J. Paul Brown, a sheep farmer from the tiny town of Ignacio in La Plata County, Colorado, is one of the most conservative members of the state legislature. He votes against most all bills proposed by Democrats and often against bills proposed by Republicans as well. Indeed, he has cast lone ‘no’ votes in the House more than once since he was elected to office on the Tea Party wave in 2010 to replace relative moderate Ellen Roberts, who voters sent to the state senate.
But Brown’s solid Republican southwest Colorado district, HD59, was redrawn last year based on updated census figures and now holds a roughly equal number of Republicans and Democrats and an even greater number of unaffiliated voters, who now make up 38 percent of registered voters there.
Times have changed and, this year, Brown is running for re-election against well-funded and well-known Democratic challenger attorney Mike McLachlan and the the race has become contentious. Brown’s hardline views against abortion, same-sex civil unions and environmental regulations have drawn third-party money to the race. Democrats, who are seeking to win just one more seat this year than they controlled last year to capture a majority in the House, see a real opportunity in the new district.
McLachlan is a strong candidate. He is a Vietnam veteran and has served as La Plata County Attorney, a position he won when Republicans sat on two of three commission seats and when the county administrator was also a Republican.
“I think anyone elected to the legislature has to be able to represent everyone in their district, and while I’m a Democrat, I’ve proven that I can work with Republicans,” McLachlan told the Colorado Independent in a phone interview.
When Ken Salazar was elected Colorado Attorney General, he named McLachlan to the position of solicitor general, one of the top spots in the office. It was while working for Salazar, that McLachlan was sent to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend the constitutionality of Colorado’s “bubble law” which says protesters must keep a certain distance from abortion clinics and not interfere with a woman’s right to walk up to the front door. He won the case.
McLachlan says his stands on social issues– he also favors marriage equality– are mainstream positions in the district. He said he doesn’t believe government should have a say in people’s sexual lives and reproductive decisions.
“My positions are in the majority. Brown is not only pro-life, he supports personhood laws, which would outlaw all abortion and even some popular contraceptives. Senator Roberts says her body is her property, and I agree with that,” he said.
“Personhood has been voted on twice in Colorado and lost big both times. It is too radical. It is not in keeping with science or constitutional law,” he said.
Brown, also interviewed by phone, said that, while he has supported personhood measures in the past, he was not unhappy when the initiative failed to make the ballot this year. He said he had never actually read a personhood amendment, but thought that, the next time around, the initiative should be written more clearly. He said he is pro-life, favoring legal abortions only to save the life of the mother.
“I oppose abortion because you are killing a baby,” he said.
McLachlan says Brown is out of touch on environmental issues as well.
“He wants to roll back air and water quality regulations,” McLachlan said, adding that basic environmental protections are important regardless of political views. He said tourism in southwest Colorado depends on clean air and water. “People won’t come here if we don’t have clean air and water,” he said.
The League of Conservation Voters named Brown to its nationwide “dirty dozen” list of state-level office-holders. Brown was the only lawmaker in Colorado to make the list.
“Rep. J. Paul Brown at almost every opportunity voted to reverse our state’s progress on renewable energy, stymie the creation of clean tech Colorado jobs, cut energy assistance to low income Coloradans and weaken our clean air and water laws,” Pete Maysmith said in a press release in September. Maysmith is executive director of Colorado Conservation Voters, the organization’s local affiliate.
“Rep. Brown’s lifetime conservation scorecard of 28 percent indicates he puts big polluters and dirty fossil fuels before the environment and public health. His constituents of southwest Colorado and the newly redrawn House District 59 deserve a representative that better reflects their values of advancing clean solar and wind renewable energy and keeping our air and water clean,” Maysmith was quoted to say.
Brown doesn’t put much stock in the assessment of the League.
“I feel that I am an environmentalist,” Brown told the Independent. “I’m a rancher and sustainability is important to ranchers.. Some of those [conservation] folks are misled, some are anti-capitalist. The best thing for the environment is a robust economy. When we have a strong economy, people can pay attention to air and water quality. When the economy is bad, people don’t care about the environment, they’re just trying to make a living. In general, I just want to make sure we don’t increase mandates or burdens on business. We have to have a welcoming atmosphere for business.”
McLachlan said that when he travels the district talking to constituents, business regulation is not something that comes up very often.
“People are not telling me that regulation is hurting their business or the local economy. I’m just not hearing that. I think Brown just has a disdain for the federal government,” McLachlan said.
Brown is unabashed in his suspicion of non-local authority. The Pagosa Sun captured the tenor of his 2010 campaign in a piece that quoted a Tea Party stump speech at length.
Speaking to one of the Tea Party’s biggest issues — gun rights — Brown said, “Can you imagine what Barack Obama would do if we didn’t have guns? No telling what he’d do; this guy’s after power, let me tell you, and they want to take away our guns.
“Hillary Clinton is talking about a treaty with the U.N. to do exactly that,” Brown continued, referring to a United Nations small arms treaty agreed upon last fall. Setting international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional weapons, the treaty would allow nations to remain in charge of arms export control arrangements, but would legally oblige countries to follow terms set forth in the treaty.
“I tell you what I know, that you guys will stand right with me. It’s going to be civil war when they try to do that,” Brown added, his statement met with a loud, “Amen!” and applause.
“The United Nations is not going to tell us what to do with our guns and they’re not going to with our land, and they’re trying to do that all the time, right now,” Brown said.
Asked about those comments, Brown said he didn’t remember them. Jim McQuiggen, the reporter who wrote the article, told the Independent he stood by his reporting.
“I guess my tape recorder just made it up,” McQuiggen said with a laugh. He recalled that the article generated a great deal of controversy. “People on the right said Brown did not say those things and people on the left said ‘This guy is really crazy.’”
He said Brown never denied saying any of it and neither did anyone who was actually at the meeting, which was attended by about 150 people according to McQuiggen, who now works as a freelance journalist in Arizona. “Not one person at that meeting disputed anything in my story,” McQuiggen said.
McQuiggen recalls that Brown explained his comments later by noting that he was dishing some “red meat” to his Tea Party supporters.
Brown and McLachlan differ on same-sex civil unions and also on how the subject was handled by the Colorado House this year.
“[Speaker Frank] McNulty shut down the legislature over civil unions, and that was wrong,” McLachlan said. “The issue deserved an up or down vote. People are tired of the bickering and the selfish games.”
Brown defended McNulty. “I hate to second guess the leadership, but I believe the ultimate outcome was going along with what the voters decided in 2006, that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Brown is known for his view that taxes are too high. Less widely known is the fact that he has received more than $180,000 in farm subsidies over the last 15 years or so. He told the Independent that he doesn’t know how much he has received over all, but noted that his subsidy was especially high in 2002 and 2003 because of drought.
The Environmental Working Group, which tracks the subsidies, reports that Brown received more than $41,000 in federal farm subsidies in 2002 and more than $50,000 the following year.
Brown says that farm subsidies may be one place that lawmakers have to look in trying to balance the budget.
“The government is always being asked to do more and more, but we need to prioritize and be careful about what we do. We are going to have to tighten our belt. We just can’t continue borrowing forty cents of every dollar we spend. Farm subsidies have to be looked at,” he said.
Image of Brown: jpaulbrown.org