Dana Barker was 77 years old and the head of the Garfield County Democratic Party in 2006 when he took on then 30-year-old rising Republican star Josh Penry in the race for State Senate’s District 7 on Colorado’s energy-rich Western Slope.
Barker said he got the former Mesa State College football star from Grand Junction to sign a pledge stating that none of the candidates in that SD-7 race would seek higher office or quit to take another job before fulfilling the full, four-year term at the State Capitol in Denver
Penry, now 33 and the Senate’s minority leader, earlier this month said he wouldn’t resign his term, which runs through 2010, as he campaigns for the governor’s mansion in Denver.
“The impression I had then [in 2006], and it continues to this day, is that Josh is a very motivated and very ambitious guy and he wants to rise as high as he can, presumably as fast as he can, too,” Barker, now 80, said in a phone interview Tuesday.
A message left for Penry at his campaign headquarters Tuesday was not returned.
At the time, it was thought Penry, a former staffer and press secretary for Republican U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, might quit the his Senate post mid-term in order to take on Democrat John Salazar, who succeeded McInnis in the sprawling 3rd Congressional District, which spans much of Colorado’s Western Slope.
“The intent [of the pledge] was that we all agreed that we would serve out our full term, and the idea behind that was no one would be seeking another office or other work or other endeavors during that time, that we intended to serve out the term of the office,” Barker said. “In other words, we wouldn’t resign and go into lobbying; we wouldn’t resign and campaign for another office, be it a congressional district or something else.”
Instead of resigning, Penry is arguably moonlighting by challenging his former boss, McInnis, in a primary that pits the newer — and more conservative — face of the Colorado GOP against a more moderate six-term congressman. Barker said Penry’s agenda will play better the farther west he campaigns on the Western Slope but may not serve him well in the rest of the state.
“The Western Slope tends to be conservative. I know in the Rifle area and in western Garfield County we have a pretty conservative population and that continues and probably gets even more conservative in Mesa County,” Barker said. “Josh will run well out here and Josh will appeal to the conservative base, and the conservative base seems to sway in primaries.”
A retired economist for the U.S. Postal Service who left Virginia after retirement to find a home in the high desert, Barker wound up in the former oil shale boomtown of Battlement Mesa, now in the crosshairs of another controversial energy extraction proposal. Barker said energy policy will be part of the gubernatorial debate in both the primary and general-election race to unseat incumbent Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter.
“It will play a part. Ritter has taken a pretty even stance. He’s not adamantly opposed to mineral rights, energy activity. He’s strongly in favor of alternative energy programs and conservation measures, so that’s the take he will have,” Barker said, adding McInnis strikes more of a balance than Penry.
“Probably if Scott McInnis wins the primary, he will be closer to Ritter in his attitudes than will Josh. Josh has had a lot of support from the energy industry and will try to more or less lean their way.”
Penry, in fact, signed the Energy Leadership Action Plan Pledge for an energy nonprofit front group called the Western Skies Coalition and was reportedly behind the formation of the 501(c)4 organization that sought to sway key State Senate races in favor of pro-energy Republican candidates.
McInnis has been critical of Ritter and his push for more environmentally stringent natural gas drilling regulations that were adopted in April, but he did concede in an interview last fall with The Colorado Independent that “tighter” regulations might be in order.
“You’ve got a governor that is very insistent on rules and regulations that seem to be punitive in their nature,” McInnis said. “I don’t mind you tighten it up, and I think we should absolutely insist on best practices, but there’s a difference between best practices and no practice.”
McInnis at the time predicted the current slowdown — some call it a bust — for the natural gas industry on the Western Slope, but experts differ on the degree to which the new regs contributed, or whether the global recession was the real determinant. Regardless, McInnis agrees in theory with Ritter’s New Energy Economy and emphasis on renewables.
“Of course what the governor is saying is absolutely right,” McInnis said. “The reality is new energy is the future, not just for Colorado but for the whole world, and we’ve got to do it, but on the other hand we should not do it at the exclusion of the current resources that we have.”