Candidates race to the middle to win state senate
Close races, open seats, could swing balance of power
THERE’S a Colorado senate situation you might not have heard of because it doesn’t involve Mark Udall and Cory Gardner’s big-money midterm smackdown. These dustups are headed for the state Senate, where the Democratic majority hangs on a single seat and two Democratic senators have term-limited out, leaving their districts, recently redistricted to lean Republican, wide open to new would-be lawmakers.
Senate District 24
In Thornton, maverick conservative Democrat Sen. Lois Tochtrop has served out her term and declined to endorse her Party’s nominee, Judy Solano, apparently because the two squabbled back when Solano served as a representative in the state House.
Solano represented Thornton for eight years and term-limited out herself in 2012. In addition to focusing on accessible early childhood education, Solano was the chair of the renewable energy committee and the sponsor of several landmark bills like the net-metering law requiring utilities to pay owners of rooftop solar for the energy they kick back into the grid on sunny days. She also sponsored the 2010 Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act, which phases out older coal-fired power plants for ones run on natural gas.
Though she hesitated to give her full support to this year’s fracking ballot initiatives — the statewide 2,000-foot setback and the environmental bill of rights, now off the ballot for good — Solano said she supports giving communities more control over oil and gas development in their area.
“If there are six communities that want to limit fracking, those are voters speaking with legitimate concerns,” said Solano, adding that as a representative she heard lots of testimony about wells near homes that made people sick or displaced residents after a spill.
Like Solano, who taught fifth and sixth grade for nearly thirty years, the Republican competitor for the seat, Thornton Councilwoman Beth Martinez Humenik, is a former educator. Humenik has worked as a substitute teacher at charter schools and says that school choice is a cornerstone of improving education in the state.
Humenik has also spent seven years on the Thornton City Council, an experience she says cemented her pro-business views.
“When I was first elected in 2007, one of the issues I had heard when talking to small business owners was that it was difficult to have dialogue and a voice with the city,” Humenik said.
Humenik advocated for the municipal government to shift more of the tax and permitting bureaucracy online, as small businesses had requested. She also pushed the establishment of the “Businesses of Thornton Advisory Commission,” a group of appointed business representatives that meets regularly and makes quarterly reports to the city council about the successes and challenges businesses in the area face.
Humenik says she’s most interested in bringing more livable-wage jobs to Thornton, a largely working class city of 123,000 which is expected to expand rapidly to as many as 250,000 residents as populations on the Front Range skyrocket. She worries that pro-renewable policies like net-metering might be hard on families who can’t afford to put solar on their roofs and still have to pay to use the utility’s grid, a fee which is rolled into the credits solar owners receive.
“The question is how are other ratepayers going to continue to be able to afford the increasing annual costs passed on to them to fill the gap?” asked Humenik. “Especially with so many still unemployed, underemployed or living paycheck to paycheck?”
Yet as Solano points out, solar might just be the economic development tool Thornton is looking for.
“Colorado has over 300 days of sunshine,” said Solano. “With all that sun, all our government buildings and far more houses in this area should be equipped with solar.”
Senate District 5
Outgoing Democratic Sen. Gail Schwartz represents mountain country from Vail in the north to Gunnison and Lake City in the south. It’s a complex district where employment rates swing on cycles of winter and summer tourism and overall incomes vary widely. The district is home to some of the highest insurance rates in the country and has been redistricted to swing slightly further right than when Schwartz won the seat back in 2010.
Don Suppes, the Republican mayor of Orchard City, is running to replace Schwartz. He says the Western Slope is still waiting for the economic recovery to make it over the continental divide and, like Humenik, his first focus is jobs and the economy.
“Even when folks get back to work, they aren’t making what they did six years ago,” said Suppes, adding that as a small business owner and small town mayor he knows that small government can work.
Suppes says the gun control issue is still very much on voters’ minds and expects that it will mobilize a base likely to vote for him. Vail Councilwoman Kerry Donovan, the Democrat running for same seat, won’t be outshot that easily. She said she would never have supported the controversial 2013 law limiting magazine size, for example.
“I certainly expect to stand up for the Second Amendment as a rancher, guns are our tools,” said Donovan. “As a hunter too, I appreciate the importance of that economic driver in Senate District Five.”
This time last year, two Democratic Senators were recalled for supporting gun control measures like universal background checks and magazines limited to 15 rounds. But while Donovan is a more moderate Democrat, Suppes is also not your typical Republican.
“We need to be able to put out as much clean energy as possible,” said Suppes. “But we have to do it smartly… the current policy only hurts the poor and small communities.”
Donovan holds a similar position, saying that renewable energy should be approached as a business opportunity and economic development tool for the Western Slope, not a reason to jack up rates.
As in the state’s breakneck national Senate race, these candidates are struggling to differentiate themselves on the tough questions, from jobs and firearms to education and energy, catering — as in so many Colorado races — to that mystical unaffiliated voter. And while the candidates race to the political middle, the pan-Democratic control of state government hangs in the balance.
[Image of state senate by Photo Phiend]