‘Accidental politician’ reflects on time as public figure
Teresa Coons didn’t start out with ambitions to seek political life. She didn’t pine for it in high school or prepare for it in college, as some do for a career in politics by earning a political science degree.
Four years after Coons moved to Grand Junction, the Democrat put her hat in the ring — naively, she says in retrospect — to run against Republican contender Josh Penry for the District 54 state representative seat. She was soundly defeated.
“Everybody knew I was going to lose except me,” she laughed during an interview last week.
Despite the 2004 defeat, Coons earned the backing of Republicans and ran again a couple months later, this time for the Grand Junction City Council. She won.
Coons, 60, went on to serve two terms. She officially leaves the council today when a new batch of councilors, including her replacement, Harry Butler, is sworn in.
“I’m definitely an accidental politician,” she said. “I don’t know how people do a lifetime of political office. I have to fight to not become cynical.”
In her eight years on the council, Coons helped usher in the city’s comprehensive plan and worked on securing housing for low-income individuals as the council liaison to the Grand Junction Housing Authority. She helped the city work through some growing homelessness issues and was the only council member to vote in favor of giving businesses the right to sell medical marijuana. On Coons’s watch, the city built the Public Safety Center and the Lincoln Park Tower at Suplizio Field.
Coons served two years as mayor pro-tem and one year as mayor. During her tenure she worked with four city managers, three administrators of the city’s planning department, three police chiefs and two fire chiefs.
“In eight years, the turnover of the top staff was incredible,” she said.
Former Councilor Bruce Hill worked alongside Coons for six of her eight years. He said although the two probably had differing opinions on issues, Coons worked hard to see all sides of an issue.
“I always liked the fact that she had the greater good in her values for service,” he said. “You knew she was going to make an informed decision. She’s a person who gives 110 percent service. She wasn’t there part time, she was there full time.”
Having the time to serve on council is no small feat. Currently, only she and outgoing councilor Tom Kenyon have full-time jobs. Coons is the executive director of the John McConnell Math & Science Center of Western Colorado.
A scientist by training, Coons earned her doctorate in immunology from the University of New Mexico.
In 2008, she was appointed by then-Gov. Bill Ritter to serve on the state’s Air Quality Control Commission, a post which she still holds.
In 2010, she was tapped as the regional representative for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Local Government Advisory Committee.
Oftentimes during lengthy council meetings, Coons’ insights and reasoning swayed the discussion.
“I tend to want to see the other side of things. Maybe that’s the teacher in me. I like to play devil’s advocate,” she said. “I think out loud. A lot of what you hear is my own thought process. Sometimes I don’t know how I’m going to vote until it comes out of my mouth.”
Coons said she’s most enjoyed seeing the inner workings of city government, and she praised city staff for their dedication.
Earlier in her career as a councilor up through about 2008, the city’s coffers were brimming with tax revenue. That scenario reversed in the ensuing years when the city trimmed about 80 employees. During this time, Coons said, constituents often told her the city should cut staffing but keep programs.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way because “it’s the people who administer the programs,” she said.
Coons said she’s struck sometimes when driving around Grand Junction to see a number of improvements the city has completed while she was a leader.
Spending money on public infrastructure helps sow pride in the community. Some people wanted councilors to construct a low-cost building without many windows for the Public Safety Center. She reasoned that no one wants to live in an area with shoddy construction, nor is that kind of place one people want to visit. Philosophically, although she was sometimes labeled a “socialist,” Coons said she viewed investing public money on projects the public could enjoy, instead of trying to build balances.
“The public money should be spent for the public good,” she said. “The role of the government is do things that we ourselves can’t do. It’s not just about surviving. What our community looks like is a reflection of who we think we are.”
Coons said she isn’t planning on running for another political office, but she’s “not saying no forever.”
Being off council will give her some time to take up some other interests that she’s put off, including gardening, joining the Chinle Cactus and Succulent Society and teaching a bioethics class at Colorado Mesa University. Stepping aside as a politician also offers her room to establish deeper friendships with people that she may have previously sidestepped to avoid creating a conflict of interest.
“I’m one of those people who always likes being busy,” she said. “I’m not worried about filling the time.”