Gail Schwartz hopes to unseat incumbent
Gail Sheridan Schwartz is used to being the underdog.
In her first three political campaigns — her only political campaigns — the former Western Slope state senator won by slim margins.
The Crested Butte Democrat isn’t expecting this year’s bid to unseat GOP U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton for the 3rd Congressional District to be much different, but said she’s been successful because voters realize she knows how to work with the other side of the political aisle.
“In the Legislature, I passed over 250 bills, 95 percent of which were bipartisan,” Schwartz said. “I have a solid track record of reaching across the aisle and getting a lot done. The people are sick and tired of a do-nothing Congress, and (Tipton) is in lockstep with that mentality. People want better.”
Like a lot of Colorado transplants, her first experience in the state was in the high country, coming at the age of 12. As a Chicago girl, she had never seen the mountains, much less climbed one. Her first experience with one of the state’s Fourteeners was Longs Peak outside of Longmont.
Years later, after graduating from business school at the University of Colorado with a degree in marketing in 1971, Schwartz moved to Aspen, where she worked in real estate and the ski industry and, later, as the Pitkin County director of development and acting director of the Pitkin County Housing Authority.
At the time, she lived in Snowmass Village, but has recently moved to Crested Butte.
Schwartz and her husband, Alan, raised three daughters there: Rachel, Amie and Brendan. She lost two other children, an 8-year-old daughter in a car accident 35 years ago on Interstate 70, and a son from birth complications.
Her first foray into state government came in 1995, when then Gov. Roy Romer, a Democrat, appointed her to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.
Schwartz, 66, says she’s confident in her race against Tipton, in part, because she has a history of unseating incumbent lawmakers.
In 2000, she narrowly defeated Republican Hank Anton of Pueblo for the CU Board of Regents, representing the expansive 3rd Congressional District. Six years later, she did the same thing to longtime San Luis Valley state Sen. Lewis Entz for state Senate District 5, which at the time stretched from Pitkin County to the New Mexico state line.
In her 2010 re-election bid, she also squeaked by Republican Bob Rankin, who later went on to win a seat in the Colorado House.
She won all three races by tight margins, earning only about 51 percent of the vote each time.
By comparison, when Tipton won his third term in 2014, he did so handily, with 58 percent of the vote.
While there were slightly fewer registered Democrats in the 3rd District two years ago, 29.5 percent at the time, and Republican registration was 0.4 percentage points higher, the GOP still outpaces Democrats in registered voters with a 35-30 percent split. Unaffiliated voters make up most of the rest, with 32.5 percent, down from 33.7 percent on Nov. 1, 2014.
Once Schwartz got into the Colorado Senate, she was busy attacking a multitude of issues, from education to broadband to establishing state regulations on growing hemp.
One of her early successes was working with then House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, in creating the BEST program, which stands for Building Excellent Schools Today.
At the time, the state was on the losing end of a lawsuit that began before she took office. The suit, initially filed on behalf of schools in the San Luis Valley, centered on crumbling rural schools and the state’s failure to help pay for new ones.
Since that program was started in 2008, it has funded 261 grants in 124 school districts, spending more than $1.2 billion to repair or replace schools around the state.
Schwartz and Romanoff set up the grant program to be self-perpetuating. Starting with seed money from the State Lands Trust Fund and the Colorado Lottery, it has earned more than $499 million in interest revenue, according to the Colorado Department of Revenue.
About $40 million a year more also goes into the program from tax revenues earned from the sale of recreational marijuana.
Schwartz is more well-known because of the things she has done around renewable energy, not all of which have been positive.
In 2007, she ran the bill that, at the time, doubled the state’s 10 percent renewable energy standard that investor-owned utilities, such as Xcel, must generate from renewable sources. That new law also imposed a 10 percent standard on rural electric associations.
She did it again in 2010, increasing the standard to 30 percent for utilities, but it wasn’t until 2014, her last year in office, when she initiated a more controversial change: doubling the standard for REAs to 20 percent.
Tipton’s campaign has been using that legislative record, particularly the final measure, S.B. 242, to attack Schwartz, saying those increases forced utilities and rural electric associations to turn away from coal, saying it led to the closure of coal mines in Delta County, the loss of more than 1,000 jobs and increased power rates for everyone.
“Her bills picked winners and losers, and she has chosen sides,” said Michael Fortney, Tipton’s campaign spokesman. “She’s not only just against coal, she picked against her own constituents. She also helped raise electricity costs as a direct result of her legislation.”
Schwartz, however, denies her bills were part of a so-called war on coal, saying market forces had already started that. She said one of the Delta mines closed because of a fire and the other one because it lost some crucial contracts.
She said all of her efforts were part of a larger goal of helping to transition coal miners and equally hard-hit natural gas workers into new careers.
Schwartz said it only makes economic sense to diversify the region’s economy given the international markets for fossil fuels, adding that it is ridiculous to say that she alone is responsible for killing the coal industry in Delta County, as Tipton’s camp has claimed.
“I wish I were that powerful, but I am not,” she said. “It is the international markets on the coal industry. But coal today, it’s not going anywhere.”
Still, she does support such things as the Jordan Cove liquefied natural gas export facility in Oregon, which would make western Colorado natural gas available to Asian markets.
She said she didn’t support the Keystone pipeline because it promotes Canada’s energy economy more than that of this nation, and it offered no direct jobs to Colorado workers.
“That competes with our resources,” she said.
Primarily, though, she said the outdoor recreation industry is the real economic future of the region, which is why she supports turning Colorado National Monument into a national park, something Tipton opposes.
“People don’t put on their top-10 list, ‘Oh, I’m going to visit every national monument in Colorado.’ No. They say, ‘I’m going to visit every national park in Colorado,’ ” she said. “Could it be an economic opportunity for this community? Absolutely. Right now, people are just whizzing by.
“We are at a crossroads of this outdoors recreation economy,” she added. “You have all the opportunities here. Let’s move toward that.”