Kury flexes experience, Smiddy flexes localness in Squirm Night commissioner debate

Erin Smiddy, right, challenger for Pitkin County commissioner, and incumbent Kelly McNicholas Kury share a laugh with the moderators during Squirm Night on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, at Grassroots TV in Aspen.
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

Thursday’s Squirm Night county commissioner candidate debate between Kelly McNicholas Kury and Erin Smiddy had them pouring over the usual topics, such as employee housing, short-term rentals, transportation and the future of Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. Then came the “L” word, as in “local.”

Smiddy, who has lived in the county since she was 6 years old and once staved off a black bear attack in an alley downtown, was allowed one question to ask Kury near the end of the debate, so she challenged the incumbent county commissioner on her localness.

“I know very clearly why I serve on these boards. It’s my hometown, I grew up here. I desperately want to,” said Smiddy, who, earlier in the debate, noted her 17 years as a volunteer firefighter and her time on the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority. She also is a former sheriff’s deputy. “I’m curious, four years ago, with no one running against you, did you choose to run as a commissioner or were you encouraged to because there was no one else running against you? And, why, as someone new to town who was has learned the struggle but not lived the struggle, why did you want to become a commissioner?”

The progressive Kury is seeking re-election to a second term as Pitkin County commissioner and is running as a designated Democrat; she ran unopposed in 2018, having moved to the area in 2013 to take a job with the Pitkin County’s Elections Department. Her childhood was spent in the Cleveland area before her family moved to Connecticut.

“There’s always this thing of who’s lived here longer as a local,” said Kury. “When I first ran in 2018, I said, ‘Please forgive me, I’ve only lived here for so many years,’ and others said, ‘Don’t worry, get yourself out there. You have good ideas. You should pursue them.’ I declared very early in 2018, and you could have run against me then, actually.”

She used the question as an opportunity to expand on what she said is her “strong dedication to public service,” including her time as Pitkin County’s election manager, her two years as a Peace Corp volunteer in Niger and her environmental efforts on the East Coast. “I think that was why no one opposed me at the time,” she said of her experience.

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

“I live here,” she continued. “This is my home. I’ve lived in Colorado longer than I’ve lived anywhere else. We moved around a little bit as a family. I am raising my two children here. I moved here and immediately met my husband, and everything fell into place, and this was my dream, and I am so grateful for it, and I recognize there is so much special here to protect and defend, and that’s why I’m working my butt off every single day and why I think I’ve achieved a lot over four years, despite so many hardships that the county and our board have faced.”

When it was her turn to ask Smiddy a question near the debate’s end, she challenged her level of commitment to the county.

“Erin, I haven’t heard from you in four years,” Kury said. “You haven’t applied to serve on any boards in Pitkin County, and many of them don’t require that much of a time commitment. Why do you think that you are going to come in prepared to take over where I would leave off and do better on getting this board of five to work together than I’ve able to do?

Smiddy, who campaigned unsuccessfully for Aspen City Council in 2021, said she couldn’t run for county commissioner in 2018 because her job as a county sheriff’s deputy wouldn’t allow her.

“When you live the whole struggle your whole life, when you sit on that APCHA lottery and for eight or 10 years before you get your own place. … You said it yourself, you moved here and it immediately fell into place. That’s not the normal case for most of us that who live here,” she said.

Erin Smiddy, challenger for Pitkin County commissioner, talks during Squirm Night on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, at Grassroots TV in Aspen.
File photoTimes

Both Smiddy and Kury live in employee housing.

“I know it does seem unfair when we say ‘I’ve lived here longer, and I’m a native,’ but it’s true, to the locals,” Smiddy said. “For those who have been here forever, it’s such a tight-knit community, and I think we welcome new people freely all the time.”

The two didn’t see eye to eye on the Pandora’s expansion section on Aspen Mountain into ski-able terrain, which commissioners approved in November 2021. Kury was the lone dissenting vote and said at the debate that she stands by her decision because the land should not have been rezoned. Smiddy said she would have supported the project if she’d been on the board because she believes skiing comes first in Aspen and Pitkin County.

The two candidates agreed the county can do better housing local workers.

“I think that at the very minimum, we need deliver the housing we’ve been mitigating for,” Kury said, noting the county collects fees developers pay in lieu of mitigating their projects by building employee housing. “We’re never going to house the 8,000 commuters (who) come to Pitkin County, and I know that. I do think there is an opportunity for several hundred units within the UGB (the county’s urban growth boundary).”

Smiddy was bullish on building more housing, but “I’m not trying to put Burlingames on every open space that we have, but we’re about to lose 200 to 300 people at Centennial, so it doesn’t add to growth to our county, it just replaces them with housing already within our county. … If we’re going to let people keep building mansions and what not for that growth, why aren’t we going to build affordable housing for the people who staff those mansions and staff the ski resort?”

The two also agreed the airport needs a new terminal but weren’t sold on expanding the runway.

Nearly native or not, the two carried on civilly and respectfully during the debate, with Kury several times complimenting Smiddy on her insight and perspective.