Meet Sen. Gail Schwartz, the legislator from Snowmass

Scott Condon
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Paul Conrad/Aspen Times Weekly

SNOWMASS VILLAGE – The Aspen area is often written off by the rest of Colorado as an oddball bastion of liberal politics, but Gail Schwartz of Snowmass Village has managed to shake off the label and ascend to a leadership role in the Democratic majority of the state Senate.

Schwartz will start her fourth and final year of her first term when the legislative session starts Jan. 13. She is eager to assume more of a leadership role as a legislative veteran.

“Looking at the course of the last three years, I feel far more knowledgeable than I did when I arrived,” Schwartz said. “With my ability to now be part of leadership and having newer legislators, it does feel different to me.”

Schwartz doesn’t hold any of the key leadership position in the state Senate, such as the president or majority leader. Instead, her leadership role is most evident as chair of the Local Government and Energy Committee. She has some influence over what bills get assigned to the committee, then the order in which they are considered. She will be a key player in the Democratic party’s ongoing promotion of a new energy economy based on renewable resources.

“Senator Schwartz has served the citizens of southwest Colorado diligently,” said Senate President Brandon Shaffer (D-Longmont). “Her devotion to her constituents is unmatched, and she possesses a broad understanding of the issues facing the diverse population she represents. Whether it be tourism, renewable energy, or education issues, she has pioneered powerful legislation to maintain the high quality of life offered by southwestern Colorado.”

Schwartz doesn’t believe Colo. Gov. Bill Ritter’s decision to drop a re-election bid in November will have a major affect on the Legislature. The Democrats enjoy a 24-11 majority in the Senate, and a 37-27 margin in the House.

Schwartz also downplayed the defection from the Democratic party of State Rep. Kathleen Curry, whose House district overlaps much of Schwartz’s Senate district. Curry recently shed the party affiliation and became an independent.

“I have a lot of respect for her and I will continue to work with her,” Schwartz said. They plan to sponsor at least one bill together this session.

Curry, who represents Aspen in the statehouse, agreed that her relationship with Schwartz will continue despite Curry’s departure from the Democratic party. They met Tuesday, when Curry was visiting the Roaring Fork Valley, to discuss legislation.

Curry said it benefits both legislators to cooperate since there is so much overlap in their districts. Schwartz recognizes that, so Curry’s shift won’t be an issue.

“She puts her district first,” Curry said.

Schwartz’s other assignment is to the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, which is vital to the sprawling rural district she represents.

Schwartz, 60, won an upset bid against Republican incumbent Lou Entz in a tight race in 2006. She defeated the San Luis Valley resident by less than a 51 to 49 percent margin.

The victory left Schwartz with the challenge of representing a diverse district that includes both well-heeled Aspen and some of the poorest counties in Colorado, if not the country, in the south-central part of the state. Senate District 5 includes 11 counties and stretches from Basalt to the New Mexico border, and from Delta on the west to Buena Vista and Salida on the east. The counties in the district are Alamosa, Chaffee, Conejos, Costilla, Delta, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Mineral, Pitkin, Rio Grande and Saguache.

The district features ski areas at Aspen, Crested Butte and Monarch Pass, and vegetable farms in San Luis Valley. There are gas wells in Delta and Gunnison counties and a solar farm near Alamosa.

“What I strive to do is to find what we have in common as opposed to what our differences are,” she said.

Schwartz is no stranger to the far-flung locales in her district. “I’ve driven about 160,000 miles in three years,” she said. “I love what I do and feel that it’s been an absolute honor to work with people. There’s certainly been challenges, but I don’t think anybody will work harder to stay in touch with the communities in their district.”

All the touring had a tasty benefit. Schwartz and her husband, Alan, an attorney, know where some of the best Mexican food is in the San Luis Valley. Alan has even written an article on their findings.

Schwartz called herself a strong believer in local representation. She wants her constituents to set their priorities. She sees her role as obtaining resources to address their priorities and creating opportunities.

She also has her own broader goals that she believes dovetail well with the priorities of her constituents. “I had very specific goals and objectives in serving this senate district and those, in large part, remain the same,” she said. Her list includes: Improving schools; ensuring better health care; creating jobs, particularly green and high-tech positions; protecting water and environment; and preserving family farms and ranches.

When discussing her goals and accomplishments, Schwartz defaulted into the kind of “mom and apple pie” presentation that elected officials tend to adopt. It sounded rehearsed, and probably with good reason. Elected officials spend countless hours meeting with constituents and explaining what they did for them.

But probe beyond the generalities and Schwartz gets passionate.

“What I really have assumed is leadership in the new energy economy,” she said.

