Gail Schwartz, the senator from Snowmass
Freshman Colorado Sen. Gail Schwartz is one harried woman these days – busier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs, as they say in the hills.
She often begins her day with a breakfast meeting with other legislators, with lobbyists, with her office staff, or representatives of this group or that state agency.Sometimes she’ll set up a meeting at a coffee shop or breakfast joint as early as 7:45 a.m., well before she is due in her office or on the floor of the Colorado State Senate. On a good day, that early breakfast might even be with her husband, Alan, an attorney with the nationally known Hogan and Hartson law firm, at their apartment in Denver. But on one recent day, she had no breakfast meetings or other early functions to deal with. So during the time between waking and heading downtown to the state capitol, she studied briefs on bills, reports from committees working on bills, and other legislative minutiae.By 8 a.m. she was in the office, listening to a rapid-fire presentation of her schedule for the day from her part-time aide, Sara Schreiber, while reading bills, chatting with a reporter, and taking calls from lobbyists, legislators and others who wanted to bend her ear for a minute or 10.That was just the beginning of her day, which often stretches into the evening at the office or at one political function or another. And she frequently takes paperwork home to be studied before she goes to sleep or after she gets up the next morning.Though obviously harried and under extreme pressure to learn the legislative ropes, Schwartz clearly enjoys it all.”It’s so much fun,” she enthused at one point, while admitting the demands on her time can be tough, and that she now regards “sleeping in my bed [in Snowmass Village] for a night” as a luxury and noteworthy “event.”Big district, busy scheduleSchwartz, a Democrat and Snowmass Village resident, was 56 when she narrowly unseated incumbent Republican Lewis Entz last year and helped her party beef up its majority in the Senate. A Chicago native, Schwartz has lived in Colorado since 1967. Though a freshman legislator, she has professional experience in both the public and private sectors, including years of real estate planning and development, and stints in public housing and education.
She has 21 bills in various stages of the legislative process for the Jan. 10-May 9 session, ranging in subjects from water law to money for rural schools. Another bill would raise the state standard for renewable energy, meaning that Colorado would have to generate not just 10 percent of its electrical power from renewable sources by the year 2020, but 20 percent by the same year. Though a freshman senator with less than two months on the job, she is vice chair of two key committees – Agriculture, Natural Resources & Energy, and Local Government – and is a member of the Business, Labor and Technology committee.And that’s not all for Schwartz. She was recently tapped by Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, to serve on his Senate Select Subcommittee on Renewable Energy, which met for the first time Feb. 21. She also serves on the Colorado Heritage Tourism Board, the Energy Council of the National Association of Legislators, and the board of directors for Adams State College. And she is the senate’s liaison to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.Her sprawling Senate District 5 stretches from the northern Pitkin County boundary to the New Mexico line, covering 11 counties – Alamosa, Chaffee, Conejos, Costilla, Delta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Mineral, Pitkin, Rio Grande and Saguache.Recently she has spent her weekends traveling from end to end of the district, meeting with voters in the San Luis Valley region, in Chaffee and Delta counties and, last weekend, in Pitkin County.
She also admitted to being intimidated by the weeks of intensive training all freshmen legislators undergo, starting with the election of Senate officers just days after the general election. And she has been somewhat daunted by the occasional novel duties that have come her way.”I think all of the firsts in this building are kind of scary,” she said, mentioning the first time she introduced a bill, the first time she defended a bill on the Senate floor, and the first time she took the Senate president’s gavel.Asked if her view of the job has changed since she came to the Senate, she thought awhile and replied, “I feel every day is all about the big picture and the long-term view.”Her cardinal rules, she said, are to “follow your heart, represent the interests of your constituents, and be clear about why you don’t agree with somebody. This is an environment to be cautious in, because it’s such a fishbowl.”Not your average freshmanBut it’s an environment she said she was ready for after the rigors of the election campaign, which included some 35,000 miles of travel across the vast district, and hundreds of hours of explaining and defending her views and listening closely to the views of others.”She’s really not a traditional freshman,” said Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald (D-Golden), calling Schwartz a “tremendously talented” first-year legislator who “reads everything” and keeps up with a remarkable array of subjects.Schwartz is building rapport with her fellow legislators and has either introduced or co-sponsored an impressive number of bills for her first year.”Gail’s brought a tremendous perspective to the caucus,” Fitz-Gerald continued, referring to the freshman senator’s dedication to Western Slope issues, and adding that “I think she brings a very strong higher education background” from her time as a CU regent.
But, Fitz-Gerald added, “I’ve been surprised at the depth of her knowledge” about such disparate subjects as water law and renewable energy.
“She really has taken it upon herself to see how we can do better,” Fitz-Gerald continued, citing Schwartz’s response to the conventional wisdom that “there’s no money in the budget to do anything.” Faced with a need to fund a pine-beetle eradication program, Fitz-Gerald said, Schwartz came up with the idea of using fire suppression funds and water quality money, because eradicating pine beetles protects watershed areas from devastating wildfires.Schwartz already has reached across the aisle to Republicans, working with Rep. Tom Massey of Poncha Springs to introduce a variety of schools-related bills and with Rep. Raymond Rose of Montrose on a bill regulating the food industry intended for livestock and pets.She is also working with Democrats to introduce legislation on everything from water quality (Liane McFayden, Pueblo) to banking regulations (Joe Rice, Littleton), to formal permission for Western State College in Gunnison to offer a limited number of teacher-training classes at the graduate level (Kathleen Curry, Gunnison.)Natural alliesCurry, whose House District 61 overlaps Senate District 5 in three counties, is seen as a natural ally for Schwartz. Schwartz has expressed optimism about working with Curry on legislation, and Curry said she is counting on Schwartz’s support in upcoming legislative disputes.Having a Democrat in Senate District 5, Curry said, means having “a more friendly senator” in that district to take up bills that pass from the House to the Senate. Schwartz’s predecessor, she said, “as a rule went to bat for rural Colorado” though she recalled that he “voted rather strangely on a couple of bills” and, in her view, went against the interests of his own constituents.
One bill she hopes will be aided by Schwartz’s presence, Curry said, is HB 1252, which she is co-sponsoring and which would require oil and gas companies to “use practices that … minimize adverse impacts” from drilling and pumping operations. The bill is viewed as protection for the owners of surface rights in oil- and gas-rich parts of the state, where industry has not had to face much in the way of restrictions. Such requirements have been a goal of Curry’s since she was elected more than two years ago.”I think we have a lot of issues we feel similarly about,” Curry remarked. But, she said, the two rarely meet, except for the few times Schwartz has dropped by Curry’s office briefly. Curry said the reason is Amendment 41 to the Colorado Constitution. Approved by voters last year, the amendment outlawed gifts to elected officials, government employees and family members that exceed a value of $50. Curry said the law has had an unintended effect of eliminating the receptions and luncheons that once were commonly held on Capitol Hill by lobbyists and other groups, and which were prime opportunities for legislators to gather, socialize and talk shop.”We kind of work in isolation now,” Curry lamented, noting that she, like Schwartz, is often in her office or at work around the capitol from very early in the morning until relatively late at night, leaving little time to socialize.Still, Schwartz plans to make a more concerted effort to get together with Curry, and whomever else is willing to pursue a legislative agenda that undoubtedly will evolve and deepen with time.John Colson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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