At the top of the freshman class
Most freshman legislators ease into their first term in the Colorado House of Representatives and learn the ropes. The Roaring Fork Valley’s new representative took the ropes and made a lasso.Less than three months into her first term, Kathleen Curry is chairing a high-profile committee, taking on the powerful oil and gas industry, challenging some House traditions and earning bipartisan praise.”She’s no ordinary freshman,” said Andrew Romanoff, who became House speaker this year when Democrats wrestled control of the House from the Republicans for the first time in 30 years in Colorado.Romanoff played the key role in assigning the 35 Democrats to committees and determining the chairs. He selected Curry as chair of the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee.
It’s extremely rare for a freshman to be in such a powerful position. Romanoff said he cannot remember it happening in his five years in the House. However, he believes Curry’s qualifications warranted putting seniority aside.Curry and her husband, Greg Peterson, raise grass-fed, organic beef near Gunnison under the name of Tomichi Creek Cattle, so she experiences firsthand the issues facing Colorado’s farmers and ranchers. She is also widely acknowledged as an expert on water issues because of her previous experience on the staffs of regional and statewide water policy organizations, and her Colorado State University master’s degree in water planning and management.Curry’s House District 61 includes Gunnison and Hinsdale counties to the south, all of Pitkin County, the sliver of Eagle County in the Roaring Fork Valley and a large chunk of Garfield County. She won election in November with 61 percent of the vote and took office in the first week of January.”The day she walked into the Legislature she became one of the leading legislators on water issues,” said Romanoff. Water bills almost always get assigned first to the agriculture committee for consideration.The power of the chairChris Treese, a spokesman for the Colorado River Water Conservation District, a Glenwood Springs-based organization that looks out for Western Slope water interests, said Curry’s addition to the legislature has been invaluable. Her knowledge of water issues pays off particularly well when she’s chairing agriculture committee hearings on the slew of water bills that arise each session. She needs no education in the nuances or complexity of water law and management. “You can address the issues on a more substantive basis,” Treese said.Curry’s predecessor, Gregg Rippy, a Republican from Glenwood Springs, was also knowledgeable about water issues. He watched out for Western Slope interests and gained the respect of his colleagues, Treese noted. But Curry has an advantage.
“Gregg wasn’t the chairman so he didn’t have the leverage,” Treese said.The state constitution prohibits a legislator from trading votes – voting for another legislator’s bill in return for a vote on his or her own bill. However, committee chairs hold leverage over their colleagues because they can influence when bills come up for debate and votes. An uncooperative chair can easily kill a bill.”The committee chair is a very important position,” said Sam Mamet, associate director of the Colorado Municipal League, an association of the state’s cities and towns. “You don’t want to hack off a committee chair.”As a lobbyist in Denver for 26 years, Mamet said he’s learned to check with committee chairs first to gauge the fate of a bill.Rep. Josh Penry, a Republican from Grand Junction, is also a freshman who sits on the agriculture committee. His primary legislation this session, a bill that required cooperation between the Front Range and Western Slope on water diversion issues, was approved earlier this month by the committee. He said that demonstrates that Curry doesn’t wield the chair’s powers in a partisan way.Curry, he said, could have helped kill that bill “for no reason other than I’m a Republican.”Penry said he and Curry will be on the opposite sides of votes often due to their different philosophies. But he thinks they have already shown they can work cooperatively when regional interests in their largely rural districts trump party philosophy.
Curry said the agriculture committee usually offers a refreshing reprieve from partisan politics that dominate in the legislature. Committee members tend to vote their conscience and judge the merits of a bill rather than follow party lines, she said.Bucking House traditionCurry comes across as a straightforward person who doesn’t spout a lot of hyperbole. She hasn’t pontificated from the House floor, as some legislators appear to do.”She doesn’t talk a lot but when she does, she asks good questions,” said Mamet.When observed from the House gallery, where the public is welcome to sit and watch the 65 legislators debate bills, Curry was seen reading paperwork at her desk and listening to the floor debate one recent day. Her attentiveness contrasted with many other members who were popping up and down and scurrying about like bees in a hive.Outside the floor in the glassed-off entry, a crowd of lobbyists pass business cards with notes to House staff members, who regularly deliver the messages to the representatives during House deliberations.Curry said she “isn’t a real master of floor work” yet, so she ignores the messages in order to concentrate on the debate. She also declines invitations for breakfast, lunch and dinner from lobbyists. She’s quick to note that she often finds lobbyists’ opinions helpful on bills, but she prefers to “control” their input by requiring them to make appointments.
