Rachel Richards says goodbye to public office | AspenTimes.com

Rachel Richards says goodbye to public office

Aspen City Councilwoman Rachel Richards gives her final remarks before signing off on a nearly three decade-long career in Aspen government on Tuesday at Aspen City Hall.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

City Council member and longtime civil servant Rachel Richards wrapped up a 30-year career in public office across city and county at her final Aspen City Council meeting on Tuesday. 

“I’m emotional at this last meeting. I leave for vacation tomorrow. It still hasn’t sunk in,” she said at her last council meeting, holding a bouquet of flowers.

Looking back on her career, Richards, 62, pointed to her record with protecting water and affordable housing and promoting regionalism as some of her greatest successes. 

“When you get elected, you become a little bit of a point on a spear. But there’s always a group of people behind you,” she said. “There’s been hundreds of people who’ve offered me advice or encouragement or correction information …. I don’t think there’s a single council member I’ve ever worked with, or county commissioner, who didn’t have a trait I could admire and learn from.”

Voters first elected her to the Aspen City Council in 1991 at just 29 years old. That began a 12-year run on the council, serving two four-year terms as a councilwoman and one two-year term as mayor. And from 2007 to 2019, she tackled countywide issues as a Pitkin County commissioner. 

Richards said she threw herself into her government roles and always treated it like a full-time job, something that surprised some folks who asked her about her workload. 

“People would always ask me, ‘I’m thinking of running. How many hours a week does it take?’ I was like, ‘Well, how much do you want to get done? Because if you want to get stuff done, it’s well outside of the meetings,'” she recalled. “It’s not just at the table. It’s this research, it’s finding things, it’s picking things up, and so on, so forth.”

Aspen City Councilwoman Rachel Richards gives her final remarks before signing off on a nearly three decade-long career in Aspen government on Tuesday at Aspen City Hall.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Growing up with an artist for a mother and a lawyer for a father in the D.C. area in the ’60s and ’70s, she said progressive politics were baked into her identity from an early age. News of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War swirled around her, and her mother kept issues of Ms. magazine on the family coffee table.

And just before her 18th birthday in 1978, Richards sold her car and took a duffel bag and skis on a Greyhound bus bound for Aspen. She had written the state of Colorado for a relocation package, and the mountains became home. 

One season turned into one year, one year turned into two, and after her son was born, Richards eventually planted down roots, buying a deed-restricted unit in Hunter Creek for about $64,000. She considered that to be so far out of Aspen, back then. 

But she didn’t get started in politics until over a decade after moving to Aspen. After some time on the Aspen Clean Air Advisory Board, Aspen’s first woman mayor, Eve Homeyer, talked her into running for a City Council seat.

Aspen City Councilwoman Rachel Richards, left, chats with Mayor Torre prior to giving her final remarks before signing off on a nearly three decade-long career in Aspen government on Tuesday at Aspen City Hall.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

“At times in the early days, I’d say in the ’90s, when it was kind of a little, ‘Thank you very much, young lady, it was awfully nice of you to come down here and talk to us about that land use proposal,'” she said of what being the only woman in a meeting was like back then. “So there was a little bit of condescension or looking down at someone. Then they hear me come back with, ‘Well, with all due respect, I’m here for this.’ And I credit growing up in an all-guy neighborhood with really tough brothers for that.”

Richards applied that tough, vigilant attitude to a number of policy wins she highlighted over her career, including obtaining a recreational, in-stream channel diversion on the Fryingpan in Basalt, the continued support of Burlingame housing and passing the half-cent Open Space & Trails tax that voters renewed in perpetuity last November.  

“Rust never sleeps. And so it doesn’t matter what you’ve accomplished, there’s rust coming after it. It doesn’t matter what you think you’ve got done, something’s coming after it,” she said. “Constantly being vigilant makes a difference.”

Some local electeds approach their job just like that: locally. But Richards decided that getting involved in regional and statewide efforts suited her and her constituents. 

Over her career, she worked with the Colorado Association of Ski Towns, the Northwest Council of Governments’ Water Quality and Quantity Commission, the National Association of Counties’ Public Lands Steering Committee, and helped form the lobbying organization Counties and Commissioners Acting Together.

And she has represented Pitkin County since the ’90s at Club 20, a coalition of Colorado’s 20 westernmost counties. 

Involvement in those groups contributed to her efforts on water rights and other regional issues. As growth continually pushes the areas resources to their limits, she said, partnering with neighbors will be crucial. 

“Regionalism is something you do. It’s not something you talk about being connected to the rest of the community, the valley, the state. It’s going to matter to us, big time,” she said.

New Aspen City Councilman Sam Rose, left, talks with outgoing Councilwoman Rachel Richards prior to being sworn in on Tuesday at Aspen City Hall.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

The one hiccup in her decades-long career came during her second mayoral run in 2001, losing to the late Helen Klanderud in the June runoff by 49 votes. Her young son got caught up in a youth crime spree during her first term, and some voters hurled insults at her campaign relating to her ability as a mother, let alone as a mayor during reelection.

“I ran for reelection. It was really a tough one. I felt like if I don’t run, he’ll know I quit because of him,” she said. “And then yet, when I was running, it was really hard to reach out to people without feeling I had to explain.”

But in 2003, after two years away from public office, Richards ran again for an open council seat. She beat out a crowded field by running on the promise of building Burlingame, and she won. 

“I called my son Jacob that night and said, ‘Guess who’s on the new City Council?’ And I could just hear in his voice so much guilt drop off …. Now Mom’s back to get out. And so that felt really, really good.”

The soul of Aspen is much discussed; just take a look at the Letters to the Editor section of either newspaper any given day. The city is at a transition moment, Richards said. What that transition will be is up to community members. 

“Do we just churn through people as temporary workers, or do we invite lasting community members? I think that’s our biggest challenge,” she posed to the incoming council and community. 

In terms of advice for the new council, she said Sam Rose and Bill Guth should work on building trust with their constituents. And to always be willing to listen while maintaining your nerve when making hard, controversial decisions. 

Outgoing Aspen City Councilwoman Rachael Richards talks to members of the audience prior to giving her final remarks before signing off on a nearly three decade-long career in Aspen government on Tuesday at Aspen City Hall. Richards, who held numerous positions, including as Aspen mayor, is stepping away from her work in politics.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

“I think you have to be willing to look people in the eye and explain why you made the choice you made,” she said. “And some people will accept that, and some people will never accept that.”

And be willing to learn from mistakes. She acknowledged that the Living Lab and the community voting not to purchase the old Motherlode Building were some of her greatest regrets. 

Vacation starts now that the new council members stepped in. Richards said she looks forward to continuing to contribute to her Aspen community and the legacy of her career to carry on long after she is gone. 

“I’ve watched the trees grow. I’ve seen my son’s peers on the fire station and the police department. It’s been an honor for me to watch things, people, and programs blossom,” she said. “I won’t be here to see how the community is using that Healthy Rivers & Streams funds in another 30 years, but it will be here for them.”