Kelly McNicholas Kury, incumbent Pitkin County commissioner, she was born to run |

Kelly McNicholas Kury, incumbent Pitkin County commissioner, she was born to run

Incumbent Pitkin County Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury talks during Squirm Night on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, at Grassroots TV in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Kelly McNicholas Kury nubs with a fingernail on a spool of blue painter’s tape around her left wrist while she waits for the door to open or not open. This time no one is home, and so with little wasted motion she peels off a 2-inch strip, affixes two campaign cards, and then tapes them to the side of the door.

She’s done this before.

This Friday morning, she’s door knocking for herself as she runs for re-election as a Pitkin County commissioner. She figures she’s knocked on 500-700 so far and will get to around 2,000 when she’s done, in addition to what supporters do.

She’s a veteran going back to election campaigns when she worked for the Sierra Club during her early 20s as a community organizer. The club was able to lend employees such as her to municipal and state office election campaigns, and so at a young age she learned ground-level campaigning, to go with lobbying work that found her testifying in the state Legislature, as well.

“I worked on a lot of political campaigns,” she said. “A lot of door knocking.”

She believes this and similar work later in Denver, after a stint in the African bush with the Peace Corps, helped make her well-suited to her work as a county commissioner since 2018, when she signed up to run and found herself unopposed, as Patti Clapper is this year.

She’s prepared for elective office at least since college, if not childhood, when she left George Washington University for Cal State Humbolt after a roommate showed her an article about the Green Party winning over Arcata, the college town. She realized the career track-minded kids she found at GW instead of the activists she expected were not her people, not like Humbolt.

A door opens this time, and she’s quick to introduce herself to the occupant as their county commissioner while their expression shifts from greeting a possible evangelist or salesperson to the slightly more welcome candidate for office. Likely as not they are blocking a curious dog as Kury rifles through her pitch — a mix of accomplishments, asking if they plan to vote, and if they signal they aren’t in a hurry to get back inside, maybe she’ll ask for their views.

Some are in Zoom meetings with only time to grab the literature and close the door. One is a friend, and there’s time to chat about life, kids, and such before some quick guidance to the building layout to match with the voter lists on Kury’s clipboard. Most, of course, aren’t home on a weekday morning.

Her campaign postcard with an iPhone image of her husband, two young children and muppet of a dog lists accomplishments and aspirations in bullet format. Paid parental leave, strongest voice on the county board for workforce housing, leading the effort to designate the Crystal River as wild and scenic, leading the effort on new short-term rental rules, championing slow growth and the fight against climate change, protecting open space, making the airport the most carbon free, fighting to end homelessness among military veterans.

She gauges her time when an occupant opens their door as she hands her postcard and the voting slate of the Pitkin County Democrats to them, and asks first if they plan to vote. Of course that would be top of mind for the former elections manager for Aspen and employee in the Denver Elections Office before that.

But she shares a special focus on housing and child care with her challenger, Erin Smiddy, and even seems to agree with Smiddy’s criticism she hasn’t done enough with the rest of the board on housing in particular.

She views it as not finding the best way, yet, to work with the board proactively on housing.

“We genuinely like each other and respect each other,” she said. “Some are more editors than writers, in that they work with what is brought to them as far as issues and concerns as opposed to pro-actively pursuing and developing solutions, which is different than how I operate. I’m one of the most pro-active members of the board.”

One thing she’s noticed is that the board responds most to groups of citizens coming to meetings and lobbying them directly. In that she’s sees possibility if enough citizens concerned about housing issues come to the board.

Housing seems to be a “second order” issue for at least three of the five board members, she said, and she’s still trying to figure out the best ways to reach them.

She’s polite with Smiddy’s criticism here but also skeptical that a personality is going to change positions vs. the board hearing directly from citizens about these issues. She also finds the criticism of the county owning just 17 affordable housing units a bit simplistic. The county has partnered on a number of projects, and much of what the city has annexed was county land when some of those projects were built. Still, the point that the county is running short of what it could be doing with housing she finds at least thematically on the mark.  

She sees perhaps her greatest contrast to her challenger in her qualifications and her network of contacts statewide, as well as her ability to lobby and attract funding to Pitkin County.

“These are secondary,” she said. “But not really.” She serves on a number of regional and statewide organizations, and like Smiddy did in the past, she’s on the APCHA board.

Also like Smiddy, her roots go back to New York City, where her parents were born and raised, though she was born in Pennsylvania and had a mostly Midwestern upbringing before going to high school in Connecticut and serving as the first student elected to the school board for a full term.

Then Humbolt, then New Jersey in large part to be with her mother fighting ovarian cancer, to Niger with the Peace Corps after her mom passed, Denver University for her master’s in international studies, the Denver Elections Office, and finally Aspen, where she became the elections manager and met her future husband, Scott. All along the way, she’s advocated, campaigned, networked, and pushed for change — a sort of walking definition of community organizer since collecting Styrofoam out of the trash and dumping it on the principal’s desk in elementary school.

And so knocking on doors, pushing past initial discomfort to engage anyone who opens their door, appears to come naturally. She reads the person quickly and tailors her message and length of visit accordingly. Then she moves on with her clipboard list of voters and addresses, spool of painter’s tape around the left wrist, campaign cards close at hand.

The next door opens: “Hi, I’m Kelly, I’m your county commissioner. I’m going around talking to voters, seeing if you plan to vote on Nov. 8? OK, good. Well, here’s some information about what I’ve done over the past four years. I’ve been working hard on a water campaign on the Crystal, trying to get the county to have a bigger role in housing, … and I supported child care, particularly with the pandemic. Do you think you’ll vote? Great. I appreciate consideration for your vote! Thank you, good bye.”

The interaction lasts maybe 30 seconds. It’s obvious the resident, a very friendly middle-aged women, has other things to do. Then on to the next door, and the next.


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