That sometimes rubs lobbyists the wrong way.”They’re frustrated,” Curry said. “I’ve had one lobbyist tell me that 15 minutes just doesn’t cut it.”Mamet said he can’t criticize her position. “She has a right to be wary of us,” he said.Curry bucked House tradition in a more eye-opening way earlier this year by moving a committee hearing from Denver to Glenwood Springs when she thought it would benefit her constituents. The hearing was on Curry’s House Bill 1219, which would give landowners more bargaining power when negotiating with gas companies that want to drill wells on their land.Curry asked the House leadership if she could move the hearing because hundreds of residents of western Garfield County wanted to testify. She didn’t want to make them drive three hours one way to provide three minutes of testimony.The rare move was approved, but four of the five Republicans on the agriculture committee boycotted the transplanted meeting. Penry was the exception.Three of the four absent Republicans are from rural districts. “I think it sends a message to their folks that they don’t want to support getting testimony from rural Colorado,” Curry said.
She noted that the move didn’t limit access for Front Range residents. Another hearing on the same bill was held two days later in Denver.Romanoff said Curry “took a bold step” by asking to hold the hearing outside of the capitol. He said Curry’s overall performance shows he made the right decision by appointing her to the chair.”A freshman usually takes baby steps,” Romanoff said. “She’s picked some very tough issues.”Taking on the gas industryHB 1219, which would give landowners increased leverage in negotiations with gas companies, is easily the highest-profile bill in Curry’s rookie session.Curry believes the current rules in Colorado give the gas companies too much power and don’t do enough to compensate ranchers and other landowners for damages to their property.The bill is supported by hundreds of residents living near Silt, Rifle and other areas of western Garfield County, the unofficial ground zero of the gas boom. But the bill faces a tough fight from the gas industry, which claims the proposed legislation is unnecessary and potentially damaging to business. The negotiating process will take longer if landowners want to stymie drilling on their land, according to industry representatives, and those delays could drive drilling companies to other states where they can stay busier.
Curry counters that the price of gas is set in commodities markets rather than by costs of production. She says she is trying to craft legislation not to help landowners stonewall or delay gas companies, but to help landowners get fair compensation for damages.She doesn’t see her bill as taking on the gas industry, so much as trying to help the little guy.”I see it as an effort to try to respond to the requests of my constituents,” she said. “And my constituents, while I was campaigning, made it clear that they want some changes on this front.”The gas industry “doesn’t want any erosion of the current balance of power” and is lobbying hard against the bill, according to Curry. Gas industry lobbyists have contacted Agriculture Committee members and their constituents, claiming the bill will drive up the cost of natural gas. Curry, in turn, has lobbied her colleagues nonstop to make sure they understand what her bill will do.Curry delayed a scheduled March 14 vote on the bill by the Agriculture Committee in order to shore up support. A vote is expected sometime in March.Curry acknowledged that she may face the wrath of the oil and gas industry again when she is up for re-election in 2006.Mamet said it’s possible for Curry or any other legislator to take on a powerful special interest and survive. “Of course she can – it just means you have to work harder,” said Mamet. The legislation must be good, and it has to solve a real problem, he added.
A balancing act in politicsOf course, good legislation to one person may be bad legislation to another. Curry acknowledged that it’s been tough sometimes to balance her constituents’ competing needs.”That’s been the very hardest part of the job so far,” she said.For example, one bill she recently had to vote on would give people who are filing worker’s compensation claims more options for medical providers, which Curry said she believes a large part of her constituency supports. But the ski industry opposes the bill because it could drive up resort operators’ costs. Curry’s district includes several ski areas, including the Aspen Skiing Co.Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland, a junkie for state politics, said the board has been aligned with Curry on just about every issue. The county commissioners have lobbied her constantly and enjoyed access to the state House of Representatives that they haven’t had for years.Pitkin County was previously represented by Republican Scott McInnis, before he graduated to U.S. Congress; then Carl Miller, a Leadville Democrat who was much more conservative than the commissioners; and most recently by Rippy.Ireland said Rippy was accessible for Pitkin County officials, but was rarely aligned with them politically. He noted that Rippy was the swing vote in the agriculture committee two years ago, when a controversial water measure called Referendum A was approved and placed on the ballot. Voters ultimately defeated the plan, but Ireland said a legislator with the interests of the Western Slope in mind would have killed the bill.
“Kathleen Curry would have never put that out of committee,” Ireland claimed. “That was a dumb idea.”Ireland also claimed Curry isn’t as easily influenced by special interests as Rippy. “I think we’re going to see Governor Curry someday. That’s how highly I think of her,” he said.Curry might have to survive a tough test or two to keep her current seat before that day comes. Mamet said Republicans may target House District 61 in the next election because the voter registration numbers are so close. “That’s a swing seat,” he said.But Curry noted that she won by a convincing margin in the last election, so the GOP might pick seats that look more winnable.For now, Curry is enjoying the job and not worrying about future terms. She said she has no regrets about running for office, even if it takes her away from her family and ranch for most of the week, five months of the year.”The district is so beautiful,” Curry said. “It’s so strikingly unique and really fragile that I have a heartfelt desire to protect it.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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