hopefully we’ll see competition be part of the solution, as well,” Schwartz said.
A piece of legislation that will hit home for many valley residents is the Independence Pass Bill, which increases the fines for violating a road closure or road restriction on Independence Pass from $500 to $2,000. New signage explaining the law and fines also will be erected.
The primary purpose of the law is to more effectively deter truckers and drivers of oversize vehicles to stay off the section of Highway 82 where they are restricted. Residents and stakeholders from Pitkin and Lake counties came to Denver to speak to the problem, Schwartz said.
“It passed nicely,” Schwartz said. “Some people were saying, ‘Well, why are you doing this?’ They just didn’t want to really understand the issue, from my opinion.”
The trucking industry doesn’t want its drivers taking that route, either, she said, especially because of the cost to haul out a stuck semi.
“I’m very, very happy that worked out, but our community really showed up,” Schwartz said.
When asked what accomplishments she’s most proud of, Schwartz says identifying the common issues throughout her district was key, starting with the Building Excellent Schools Today Program, which provides grants for the construction of public schools.
Back in Saguache County, Schwartz remembers seeing a school that was a converted potato-packing shed “with a cesspool out back.”
“That’s unacceptable,” she said.
The program has spent the initial amount of money approved by the law that created it, but now it will also benefit from taxes on marijuana sales.
What’s on the rise
With a committee of other state legislators, Schwartz will visit every river basin in Colorado this summer to hold public hearings for input about water.
In November, the voters will decide who Schwartz’s replacement should be. The Democratic Party’s candidate is Kerry Donovan, who currently serves on the Vail Town Council. She is running against Republican Don Suppes, of Orchard City, and Aspen’s own Lee Mulcahy, a Libertarian candidate.
Last year, several state Democrats were recalled for their votes on gun-control legislation. When asked if she thinks the Democratic Party will have a tough time holding the majority in the state Senate, Schwartz said, “Well, we have to work for sure.”
“There is a lot of bipartisan work that’s being done, and I think we had a pretty moderate session,” Schwartz said. “The citizens vote for the person. … People need to run on their own merits.”