GARFIELD COUNTY – Democrats drew up the blueprint on how to dominate a state in Colorado’s 2008 general election, but Republicans wrote the game plan for snatching a local election using outside oil and gas money – and they’re apparently sticking to it in 2010 Garfield County commissioners race.
A slew of shadowy 527 and 501(c)4 groups injected thousands of dollars into the 2008 GarCo race – primarily in support of victorious Republicans John Martin and Mike Samson – and successfully kept Democrats in the minority on the three-member board.
The race was significant in the most productive natural gas-drilling county in the state because if one Democrat had joined fellow Dem Trési Houpt on the board, a number of key policy decisions favoring environmental and public health protections might have gone against the industry.
“Garfield was really ground zero in ’08,” said David Flaherty, CEO of Magellan Strategies, a Republican polling firm that conducted phone surveys in Garfield County leading up to the 2008 election. “If a Democrat had been elected, there definitely probably would have been some different policies passed or considered by the board of commissioners there.”
Houpt, who’s also a member of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) board that regulates and permits gas drilling for the state, is up for re-election to her Garfield County board seat in November. She faces a tough race against Republican Tom Jankovsky, general manager of Sunlight Mountain Resort ski area near Glenwood Springs.
Had either Democrat Stephen Bershenyi or Steven Carter been elected in 2008, Houpt said things clearly would have been different the last two years, although she quickly added she’s forged a good working relationship with Samson, who has shown a real willingness to listen to public concerns about the impacts of gas drilling.
“There certainly are differences in priorities with the parties, and both John and Mike have been very up front about this,” Houpt said of the failure of Democrats to claim at least one seat in 2008. “Maybe there would have been support for the FRAC Act or the moratorium in the Divide Creek area – just a more cautious approach to energy development.”
The FRAC (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals) Act, sponsored by Colorado Congresswoman Diana DeGette, D-Denver, seeks to remove a Safe Drinking Water Act exemption granted the drilling process of hydraulic fracturing during the Bush administration.
There are serious concerns about the potential for groundwater contamination during the “fracking” process, but the Garfield County commissioners by a 2-1 margin voted not to support the legislation. Houpt backs the bill.
The West Divide Creek drilling moratorium was requested by Silt resident Lisa Bracken, who says cancer-causing chemicals and methane continue to seep into the creek near her property. She wants the commissioners to push the state to re-impose a previous drilling moratorium until the situation can be resolved.
Bracken, too, says Samson is a Republican who seems sincere about demanding responsible drilling practices and more state oversight. Still, the board declined to take up Bracken’s moratorium case with the state.
“[Samson], like myself, expects oversight from the state that was promised from the state,” Bracken said. “Martin is different story entirely. He does not seem to get what’s going on. He just seems to be adamant party-line, ‘drill, baby, drill,’ that kind of mentality that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”
Jankovsky’s campaign recently paid Magellan to conduct a phone survey on the race. He said Houpt is too liberal and there needs to be more of an emphasis on the high-paying jobs the industry brings to the county, adding, “oil and gas will probably be one of the defining issues of the campaign.”
Saying he’ll bring a more balanced approach to the board of commissioners regarding oil and gas issues, Jankovsky added he still hopes voters will be able to set partisan politics aside.
“It is a local election, and I hope people look at that from Tresi’s philosophy and my philosophy and not even so much looking at as what parties we represent, although people will do that,” Jankovsky said. “But it is a local election, so I hope people will look at us as candidates.”
Both Houpt and Jankovsky expect outside influences will try to sway voters in the nearly 3,000-square-mile county of more than 55,000 residents that stretches from Glenwood Springs in the east all the way to the Utah state line.
In 2008, the nonprofit Western Tradition Partnership, founded in Montana but with offices in Denver, spent money on mailers in support of Martin and Samson, both of whom denied any coordination with their campaigns and denounced outside influences.
Another 501(c)4 that campaigned in the race, Western Heritage, was funded by $10,000 each from current Republican gubernatorial candidate and former congressman Scott McInnis and Paul Rady, CEO of Antero Resources, a Denver-based drilling company pursuing a 200-well project in GarCo’s Battlement Mesa community.
A third nonprofit, Small Town Values, reportedly spent more than $7,000 on advertising for Samson and Martin. The group was registered to former Colorado Republican Party legal counsel John Zakhem.
Two 527 groups, so named for a section of the IRS tax code, insinuated themselves in the election, with both coming back to GOP strategist Scott Shires – an operative with a long history of questionable campaign tactics that have led to legal action. Shires failed to register one of the groups – the Colorado League of Taxpayers – and was fined $7,150 in the case.
Environmental nonprofits under the umbrella of the Western Organization of Resource Councils reportedly spent $15,000 campaigning in support of Democrats Bershenyi and Carter. WORC includes grassroots activist groups like the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and Battlement Concerned Citizens, which are working to limit the impacts of Antero’s drilling plan in Battlement Mesa.
Garfield County exercises limited land-use authority over that drilling proposal because it maintained standing after approving the original PUD for the former Exxon company town that’s now home to more than 5,500 people. Once Antero submits a drilling plan, the county will begin a special-use permit hearing process.
Dave Devanney of Battlement Concerned Citizens says residents are nervous about the current political environment.
“The current political makeup [of the board], based on the recent decisions we’ve seen regarding the [Safe] Drinking Water Act and pit liners, it seems to us that their concerns are more with protecting the industry than safeguarding the citizens,” Devanney said.
“Our trust is that the commissioners, regardless of their political affiliation, are going to do what’s best for the citizens of Garfield County. We do recognize that the energy industry is very politicized and they’re going to do whatever they can to influence local regulators, and all we can do is try and do our best to influence them as well.”