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Carroll: Gail Schwartz’s past helps pave our future

Ask most career politicians what prompted them into a life of public service and they’ll likely answer as, well, a politician: It’s an honor, not a choice, to represent the people, defend our freedoms, and bring an outsider’s perspective to Washington. (Then there’s Donald Trump, whose presidential aspirations include making America rape again.)

Earlier this month I asked Gail Schwartz, a former 40-year Aspen and Snowmass resident and the current Democratic candidate for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District, about the circumstances that first led her to enter the political arena over two decades ago. While she may wish her path to office could be summed up in a cliched sound bite, it’s not nearly that rosy.

Schwartz was a single mom in 1981 when her 8-year-old daughter, Shannon, was killed in a car accident on Interstate 70. Her grief was acute, although unlike today where organizations including Pathfinders, the Aspen Hope Center and Mind Springs Health are available for those experiencing trauma, angst and depression, no such local services existed to assist her back then. That’s why, along with a friend who’d also experienced a harrowing loss at around the same time, Schwartz started a bereavement group that ran twice a month for a decade.

“We needed to have a forum to talk to people about this,” she told me. “People didn’t understand how to cope with such a predictable emotion. There’s a real price a person pays when losing a loved one.”

She invited speakers and therapists to their group, saw to it that teachers and first responders in the community were trained to deal with loss and PTSD, and helped get the area’s first hospice off the ground. She worked hard to “stay present” to her own loss all along, although when she and her second husband welcomed a son who died shortly after birth, “it opened the wound.”

“It spurs you into service,” Schwartz said. “You can’t replace the love and devotion you would have given to your child, but you can take a certain level of commitment and make a difference in other people’s lives. I had no intention of running for public office, but then I saw the value of what I’d done in the schools and being engaged in hospice and hospitals. If you take that next step, you can be even more effective.”

Schwartz all but retired not long ago after two terms in the state Senate, moving with her husband to Crested Butte. However, the “spectacle” playing out in the current election season spurred her to rethink riding off into the sunset.

Making meaningful change “requires a special skill set,” she said. The feeling that Rep. Scott Tipton, her opponent in the congressional race, doesn’t represent her due to his failure to adequately address climate and water issues, and because of his position against women’s and same-sex rights, inspired her to start “a different conversation.” Judging by his TV ads attacking Schwartz, it seems as if Tipton isn’t enjoying the dialogue. Still, Schwartz is taking the high road.

“Name calling doesn’t put food on the table,” she said.

Tipton is misleadingly trying to pin Schwartz for declining coal jobs instead of acknowledging the main culprit: the falling price of natural gas. Besides, she argues, coal, as part of Colorado’s portfolio, “is not going away” entirely. And even though support in the heart of some coal-heavy areas may lean in Tipton’s favor, Schwartz is still showing up to talk about the ways she has and will continue supporting them.

Her record adds undeniable value to her campaign promises, too, including the funding she secured from the American Recovery Act to rebuild Highway 133 especially for miners traveling to and from work on unsafe roads. She empathizes deeply with the mining communities that date back for generations, and while coal will remain, she acknowledges many of the jobs lost to other energy sources won’t return. That’s led her to question the dearth of significant tax and other incentives for new industries, including outdoor recreation, from Congress.

Moving forward instead of looking back is Schwartz’s goal, though, including in the marijuana industry. While she didn’t support legalization initially, now that it’s here she wants to work toward having the federal government officially acknowledge the states that adopted it constitutionally so they can compete for water rights and establish proper banking systems. Schwartz also aims to boost Colorado’s hemp farmers who are being blocked by the government from accessing grants.

She’ll succeed in Congress by reaching across the aisle as she did in the state Senate, where most of her success was due to bipartisan support. Compare that with Tipton, who votes almost exclusively with his fellow Republicans, and add the sense among many that his visibility in rural communities in need of economic stabilization is nextto nonexistent, and it’s hard to imagine a future where he could move the needle profoundly.

“When you’re slashing budgets, tools and protections, you’re undermining the future of these communities,” Schwartz said.

More at MeredithCarroll.com.