Will Shafroth: Not Just an Environmentalist

Will Shafroth arrived for our interview on a battered silver mountain bike, which is not unusual for a Boulder environmentalist, but it is for a Democratic hopeful for U.S. Congress. We sat at an umbrellaed sidewalk table outside of Breadworks in Boulder, a large bakery chocked to here with the kind of smells the real estate agent recommends for when potential buyers visit your house. Now we can see if works to sell congressional candidates.

Shafroth, 49, recently announced that he was running for the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 2nd Congressional District, the seat being vacated by Mark Udall. He’s being opposed — so far — by State Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald and entrepreneur and philanthropist Jared Polis. No Republicans have so far declared in the race, which has been safely Democratic for some years.Shafroth is tall, slender, auburn-haired, genial, with the easy, coordinated gait of an athlete. He was on the Cherry Creek High School tennis team that won the first of the school’s streak of 28 years of state tennis championships. Shafroth is a fourth generation Coloradan, who grew up in what was then unincorporated Arapahoe County.

I lived off Belleview and University, in that general vicinity. It was just a bunch of wheatfields where I grew up and the Highline Canal was about an eighth of a mile away. There used to be no fences and no houses between us and the Highline.

This is the week you would pick asparagus along the Highline Canal, this ten days that we’re right in the middle of. We’d hunt crawdads, pick asparagus, float on our inner tubes. It was a whole different feeling out there. The development really hadn’t gone that far.

Shafroth grew up in a political family. His great grandfather was John Franklin Shafroth, a U.S. Congressman from 1895 to 1903, governor of Colorado from 1908 to 1912, then the state’s first popularly elected senator for one term from 1913 to 1919. His grandfather Joe Holland was in the state legislature, his grandfather ran for the senate against the Ku Klux Klan candidate in the 1920s, and lost. His father ran for Congress in 1962, and an uncle was mayor of Denver.

There was a culture in our family around public service. I can remember at the Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter dinner table conversation about politics, the need to serve and be engaged. That had a deep sort of genetic effect on me.

Shafroth’s family reinforced his environmental consciousness. As well as growing up in rural Denver — if that’s not an oxymoron — his grandfather was the U.S. senator when Rocky Mountain National Park was established. While the senator probably can’t take credit for the park, national parks aren’t usually established without the approval of both senators from the state in which they’re located.

Will Shafroth’s strongest issue is the environment, a cause to which he has been dedicated for more than 20 years. This cuts both ways in politics, giving him a strong issue and support base, but also running the risk of being branded a single-issue candidate.

Shafroth was the first executive director of Great Outdoors Colorado.

The job I had at GOCO was really a great job. I was hired as the first director of GOCO, you know, the board was Ken Salazar and Tom Strickland and Tilly Bishop, really great high-powered people Roy Romer appointed to that board back in ’93. It’s not often in life when you get to start something from scratch. You have a couple of page constitutional amendment as your guiding post … We had a real ethic of going out and listening to the public.

There wasn’t any specificity to the amendment. So we were, like, oh wait, if we’re going to preserve open space, what kind of open space? In what ways?

… We felt that agriculture needed to be a really important player in what we were doing. So we created an organization that allowed farmers and ranchers to feel comfortable talking about conservation.

During Shafroth’s tenure, GOCO invested about $260 million in conservation of land parks, trails wildlife and so on. But then Bill Owens won the 1998 election for governor:

His new board came on the spring of ’99. Frankly the direction that the Owens administration wanted to take GOCO was pretty different than the Romer appointees had taken. It was evident by the end of ’99, early 2000, that there was a fundamentally different agenda.

But I also feel that, you know, Owens’ people won, and it’s their job to appoint their own people to some of these positions. They should have their own person on board.

Shafroth acknowledges that he is probably the least well-known of the three current contenders for the Democratic nomination in CD-2. The other two are State Senate President Joan Fitz-Gerald, currently considered the frontrunner, and entrepreneur and philanthropist Jared Polis.

“There will be a tendency to paint me as a one-dimensional candidate around conservation and natural resource issues,” he said. “So I need to make a concerted effort to get out there in lots of places so people know who I am.”

He points to the fact that he’s the father of three teenagers — two girls and a boy — who gave to Boulder Valley Schools. He’s served on numerous volunteer boards and been deeply involved in the educational system as a parent. “I need to demonstrate that I have  a good amount of depth on education. None of us has experience in Iraq, or in foreign policy.”

Shafroth probably won’t be the only candidate to try to lay claim to the mantle of the popular incumbent Mark Udall. He noted that Udall was relatively unknown when he was elected. “Mark had served in the legislature for a few months when he announced his candidacy, but he really had been with Outward Bound for 20 or more years,” he said.

“I think I bring a style very similar to Mark Udall’s. It’s been a necessity in my work to be able to work with a lot of different people — Republicans and Democrats, ranchers and endangered species advocates, oil and gas extractors and land conservationists … You have to figure out how to work with a fairly diverse group of people to get anything done of any value. And that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years.

“I actually enjoy that. And I think that’s that fundamentally something we need in Congress right now badly. The politics are very divisive. Yes, I’m a Democrat, and I’ve always been a Democrat. But we all want what’s best for our state and our country, and we need to figure out ways to work with people of all different stripes to get stuff done.

“As Mark says, ‘You can disagree without being disagreeable.’ I think we need to send somebody back to Washington who’s going to forge relationships over the long run to get things done for our district, for our state and for our country.”

TOMORROW: Shafroth talks about Iraq, education, fundraising  and other major issues.