In her first year, she carried a bill that doubles Colorado’s renewable energy portfolio standard to 20 percent by 2012. Colorado voters had earlier approved a measure that required the largest utility companies to provide 10 percent of their energy from renewable resources. Schwartz’s bill boosted that standard and added more rural electric cooperatives.

Last session she teamed with Holy Cross Energy, which serves much of the Roaring Fork Valley, on a bill that allows power companies to institute a tiered rate system that bases electric bills on consumption. “Use a little and you pay a little. Use a lot and you pay a lot,” Schwartz explained. Similar billing spurred a 17 percent increase in electricity conservation in California, she said.

Another bill required the state to map all renewable energy potential and opportunities. “In that respect, we essentially hung our shingle saying we’re open for business,” she said.

Schwartz labeled herself a “moderate” Democrat, and said she has demonstrated the ability to work with Republicans. Bipartisanship is necessary because so few state senators represent rural areas, she said. By her count, three Democrats and “three or four” Republicans represent rural areas. They need to work together, then coax support from urban legislators to get approval for bills that specifically help their rural constituents.

Schwartz said her support for the new energy economy doesn’t come at the expense of traditional industries such as oil and gas, and coal. Natural gas extraction is an important component of Delta County’s economy, an emerging part of Gunnison’s, and has the potential to expand in Pitkin. Coal production is also big in parts of her district. Both industries provide important jobs, she said.

Schwartz supports expansion of pipelines to spur additional natural gas development, but she also worked last year to update oil and gas drilling regulations to provide more environmental protection. She also supports using royalties collected from gas companies to assist communities dealing with gas booms and busts.

“I think I’ve been even-handed in my support for the communities as well as even-handed in my support for the oil and gas and coal industries,” Schwartz said.

The accomplishment Schwartz is most proud of after three years in the Legislature is finding funding for education. She carried a bill that provides $1 billion for construction of new public schools. Part of the funding came from grants awarded to school districts from earnings on state lands. The state land trust owns property that is sold, leased or developed – sometimes leased for oil and gas production. Revenues from those activities were dedicated to the new schools effort.

Another Schwartz effort benefited colleges and universities in the state. She carried a bill that allocated $250 million from Colorado’s share of federal mineral lease revenues to new construction on college campuses.

She believes it is inevitable that proposals for dedicated revenues for K-12 education and higher education will go on the ballot in 2011.

“In 2011 we have to answer some very hard questions – what are the priorities of our taxpayers,” Schwartz said. “How can we identify a funding stream to preserve and grow our higher education system so Colorado can remain competitive in a global economy? We have certainly put our higher education at risk.”

Hard questions will come sooner than that. When the General Assembly convenes, it will still have work to do on the 2009-10 budget, even though the fiscal year started July 1. There is still a $40 million budget shortfall. Once that budget is passed, lawmakers must work on the 2010-11 budget. Schwartz said the budget was slashed 7 percent last year and it must be reduced an additional 15 percent this year.

One step she supports is eliminating tax credits and exemptions. Some of them remain from the 1930s and are outdated, she said.

She bristled at the suggestion that her Republican foes will use her fiscal approach – implementing higher vehicle registration fees to pay for road and bridge improvements, and eliminating tax exemptions – to label her as a tax-and-spend liberal. Road and bridge maintenance was woefully underfunded by former Colo. Gov. Bill Owens, she said. Creative ways had to be found to pay for replacements and repairs before a catastrophe like a bridge collapse, she said.

“We can’t create new taxes. We can shape tax policy on some of these exemptions and credits and fees [to] better service the role of government,” she said.

Schwartz has announced she will seek re-election to a second four-year term in November. If re-elected, she would be term-limited to eight years total.

She isn’t facing a challenge in the primary but two Republicans have entered the race. Bob Rankin of the Roaring Fork Valley and Wayne Wolf of Delta will square off in the primary to see who challenges Schwartz.

While she represents a sprawling district, the Aspen area has been home for Schwartz for 37 years. She came to Aspen after graduating from the University of Colorado, Boulder. She joined a firm called Sno-Engineering and worked on feasibility plans and design of ski areas all over the country. She later became the director of development and acting director for what evolved into the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority. She said she helped develop 800 units of affordable housing.

Schwartz said she loves all aspects of small-town living and over the years has immersed herself in everything from the Aspen Education Foundation to the Aspen Medical Foundation. She is an avid road bicyclist and cross-country skier. Living in Denver and being farther away from the outdoors during the five-month legislative session is the toughest aspect of being a legislator, she said.

Schwartz has three daughters: Rachel, 21, a college student; Amie, 23, who works for the state government in Helena, Mont.; and Brendan, 32, an architect in Boulder, who worked on the team that designed the Viceroy Hotel in Snowmass Village. Schwartz also lost two children, an eight-year-old daughter in a car accident and a son from birth complications.

“I like to say I’ve faced the toughest times,” Schwartz said.